Is Jesus the way?
More Christians than ever are befriending advocates of other religious traditions. And many more Christians are learning about the beliefs in other religions. In light of this, Christians must reaffirm and clarify their claims about salvation.
Summarizing what Christians think about salvation is not simple! The claims about salvation vary in the Bible and in the Christian tradition.
One of the most poignant biblical passages about salvation comes from John’s gospel. John quotes Jesus saying these words, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6).
Christians have interpreted these words to mean various things. I believe, however, they provide a helpful basis for affirming Jesus as the way of salvation.
Explaining in detail what I mean when I affirm that Jesus is the way goes beyond the scope of a blog. It would take at least one book!
But I do want to make some general observations on this crucial issue. I hope that my observations help Christians hold firm to the sufficiency of Jesus Christ for salvation, while also making sense of the broader biblical witness about salvation. And I hope my comments clarify to nonChristians how Christians might think well about salvation.
I’ll make a few preliminary comments and then make two main points.
– Many Christians rightfully distinguish between Jesus being the way and Christianity being the way. The most important theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth, rightfully distinguished between placing our trust in religion and placing trust in Jesus.
As important as Christianity is as an institution, community, historical trajectory, and set of ideas, we should not equate Christianity with Jesus
– The Bible frequently talks about salvation for those who do not know the name of Jesus. For instance, Paul writes:
“When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all” (Rm. 2:14-16).
The story of Cornelius being “an upright and God-fearing man” (Acts 10) despite having no knowledge of Jesus is important. This incident prompts Peter to say, “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (34). Peter goes on to proclaim that the God has sent a message of peace to Israel in Jesus Christ.
Of course, biblical writers also regard many people mentioned in the Old Testament — who did not know Jesus — as saved, righteous, and/or holy. Their salvation does not depend upon their conscious awareness of Jesus. Yet I believe (and will soon state) Jesus was the source of their salvation.
– My Christian tradition – the Wesleyan theological tradition in general and the Church of the Nazarene in particular – stresses what it calls “the doctrine of prevenient grace.” This biblically derived idea is that God acts first and provides the possibility of salvation to all people. If people respond appropriately to God’s empowering and inspiring provision, they experience salvation.
“The grace of God through Jesus Christ is freely bestowed on all people,” says my denomination’s statement on prevenient grace, “enabling all who will turn from sin to righteousness, believe on Jesus Christ for pardon and cleansing from sin, and follow good works pleasing and acceptable in His sight.”
Given these preliminary comments, I move to my two main points. These two points support my belief that Jesus is the way and that no one comes to the Father except through him.
A helpful and decidedly biblical approach to understanding’s Jesus’ words comes from the Christian creedal confession that Jesus is the “God-man” – both divine and human. Looking at both aspects of this confession brings light to my belief that Jesus is the way.
1. As divine, Jesus is the source of salvation. I strongly affirm the oft-repeated idea in the Bible that God alone is the author of salvation. No one can find salvation outside God. When Jesus says, “I am the way,” we might best interpret this declaration as identifying the divinity of Jesus as the God-human.
2. As human, Jesus’ love is the means and purpose of salvation. We cannot find salvation outside love – God’s love for us and our response to God by fulfilling the greatest commands to love God and others as ourselves. Jesus’ life, words, actions, death, and resurrection proclaim the supremacy of love as the key to salvation. The Apostle Paul says it well: “the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6).
One of the better books explaining a Wesleyan approach to understanding Jesus as the way is Al Truesdale’s (with Keri Mitchell), With Cords of Love: A Wesleyan Response to Religious Pluralism (Beacon Hill). Because I like the book so much, I asked Al to write short piece on religious pluralism for the book I co-edited, Wesleyan and Postmodern? The summary of Al’s Weslayan and Postmodern essay is worth repeating in full:
“A Wesleyan answer regarding Christianity and other religions contains four elements. First, we affirm the New Testament’s witness to Jesus Christ as God incarnate.”
“Second, we affirm that the promised Spirit of God unfailingly and creatively acts in the world. The Spirit seeks to draw all people to eternal life in Christ and prepares the way for the gospel’s proclamation. We must seek to discern and cultivate the Spirit’s work.”
“Third, we affirm that religions can become vehicles the Holy Spirit uses to draw people to Christ. But religions are at best incomplete anticipations of the fullness of God manifest in Christ.”
“Finally, we Wesleyans abhor mean-spirited opposition to other religions. Instead, we seek to understand and dialogue with those from other religions. We dialogue because we want to serve, not obstruct, the Redeemer’s prevenient work.”
I think Al’s words dovetail nicely with my earlier comments and affirmation of Jesus as the way. Of course, we both could and should say more about these important issues than what I’ve offered in this blog.
In sum, I find the classic Christian view that Jesus is divine and human helpful when I talk about the centrality of Jesus as the way. Christians would be wise to remain Christocentric: they should keep Jesus the center of how they understand salvation.
To the question, “Is Jesus the way?” I answer, “Yes!”