Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Was Jesus a Religious Pluralist?

Jesus has been called many things: a communist, revolutionary, iconoclast, Eastern Guru, shaman, and now a religious pluralist – one who believes that all religions are essentially the same, and that there are many roads to salvation.

However, Jesus’ teachings give us no such hope. Instead, He was very exclusivistic. He insisted that salvation could only come through Him. When asked what deeds had to be performed in order to have eternal salvation, He answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." (John 6:29). That’s Jesus! Even more to the point, He informed the leadership:

  • I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins." (John 8:24)
Not very politically correct, but consistent with everything Jesus taught! He also informed His slow-to-learn disciples that salvation could only come through Him:

  • "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
Admittedly, this is a highly offensive message on a number of levels. It communicates that:

  1. We deserve eternal punishment.
  2. We are not good enough – forget self-righteousness - and therefore need to be saved.
  3. Any other means of salvation represents a vain hope.
Consequently, many think that either Jesus or the Gospels must have been a bit deluded, and they insist that it is ludicrous that a set of beliefs can bring about God’s salvation. For example, one Emergent Church guru, Tony Jones, disparages the idea that we can be saved through doctrines and beliefs:

  • This fixation with propositions can easily lead to the attempt to use the finite tool of language on an absolute Presence that transcends and embraces finite reality. Languages are culturally constructed symbol systems that enable humans to communicate by designating one finite reality in distinction form another. The truly infinite God of Christian faith is beyond all our linguistic grasping…and so the struggle to capture God in our finite propositional structures is nothing short of linguistic idolatry. (The New Christians, 234)
Jones asserts that the emphasis on “finite propositional structures” (doctrines/beliefs) is nothing more than “linguistic idolatry.”

Today, such views are quite popular, even trendy. In his most recent book, The Future of Faith, liberal professor emeritus of the Harvard Divinity School, Harvey Cox, celebrates the shift in Christianity away from fundamentalism and its emphasis on doctrine to “spirituality” and social activism. He favors a doctrine-less faith – a faith we experience and perform, not something we believe:

  • We have been misled for many centuries by the theologians who taught that “faith” consisted in dutifully believing the articles listed in one of the countless creeds they have spun out. (18)
It’s not just the creeds that trouble Cox; it’s also the exclusivistic teachings of the Bible, which insist on Jesus only!

In light of the many attacks of the religious pluralists, it is important that we not only know what the Bible says but also the reasons behind its insistence. Truly, it often seems that a mere set of beliefs shouldn’t be the basis of salvation. It might even seem unjust or arbitrary that God and His Word should insist upon these requirements. Therefore, let’s try to reason our way through this matter.

Our beliefs aren’t “linguistic idolatry,” but living and active truths (1 Thess. 2:13; Heb. 4:12) that powerfully impact all aspects of our lives. In fact, this is exactly what Peter argues:

  • Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. (2 Peter 1:2-3)
All spiritual blessing is given to us as we learn about God. Truly, the knowledge of God is indispensible. I would have disappeared long ago if I hadn’t been given the assurance that He gladly forgives me (1 John 1:9-10). Similarly, I would have continued in my self-destructive sin if I hadn’t learned about His holiness.

However, there is also another rationale for the centrality of our biblical beliefs. They reflect the fact that our heart has now been opened to receive God and to enter into a born-again relationship with Him:

REGENERATED HEART -> Receives the Testimony (Beliefs) of God -> Transformed Life

In light of the above, it is not so much that the beliefs save as it is that the Spirit saves by regenerating us (Titus 3:5), causing us to be born again (John 3:3), through the knowledge of the truth. This enables us to receive the things of God (1 Tim. 2:14) and to love the light (John 3:19-20), the source of our beliefs. Without this change, God’s truths would remain objects of contempt (2 Cor. 2:14-16; John 15:18-20).

Consequently, the doctrines of the Bible are living and transforming, infused by the Spirit who plants them savingly upon our heart:

  • Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord… For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 3:17-18; 4:6; NKJV)
As we “behold” the truths of God, we are “being transformed” by the work of the Spirit. Admittedly, it is not the truths of God themselves, but the truths in conjunction with the work of the Spirit. If the Spirit is at work, we believe that Christ died for our sins. If He is not at work, we do not believe this way. In fact, without the Spirit, such beliefs are offensive to us, and we deny them.

Why then are there “Christian” religious pluralists? Because the truths of God are offensive to them! The light is an offense to them as it is to all unbelievers. Meanwhile, they know that they are sinners who need a Savior, but they cannot bear this offensive but very obvious truth (Rom. 1:18-32; 2:14-15; John 3:19-20). The truth is available for all, but it is distasteful and rejected (Proverbs 1:20-31). It’s free for the taking, but no one takes it (Rom. 3:10-18)! Consequently, it is only because the Spirit draws us that we are enabled to receive it (John 6:44).

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