I. Session One - "Hope In the Lord Jesus Christ," an analysis.
A. Liberals vs. conservatives.
The context of this document will be found in the introduction. "In recent times some... have expressed understandings
of Jesus Christ that [others]... believe breach the limits of Scripture and the church's confessions" (p. 6). So at
the heart of this statement we have two opposed parties, "some" and "others," "liberals" and
"conservatives," for want of better terms. The conservatives, it seems, are always darkly suspicious that liberals
are not really Christians. So they continually request the church to give reassurances about faithfulness to orthodox doctrine.
Or, they may be trying to "smoke out" liberals and make them admit that they are not really Christians. The response
of liberals is generally to say, "We already affirm all that in the Book of Confessions, why do we have to do so again?"
Historically, this goes back to the early division in our denomination between the New Englanders and the Scotch-Irish.
The former party has always been more open to the movement of the Spirit in giving freedom to adapt to a changing world, while
the latter has always been more concerned for nailing things down to unchanging doctrinal statements. In every generation
these two groups are fighting over something, with each group enjoying periods of ascendancy and decline. Two or three times
we have actually split into different denominations over this basic difference in outlook. While we are together, one group
is always going to be concerned with definite orthodox doctrinal statements and standards, and the other group is always going
to want to see things kept more flexible out of missionary necessity.
To make what I hope is a helpful but very wild over-generalization, one group is more concerned with what the church says
to itself, and the other with what the church says to the world.
The most significant word in this text is found in line 155 and that is the word "only." It isi not just to
be contrarian or because they have sold out to a pagan society that some are led to ask questions about the meaning of this
word. It is not just because of a rejection of "biblical auuthority" or an embrace of godless "free thinking."
Is is because of the very different cultural and social situation in which we live. Remember that for around a millennium
and a half, generation after generation of Christians could go through life without ever meeting or even seeing someone who
wasn't a Christian. If you lived in Europe you might see a Jew, and if you were a soldier in the crusades you might see a
Muslim. But the vast majority of Europeans, and even Americans, came into contact with non-Christians very rarely.
In this context it was easy to believe that Jesus was the only Savior since one rarely if ever came into contact with
anyone who didn't make that confession. It was easy to demonize others because they were largely far away and invisible.
Today we call this context, the virtual identification of church and society, in which being a Christian and a citizen were
almost the same thing, by the name of "Christendom."
Much of our crisis in the church today is due to the fact that this arrangement no longer functions in our society. It
no longer functions in our society, but it still tends to function very well in our heads. This is true for both conservatives
and liberals, by the way, though in different ways.
The word "only" has become an issue today because we all now live in direct and daily contact with non-Christians.
We all know people who don't believe in or follow Jesus. We work and go to school with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and
Buddhists. And we all know plenty of people who have no religion at all. These are our neighbors; our kids are on the same
soccer teams. We work with them on school fundraisers. And we know that they are not evil demons but normal, average, nice,
hard-working people who love their children, pay their mortgages, mow their lawns, contribute to the United Way, and practice
religion. What is more, many of them are more serious about their religion than we are about ours.
With these kinds of experience, it becomes more difficult or at least questionable to easily make the claim that Jesus
is the "only" way to be saved. First of all, I need to get along with my neighbors. If I become obstreperous and
obnoxious about Christian exclusivity, what will that do to the peace and prosperity of my neighborhood? If I make my neighbor
angry over a religious question, will they be there when I need them to house-sit for the dog in an emergency? Will they
listen to me when I ask them to trim the willow tree that is dropping branches into my pool? Will they tolerate my car if
the muffler goes and I can't have it repaired right away? And so on.
Secondly, it transgresses both common sense and our understanding of God's love to imagine that these good people will
wind up languishing in the eternal torment of hell just because they went to a different, or no, house of worship. Here we
come to the more general problem of Hitler and Gandhi. One was a baptized Christian, one was not. Which one is in heaven
today? Indeed, who goes to heaven? Most of us know some downright pathologically nasty people who are quite adamant about
Jesus being the only Savior; if they make up the population of heaven then there is some question about whether it is a place
to which we really want to go.
