Exclusively Jesus, Inclusively All

Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life,” the only way to the Father, the only gate for his sheep (John 14:6; 10:7-10). But Jesus also has “other sheep who are not of this sheepfold” (John 10:16).

There is “no other name” but Jesus “by which we can be saved” (Acts 4:12). But the altars of other religions, the poets of many cultures, the very rhythms of the earth, can point us to the Creator “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:23-28).

If we “confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead we will be saved” (Rom 10:9-10). But Jesus’ “act of righteous obedience leads to justification and life for all” (Rom 5:18).

Jesus is supreme over all things, for “all things in heaven and on earth have been created through him and for him” (Col 1:15-18). But “all things, whether on earth or in heaven,” have also been “reconciled through Jesus” (Col 1:19-20).

The Bible is filled with tensions like these, even right within the same biblical book or passage—like the examples above. On the one hand are radically exclusive claims about Jesus and God’s salvation through him. On the other hand are radically inclusive claims about the world and its salvation through Jesus.

Christians have often turned to one extreme or the other, either radical exclusivism or radical inclusivism. The extreme exclusivists see nothing good in other religions—only explicit Jesus-confessors can know God’s presence or experience God’s salvation. The extreme inclusivists see nothing all that unique about Jesus or Christianity—there are many paths to experiencing God and the life God desires for us.

But if we are going to be faithful to Scripture we need somehow to hold both of these truths together: both the radically exclusive claims Scripture makes about Jesus and God’s salvation through him, and the radically inclusive claims Scripture makes about the world and its salvation through Jesus.

This is, in fact, one of the most pressing theological questions for us as Christians today. We live in a religiously plural world. We are increasingly aware of other religions and their truth claims, and most of us rub shoulders regularly with people who adhere to other religions. The upsurge in aggressive or even violent religious extremism—whether Muslim or Christian or even Buddhist—gives added urgency to all this. We need to figure out how to live together within a diverse global village, which means in part facing head-on the question of how the truth claims of Christianity relate to those of other religions.

So how do I understand these things? How do I hold together both the exclusive and the inclusive claims of Scripture regarding Jesus and salvation? Here’s some of my current thinking.

I believe Jesus is unique. I believe Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God, uniquely embodying God in the world. I believe that Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection offer us the clearest and fullest picture of God and God’s will for humanity that there is. I believe that through Jesus God deals decisively with human sin; through Jesus God makes right all that has gone wrong in the world because of the many ways we harm one another and the rest of creation. I believe that the way of Jesus is the only way to true life—justice, peace, and joy—for us as individuals, for us collectively as a human race, even for all creation.

This is why I am a Christian, and not a Jew or a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Hindu or atheist or anything else. This is also why I seek to proclaim the message of Jesus and live out the way of Jesus in such a way that others are encouraged to follow Jesus also, and to follow Jesus ever more faithfully. (Whether I always succeed at this is another matter…)

However, I am not convinced that the way of Jesus is entirely unique to Jesus. Many of the particular elements of Jesus’ message and example, such as “love your neighbour” or the Golden Rule or equitable justice or nonviolent peacemaking or nonviolent atonement, are reflected in many ways throughout various religious and non-religious traditions. These are simply the best instincts of humanity, seen most directly in Jesus but not exclusively in Jesus.

This should not be troublesome to Christians, it seems to me. If all humans are created in the image of God, and Jesus is the image of God—if Jesus is not just “true God” but also “true human,” the fullness of what it means to be “human”—if God’s kingdom Spirit does indeed “blow wherever it pleases,” and God’s presence is everywhere throughout the earth—if all these things and more like them are true, then one should expect elements of the way of Jesus to be found in various religions, cultures, and societies throughout history and around the world.

All this means that I can and will gladly point people to Jesus and say, “Come, let’s follow Jesus together, because he is the true Way that leads to life.” I believe following Jesus together in a community of Jesus-followers is the best way to learn and experience this “true Way that leads to life.”

But this angle on things also allows me to say a glad “Yes!” when I see elements of the way of Jesus or other truths that ennoble humanity reflected beyond the Christian tradition, in anyone’s life. I don’t even feel the need to “Christianize” those things, or to convert those people to the religion known as “Christianity.”

As for the question most Christians want answered—“Who will be saved in the end?” or, as I might phrase it, “Who will experience flourishing life in God’s fully restored creation?”—well, thankfully, that’s up to God. Jesus answered that question with an enigmatic challenge in return, essentially saying, “Different people than you might expect, with plenty of surprises for all. Just make sure you yourself are striving to follow my narrow way” (Luke 13:22-30).

