Is Jesus the Only Way to Heaven?
July 31, 2005
In preparing this message, I faced several important challenges:
First, many of us already know the answer to this question. We’ve thought it, we’ve discussed it with others, and we know what we believe.
Second, we know that most of the world gives a different answer than we give. That poses a difficulty in that we know we believe something that is not universally accepted and is, in fact, unpopular in many quarters.
Third, we know that many churches give a different answer than the one we give. Certainly it’s true that most (but not all) of the churches in Oak Park will answer this question differently than we do.
Fourth, we know that some who agree with our answer don’t like to talk about it openly. They fear stirring up trouble, so even if they answer yes, they prefer not to discuss the question publicly.
Fifth, we know that many people react negatively when we say that Jesus is the only way to heaven. Sometimes they hurl bitter invectives at us, using words like arrogant, bigoted, intolerant and narrow-minded. They may call us hatemongers. No one likes to be called names like that. We can say it doesn’t bother us, but you would have to be unfeeling not to be bothered by those accusations.
Sixth, there are some who would ban us from saying publicly what we believe. Several weeks ago Bob Ferguson, a retired professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, broadcast a commentary on Canadian public radio calling for state control of religion, specifically Catholicism. Here is part of what he said:
Given the inertia of the Catholic Church, perhaps we could encourage reform by changing the environment in which all religions operate … Couldn’t we insist that human rights, employment and consumer legislation apply to them as it does other organizations? Then it would be illegal to require a particular marital status as a condition of employment or to exclude women from the priesthood.
The professor pitched his idea as a boon to religious freedom:
We could also help the general cause of religious freedom by introducing a code of moral practice for religions,” he said. “They will never achieve unity, so why not try for compatibility? Can’t religious leaders agree to adjust doctrine so all religions can operate within the code?
He went on to suggest that Canada should regulate religious teachers the same way it regulates doctors, lawyers, engineers and other professionals.
I envisage a congress meeting to hammer out a code that would form the basis of legislation to regulate the practice of religion. Like the professional engineers’ P.Eng designation, there would then be RRPs (or registered religious practitioners). To carry the analogy to its conclusion, no one could be a religious practitioner without this qualification.
Ferguson also had a few ideas on what would and would not be permitted:
I won’t try to propose what might be in the new code except for a few obvious things: A key item would have to be a ban on claims of exclusivity. It should be unethical for any RRP to claim that theirs was the one true religion and believers in anything else or nothing were doomed to fire and brimstone.
Why propose something as radical as this? “Religion is important in our lives, but it can become a danger to society when people claim that the unalterable will of God is the basis for their opinions and actions.”
The World is Flat
This should not surprise us since we live in a day of increasing religious pluralism. One of the bestselling books in America is called The Word Is Flat by Thomas Friedman. We’ve all heard that the world is “shrinking” because of virtually instantaneous communication. Friedman argues that globalization has “flattened” the world so that increasingly nations and economies are inextricably intertwined. One of the results of this “shrinking” and “flattening” is that the world has become interconnected spiritually. There was a time when America was a monolithic nation made up almost exclusively of people from a Christian background. That America is vanishing and will not return. Today the world has come to us. Look around your neighborhood. Look around your child’s classroom. Take a close look at the people in your office, your store, your factory, your industry. There was a day when we could talk about Hinduism or Buddhism or Islam in a detached fashion because those religions were “over there,” across the sea, thousands of miles away. Just as Christianity has moved into those distant lands, in the same way those unfamiliar religions have come to our doorstep.
Several years ago Diana Eck, a Harvard professor, wrote The New Religious America, a description of how America has become a stewpot of old and new religions. This is how her book begins:
The huge white dome of a mosque, with its minarets, rises from the cornfields just outside Toledo, Ohio … a great Hindu temple with elephants carved in relief at the doorway stands on a hillside in the western suburbs of Nashville. A Cambodian Buddhist temple and monastery is set in the farmlands southeast of Minneapolis…
There are more Muslim Americans than Episcopalians, more Muslims than members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and as many Muslims as there are Jews… Los Angeles is the most complex Buddhist city in the world, with a Buddhist population spanning the whole range of the Asian Buddhist world from Sri Lanka to Korea, along with a multitude of native-born American Buddhists.