Finally, the church's credibility is also in question about these kinds of questions. It was not that long ago that we
were sure that Catholics and Jews were going to hell too. Most churches no longer say this kind of thing any more. Who is
to say the church won't start letting Muslims and Buddhists into heaven soon as well?
Yet to reject the "only" is to go against explicit statements of Scripture including words of Jesus himself.
While liberals may wonder if the "only" is really essential in today's world, conservatives will say that without
the "only" one is not a true believer in Jesus. Hence the present controversy.
C. The Strategy of "Hope In the Lord Jesus Christ."
Because the original questions and requests for clarification came from the conservative side, the document is designed
to put their fears at rest. It is a statement that affirms unequivocally the denomination's adherence to the traditional
orthodox Christological statements of the Church. All our confessions are unequivocally clear about this, and the statement
lines up quotations from them and from Scripture which express this point.
In line 13 we hear that the earliest confession of the Church was "Jesus Is Lord!" Thus Jesus has always been
at the center of Christianity. This point seems obvious. It might be hard to imagine that Christ could be forgotten in a
religion called "Christ-ianity." However, such an elaborate superstructure has been constructed over two-thousand
years on top of the original simple religion of the rabbi from Nazareth, that he is sometimes himself forgotten.
So the statement reaffirms our trinitarian faith which is rooted in the affirmation that to confess "Jesus is Lord"
means that Jesus is nothing less than God incarnate. Jesus had to be God incarnate in order to do what he did, and be worthy
of the confession the Church was making about him. The early Church knew, as all Christians are supposed to know, that Jesus
had somehow saved them from their sins and reestablished their relationship with God. So, from the beginning, the Church
prayed to Jesus, worshipped Jesus, obeyed Jesus, and treated Jesus in other ways exactly as only God was to be treated. To
paraphrase C. S. Lewis, the Church was either right about its confession that Jesus is God, or it was an instance of mass
In lines 89-96 we hear the statement talking in just these terms about what Christ does, and how what he does verifies
who he is. "In Jesus Christ we receive new life, know the truth about God and ourselves, and are set upon God's way
in the world." He is the one "path" between God and humanity.
From here we move to how God does this in Jesus, which is selfless love culminating in the surrender of his own life on
the cross. This is in lines 101-133. His sacrifice, in which he empties himself and pours out his own blood for us, reveals
the depths and height of God's love "for sake of the world." In lines 134-147, we hear about the resurrection in
which he, the Crucified One, is "exalted above all rule and authority and power and dominion" to become "the
living Lord of the cosmos."
D. The Core.
Lines 155-168 are, by all accounts, the core of the statement. This is where the actual question of the "only"
is addressed. It has been building a defense of the "only," which is resolved in lines 155 through 157. Then it
makes the central statement, "No one is saved apart from God's gracious redemption in Jesus Christ." This should
be enough to satisfy the conservatives of the statement's orthodoxy and adherence to traditional Christianity.
The document then goes on to address the questions the liberals are asking. "Yet we do not presume to limit the
sovereign freedom of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth' [1 Timothy ii.4]."
Thus the statement admits and even proclaims the "only" as an essential confession of Christian truth. And at the
same time it uses the traditional Reformed emphasis on God's sovereignty and freedom to say that the "only" does
not in any way limit or restrict what God can do. "Thus we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit
faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith. Grace, love, and communion belong to God and are
not ours to determine" (lines 164-168).
E. God's Freedom.
This idea of the freedom of God is so dangerous and unstable that the statement could not simply end here at this otherwise
logical place. The unrestricted grace of God, if taken to its logical conclusion, can, and sometimes has, led people into
a universalism in which Jesus and our relationship to him doesn't matter. Origen and even St. Gregory of Nyssa strayed in
this direction, deciding that God's freedom, love, and grace were so powerful that, in the end, everyone, even Satan, will
eventually be saved. This is also where Unitarians went off on another unfruitful tangent, deciding that God was so free
as not to be bound by a qualification like the trinity. If it is God's will that all be saved, as Scripture says in several
places, then who are we to say that this salvation is restricted at all? Who among mere mortals is powerful enough to oppose
God's will to save everyone and everything?
Here we see the danger of the other side. If the liability of following too exclusively the conservative path is the
Spanish Inquisition (for which it appears to me that many conservatives have a soft spot in their hearts).
