Uniqueness of Christ, Amsterdam 2000

Talk given at the Amsterdam 2000 Conference for Itinerant Evangelists in July 2000

THE EVANGELIST PROCLAIMS THAT JESUS CHRIST IS THE ONLY WAY

AND CALLS FOR A RESPONSE OF FAITH

Ajith Fernando

Affirming the uniqueness of Christ is one of the most urgent needs in the church today. Pluralism is the dominant approach to religion in most countries of the world. And pluralism does not respond well to any one who says that their way is supreme and the only way to salvation. In many countries when we claim that Christ is unique people are saying that we are like the old colonial rulers who justified their actions of ruling and exploiting others on the grounds that the western culture was superior to theirs. Then the so-called fundamentalists of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam see our practice of evangelism with conversion in view as a direct threat to their plans for their nations. Even in the church many Christians are denying or getting embarrassed by this truth. It seems that the whole world is hostile to our belief in the uniqueness of Christ.

However, I believe that those who have come to this conference would agree with my statement that the Bible unmistakably states that Jesus is the only way to salvation. I will cite just three texts that state this to show how clear the Bible is in affirming this belief: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). John 14:6 gives us a comprehensive case for the uniqueness of Christ. As the Way he is unique because it is only through him and his work that we can find salvation. As the Truth he is unique because he alone is absolute truth. While other ideologies may have many truths, Jesus is absolute truth. As the Life he opens the way for us to experience life to the full. This is what God made us for, and it is the only completely fulfilling life.

Yet this belief is under fire today. In this talk I hope to respond to some of the challenges that have come to our belief in the uniqueness of Christ.

 

A DIFFERENT APPROACH TO TRUTH

As I said most of the countries of the world have a pluralistic attitude to truth. This is the approach that says that there is no such thing as absolute truth. By absolute truth we mean truth that is so perfect and complete that all people everywhere need to submit to it. Instead they say that truth is personal or subjective. That is, it has to do with ones experience. Truth is discovered through experience and not necessarily disclosed without error by a supreme God. This has been the approach to truth for centuries in Asian religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. But recently it has become popular in the West too. The West is said to have entered the post-modern era. In the modern era there was a lot of emphasis on having our lives and activities fashioned by objective truth, that is truth outside of our selves. Examples of objective things that fashioned our lives are social rules, scientific laws, the Bible and God. Today western people are saying that this bondage to objective truth has made machines out of people so that their personal freedom and experience was neglected. Now the emphasis is on subjective truth, truth that is personal to my experience. “You have your truth, and I have my truth. And my truth is as valid as your truth.” We can see how people with such an approach to truth would object to the Christian claim that Jesus is the absolute truth for the whole world and that he is therefore the only way to salvation.

Jesus of course knew that many people would object to his claim that he is the only way to God, the truth and the life. So in that same chapter he gives us evidence to back this claim. He says in the next verse: “If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7). This is a claim to be equal with God himself. Right from the first chapter of the Gospel of John we find the truth proclaimed that Jesus is the great God who created the universe. If Jesus is the Creator of the universe then we can understand that he can claim to be the absolute Lord of the Universe. And if he were God and the absolute Lord of the universe, he would surely be the source of absolute truth.

But many would object to his claim that he is equal to God. Jesus anticipated this and gave evidence to back this claim too. In verse 10 he said that his words show that he is equal with God: “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.” We know of course that Jesus made many claims in his teaching that proclaimed his absolute lordship and deity. But some would reject these claims! Jesus anticipated this too, and he said in verse 11, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves” (NRSV). Here he is saying that if we can’t believe his words we should look at his actions. What we see is that he was a good man who made some amazing claims and backed those claims with his spotless life and miracles. As has often been said, a person who made such claims should be a liar, a lunatic, some one who was totally deluded or mistaken about himself, or he should really be what he claimed to be. When we look at his life, we cannot say that he was a liar or a lunatic or a deluded person. His life forces us to take his words seriously, and his words proclaim him as the absolutely unique Lord of the universe!

If the Bible states the uniqueness of Christ so clearly, how can people reject this belief today? Let me share with you two common approaches to this.