Certainly we have all become more aware of the spread of Islam in the last few years. I mention the changing face of America because the social culture we grew up with is rapidly disappearing. We have no choice but to learn how to get along in a nation where our neighbors follow religions vastly different from our own. As America changes, we face the danger of reducing the genuine religious differences to a kind of bland, lowest common denominator, “all religions are equal” approach. But when you hear people say, “All religions are equal,” you can be sure of two things:
A) They don’t know what they are talking about, and
B) They haven’t really studied anyone’s religion very closely.
Saying “all religions are equal” insults thoughtful followers of every religion. Talk to a Muslim for a while, and you’ll discover that what they believe and what we believe are radically different. But talk to a Buddhist, and you’ll discover that their beliefs are different from ours and from the Muslims. The same is true for followers of Judaism, Hinduism, and so on. It’s easy to say, “All roads lead to heaven” when you haven’t studied the map carefully. What we need is an accurate road map that tells us which road leads to heaven. Find that road and you will end up in the right place.
Some years ago the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches was asked to name the #1 theological issue facing Christians worldwide. His answer was unequivocal: “The uniqueness of Christ.” If Jesus is not unique, there is no gospel and we have no Good News to preach to the world.
So we face questions on several fronts in this message:
1) What does the Bible actually say about this?
2) How do we communicate this to others?
3) How should we respond to those who respond negatively to us?
4) How should we live in an increasingly pluralistic world?
I. What Does the Bible Actually Say?
Consider the words of Jesus in John 14:6. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” If words mean anything, this is an utterly exclusive claim by our Lord. Without him, and apart from him, there is no way to the Father in heaven. If you decide Jesus is not for you, God doesn’t have a Plan B.
Add to that the words of Peter in Acts 4:12. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”
Then you have the words of Paul in I Corinthians 3:11. “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
These three verses seem to be absolutely definitive.
No other way.
No other name.
No other foundation.
Finally, consider I Timothy 2:5. “There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” The whole gospel boils down to this truth. Because our sins have separated us from God, we need a “mediator” to bring us back to God. Because the “sin gap” is eternally wide, we need someone from heaven who is himself eternal to bridge the gap for us. Jesus is the only one who could bridge that gap. By his death, he paid for our sins and bridged the gap that separates us from God. By his resurrection, he proved he is the Son of God.
No other mediator is necessary.
No other mediator is possible.
We could add dozens of verses to this list. The God of the Bible is an utterly exclusive God. He has no competitors. He is the living and true God and there is no one like him in the universe. He will not share his glory with any created being. He alone deserves our worship and our praise. And when his Son declares, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” he means it.
The issue is not our emotions or our preferences. The issue is truth. Sincerity in religious matters is never enough. We do not need to doubt the sincerity of those who follow Islam or Hinduism. We admire them for their dedication to what they believe. But sincerity only matters when it is applied to the proper object. You can be sincerely wrong and you will still be wrong. You can sincerely drink rat poison and you will be sincerely dead. Believing the wrong thing doesn’t make it right. All truth is narrow. Years ago we all learned that 2 + 2 = 4. It doesn’t equal 5 or 3, no matter how sincere you are.
II. How Do We Communicate This to Others?
The problem is not with what we believe or what the Bible teaches. Christians have always believed that Jesus is the only way to heaven. We haven’t always expressed it with equal forcefulness, but the teaching itself is not new. As our world grows smaller and we rub shoulders with people from different religious backgrounds, how do we explain what we believe in a way that they can understand? The most fundamental answer is, don’t be afraid. Too often fear makes us defensive about our faith.
Don’t be afraid of someone who doesn’t share your point of view.
Don’t be afraid of your Muslim co-worker or your Hindu neighbor.
Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with a student who has no religion whatsoever.
Too many Christians fit the stereotype of being all mouth and no ears. We talk but we don’t listen. Or we listen just to have an excuse to talk some more. It’s not a sin to let someone else explain how they view the world. It’s not a sin to listen to someone explain their own religious practices. In fact, it’s simple human kindness to show some interest in the backgrounds of other people. How will you ever befriend someone if you don’t get to know them first?
