Not too long ago our local paper ran an article—taken off the news “wire”—declaring in its headline:
“Some Presbyterians see salvation by other faiths”
There can be little doubt that this article inflamed emotions and deepened the pool of misunderstanding and angst within and outside of the church. While this is certainly regrettable, it must also be acknowledged that the article raised deep and complex ideas worth discussing.
Few concepts are more inflammatory, misunderstood, and criticized today than the Christian belief that Jesus is the only way to God and thus salvation. Within a pluralistic culture, few ideas are more confusing and insulting. Small wonder then that a minority of Presbyterians (and for that matter, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Catholics, etc.) are questioning and even rejecting the church’s ancient teaching of the centrality, uniqueness, and exclusivity of Jesus.
But there is a reason the church has always held strongly to this teaching and why it must continue to do so.
Jesus is, and always has been, the center of the Christian faith. It’s not centered upon ethics or spirituality or morals or inspiration or any other such vapid interests. Christianity is about Him. Across time and space His followers have held that He uniquely unveils to us both the heart and nature of God and, simultaneously, what it means to be truly human. As God enveloped in the bounds of human flesh, Jesus is the singularly unique and authoritative point where God steps out from behind the impenetrable veil of deity to reveal with unprecedented and unrivaled clarity who He is and what He desires. And there in this man, with all His glorious deity veiled and invisible, He unveils the heart of God.
Thus, the Presbyterian Church has long affirmed,
“All power in heaven and earth is given to Jesus Christ by Almighty God, who raised Christ from the dead and set Him above all rule and authority, all power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but in the one that is to come.”
This singular idea has been restated in thousands of languages, through millions of churches, by billions who believe it true, hope-filled, wondrous and inescapable.
It is essential that those offended, troubled, or confused by this idea—be they within the church or outside—understand that those holding it to be true do so with no desire whatsoever to offend, condemn, or confuse. This joyous affirmation bursts from neither arrogance nor judgment, but from the desire to be faithful to both what we believe and have found to be true. For the church has grasped this idea for a very simple reason: Jesus himself taught it. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples:
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you have known me, you will know my Father too” (John 14:6-7a).
The New Testament, which was written to spread the unprecedented good news of Jesus, interprets the meaning and significance of His life, explains its implications, and reaffirms these words through innumerable passages. Over 20 centuries, creeds, hymns, works of art and literature, testimonies, sermons, and prayers have joined this refrain proclaiming that Jesus is not one among many, but singularly the greatest and most beautiful One.
The reason for this is simple: Jesus has captured our hearts. The riveting accounts of His loving touch of lepers disdained and ignored, His courageous stands against injustice, self-righteousness, and hypocrisy, His brilliance expressed in simple stories, and so much more, describe a man unlike any the world had seen before or sense.
Jesus has captured our hearts! He has done, taught, achieved, and provided what no other person, teaching, or philosophy has, rendering Him unique and without equal. But there is more!
We recently celebrated Jesus’ rising from death to life (which is alone enough to reveal him unique!). Having broken the power of death and burst the bonds of time and space, He roams free, not as idea or principle or moral example, but as living and present Lord.
And this risen Lord is at work still! Within my small circle I can testify that we have watched Him heal the sick, give hope to the hopeless, and break the power of evil, addiction, and injustice. We have seen countless miracles, changes, and events that can have no other source than the presence of Jesus at work among the world He loves. We have joined followers of Jesus in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas, all united in the joyous certainty that the Jesus of the Bible has been present among us, has blessed us, and is powerfully, wonderfully, and certainly real.
Our experiences, explainable only by the presence and power of God, compel us to declare that Jesus is Lord, and thus the way, the truth, and the life, the only way to the Father.
There is no question that this belief is hard. It appears arrogant and disrespectful. It is unpopular and counter to values and perspectives our culture holds most dear and true. Christians know all this, struggle with it, and grieve that so many—some even within the faith—fail to understand why this belief is nevertheless held precious and essential.
It is certainly not from any desire to offend or confuse. It is held and proclaimed only because the Christian church, across the whole of its existence, stands united by its experience of the matchless wonder, beauty, majesty, and goodness of Jesus.
Thus, we reject culture’s desire to reduce Jesus to but one way among the many and instead remain convinced of His singular, unprecedented, unsurpassed Lordship. This is the faith of the Church across time and miles and what the vast majority of Presbyterians (and Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Catholics, etc., etc.) believe!
Rev. Dr. Mark Patterson is the lead pastor at Community Presbyterian Church in Ventura, CA.