14“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
8Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”
What is salvation? What does it mean to be saved? What are we saved from, what are we saved to and what are we saved for?
Salvation can bring forth deep-seated emotions because people correctly see it as a subject where it is pretty important to be right. I will try to be faithful to the scriptural witness and my own convictions without being dogmatic. Let us remember that our knowledge about God is limited, so we must approach questions about salvation and eternity with deep humility. Not only is God’s grace greater than we imagine, it is greater than we can imagine.
It would be helpful if we could all start from a common understanding of terms. First is the word “salvation” itself. Countless Christians define it simply as “going to heaven” after they die and are often those Christians surprised to learn that many other Christians offer sound arguments that the Bible does not teach that, nor does the Bible teach that salvation is only something attained in the afterlife only. So with such different understandings among the already converted about something so basic, we should be careful not to sow confusion in the minds of people we are trying to lead to Christ.
For today let us stipulate that salvation means two minimal things:
1. Salvation is to live this life transformed by personal conviction that, as Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them” and that as proof of his promises, God raised Christ from the dead. This confession frees us from the shackles of sin and death and enables us to live lives worthwhile for now and eternity.
2. Salvation begins, therefore, in this life and is fully accomplished by God in eternity with him. Salvation thus means that the death of our bodies is not the destruction of our persons, for God will restore us from death to eternal life.
The New Testament declaration is that salvation is not automatic for human beings. We are born in need of rescue from what the apostle Paul called, “this body of death.” Jesus said in John 3:16-18 that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son and that whoever believes in him shall enjoy eternal life, but that those who do not believe are condemned in the first place. That is to say, we do not start off on neutral ground. We start off hell bound and are delivered from that fate by the grace and power of God.
This is a hard teaching and frankly there are a large number of church people who in their hearts do not really accept it. So we should not be dismayed that people in general resist it. But hell seemed pretty real to Jesus, so we had best take it seriously. This life matters and what we choose and do here echo in eternity.
That being so, the question the rich young man asked Jesus is of paramount importance: “What must I do to be saved?” The fellow scoffed at Jesus’ first response, scorned the second response, and didn’t even hang around for the third, which was, “With mortals it is impossible but with God all things are possible.”
“What must we do to be saved?” The answer is repetitive in the New Testament. The briefest summary was given by Paul in Romans 10:9: “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
Here is one issue that strikes to the core of people’s level of acceptance, or lack of it, with the Good News of Jesus Christ. It is that one single fact – whether we confess with our mouths that “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead – seems a mighty slender thread for our eternal destiny to hang on, and that for a supremely loving, supremely good, and supremely powerful God to make it so seems overtly unjust or even petty.
One thing about us Americans: We have a pretty high opinion of ourselves. In our hearts we think we're acceptable to God just as we are. John the Baptist asked people whether they desired "to flee the wrath to come," but today to speak of the "wrath of God" is to mark oneself as a hopelessly hard-hearted, embittered believer in someone other than a loving God who loves and accepts us just the way we are. Evangelist Tony Campolo told of an airline flight he made sitting next to a twenties-something woman who told him she had never confessed Christ, didn't go to church, but was sure she was heaven bound anyway because she tried to be a nice person. And she probably was a nice person, so how can God possibly refuse her entry into the eternal kingdom?
Furthermore, there are still billions of people in the world today who do not confess Christ, and they can't all be rotters upon whom any of us would pronounce damnation. Is God less charitable than we are? Is there no divine mercy for them, at least for those who have never heard the Gospel?
This is a real obstacle to evangelism, and I think we need to be able to address it. So even if someone accepts that he or she needs salvation how do we address the question: Is salvation through Jesus only?
Here is how I have thought through the question.
The woman on the airliner really was a nice person – by her own standards. I am a much better person than she because I am a fantastic person, a fabulous person – well, by my standards. But why should she or I (or anyone) think that our individual standards carry any weight to enter eternity? Eternity belongs to God alone and so only God can admit us into eternity. Eternity is God’s house. Who gets in and who doesn’t is his call, not ours. He alone is God; we are not. God sets the rules he chooses, not the ones we want.
God alone can save. “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other,” God said through Isaiah (45:22). So if God alone can save, then God alone chooses by what means.
If God wanted people to earn their way into eternal life, then surely it would be possible, yes? Yet the Christian understanding is that salvation is simply impossible to earn because the standard is simply impossible to achieve. “Be perfect,” said Jesus, “just as God is perfect.” That’s the standard and we can’t meet it. Period. So where does that put us? It puts us totally reliant on God’s unmerited favor, which is to say, God’s grace: “With mortals it is impossible but with God all things are possible.”
Christians understand God to exist as the Trinity, three persons in distinct, though perfect, unity with one another: God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit. “I and my Father are one,” Jesus said in John 10:30. Christians have understood since the beginning of the church that yes, God and God alone saves, but that he does so in the person and work of the Son. And so the apostle Peter says in Acts 4:12, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mortals by which we must be saved.” And of course, we have Jesus’ words of today’s passage, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
“Is there salvation apart from Christ?” No. God’s eternal saving work is done through God’s incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth and his exaltation as the risen Christ. Catholics and Protestants alike have always understood that God could have chosen to save humanity by pardoning our sins in any way he wanted to, but through Christ is the way we know God does do it.
We know that God is sovereign and can, if God chooses, save anyone he wishes for any reason he wishes in any way he wishes. And maybe God does that every day. Yet we have no revelation from God that he does so. We do have certain revelation that God does save through Christ. So why do we keep looking for God’s Plan B? We already know God’s Plan A. Plan A died on the cross.
Here’s the problem with thinking that surely there is a Plan B that doesn’t involve faith in Christ and all it entails. Blaise Pascal was one of the most important mathematicians of the modern era and a devout Christian. In the 17th century he wrote, “Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true.” So how to convince them that Christian faith is not only reasonable but the smart way to bet? Being a mathematician, he looked at the question as one of calculating the odds.
Life, says Pascal, is a coin toss in which all bets are called in at death. One bet is atheism and the other is Christian faith. At death the coin falls over - heads is God and tails is atheism. Reason alone, says Pascal, cannot decide which is true. So which way to bet is smarter? That is what Pascal is getting at, the smart move.
Agnosticism, he wrote, is actually impossible. An agnostic simply thinks he declines to bet. But you can't decline to bet because you can't decline to die. When the coin falls over agnosticism is indistinguishable from atheism. So everyone is wagering whether they like it or not, whether they even realize it or not. We may either accept the promise of Christ or reject it. Therefore, says Pascal, “If you win, you win everything: if you lose, you lose nothing. Do not hesitate then: wager that [God] does exist.”
I live my life (imperfectly) according to my deep conviction that "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." What if I am wrong? What if all of Christian faith is nothing but wind, that at my death the coin will fall to tails? If so, I won't even know it because there is no heaven, no hell, no nothing after life.
In what way will I have been deprived? How might I have lived my life better? How might I have better found meaning, purpose, mission and worth? Put simply, in what way would I be worse off believing than I would have been not believing? And how can any of that compare with the incomparable payoff if the coin had fallen heads, even if I could not know for sure in advance?
That’s good enough for me. “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” It may be Jesus only, but only Jesus is more than enough.