Inclusively Exclusive by Rev. L. John Gable
October 29, 2017
If you have been with us during the past couple of weeks you will recall that we are working our way through the five points of Calvinism in celebration of this the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, October 31st to be exact, 1517. These five principles form the acronym: TULIP. Two weeks ago we discussed the concept of “total depravity”, which underscores the depth and dimension of our sin and our absolute need for a Savior. Last week we were reminded of God’s “unconditional election” of us as His children, not because of who we are or anything we have done but because of who God is and what He has done for us in Jesus Christ, which brings us today to the doctrine of “limited atonement”, which I am calling “inclusively exclusive.”
It is important as we consider each of these principles that we resist seeing them in isolation. Rather, each principle becomes a building block for the ones that follow, or as one of you said to me recently, “establish the first one and the others fall like dominoes.” We have seen that we can’t fully understand our need for a Savior or grasp the miracle of the gift of salvation until we first understand the pervasiveness of our sin and our powerlessness to release ourselves from it (that is our “total depravity”). It is only then that we can hear the Good News that Christ has done for us the very thing that we cannot do for ourselves, namely, save us. And this is not our own doing, it is the free gift of God we call “grace” or “unconditional election”.
In our lesson today from John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” This is Jesus’ most memorable and definitive self-disclosure and the basis of the Church’s declaration through the ages of who He is and what He has done. We profess that Jesus Christ is the WAY to God, so we are called to follow Him; that He is the TRUTH of God, so we must believe and obey Him; and that He is the means by which we may receive and enter in to the new LIFE which God desires for each and every one of us. The testimony of Scripture, the teaching of the historic confessions of our faith, and the tradition of the Church in every age affirm that Jesus Christ is not A way to God, but THE WAY to God as God’s unique revelation of Himself to us. Friends, this affirmation of who He is is not up for debate. This is core Christianity. If we reconstruct this truth, then we are forced to reconstruct our faith and everything else we believe about God.
Yet as central as this teaching is, still it raises eyebrows and debates whenever we make exclusive claims about the Lordship of Jesus Christ. I admit to you, in this whole series this is the hardest message for me to preach, not because I don’t believe it, but because it is the most difficult to explain without misunderstanding; although I will confess trying to explain pre-destination is a close second.
In this age of tolerance and inclusion we get uncomfortable when we hear words like “exclusive” and “only way” because we associate them with other words like “judgmental” and “elitist”. We are alright talking about the doctrine of Christ’s atonement, but we swallow hard when we have to add the modifier “limited” to it. Why can’t it be “unlimited” atonement? Let me clarify that one before we move on. Calvin’s doctrine of limited atonement does not mean that Christ has died only for the select few of God’s choosing. Lay this teaching alongside the doctrine of unconditional election we talked about last week: God has shown His love for the whole world without condition, no one is disqualified and Christ’s work is sufficient for everyone. So the doctrine of limited atonement does not mean Christ’s sacrifice is insufficient, which would put the problem on God’s side, rather it is effective only for those who choose to trust and believe it, which makes the responsibility ours, not God’s. Remember the introduction to John’s Gospel, “To those who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave the power to become children of God” (1:12). Plainly, to those who believe Jesus is the power of God for salvation; but no such assurance is given to those who do not believe, who do not believe they need a Savior, who do not believe Him to be the incarnate Son of God.
Now as soon as we take this claim seriously, that Jesus is the exclusive, the “one and only”, the “there is no other” way to be restored in to a right relationship with God, we are in for some surprises, because Jesus Himself is very inclusive. Look through the Gospels at the kind of people Jesus associates with: tax collectors, Roman soldiers, prostitutes and notorious sinners. He uses a Samaritan of all people, a religious/cultural/racial outcast, as the hero in His parable about how we should care for one another. Without question Jesus was inclusive of all people, but paradoxically, He tells His followers to be very exclusive in proclaiming Him alone as the way to God. In effect what Jesus says is, “Welcome everyone and let them know I am the only One!” Jesus Christ is inclusively exclusive.
In his commentary on John, Dale Bruner, offers an analogy which is helpful for me and I hope will be for you. He says, “The cross has two dimensions: the vertical and the horizontal. Christ everywhere commands us to hold to Him alone, vertically. He is the only way to God. (On this) we are to be absolutely exclusive, there is no other. Now imagine Christ standing on my shoulders; I am to hold Him up straight, then Christ Himself holds out His long arms like the horizontal beam of the cross to welcome others in. He is very, very inclusive, embracing the whole world” and, in His name, we must be as well.
This concept of inclusion and exclusion must be kept in balance with what we have already affirmed. If we begin thinking that God is being too restrictive remember the principle we discussed last week about God’s unconditional love for all people. Or if we begin feeling a bit elitist, or judgmental of others, we are reminded again of the doctrine of total depravity which reminds us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We haven’t earned our salvation, we have simply received it. This is not about us and our goodness; it is all about God and His grace.
