‘The way is narrow’: Thinking about exclusivism

When sharing the gospel, Christians are guided by Jesus’ words, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). It doesn’t matter if you’re a good person; it doesn’t matter if you follow the Quran better than I’ve ever followed the Bible; it doesn’t matter if you are a devout Hindu or Buddhist or Jew: the only way to be saved is through belief in Jesus Christ. When Jesus said “the way is narrow that leads to life,” He was putting into words what most of us have felt at one time or another when witnessing.

For anyone who has really challenged an unbeliever with the truth that “there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12), it’s hard not to feel intolerant, especially in a culture where “religious exclusivist” is an epithet practically on level with “racist.” Worse, it’s hard not to feel that God Himself might be a little–dare we say it?–closed-minded. If He wants to save people, why be so restrictive? Why not throw open the gates all the way?

Perhaps the simplest and best answer to this objection is to echo Isaiah and Romans in asking, “can the clay say to the potter…?” If God is truly God, surely He has a right to lay out the rules for approaching Himself? One thinks of the story of Naaman, the Aramean general who traveled all the way to Israel seeking a cure for his leprosy, then almost went home unhealed because the prophet Elisha’s instructions to wash in the Jordan River seven times struck the foreign nobleman as insufficiently impressive. His complaint feels like an Iron Age version of the “Coexist” bumper sticker: “Are not Abanah and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” Well, no. Not because there’s anything magical about the Jordan River, but because that’s where Jehovah Himself told you to go bathe. If the Lord of heaven and earth had decreed that our death would be turned to life and we would be saved through wearing a pink tutu and hopping about on one foot, it’s still hard to see what right we would have to complain.

Let’s hold that idea of salvation by pink tutu for a moment longer, though, because it really gets to the heart of objections to the exclusivism of the gospel. When we think of God arbitrarily establishing the one, authorized way of salvation, it does seem unnecessarily and ungraciously restrictive. Why not simply declare that everyone who’s breathing is saved? Wouldn’t that work just as well and be much more welcoming? And it might. If God wasn’t real.

You see, saving human souls isn’t like picking sides for a game of ultimate frisbee. I can’t just join God’s team by tying the right colored bandanna around my arm. Instead, salvation is more like a doctor trying to treat a cancer. The problem is that there’s a problem. We’re dealing with simple, objective facts: there’s something wrong with mankind, and no ritual can fix it–not praying the right prayer, not sacrificing the right kind of animal, not loving everyone as best I can. Because God is real, and I am real, and sin is real too. In the natural order of things after Genesis 3, God’s nature and my nature are fundamentally and absolutely at odds.

When we survey the landscape of a before-Christ world, we don’t see lots of ways in which human beings could have been right with God if it weren’t for His arbitrary preference barring the path. There are no paths at all–just an absolute wall of holiness, impenetrable by sinners. Old Testament man is like Naaman, death on us and nowhere to wash it off. When Christ said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” He was not closing off a hundred possible paths because God happened to like one in particular. Instead, when the Savior breathed his last and the veil in the temple was torn from top to bottom, God had opened a way where none had before existed.

The way is narrow, but we need to remember that is because it is a real solution to a real problem: How to bring sinful human beings into the presence and even into the family of a holy God. And though Peter in Acts 4 warns that the way is narrow, in Acts 2 he reminds us it is wide enough. “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.”

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