I’m of the hopeful variety, trusting in God’s rich mercy and abundant love and persistent patience. After all, “God desires all people to be saved” (1 Tim 2:3-4), and we are assured that “in the fullness of time God will indeed gather up all things in Christ Jesus, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:9-10).

Exclusively Jesus, inclusively all.

Scripture and Jesus on Love

Love is All We Need | Scripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

In my first post I got on my soapbox and boldly declared: “Love is all we need, folks! All we need is love!”

reg_div_typeIn our complex, chaotic, confusing world, we Christians don’t need greater certainty about our particular brand of doctrine. We don’t need to find the latest and greatest or oldest and truest form of worship. We don’t need more political engagement, more activism for the Christian cause.

Theology, liturgy, politics, and more are not inherently wrong, of course, and can even be very good, even vitally important—but none of these is the one thing we need over and above anything else.

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

Let’s start with a quick survey of some biblical texts. It’s not just that “love” is mentioned a lot in the Bible—that’s true, but it’s more than that. It’s the way love is talked about in the Bible that’s so significant.

Take the Great (or Greatest) Commandment. Here’s Matthew’s version of the story:

A lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt 22:35-40; cf. Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28; Deut 6:4-5; Lev 19:18)

Jesus’ response is right in line with similar teachings from other great Rabbis (e.g. Hillel), and the first part is straight out of the Shema, the daily recitation of devout Jews. But Jesus does something distinctive if not novel: he binds a second command to the “greatest and first,” he connects loving people with loving God. These two loves go hand in hand—you can’t have one without the other.

The final statement is crucial. All the Law and the Prophets, the Jewish Scriptures, the entire Old Testament—every command, every promise, every story, every poem—hangs on the hook of these two commandments. This two-dimensional love—vertical love for God, horizontal love for others—is the point of everything in Scripture, it is Scripture’s end goal. If we read anything in Scripture in a way that does not lead us to greater love for God and love for others, we have not read Scripture correctly.

The earliest Christians got this. Take Paul in Romans 13:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Rom 13:8-10; cf. Gal 5:14)

What’s the one thing we owe each other? The one, single thing? Love.

And what sums up every commandment God has ever given? I mean, every single one—including commands like “Be holy” or “Speak the truth”? Love.

And what is it that expresses the underlying intention and overarching goal of the Law of Moses, that brings the whole Torah to fruition? Love.

Sounds a whole lot like Jesus to me.

Interesting, too, to note why these things are true: because “love does no wrong to a neighbor.” Love does not cause harm to others. Put the other way, love brings good to others. Love is life-giving. That’s why love is the fulfillment of the Torah, whose purpose was to bring God’s people life (Deut 30:11-20).

Then take 1 John. This is hard to quote and summarize because these themes of love are woven throughout the letter, but some key texts are 1 John 3:11-20 and 4:7-21. A few highlights:

We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

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. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Strong words, all of them. Yet they are right in line with Jesus’ Great Commandment teaching: love is at the essence of life, at the heart of God’s will for us, and our love for God is inseparable from our love for others. No wonder another text of John’s depicts Jesus saying that love is the hallmark of true disciples of Jesus (John 13:35).

There’s more. Much more.

There’s Jesus teaching on love throughout the Gospels, in all the Gospels. Loving neighbours the same way a Samaritan does (Luke 10:25-37). Loving enemies the same way the Creator does (Matt 5:43-48; cf. Luke 6:27-31). Loving prodigal sinners and self-righteous brothers the same way a Father does (Luke 15:11-32). Loving fellow disciples the same way Jesus does (John 13:34-35).

There’s Paul speaking of love in his letters. That love is the “most excellent way,” a far greater way than seeking knowledge of right doctrine, or pursuing mountaintop spiritual experiences, or striving for an ascetic, avoid-it-all, moral purity (1 Cor 12:31-13:13; cf. 8:1-3). That the “only thing that counts,” the thing that really matters most, is “faith working—or being expressed—through love” (Gal 5:6). That love is the virtue that is “over all” other virtues, that “binds together” all other virtues (Col 3:14), including the virtues of moral holiness and truthful speech (3:5-14).

There’s John’s three-layered love theology that circles through his writings over and over again: the Father loves the Son, the Father loves us through the Son, and so we are to love one another in the way of the Son (e.g. John 15:9-12). There’s James’ Jesus-like description of “fulfilling the royal law found in Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Jas 2:8). There’s Peter’s Paul-like summary: “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8).

It’s everywhere. This bottom-line, heart-of-the-matter, sums-it-all-up kind of perspective on love is everywhere in the New Testament, weaving together threads of love that run through the Old Testament.

Love really is all we need.

But what is this love? What does it look like? That’s the next post.

Love is All We Need | Scripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.