by Millard J. Erickson
The history of missions has seen many changes – in the culture of those ministered to, the strategy of missions, the methods and techniques of communication of the gospel. The one factor that has remained constant in all of this, however, is the message: salvation as by faith in Jesus Christ.
The history of missions has seen many changes – in the culture of those ministered to, the strategy of missions, the methods and techniques of communication of the gospel. The one factor that has remained constant in all of this, however, is the message: salvation as by faith in Jesus Christ. Some have even suggested that changes be made here. Perhaps, they reason, what men need can be met through some other form of religious faith or through an alteration of their social or economic status.
One cause of question regarding the indispensability of Jesus Christ is the growing cosmopolitanism that is influencing Christianity. Fifty years ago, or even thirty years, Africa and the Orient were far removed and other world religions were something remote and quaint. Few Americans met a person of a radically different culture, and if they did such persons were met as isolated individuals, rarely in any concentrated group. Today, however, that is change. More and more Americans are traveling and consequently coming to see foreign cultures at first hand.
The growing interest in the Eastern religions, especially on American college campuses, is a reflection of this development. No longer can the practices of these people simply be dismissed as bizarre because of contrast with our own beliefs and practices. Seeing large numbers of persons sincerely devoted to their religions tends to call in question the apparent self-evidence of the Christianity/atheism dichotomy. Can it really be, some are asking, that these hordes of people who are conscientiously following the understanding that they have, should be condemned to hell simply because they do nod subscribe to the name of Christ?
A second factor is the declining interest in doctrine. The current younger generation is not much concerned with theoretical or abstract questions. They are much more oriented to immediate emotional experience. Debate over what is true is considered somewhat irrelevant. How this idea or experience "grabs me" Or "turns me on" is what is sought. Good "vibes" are prized more than good logic. Even Jesus Christ is approached from an experiential rather than an intellectual perspective. Testimonies that "Jesus is the greatest!" or appeals to "get high on Jesus" may reflect experiences not much different from that encountered on a "trip" or when one’s favorite athletic team wins a close, thrilling victory in a crucial contest.
A third factor is the decay of the doctrinal understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Historically, evangelicalism has held him to be the absolutely unique Son of God, born of a virgin. He alone was fully God and fully man. He lived a perfect, sinless life, died as a sacrificial substitute for the penalties of men’s sins, was raised bodily the third day, ascended into heaven end makes intercession there for us. With the advent of certain forms of biblical criticism and the accompanying liberal theology, however, this changed. Many theologians saw Jesus as less than the qualitatively unique Son of God. Some saw him as simply the greatest man, or the greatest of the prophets, or the one in whom God dwelt more fully than in any other, but not in a way different from his presence in other men. One theologian was accused of heresy, and specifically of denying the divinity of Jesus. "How can they say that?" he exclaimed, both shocked and hurt. "I’ve never denied the divinity of any man, certainly not of Jesus." Some even anticipated the possibility that other teachers or prophets would come who would displace Jesus. In such an atmosphere Jesus is no longer regarded as completely indispensable for one’s way of life.
The question being posed for the evangelical today is, Just how indispensable is Jesus Christ in the message of the church? Is faith in him just one of many alternate routes to fellowship with God, or is he the only way, the one without whom there is no hope? Does the Bible give any hint that the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the salvation found in him are simply a culturally conditioned understanding, rather than the exclusive way? In the discussion that follows we assume the authority of the fable as being God’s inspired Word to man.
We first note Jesus’ own conceptions and claims. It mattered a great deal to him what his followers thought of him. It was not sufficient that they simply be willing to follow him. He questioned them about the different opinions which men had of him and finally pressed them for their own idea of him. When Peter, speaking on behalf of the group of disciples, declared him to be the Christ, the son of the living God, Jesus pronounced him blessed (Matt. 16:13-20). Over and over again he made the claim that he was the only way. He said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). Again he said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day" (John 6:53-54). He was the true vine (John 15:11, the good shepherd (John 10:11), the resurrection and the life (John 11:25). There is in Jesus’ teaching no hint of any latitudinarian view.
This was the testimony of the disciples as well. In John 6, Jesus presented himself as the object of faith, the only way of life. In the face of this strong exclusiveness, the group of those who had come to hear him began to drift away. Jesus turned to the twelve and asked, "Will you also go away?" The words of Simon Peter were not his alone, but no doubt represented the conclusion of discussions which the disciples had engaged in: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God" (John 6:68, 29). This confession of Peter’s was substantiated by his preaching, for he said in one of his sermons, "And there is salvation in no one else, for them is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). When ordered to resist from preaching the name of Jesus, he said: "We must obey God rather than man," then went on to testify of what this Christ had done.
