Is Christianity Too Narrow?
Acts 4:5–12 – Explore God
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany – February 3, 2019 (am)
Today’s question is asked by many from a number of different angles, or it’s implied in a confident assertion by yet many more that: Christianity is surely too narrow.
The questions or assertions can pretty much be grouped under two headings: Global and Practical. Global questions are ones like: What about all those who’ve never heard of Jesus, never even had a chance to hear about Him, are they all condemned to hell even so? These questions focus in on places and people whom we don’t believe have any opportunity to hear a gospel witness. Are those people really condemned to eternal punishment even though they were never even able to hear the name of Christ?
Practical questions are ones like: Who’s to say that Christianity is the only way to God? And what gives Christians the right to force their religious views on others, then condemn to hell anyone who doesn’t agree? We understand these questions. They’re not always asked in the most polite tones of voice, but I think we understand that as well. People in our day aren’t used to hearing that they may not be free to make up their own minds regarding religious experience. So, the suggestion that the category of Religious Thought and Belief is populated by ideas that can actually be labeled as true or false is news to them, and potentially quite offensive news.
I’ve heard this line of thought on TV talk shows and radio interviews, in academic classrooms and spontaneous conversations in public places. You have, too. And it can be very challenging to offer answers in such places that are clear and concise and even marginally convincing. So, we want to attempt that today, because this is another one of those questions that many believe stops Christianity right in its tracks. But I don’t believe that’s the case. Let’s just address these two questions.
Who Is to Say that Christianity Is the Only Way to God?
That’s the gentle way of asking it. Let’s start with the corollary question we just mentioned, the one with a bit sharper edge to it: What gives Christians the right to force their religious views on others, then condemn to hell anyone who doesn’t agree? Quick answer: Nothing gives Christians that right, either to force their views on another or to condemn to hell for disagreeing with them. If there’s someone here today who’s had that experience with a Christian, please accept my apology on behalf of us all. That is not the way we’re called to share our faith. The good news that reconciliation with God is available to us is a message of love (Joh.3:16).
And, to be clear, we definitely are called by Jesus to share that message, to make disciples. In fact, we’re charged to share it; that’s our great commission (Mat.28:19-20; Act.1:8). But if anyone disagrees or rejects our message, our call is to warn them of coming judgment, then to move on to the next person or town in pursuit of any who will listen, any who are interested (Luk.10:10-11). But there’s no call, nor any grounds, to be angry, vengeful, judgmental, ungracious, or unkind. The message we’re sharing is one of love and forgiveness, of deliverance from sin and reconciliation to God. The message is one of peace. How absurd would it be to try to force it on someone? And that is especially so with the warning of coming judgment for those who reject the gospel; that is not delivered with hatred or disgust, but with grief and sorrow and urgent mercy.
Likewise, those who hear any form of Christian disagreement with their morality or lifestyle choices as hatred or fear, please understand, it is not our calling to force our morality on you. Our calling is simply to remind and warn you that there is a moral code that comes with being human. It comes from our Creator. And He will hold us to that code regardless of whether we agree with Him, or with His standard. I know some Christians sound angry as they deliver this reminder/warning. And, unfortunately, some truly are. On behalf of all Christians then, again, I apologize for those; that is not part of the message we’re charged to deliver. But it’s also not the sort of message we’re able to deliver with bland or careless disregard. If you’re racing along a highway at 70 mph unaware that the bridge ahead has collapsed, any form of warning would be appreciated, I’m sure, even if our shouting and gesturing makes us look or sound angry. But that doesn’t excuse any of the anger people have actually endured in dialogue with an over-zealous Christian.
So, we have no right to force our beliefs on anyone, or to condemn them to hell for not agreeing with us. But we do have a calling to share the message of reconciliation to God in Christ and to deliver the warning of what happens if that message is rejected. And we should do it in expression of deepest love for those we’re talking to and, back to our main question, it is God Himself Who has revealed that Christianity is the only way to be reconciled to Him.