Close your mouth, open your ears, listen intently, and let God lead the conversation. Pray as you listen. But not just for an “open door” so you can share Christ. Listen and learn. Ask questions. Seek understanding. Find whatever common ground you can. You aren’t compromising your Christianity by showing kindness to followers of other religions. It’s okay to enjoy a friendship with non-Christians for its own sake. Show yourself friendly and God will open doors for you that you could never open on your own.
After I preached this message, a friend who lives and works in a secular setting where Christian beliefs are often attacked sent me the following email:
I was eager to let you know that the one subject my colleagues of other faiths really do want to discuss is the question of whether or not I “personally” believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven. In my younger adult years, I basically felt intimidated by what I perceived the inevitable question would yield, a kind of “cutting to the quick” lead-in for the fight (as opposed to a gentle discourse on God’s grace), but now I welcome the challenge to answer this question with a resounding “Yes!” I affirm your suggestion that we not get drawn in to a “fight” but be much better listeners before presenting the case for Christ. I also agree with your contention that members of non-Christian sects are often much better prepared than we American Christians to present their beliefs as a concise sincere case.
I believe the challenge now facing the Christian Church in America will be to prepare across denominational differences as effective witnesses through concentrated Bible study, Christian fellowship and prayer. This rigorous preparation must include an ability for us to actually know what we believe before we attempt to share our faith now not only with American atheists or agnostics, but to the global community of non-Christian believers as well.
III. How Should We Respond to Those Who React Negatively?
Here is the key point to remember: Don’t be surprised when people react negatively. And don’t get angry. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). You can’t argue a person into the Kingdom of God. And you can’t insult them into believing in Jesus. And if you get really angry, you’ll discover that swearing at lost people doesn’t make them want to “run to the cross.” It doesn’t work that way. It helps to remember that those without Christ are spiritually blind (II Corinthians 4:4). Until their blindness is removed by the Holy Spirit, they will never “see” the truth. You might as well get angry with a blind person for not seeing the color green. Our strategy must be one of Christ-centered kindness. II Timothy 2:24-25 offers some very specific advice:
And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.
Sometimes people will say things just to see if they can get us riled up. They will try to stir up trouble by pushing our hot buttons. Most of us know people (some of them very close to us) who seem to have the “gift” of getting under our skin. Paul’s advice is simple but not always easy to follow: Don’t let them do it. Don’t let them get you riled up so that you lose your cool, blow your top, say things you shouldn’t say, and end up in a bitter shouting match.
We are not permitted to yell back at those who yell at us.
We are not to curse at those who curse at us.
We are not to intimidate those who try to intimidate us.
In short, we are not to match the tactics of those who may oppose us and ridicule our faith. We must keep our cool all the time, at all costs. It is quite possible to argue them away from the kingdom, but you can’t argue them into it. Salvation is a miracle of God that takes place in the human heart. Only the Holy Spirit can convert the soul. It’s not our arguments that win the lost. Unless the Lord works on the heart, all our words will be of no avail.
Therefore, we must be gentle under pressure and kind even when pushed to the limit. We must be patient toward those who oppose us and we must, with meekness, tell them the truth. If we lose our temper, we may win the verbal battle, but we will surely lose the war for the soul.
IV. How Should We Live in an Increasingly Pluralistic World?
There is no turning back the clock to the “good old days” when the world was still “over there” on the other side of the ocean. Frankly, I like it much better this way. I prefer living in the unpredictable ferment of a village and a city where a thousand different viewpoints jostle for a place at the table. That’s much more exciting than living in a town where everyone looks the same, acts the same, talks the same, and thinks the same. That’s part of what makes Oak Park such a great place to minister. We know that most of the people here don’t share our viewpoint, and that means we don’t have to do anything but be ourselves to stand out from the crowd.
We do have to think about the challenge of sharing Christ in a pluralistic world. Here are a few quick thoughts:
A) Ground Yourself in the Word of God.
Make sure you know what you believe. Don’t just read the Bible. Study it. Learn it. Memorize it. Find out what it teaches. Learn the doctrines of our faith. Let the Word of God be the firm foundation for your own life and also for your family. Many followers of other religions know more about what they believe than we do about what we believe. I do not fault them for that, but I think it is high time that we learned as much about Christianity as the Muslims know about Islam.
B) Be Bold About Your Faith With a Smile on Your Face.
