We have been musing on what it means to believe that salvation is “in Christ alone”.

Pluralists argue that there are many routes to salvation (and just as many definitions of what salvation is!). Bono’s massively successful “Coexist” tour epitomized such a view. The tour’s “Coexist” logo graphically combined the Islamic crescent moon (“C”), the star of David (“x”) and the cross of Christ (“t”).

The mantra that provided a religious focal point for the concert intoned: “Jesus / Jew /Mohammed – it’s true – All sons of Abraham”. No room for maintaining that salvation is in Christ alone here!

Inclusivists will not go down this road (or this plethora of roads). They agree there is only one way to come to God; salvation is only in the person and work of Jesus Christ. But they suggest that people may be saved by the Jesus of whom they have never heard.

However, Peter declares in Acts 4:12: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” In one little phrase, “no other name”, he undercuts the claims made by both pluralists and inclusivists.

Firstly: “no other”. Here is the exclusivity that says “No way!” to every other pluralist way. Secondly : “name”. Notice that Peter does not say that salvation is only available in the work of Christ. That would have opened the door to an inclusivist perspective. But he says more than that salvation is only in one source; he says it is only in one name. As he said earlier, it is in calling on a name that we are saved (Acts 2:12). The name speaks of a person, and salvation is defined in terms of how we relate to that person [“Call on his name” or “Believe in the Lord Jesus” (Acts 16:31)]. Paul concurs. He speaks of the need to confess Jesus and believe specific things about Jesus in order to be saved (Romans 10:9,10). And it is this conviction that drives Paul to his conclusion about the urgency of going and telling people about Jesus, for how can they “believe in him of whom they have never heard” (v.14)?

Why is this so important? The bottom line is not “How many people will be saved?” – though we have reason to believe that in the end it will be a vast number as the earth is filled with the KNOWLEDGE of the glory of the Lord amidst a vast population explosion that will dwarf the numbers of those who have lived in earlier times. At stake is “What kinds of people are in the multitude, and who thus gets the glory?” Yes, God could have saved whoever he likes without or without Christ. But his goal was the glory of his Son! If in the end multitudes are saved, but vast numbers of them do not know Christ, then surely Christ is not glorified! But if salvation is clearly and only in the name Christ, then it is his name that gets all the glory!

For a fuller introduction to the issues involved in “Salvation in Christ Alone”, a series of audio messages is available on our website.


Dr. Ernie said...

Hi Brian,

Thanks for raising this issue; I'm hoping you could clarify something that's always bothered me about this line of argument.

If we take a purely literalist interpretation that only those who have heard and responded to the name "Jesus" (Y'shua) are saved, then that would imply that all those before Jesus (e.g., Abraham, David, Moses) can't get to heaven, which obviously contradicts Scripture.

I've heard explanations that this injunction only applies after Christ's birth/death/sending the Holy Spirit, but those always felt "post hoc" and unsupported by Scripture. Am I missing something?

From my perspective, it seems more logical and Scriptural to interpret "name" in the Hebraic sense, as referring to character. That is, only those who trust in a God whose character is consistent with that revealed in Jesus Christ can and will be saved.

This interpretation would certainly cover the patriarchs and Jews who did not reject Jesus, without a need for extra-Biblical speculation. It also implies that the missionary mandate is less about simply telling a story about a man named Jesus, and more about incarnating the character of Christ in far away communities so that people understand the kind of God in whom they need to trust. Which seems like a good thing.

However, I confess I haven't thought this through in detail, so I may be overlooking something obvious. What do you think?

Brian Watts said...

Good to hear from you Ernie!
This blogging thing is hard – to say something worth saying, in so few words that there is little opportunity to nuance or qualify or substantiate! I mostly agree with your perspective that makes it possible for those before Christ to believe in the Christ who was to come where we have the privilege of believing in the Christ who has come. I would just tighten your wording up a little bit to make it clear that this is still “in Christ” rather than a generic kind of God. I would prefer to say “those who trust in a God whose character is consistent with that revealed in Jesus Christ and trust that such a God would make provision in such a way as becomes apparent in Jesus Christ can and will be saved”. This makes it possible to see that OT saints did not have to resort to extra-biblical speculation – only to put faith in the biblical hints and prophecies (that start as early as Gen 3) of the One who was to come, whom we now know by the name of Jesus. It also means that while undoubtedly the missionary mandate is about incarnating the character of Christ, we can be faithful to the imperative to “preach Christ” too. Again it is fascinating to read of so many accounts – currently in massive numbers in the Moslem world – where God has been preparing people for the revelation of the name of Jesus to match the sense that they have, sometimes in dreams and visions, that God will send SOMEBODY as the means of providing all that his nature and character would suggest.

But all of this needs essays and books and debates rather than the simplistic blasts of blogs!