The Cross of Jesus and the Religions
Let us for a moment return to Lesslie Newbigin. He sees the cross of Jesus as the exposure of our rejection of God and of our sin and as God’s way of meeting this rejection. The power of God is hidden on the cross sub contrarie specie, Luther says (i.e., under its contradiction).
What looked like defeat turned out to be victory. This historic deed, which we confess as the true turning point of history, “stands throughout history as witness against all the claims of religion—including the Christian religion—to be the means of salvation….religion is not the means of salvation.”1 At the same time the cross becomes the master clue in our search for salvation.2
In obedient discipleship with Christ, I find the truth, in faithfulness to the traditions about him, and in openness toward all truth that may come to light in the history of humankind. And it is along the same way that we are forced to wonder whether we who follow Christ can be saved apart from all who have not yet had the opportunity to respond to the gospel. The Church, and we as Christians, should therefore live in dialogue with the world, giving witness to Christ, but also open to whatever riches God may give us through others.
Newbigin’s overall focus is on what he calls the scandal of particularity in the way God relates to the world. It is this scandal of particularity that we meet supremely in the Christ revelation as the master clue.
At the same time we cling to God’s “amazing grace” and the confidence that this grace is sufficient for me and all other creatures. Therefore, we look for and welcome all signs of this grace in the lives of those who do not know Jesus as Lord. We may not set limits to God’s grace, but at the same time we must reject an inclusivism that regards other religions as instruments for salvation in a Christian sense. Perhaps, says Newbigin, we could use a simple sketch, developed by Walter Freytag, to indicate the basis for dialogue between Christians and those of other faiths. On both sides are staircases facing inward. In the middle is a cross.
The staircase represents the many ways by which we learn to walk up toward God’s purpose. Here we find all the ethical and religious achievements of humankind, including the Christian religion. But in the middle of them and at the bottom is placed a symbol that represents something different—the historic place and the historic deed in which God exposed himself. “God comes to meet us at the bottom of our stairways, not at the top—“I came to call not the righteous, but sinners.”3 As I meet my neighbour, I meet him or her at the bottom of the staircase.
At the same time I affirm what scripture says about salvation and perdition. In a number of places the New Testament refers to both (e.g., John 3:16 and Ephesians 2:1-3). Scripture makes it quite clear that it is faith in Jesus that saves. Perdition is therefore a result of the disobedience that says “No!” to the word of the gospel about salvation.
I dare believe that all of us in one way or another shall have an opportunity to chose between faith and unbelief. Along these lines I read John 3:16 to say that those who deliberately say “No!” to faith in Christ are lost. The verses in Ephesians 2 emphasize that all of us as humans by nature are under the wrath of God, in the same way as Paul argues in Romans 1-2. This, however, does not eo ipso imply that those who have not heard the gospel are lost.
No Need for Mission?
Since the late nineteenth century, the following conviction has played a large role in missionary motivation: those who die without the saving gospel of Christ face an eternity apart from God.
I have struggled with this view—and reached the conclusion that it cannot be true. At least seventy-five percent of those who have lived and died throughout history have never heard the gospel. In spite of our best efforts today and in the future, there will be millions more who, through no fault of their own, will live and die without being presented with the good news.
John 3:16 talks about those who believe in him (that they will be saved)—and about those who are confronted by him and do not believe. It hardly talks, however, about those who are not rejecting him or failing to believe in him because they have never heard about him.4
But does not Romans 10 argue for the necessity of preaching the gospel for people to be saved? To be honest, I have preached several sermons along those lines. Today, I realise that the point Paul is making relates to the Jewish people and not necessarily to everybody else: God has sent messengers, the messengers have preached, and their message has been heard. Nevertheless, Israel has not believed, even though they have heard, Paul says (Romans 10:18). The point I (and many others) am making when using this text is not addressed in the text at all. The focus is on people who have heard the gospel, but have not believed.
But what then is the motivation for mission? Is not the primary motivation for mission the glory of God? I am not questioning the essential role of sending missionaries, but is it not so that God goes out ahead of his Church—and that he calls us to follow him?
In that sense, mission is missio Dei, God’s work, carried out through us and others, upon his authority. The Pentecostal Amos Yong claims that the New Testament never makes “a direct link between missionary motivation and the fear of eternal damnation.”5
There is a clear mandate from the Lord to disciple the nations, without any warning that, apart from their preaching, people would be lost. Let me hasten to emphasize that I firmly believe that there is a clear and strong mandate in scripture to evangelize and disciple, but the motivation for so doing is the gospel itself as Paul says: “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Cor 9:23).
According to Newbigin,
When Jesus sent out his disciples on his mission, he showed them his hands and his side. They will share in his mission as they share in his passion, as they follow him in challenging and unmasking the powers of evil. There is no other way to be with him. At the heart of mission is simply the desire to be with him and to give him the service of our lives. At the heart of mission is thanksgiving and praise…Mission is an acted out doxology.6
But what then about the urgency of mission? John Stott’s primary concern includes a burning zeal for the glory of Jesus Christ. He reminds us that all people deserve to have the good news preached to them because it is good news also for the life we live now. Scripture does not tell me how many will be saved, but it does give me a firm hope in a God who is rich in mercy and whose heartbeat is to yearn for all of us to return to the Father’s house.
1. Newbigin, Lesslie. 1978. The Open Secret. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William Eerdmans Publishing Co., 200.
2. Newbigin, Lesslie. 1989. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William Eerdmans Publishing Co, 158.
3. Newbigin, 1978, 204ff.
4. Thiessen, Terrance L. 2004. Who Can Be Saved? Reassessing Salvation in Christ and World Religions. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 264.
5. Yong, Amos. 2003. Beyond the Impasse: Towards a Pneumatological Theology of Religions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 51-52.
6. Newbigin, 1989, 127.