The danger of falling off to the other side is a sort of relativized, antinomian universalism, in which what one does
doesn't matter and everyone follows whatever path suits them at the moment. This kind of spiritual libertarianism might seem
genial and up-to-date, open-minded and liberal. But in practice it leads (like economic libertarianism) to disaster.
In addition to being utterly contrary to Scripture, it also causes a devaluation of the Spirit by denying anything transcendent
to the human person. Thus it fosters an imploded worship of the individual, religious consumerism, and a paganistic reduction
of faith to self-indulgence, self-gratification, and self-righteousness. God becomes whatever we want, now. This in turn
creates a situation in which the powerful oppress the powerless in the inevitable clash of selfish interests. In other words,
it leads to the Modern world. All this may be fun, especially for those of us at the top of the pile, fat and happy in Pharaoh's
palace, but it doesn't lead to God.
F. The Holy Spirit.
So, the statement couldn't end with the affirmation of God's freedom. It has to continue and say how God's freedom is
expressed in and through God's Holy Spirit, by which we are united to Christ. Christ is thus the center of our faith in every
way. Christ is God's Word, God's ultimate revelation to humanity. Christ is also and therefore both the subject and object
of God's freedom in the Spirit. For God's freedom does not mean God is free not to be God. God is not free not to be incarnate
in Jesus Christ. God is not free not to be love. God is still God, and to be God means to be in love for the world, which
means to be incarnate in Jesus. God's Spirit expresses God's freedom, but God's Spirit is the Spirit of love we know in Jesus
Thus, in lines 209-212 we read that "because the church is founded and enlivined by the presence of Jesus Christ
through the Holy Spirit, we can be confident that it is Christ who works through the imperfect and sinful fellowship of the
church." And in lines 214-215 it says, "In the power of the Holy Spirit, we proclaim Christ's love, in word and
deed, to all the world."
Questions in preparation for session two.
1. Can there be other lords, other words, other "paths up the mountain," other truths in addition to Jesus Christ?
Why or why not? Would the New Testament be any different on this question if members of the early church had known some Buddhists?
2. Is there a difference between what we tell ourselves about what we believe, and how we express our faith to others?
Should there be? Some say that the exclusivity claim is true, but not helpful as an evangelistic strategy. Do you agree?
What does the Bible say? Was the New Testament itself written for Christians, or for seekers among the "unchurched?"
3. Is the claim that Jesus is the "only" way an essential doctrine of the faith? Should we decline to call
someone a Christian who does not believe this? If so, would you deny such people access to baptism and the Lord's Table?
4. What is the nature of belief and faith? What changes if we think more in terms of trust? Is faith holding a cognitive
opinion about something? Or does it guide the whole way one lives in the world? Reflect on Dietrich Bonhoeffer's famous
maxim, "Only the one who is obedient believes; only the one who believes is obedient."
5. What does evangelism mean in our multi-cultural, multi-religious context? Reflect on the similarities and differences
between our situation and that of the early church.
6. Where, if at all, does consideration of hell-fire and eternal damnation enter into our discussion of Jesus as the "only"
Session Two +
A. The Power of One.
The church has always said that Jesus Christ is the only Savior of the world. This confession is based on passages like
John xiv.6 and Acts iv.12 which say quite clearly that salvation is available only through Jesus. This is a non-negotiable
affirmation and is constituitive of orthodox Christianity. In other words, it is impossible to be a Christian in the traditional
sense and not hold to this assertion of Jesus' uniqueness.
This confession was made by the early church in a context like ours in some ways. The first century saw a diversity of
religions and philosophies in the cities of the Mediterranean basin. People adopted this view of things even though it was
offensive to their neighbors and families, not to mention the Roman Empire. This confession must have been a difficult sticking
point for the church, even as it is today. Predictably, we even see movements back then, like the gnostics, to modify, spiritualize,
or water-down this central affirmation.
Yet it is something to which the church resolutely clung through a great deal of hardship and suffering. Why? Why is
it so wrong to take a more "live and let live" approach and allow that other religions and philosophies may also
lead people to salvation? Why is it not enough to have our own "particular" view of things, while admitting that
others also have their particular but different, and equally valid, perspectives? Why cannot this doctrine be modified to
suit our pluralistic, modern context?