The great challenge for me, and I imagine for each of us, regarding these exclusive claims of Christ has to do with people of other faith traditions, many of whom are deeply devoted and sincere. What are we to say to them? We think, what gives us the right to claim some corner on God’s truth? So, what often happens is, in our desire to be inclusive and accommodating so as not to appear judgmental, we blur the distinctiveness of Christ. Mahatma Ghandi once said, “I think of Christ as belonging not to Christianity alone, but to the whole world, to all its people, no matter under what name they may worship.” That attempt to incorporate Christ in to every world religion is a culturally satisfying solution, but it denies our faith’s central teaching about Him being the unique self-revelation of God and totally disregards His demand for our unambiguous response and unconditional allegiance. Let me be clear here: the way of salvation, the way into a right relationship with God, is not Christianity, it is Jesus Christ. The uniqueness of Christianity is not the values we hold about peace, love, or justice. These we share with all the major world’s religions. The uniqueness of Christianity is Jesus Christ, which means either He is who He says He is, the one and only way to the Father, or He has misstated His own mission and ministry and is yet another among any number of ways to find God, but we can’t have it both ways.
Admittedly, this is a great challenge to us when we enter in to dialogue with people of other faiths, or people who hold no faith convictions at all. We don’t want to sound judgmental, but neither can we deny this central tenet of our faith. Christianity is, and always has been, an evangelical faith, and the Church is called to be a missionary society. The Great Commission Christ has given the Church is to evangelize, to share the Good News with the whole world, and we can safely assume that means with people of other faith traditions as well. Our motive for doing so is not because we believe we are better than they, but because we believe Jesus Christ is better than any other way since there is no other way. It is not about us, it is all about Him, and in this we are recipients of a peculiar treasure. So out of profound gratitude and a deep sense of responsibility, we are called to go out and “make disciples of all nations”, telling the Good News of Jesus Christ. The task of evangelism is proclamation, sharing, telling; not judgment, coercion or manipulation. We don’t need to beat people up with Good News, but we do need to point them to the Way.
The famed preacher D.T. Niles spent his life in ministry as a missionary in India. In his book, The Preacher’s Task, which by the way was written in response to his correspondence with a Buddhist, a Hindu and a Muslim, he writes, “Evangelism is the struggle for the salvation of this world. It is the continuation of the ministry of the incarnate God who came that the world might be redeemed. Apart from this understanding of evangelism the Christian claim concerning the uniqueness of Christ is pointless. The evangelistic concern is not with the question as to how Christ will deal hereafter with those who in this life have not found faith in Him: its concern is simply with the fact that He now calls men (and women) to repent and to perform deeds worthy of repentance. The call to repentance is the call to belong to Him, to share His life and to share His task.”
Just as God’s motive in coming to us is compassion, not condemnation, so our motive in going to others in His name is love, not judgment. Every person we meet is either one in whom Christ lives or for whom Christ died. Our task in evangelism is not to prove ourselves right, but to lead them in the WAY to the One who is the TRUTH, the One who alone can offer them new LIFE.
One of my greatest concerns about the kind of dialogue we enter into with people of other religions, if we dare enter in to those kinds of conversations at all, is that people of faith are too tentative…on both sides. Neither wanting to say anything to offend the other, we reduce our faith convictions to the lowest common denominator, agreeing that we both believe in God and the need to be nice to one another. That is not real, honest dialogue. Honest dialogue means each party holding firmly to the central convictions of their faith and presenting them clearly and convincingly. Where there are points of agreement, affirm them, and where there is divergence, each one struggling to understand the other’s position while articulating their own. You and I are not in a position to judge the validity of another’s faith tradition or experience, and thank God we are not; however we are called to share the truth that has been given to us and then leave the rest up to God. I am encouraged in this way by the words of Willem Visser’t Hooft when he says, “I do not know whether a Hindu is saved. I only know that salvation comes through Jesus Christ.” As intellectually satisfying and culturally sensitive as it may be to say, “All ways lead to God, as all roads lead to Rome. Find God anyway you can, just be sincere about it”, I cannot, and I dare say, we cannot. Rather we must stand on the plain teaching of Scripture and proclaim that Jesus Christ is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” and the only assured way of salvation. So, in our conversations with others rather than talking about that which we do not know, or can only hope to be true, we must talk instead about that which we do know to be true. The Christian faith knows of no god other than the God who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ and no salvation other than that which He offers. So, on this Reformation Sunday, we appropriately say with Martin Luther, “Here we stand, we can do no other.”
The Protestant Reformers, of whom John Calvin was a leader, had a saying, “God is not bound by the means of grace, but we are.” What that means for us is, God may choose to save whomever He wishes, and if that means in the end He allows everyone into the Kingdom of Heaven regardless of their profession or non-profession of faith, who are we to complain, for we too have been saved by His grace alone. Now I may sincerely hope that to happen, and indeed I do; but I cannot preach that it will, nor can I encourage you to believe that it will, because we are bound by God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ who says that He alone is the Way. That is the truth we have been given, so it is the truth we must hold to and profess. The inclusive Christ we worship is God’s exclusive way of salvation. Let us hold fast to Him and Him alone, for there is no other. Amen.