Some say that what the Gospels record as Jesus’ words are not necessarily what he actually said. Instead what we have is what the early church believed about Jesus. This is said to be particularly true of the statements in the Gospel of John, which has a lot of theology. These people say that the fact that it has so much theology shows that the writer is not interested in history. By doing this they are able to dismiss these statements about the uniqueness of Christ claiming that Jesus did not in fact make these statements. However, when we read the Gospels we see that the writers of the Gospels were very eager to write what really happened in the life of Jesus, and not merely what the church believed about him. Luke’s Gospel starts with these words:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed (Luke 1:1-4).

Luke certainly took pains to write what Christ really said and did. Interestingly, out of the four Gospels, John is the one that has the most details of geography, time and social and political conditions. He was interested in historical details, and where possible these details have been verified as being correct. Whole books have been written on this topic. Let me just say here that the writers wrote as if they were writing history. They wrote in an era when people’s memory powers were much better than ours because of the system of education they adopted. They wrote a relatively short time after the events, about events and teaching that they considered to be of vital importance. A lot of people would have known what Jesus did say. If Jesus did not in fact say the things that the Gospels say that he said, wouldn’t we expect other Christians to contest the validity of the statements? After all, the early Christians were very committed to truthfulness and honesty. After all, Jesus ministry was done in public and many people heard his statements. The most reasonable conclusion is that what they wrote is an accurate account of what Jesus said and did. And these Gospels have this perfect man claiming to be absolute Lord and doing miracles to back this claim. We would be wise to accept the words of this great man.

Another way to sidestep the strong claims about Jesus in the Bible is to state that he was not addressing the issue of whether other religions could be ways to salvation when he said that he is the only way to salvation. Those who hold this view say that statements like John 14:6 teach that for Christians Jesus is the only way to salvation. They say that he is not addressing the issue of how those from other religious backgrounds can be saved. Let me just state that this is to go completely against the clear meaning of these passages in their context. The apostles believed without a doubt that the only way that anyone anywhere can be saved is through faith in Jesus. That popular passage on the way to salvation through Christ, John 3:16, says, “God so loved the world.” His Great Commission includes a call to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). In Acts 1:8 Jesus says that we are to be witnesses “to the ends of the earth.” When they thought about salvation through Christ they thought about the whole world.

This second argument we looked at is similar to another claim that many people are making today. They say that the doctrine of the absolute uniqueness of Christ became popular in the West where Christianity was the only religion for centuries. Now, however, as Christians in the west encounter people of other faiths who have come to their countries, they are forced to replace this doctrine with a pluralistic approach. Indeed Christianity may have been the only religion in the West for a long time, but it certainly was not the only religion in the first century when this doctrine was first formulated. Apart from the Jews, the other peoples in the Roman Empire in the first century were very pluralistic. But out of that context came the doctrine of Christ’s absolute uniqueness. And how about our societies in Asia? Within three houses of the home where I grew up in Colombo we had a Buddhist temple, a Buddhist family, a Hindu family, a Sunni Muslim family and a Shihite Muslim family. And we were friendly with all these people. Yet we were faced with the unmistakable teaching in the Bible that Jesus is the only way to salvation. So we accepted it because we believed in the words of Jesus.

So the Bible confronts us with the awesome truth of the uniqueness of Christ. Now I have a concern for the evangelical movement in this regard. Much of the way in which we attract people to Christ today is through the experience Christ offers to them. Often people become Christians by experiencing Christ’s power over the things they fear in life. This is certainly valid, and the book of Acts shows that it was the way many people were attracted to Christ. This method of attracting people to the gospel is very relevant in this post-modern generation where people have given a new emphasis to experience. We can use that emphasis to show people that it is Jesus alone who opens the door to a truly meaningful experience. That is an aspect of the uniqueness of Christ, and it is implied in his statement that he is the life. However, in the book of Acts, though it was experience that attracted people to Christ, the message that was preached focussed primarily on the truth of the gospel. The major theme of the speeches in the book of Acts is the nature and work of God and of Christ.