First of all, in answering this question, it is necessary to reflect on the character of God generally. In biblical faith
there is no way to God. God is utterly transcendent, unknowable, totally beyond the imagination and reason of human beings
to comprehend. Any god less transcendent than this is not the ultimate Lord and Creator of the Universe, but some limited,
contingent, intermediate entity. If you can think it, it's not God. If you can imagine it or somehow approach it on your
own, it's not God. There are no ways to God. Any religion that claims to be a way to God does not have to do with the true
This is the God we find in the Westminster Confession.
"There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible,
without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty; most wise, most holy, most free,
most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory;
most loving, gracious, merciful, long- suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin....
God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing
in need of any creatures which he hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory in, by,
unto, and upon them: he is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom, are all things; and hath most
sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them, whatsoever himself pleaseth. In his sight all things
are open and manifest; his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature; so as nothing is to him contingent
or uncertain. He is most holy in all his counsels, in all his works, and in all his commands...."
And even these words are inadequate in describing what is in essence indescribable and incomprehensible. Yet Reformed
theology has always thought it important to make this affirmation of God's essential radical otherness at the outset, as the
framework for everything else in order to prevent human beings from doing what human beings do so easily and naturally, which
is project an image of God out of their own imagination, desire, fear, dreams, and needs. The Buddhists have a saying that
works here. They say, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." This means that anyone you are likely to
meet in the course of your daily life is not likely to be the Buddha but an impostor. Christians could also say, "Any
god you can think, imagine, define, comprehend, address, or know is not the true God but an impostor.
This transcendence is the root of the doctrine of God's freedom. God is not bound by any human words, definitions, thoughts,
doctrines, ceremonies, images, stories, or orders. God is beyond all these in essence. None of these things will ever constitute
a "way" to God. We do not know God because people found God figured God out; we did not do theological experiments
which prove the hypothesis that there is a God. God is not an object of human research or investigation.
God transcendence, by the way, logically implies that there is only one God.
Terms like "infinite... immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty... most wise, most holy, most free,
most absolute... [having] all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; ...unto himself all-sufficient... the
fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom, are all things; and... sovereign..." if they are pointing
in the right direction, do not allow for God to have a whole lot of company. How can more than one entity be "infinite"
and "eternal" and "almighty?" The idea of more than one such being is even more incomprehensible than
that of there being one. There is only one creation, one universe, and one God.
The only way we know anything about God is because God revealed God's self to people. There is no way to God; there is
only God's way to us. Hence, the biblical tradition has as its subject matter God's self-communication to humanity. We call
this the "Word" of God. The only way between humanity and God is God's Word.
The most important and essential thing the Word does is communicate God's self, nature, identity, and being to creation.
The Word is God (John i.1). The self-communication of God is identical with God.
The content of God's self-communication is God's love. God is love (1 John iv.8b). God's love is revealed in this self-emptying
(Philippians 11.6-7) revelation of God's Word.
By the Word God made all things (Genesis i.3; John i.2-3). Thus creation itself is a revelation of God, as Calvin and
many others said, constituting one of the "two books" of the Word. The other book, of course, being Holy Scripture.
The latter is more explicit and clear in its "unique and authoritative witness" to the Word. Jesus Christ is the
full and final revelation of God's love. He is God's Word come into mortal existence. He is the way from God to us. And
because he is mortal God comes all the way to us, to the point of sharing our existence. God's self-communication is not
just talk about love; it is love because of its complete identification with us.
The existence of any other words beside this One Word would be impossible and a contradiction. Through all this we confess
an essential singularity and oneness, a unity and an integrity in God's being. A god that does not have this oneness and
unity is not the ultimate, eternal God. That is the difference between monotheism and polytheism. Montheism knows a God
beyond all the other multiple forces, powers, trends, and tendencies in the world. Monotheism talks in ultimately general
terms about the one overarching direction and power in the universe. And because this one overarching direction and power
in the universe is love, the only true monotheism has to be triune. If God did not become flesh in Jesus Christ God would
not be love and therefore God would not be God.