When I shared this on Sunday morning, I said, “Be bold about your faith,” and then I paused. Several people said “Amen!” So I said, “I’m not through yet.” That’s when I added “with a smile on your face.” It’s right at this point that so many of us fail. We get angry and bothered when someone disagrees with us and the joy of the Lord is replaced with the wrath of God on our countenance. No wonder some people don’t want to talk to us. If we sound too much like Jonathan Edwards preaching Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (a magnificent sermon, by the way), we shouldn’t wonder that we make some people fearful and the rest angry.
If people get angry, let it be because of the truth we preach, not because of our angry words.
If they reject us, let it not be because we treated them rudely.
If sinners reject Christ, let it be because they truly reject him, and not because we lost our temper.
John Tahl told me that boldness is “unembarrassed freedom of speech.” That means you speak the truth without feeling you have to pressure others into agreeing with you. And if you can speak the truth with a smile and with the joy of the Lord, all the better. And if smiling seems impossible, at least don’t lose your cool. Speaking the truth in love is always the best rule.
C) Realize That There is a Tremendous Spiritual Hunger in Our Generation.
That’s why Islam is on the rise in America. That’s why people turn to New Age shamans. That’s why Eastern religions attract so many people. The incredible religious diversity testifies to the hunger inside every heart. We were made to know God, and if we do not fill the “God-shaped vacuum” with the truth, we will fill it with whatever substitute we can find.
In a sense we live in the greatest days of human history. It may well be that we are the final generation before the return of Christ. That would explain why Satan has made such an energetic effort to spread his lies. But where sin abounded, grace super-abounded. The very fact that we live in such spiritual darkness means that when the light shines, it really shines. Let us not be discouraged by the difficulty of the task. Let us instead be encouraged by the opportunities of this hour. The people of this generation are eating at the Devil’s trough when they could be feasting at the Father’s table. Let us go out from here into the highways and hedges and in Jesus’ name invite them to the banquet that never ends.
There are two things we must not do:
1) Attempt to convert others by force or threat or intimidation.
2) Stand by and refuse to speak up for what we really believe.
If Jesus is truly the only way, the unkindest thing would be keep it to ourselves.
If Jesus is truly the only way, the most loving thing is to share it with others.
Let’s suppose that researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago this very week discovered the cure for cancer. Let’s suppose they developed a treatment that could instantly cure all forms of cancer. Let’s further suppose that the treatment is painless, one-time, and 100% effective. Would it be arrogant for them to say, “This is the only treatment for cancer you will ever need?” Or would that be the most loving thing they could ever say?
Or let’s suppose that you and I are standing 50 feet away from the edge of a cliff. If you fall off, you will drop 1800 feet before you hit the jagged rocks on the canyon floor. There are no guard rails to keep you from falling. As we stand there chatting, we see an old man walking slowly toward the edge. As he nears the edge, we realize that he is blind and has no idea of the danger he is in. Suddenly, he calls out, “Which way should I go?” What would you think if I yelled out, “It doesn’t matter. Go any way you like?” Would I not be criminally negligent when he falls to his death? If I care about him at all, I will call out, “Don’t take another step. I’ll come and get you.” And then I will take him by the hand and lead him to safety. Love compels me to speak the truth and to do what I can to save his life.
God’s heart is wide … the way to life is narrow. Both are true.
There are many religions, and many good things to be learned from the religions of the world, but there is only one way to God. Jesus is the way.
Here are five words that will take you all the way to heaven. If you understand what these five words mean, you can spend eternity in heaven with the Lord. And these five words contain enough truth to save the whole world.
Only Jesus and Jesus only.
When I preached this on Sunday, I asked the congregation to repeat these words with me. Say it out loud right now:
Only Jesus and Jesus only.
What are you going to do about it? Suppose you want to go to Wrigley Field to watch the Cubs play this afternoon. I can give you instructions and I can even draw you a map. But if you ignore the instructions, all that I have said will do you no good.
Good information is not enough.
If you want to find your way to the Father’s house, you have to travel the course Jesus laid out for you. Other roads may look attractive. They may seem like shortcuts but only one road leads to where you want to go. Jesus is the only way to heaven. May God help you to put your trust in him. Amen.