I fear that today, in addition to our actions, our preaching is also focussing primarily on experience, so that people think of Christianity primarily in terms of the experiences they have had rather than the supremacy of Christ and his work. Other religions can also provide people with exciting experiences. And Christians do go through dark times when their experiences are not what they want them to be. So this is a shaky ground to build ones faith on. Other religions may offer some exciting experiences, but they do not have the person and work of Christ. And that is the heart of Christianity. When Christians focus almost entirely on experience they could end up giving up their belief in the uniqueness of Christianity, because they have neglected vital features that show the radical difference between Christianity and other faiths. In fact some of these so-called converts would be tempted to try another faith when they are going though a difficult experience. After many years of evangelistic ministry with non-Christians I have come to the conclusion that most people come to Christ because they believe he can meet their needs, but they remain as strong Christians because they have come to the conclusion that the gospel is the truth—absolute truth. Therefore we should focus on the truth of the gospel in our preaching. Otherwise we could open the door for Evangelicals discarding of the uniqueness of Christ.

 

OUR GOAL IS PERSUASION

Now if we truly believe that Christ is the only way to salvation and that people are lost without him, it would produce great urgency within us. We would say with Paul, “I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16). This conviction has motivated heroic commitment to the cause of the gospel in the history of the church. Hudson Taylor, that great missionary to China, once said, “I would have never thought of going to China had I not believed that the Chinese were lost and needed Christ.”

As we proclaim the gospel we would seek to persuade people to accept its message. If they are lost without Christ, and if the only way for them to be saved is to turn from their old paths and trust in Christ, then we will work with their minds until they make a decision to trust in Christ. This action is described in several ways in the New Testament. The word “persuade” (peithö) is used at least 8 times in Acts to refer to the evangelism of the early Christians. They reasoned with people until their minds were changed and they left their old ways to follow Christ. Therefore the evangelists in Acts always called people to respond personally to the message. Of the seven evangelistic messages described in Acts only the one in Lystra does not refer to a response to the message (Acts 14:15-17). But this was a message that Paul could not finish because Jews from two nearby cities came and disrupted the meeting (14:19). Of the other six messages, in four we see the apostles either warning the people (13:40-43) or calling people to respond to the message with responses like repentance, faith and baptism (2:28-40; 3:19-26; 17:30). In two the people respond even before the call is given (8:36; 10:44). Biblical evangelism, then, boldly proclaims Christ and urges people to commit themselves to him.

 

THE CHARGE OF INTOLERANCE

Today, however, when persuasion is used in proclaiming the gospel, we are accused of being disrespectful and intolerant. This is strange because persuasion is used daily in many spheres of life. Advertisers seek to persuade us to buy certain products and politicians seek to persuade us to accept their policies and vote for them. Yet when it comes to religion this approach to communication is considered inappropriate. Mahatma Gandhi once told his friend, the missionary E. Stanley Jones, “Don’t attempt to propagate your faith; just live it. Be like the rose, which, without a word, silently exudes its perfume and attracts the attention of the people.” Jones responded by reminding Mr. Gandhi that he was the greatest propagandist of all, seeking to propagate his views on independence and freedom to Britain and the whole world.

Bishop Stephen Neill has talked about “the awful and necessary intolerance of truth.” We are always respectful of people. We never treat them as inferior to us. But when we know that Jesus is the Truth and that other ways will not lead to salvation, we must be intolerant of the untruth that has led them astray though we will always be respectful of the person who holds this view. So our perception of the truth will cause us to want to persuade them about the truth. But our respect for them will influence the way we present our message.

I want to highlight three disrespectful ways of persuasion that we must avoid. The first is cultural imperialism when we thrust our culture on them and make them reject the many good things in their culture. Instead we will seek to understand them and their cultures and appreciate the good points there. But, while we affirm all that is good in them, we will always seek to lead them to the point repenting of their unbelief and of believing in Christ because we know that unbelief is rebellion against God. And that is a deadly serious thing.