This same theme is found repeatedly in the speeches and writings of Paul. When he visited Athens and saw the altar to the unknown God, he identified this God for them, and particularly associated him with the one whom God had raised from the dead (Acts 17:22-31). In Romans he discusses his concern for his people of Israel and indicates that the required righteousness is to be found in faith in Jesus Christ. He says, "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved" ( Rom. 10:9,10). This becomes the basis for his appeal for those to go and tell the message of faith in Jesus.
In 1 Corinthians 15 he ties this very directly to the resurrection of Christ, indicating that if Christ has not been raised, the faith of those who have believed in him is futile: they are still in their sins (1 Cor. 15:12-19). The apostle John in his first letter not only related being of God to faith in Christ, but also to a special conception: believing that Jesus had come in the flesh. All of this testimony must surely lead to the conclusion that for the New Testament church Jesus Christ was the indispensable way of salvation, the avenue into the presence of the Father.
One other issue remains, however. Is it not possible that some may come to a saving knowledge of God on the basis of the natural light or the general revelation which he has given to all men? It is true that Paul makes an allowance for this possibility in Romans 1 and 2. Yet, he also goes on to indicate that apparently most men do not respond to this knowledge that God has given them ( Rom. 1: 20-23). As he proceeds in the book he develops the theme of the sinfulness of man and then goes on to say: "Every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent?" (Rom. 10:13-15). In view of this, therefore, it is urgent that the message of Christ be taken to them.
The indispensability of Christ is seen most clearly when we note the nature of mans predicament. Because he is sinful, not merely in actual actions but also in the very tendency of his life, man cannot reach his way up to God. God, on the other hand, being perfectly holy, could not simply ignore man’s sin. In Jesus, God and man were united in one person. As fully man he was able to represent us in the offering of his life to God and being fully God his death hack the supreme value necessary to atone for all the sins of mankind. The unique qualifications of Jesus are demonstrated in what he is and what he has done.
Jesus is unique for his sinless life. His friends, who saw him under all of the conditions of life public and private, considered him the spotless lamb of God. Even his enemies who had every reason to want to convict him of sin had no answer when he challenged them to do so.
His message is also distinctive in many ways. It is a call primarily to a liberating experience, rather than a stifling, restrictive life. The Pharisees taught a hair-splitting legalism, anal some religions focus upon self-enjoyment or self-fulfilment. Jesus, however, called his hearers to a life of self-disciplined service to himself and other men, which was actually the true source of meaning and satisfaction. He did not merely offer precepts for living; he proposed to supply the power for becoming and living.
Finally, Jesus stands out because of his resurrection. The lives of other men, even other great religious leaders, can be summarized by noting their date and place of birth, the details of their lives, and their death and burial. With Jesus it is different, however. The most significant fact about him is his resurrection – the amazing power to overcome even death. In this, the ever-powerful force of sin did its worst to Christ bud he overcame its power. The resurrection is the proof of the Father’s acceptance of the life and work of Jesus. While some scholars have attempted to discount the evidence for the resurrection, even Hugh Schonfield in The Passover Plot had to acknowledge that the disciples had experienced something that they believed to be the resurrected Christ. They had been transformed from a discouraged, defeated, frightened band of men to a group which boldly went out to change the world, preaching as they went that Jesus was alive. The only adequate explanation is that they really had seen Jesus because he was alive again.
The lesson of Scripture is also the lesson of history. In Kenneth Scott Latourette’s History of the Expansion of Christianity, he observes:
It seemed clear that if Christianity met the challenge and became the dominant religion of the world, it would not be by absorbing the other religions and making from them a new synthesis. Although it had been modified by each new age and culture into which it had moved, the Christianity which had shown sufficient vigour to propagate itself had always held to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and had insisted that through him God had supremely revealed Himself and had wrought for the redemption and transformation of man. Types of Christianity which had failed to stress the centrality of Jesus as God’s Christ had not shown the power to reproduce themselves through many centuries. The continuing vitality of Christianity was intimately bound with this conviction. So far as the historian could be sure of anything about the future of Christianity it was this: if the Christian faith triumphed it would be through uncompromising loyalty to him through whom it had come to birth and who in all its ages had been the acknowledged master of its most flaming spirits. As the most discerning of the disciples of its first century had seen: "In him was life and the life was the light of men." In the first century that had been an assertion of faith. By the twentieth century experience had made it demonstrated fact.
With the changes of time, he is still the one whom we preach: Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8).
Every Christian should belong actively to at least one nonChristian – that is, not specifically Christian – organization in his community. Moreover he should join not just to evangelize it, but to understand it. The Christian who is willing to meet the world only on his own terms, who feels no need to understand any position but his own, is still in his "Christian ghetto," and living to himself. His so-called contact with the world is counterfeit and artificial. His approach to others is gingerly self-protective, and carefully encapsulated from contamination. Its defensiveness precludes any reel meeting of minds. Its self-interestedness prevents the meeting of hearts and breaks down the one indispensable approach for any evangelism worthy of the name Christian, that is, the way of love. – Samuel H. Moffett
Copyright © 1973 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.