“Have it your way,” Burger King declared in the 1970s, with a slogan that reflected the growing individualism, consumerism, and pluralism of the West. Other companies followed suit by promising that we could have their products our way: tailored to our particular tastes, delivered on our specific terms. It’s hardly surprising, then, to find Westerners bringing the same agenda to religion. The idea that we have no choice about how to be saved is anathema to the spiritual consumer of our day. We want salvation our way.
It seems that religious pluralism has become the default setting in our culture. But no matter how great the pressure to conform or to compromise, Christians must stand firm and insist that there is only one way of salvation, namely, faith in Jesus Christ. The reason is simple: that’s exactly what Jesus Himself taught.
Jesus declared that He had been sent into the world with one primary purpose: that those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:14–17). Faith in Jesus is both sufficient and necessary for salvation; those who do not believe in Him will not gain eternal life (vv. 18, 36; see 8:24). Only those who “feed” on Jesus will live (6:53–58). As if the matter needed further clarification, Jesus left absolutely no doubt in these words to His disciples: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6; see Matt. 11:27).
It would be bizarre to accuse your doctor of unfairness for prescribing the only remedy that works.
Christ’s Apostles confirmed His message by consistently preaching that salvation comes through faith in Jesus alone (Acts 2:39; 4:12; 16:31; 20:20–21; Rom. 10:9–17; 1 John 2:22–25; 4:14–15; 5:12–13). The message of the New Testament could hardly be clearer: if you’re not saved through Jesus, you’re not saved. The modern-day pluralist may allow Christ to be one among many ways to salvation, but—to borrow a thought from C. S. Lewis—Christ Himself didn’t leave that option open to us. Either He is Lord over all, or He isn’t Lord at all.
Such exclusivist claims, however, cause great offense to modern people. Isn’t it arrogant for Christians to insist that Jesus is the only way to God? Doesn’t that imply that advocates of other religions are wrong? Yes, it does. But note well: religious pluralists are implying that advocates of Christianity are wrong. Indeed, they’re implying that Jesus was wrong (and arrogantly so). If it’s arrogant to imply that non-Christian religions are wrong, pluralists must be equally arrogant to imply that Christianity—along with every other exclusivist religion—is wrong. The charge of arrogance inevitably rebounds on the critic.
Another common objection is that it’s unfair to deny salvation to those who sincerely follow other religions. Why should only Christians be saved? The complaint exposes a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel. Salvation is by grace alone: God has no obligation to offer even a single way of salvation to anyone, never mind multiple ways. Anyone who hears the gospel hears it solely because of divine mercy.
The unfairness objection also reflects flawed assumptions about who gets to define salvation. Surely, it is up to our Creator—not us—to diagnose our problem and prescribe a remedy for it. The pluralist treats salvation as if it were like a hair treatment: you should be able to choose your color, your style, and so on, all according to your own preferences. Whatever works for you. But what if salvation is more like a medical treatment for a fatal disease? If there is only one medication that can actually cure the illness, it would be extremely foolish to advocate “medical pluralism”—a have-it-your-way approach to treatment—and it would be bizarre to accuse your doctor of unfairness for prescribing the only remedy that works.
The point should be obvious: the prescription must fit the diagnosis. If the basic human problem is as the Bible describes it—that we’re sinners standing under the righteous judgment of God, unable even to begin to make an adequate atonement for our own sins—then only Christianity presents a solution that adequately addresses the problem. No other religion offers a perfect mediator between God and man who removes the enmity between us and our Creator by bearing the penalty for our sin in our place (Rom. 5:6–11; 2 Cor. 5:18–21; 1 Tim. 2:5–6).
If the Bible is right about our predicament, then Jesus must be the only way of salvation, and our duty must be to proclaim Him as the only way. Love of God, love of Christ, love of neighbor, and love of truth leave us with no alternative.
Dr. James N. Anderson is Carl W. McMurray Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., and an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. He is the featured teacher of the Ligonier teaching series Exploring Islam and author of What’s Your Worldview?