The second disrespectful way of persuasion is imposition. Imposition takes place when authority and power are used to force people to follow the Christian religion. This took place in Europe when the Roman Catholic Church set up the inquisition in the thirteenth century to combat heresy. It takes place when employers or parents use their authority to force people to become Christians. It took place sometimes in colonial times when missionaries came along with the European conquerors and, by making Christianity the official religion of the colonies, compelled many to accept it for the sake of survival and progress in society. We should be ashamed of these things.

The third disrespectful way of persuasion is manipulation. This takes place when we use things alien to the heart of the gospel to induce others to accept Christianity. Sometimes Christians give people material incentives, such as the promise of a job or of aid, which are used like bribes to induce them to become Christians. Manipulation can take place when people’s emotions are roused so that they accept Christianity in a way that doesn’t involve the proper use of the mind. An example is when an emotionally charged evangelistic message is concluded with a highly emotional story and immediately after that an invitation to discipleship is given. Some may respond more because of their emotional state than because they have thought through the implications of the message. Manipulation also takes place in the cults where “mind bending” or brain washing takes place through the use of mental pressure on people so that they are unable to make an intelligent and free choice about what is being thrust upon them.

Biblical persuasion is actually an expression of our respect for people. The supreme Lord of Creation, God himself, does not forcefully thrust his truth upon people but invites them to reason together with him (Isa. 1:8). Similarly we, as his servants, must respect their freedom of choice and give them an opportunity to make an informed response to the message of Jesus.

 

THE CHARGE OF ARROGANCE

Another common charge made against us when we affirm the uniqueness of Christ and work towards a response to the gospel is that we are being arrogant. Several years ago the British journalist G. K. Chesterton observed that the focus of humility was getting misplaced. He said that humility no longer concerned self-opinion, where it ought to be. Rather it now pertained to truth, where it ought not to be. Whereas earlier humility was judged on the basis of ones opinion of oneself, now it is being judged on the basis of ones understanding of truth. Those who claimed to have the truth are regarded as being arrogant. So we are accused of arrogance for claiming that Christ is absolutely unique. But we must remember that the uniqueness of Christ is not a claim that we are making about Christ, it is a fact that Christ is confronting us with. He presents himself unmistakably as absolutely unique. It is up to us to accept that or reject it. I submit to you that the real arrogance is rejecting what the Lord of the universe says about himself. Who are we to take issue with Jesus and reject what he says when it does not fit in with our understanding? Is it not arrogance for us fallible humans to say that our understanding of Jesus must replace his understanding of himself?

Yet this charge is being made against us, and we need to respond to it. The first thing to say here is that the very nature of the gospel makes it impossible for a true Christian to be arrogant. Paul specifically says that the way we are saved leaves us with no grounds for boasting (Eph. 2:8-9). Christians are those who have accepted their utter inability to save themselves, and who are amazed by the fact that God has had mercy on them. Such amazement causes us to turn our attention away from ourselves and be filled with gratitude to God for his grace. Those with that type of focus cannot be arrogant. But they are so filled with excitement over the gospel that they are urgent in their desire to share it with others.

Many years ago there was a poor boy in England whose father was dead and who walked with a severe limp because of the club-footed deformity. At that time a surgeon in London had just recently perfected an operation that could correct this deformity. A rich friend arranged for him to go to London and have this operation. The operation was successful, and one day the mother got a telegram to say that the son was coming home on a certain train. She eagerly went to the station, and when the boy got off the train he came up to his mother and tried to say something: “Mother, I….” But the mother stopped him, saying, “Son, don’t say a word. Just walk up and down the platform, so that mother will see you walking like any other child.” He did this, came back to his mother and tried to speak again. Again the mother said, “Son, just one more time, let me see you walking.” When he did this, the mother was satisfied, and he could say what he had wanted to say. “Mother,” he said, “I will never be satisfied until you meet that doctor in London, he’s the most wonderful man in the world.” Is this arrogance? No, it is joyous enthusiasm.

And it is the same with us. After we know what we know and have experienced what we have experienced, we must share the message of the gospel. When Peter and John were commanded not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus, they replied, “For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). After stating that he was eager to preach the gospel in Rome (Rom. 1:15), Paul went on to give his reason for such urgency: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16 NAS).