Thus we see that God is transcendent and absolutely free. God chooses to transcend transcendence itself and to communicate
God's self in the Word. By the Word God creates, redeems, and sanctifies. Thus God reveals the divine nature as this self-transcendening,
self-emptying, sacrificial love.
When Christians make the claim that Christ is the only way, this is not a self-righteous, arrogant, conceited, or self-centered
assertion. It is not saying "My God is bigger than your God," or "My religion is better than your religion,"
or "My church, theology, philosophy, prayer, and worship is better than yours." God does not belong to us. God
is not an attribute of us. We do not own, possess, or define God. Any god we do own is not the eternal, infinite, almighty,
When we make the claim that Christ is the only way we are saying that we have experienced that God has us and has come
to us in Christ. He is not our possession... we are his. We all belong to him, as does the whole creation and world; every
human being belongs to God, not to mention every atom, molecule, wave, life, and energy in the universe (Psalm xxiv.1). The
we in this case is radically inclusive. It is not just Presbyterians, Christians, monotheists, or even religious believers,
but all creation who are the "we." We all belong to God in Christ, whether we know it, name it, believe it, care
about it, or not.
This in itself may offend some. But the alternative is to confess that every culture, religion, and philosophy has its
own particular god. This view has been obsolete at least since the Book of Jonah and the work of the prophet Elijah. It
is simply not true.
While we all belong to God, we do not all trust in God. Belonging to God is not an exclusively Christian thing; trusting
God is. To believe in God is to trust God; to trust God is to obey God. Where belief is often mistaken for a cognitive,
intellection opinion in itself, trust and obedience have more to do with the whole person: body, soul, and spirit. We trust
and obey with our whole selves, not just our minds. Therefore, this is a much better way to understand what the Bible means
Responding to a situation in which people were claiming to believe in Jesus, but spent their days actually doing things
in utter disobedience of his commandments, Dietrich Bonhoeffer produced the following equation. Only the one who believes
is obedient; only the one who is obedient truly believes. Belief is not what we think or say about the Word of God, it is
the way we obey and follow the Word of God. Faith is not something we do with our minds; it is something we do with our whole
selves, including our bodies.
In 1 John iv.7-21 we read as follows.
"Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever
does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into
the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son
to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No
one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify
that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God,
and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in
love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day
of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for
fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us.
20 Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother
or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those
who love God must love their brothers and sisters also."
Obedience and following Jesus Christ, the Word of God, means living in the love of God he comes to reveal and give to
us. It means living the life of love he gives us to live. This is not love according to our own definition, but love as
defined in the life of Christ. It is sacrificial, self-emptying, self-denying love verse 10), not love that grasps or gains
anything for itself (see I Corinthians xiii).
To say, then, that Christ is the only way says nothing about that other person, except that they belong to God. It says
everything about those who make this confession, and it demands much from them. For it says we mean to obey and follow him.
The love of God revealed in Christ is the only way. It is the way God came to us; it is therefore also the way we go to
others. How we deal with others reflects what we really think about God.
In terms of evangelism, when dealing with our neighbors who may be of other faiths or have no religious faith at all,
the question is whether we are just going to talk theoretically about Jesus being the only way, or whether we will demonstrate
by our conformity to Jesus' life and love in our actions that Jesus is the only way.
The other point here is this. God's love is revealed in Jesus Christ in loss, giving, suffering, weakness, surrender,
humility, and death on the cross. Jesus is not a winner by the world's standards. He has no wealth or property to speak
of. He has no coercive power except over demons and diseases; but he wields no physical, psychic, or moral weapons to force
people to do things they don't want to do. He even renounces sex and all other forms of self-indulgence. He is a victim;
he dies humiliated, rejected, disgraced, and cursed. To believe, trust, and obey him is to follow this path; it is to take
up a cross and follow him.
There is a sense then, that Jesus and the early church made the offensive, exclusive statements they did precisely because
they would provoke a hostile reaction from the world. They would ensure that the church would follow Jesus, by bringing down
suffering and violence on the church.
The context of this confession changes everything. To confess Jesus as the only Lord when you are a minority, is to bring
down rejection and suffering which enable you to identify with Jesus. But to impose this confession on another when you are
the one with all the power is in effect to make the other person identify with Jesus, and condemn yourself.