So, on the one hand, we have a boldness to proclaim the message because we know that Christ is the only way to salvation. On the other hand, we do this with great humility because we know that we do not deserve salvation at all. This combination of boldness and humility is difficult for many people to understand, because in many religions salvation is a very hard thing to achieve as it is attained through ones own efforts. Once Gandhi was asked what he thought of the missionary E. Stanley Jones. His response was, “He is a good man, but he is too proud of his religion.” When Jones was told this he said that Gandhi was right, according to his own convictions.  To Gandhi, salvation was the result of hard work.  Earning salvation is as hard as trying to empty an ocean of water with one’s hands.  If those who believe that salvation is earned through their own efforts are sure that they are saved, then they could be proud of their achievement. But the Christians cannot be proud like this because we know that salvation is a work of God’s grace and not of our achievement.

We must try to explain this to our critics. But they would find this very difficult to understand. I am convinced, however, that they would be impressed by a holy and humble life. The Bible is clear that those who proclaim the Lordship of Jesus are nevertheless servants of the people they proclaim this message to. Paul told the Corinthians, “We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). He also said, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (1 Cor. 9:19). Our model is Jesus who himself “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (Phil. 2:7). I believe that this principle of servanthood has a lot of applications to the ministries of evangelists today.

Recently there has been a welcome rediscovery of the truth that when we are preaching the gospel we are engaging in spiritual warfare. This is good, but sometimes when faced with opposition by human forces we are finding Christians acting with the same attitude that they would if they were fighting demonic forces. They may be attacking people when they should be loving them. The great Indian evangelist Sadhu Sundar Singh was once proclaiming the gospel on the banks of the Ganges at a place called Rishi Kesh. Several Hindu Sadhus and other devotees were in his audience. One of them lifted up a handful of sand and threw it in his eyes. Others in the audience, however, were enraged by the act and handed the man to a policeman while Sundar Singh was washing the sand from his eyes. When he returned and found that the man had been handed over to the police, he begged for his release and, having secured it, proceeded with his preaching. The man, Vijayanada, was so surprised that he fell at Sundar Singh’s feet, begging his forgiveness and declaring his desire to know more about what he was saying. Later this man joined Sundar Singh on his travels. Such responses to enemies will really be a challenge to those who consider us as being arrogant because we preach a unique gospel.

Sometime when we are insensitive to the feelings and wishes of non-Christians we can give them the idea that we are arrogant and intolerant. Sometimes Christians, convinced that the sovereign Lord of the universe has given them authority to worship him freely, may shout so loud while praying that they disturb their neighbors. This has become a major problem in many poorer parts of the world where church buildings are not air-conditioned and the sound goes out to the neighborhood. Unnecessary opposition to the gospel has resulted. The belief in the absolute uniqueness of Christ and the priority of his program on earth should not cause us to be insensitive to others. Jesus said, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12). This certainly applies to our relationships with non-Christians.

So, in this age when both pluralists and fundamentalists are attacking our belief that Christ is unique, there is a great need for us to live like servants of the people. If people see us as true servants of both enemies and friends, our opponents would find it difficult to attack us. They may even be challenged to think positively about the truth of the gospel. When the Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons were murdered in India last year, most Hindus were greatly embarrassed. This was surely fuelled by the fact that the Staines’ were servants of the people working sacrificially among lepers. To add to that there were the amazing expressions of Christ-like forgiveness by Mrs. Staines which further commended them to sincere people.

What if large numbers of Christians adopt a lifestyle of loving servanthood? At first they may laugh at us and exploit us. But soon they may be forced to take note of the power of this testimony, and the door may be opened to many accepting the message of a unique Christ, which they now resent. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). All this is very relevant to a discussion on the uniqueness of Christ because one of the features of this uniqueness is the difference Christ makes in the lives of those who follow him.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion let me go back to something I said earlier. The uniqueness of Christ is not simply a belief that some Christians hold to. It is an inescapable fact that Christ confronts us with. If we accept this fact, then we will need to go and proclaim it to all we can for it is their only hope for salvation. And if we need to change our lifestyle and undergo suffering in order to do that effectively we will welcome that because the task is so urgent. Let us be faithful to this task.