We read that in our passage this morning Act.4:5-12. This was spoken right on the heels of Peter and John, two of Jesus’ disciples, having healed a man lame from birth who lay daily at the gate of the temple (Act.3:2). They healed him in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth (Act.3:6), and it understandably drew a crowd. After Peter explained what they had just done, and preached to the crowd the good news of reconciliation with God through this same Jesus, it landed [him] and John in trouble with the Jewish leaders, as we read earlier, and they were arrested (Act.4:3). Now, Act.4:5 On the next day their rulers… gathered together in Jerusalem, 6 with [several others from] the high-priestly family. 7 And when they had set [Peter and John] in the midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” 8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, 9 if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, 10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. Then, quoting Psa.118:22, Peter drove home this very point: the One these leaders rejected is actually God’s favored One. They’re at odds with God! 11 This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. Then, here’s his point: 12 And there is salvation in no one else—being at odds with the God’s favored One means you’re left with no Rescuer, no Reconciler—for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” No one but Jesus can reconcile us to God!
Peter and John already knew this because they had been sitting at the table in that upper room earlier on the night Jesus was arrested. There (Joh.14:6), Jesus [Himself] said: 6 … I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. This is the way the God of the Bible has established that He’s the one and only God, the God of all creation to Whom we need to be reconciled. He alone has made provision for full reconciliation to Himself for all who recognize their need, and their complete inability to appease a holy, loving, powerful, just God on any level in any way.
Jesus is the only way to God because, just as He taught His disciples, He alone has addressed the problem that separates us from God. He did it by paying the penalty of our sin on the cross. As we saw last Sunday (1Pe.2:24): 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds [we] have been healed. No one else has done that!
But where does that leave those who’ve never heard it?
What About Those Who Have Never Heard of Jesus?
This question troubles many in every generation. We know Christians have been sent out into all the world with the message of Jesus (Mat.28:19; Act.1:8). But we also know that this message has not yet been delivered to every language group, every ethnicity, on this planet. It has spread pretty far and wide to be sure over the twenty centuries since Jesus accomplished His saving work. But surely many have also passed away during those two millennia without ever having heard the message of His salvation. What about them? This is an important question. And it’s a troubling question. It surely feels like the justice and mercy of God are suspect if He truly holds people accountable for rejecting something they’ve never even encountered. But I want to offer three truths about God and His salvation that we learn in Scripture that I believe can set our hearts at rest on this matter.
1. The target of salvation is unlimited in scope. We hear that about God’s salvation from the beginning of the story to the end. When He first called Abraham to be the father of the nation through which the Savior would be born, He announced that the scope of His salvation would be universal: In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Gen.12:3). This doesn’t mean that every person in the world will receive it, but salvation is a blessing that is available to all. And at the end of the story He made it even more specific. As we look toward the future through the descriptions of the book of Revelation, we hear it said of Jesus: by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev.5:9). No group will be left out; that is God’s own priority!
2. The timing of salvation is unhurried in duration. We saw this last week. God has granted ample time for the spread of His salvation message. One day for Him is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day (2Pe.3:8). And with that in view (2Pe.3:9): 9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. This is the disposition of God toward the world He so loved, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (Joh.3:16). He’s in no hurry to close this chapter, and our repentance is the reason why.
3. The telling of salvation is unsurpassed in priority. It has cost God dearly to provide it. Spreading it far and wide is His great commission to all who receive it. So, there’s nothing higher on God’s agenda during our day than to get out this good news. But we still have a tendency to think that if we can’t identify how He’s going to do it, then it’s not possible for Him to do it. We can actually forget that this is the God Who spoke the universe into existence! By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their hosts (Psa.33:6). This is the God Who became [a man] and dwelt among us (Joh.1:14) to redeem us and reconcile us to Himself. A God Who can do all this can surely get the word out to anyone He wants, at any time He wants! On the night Jesus was born He sent every angel in heaven to a pasture near Bethlehem to announce the good news to a group of shepherds on the night shift (Luk.2:13-14). He doesn’t need help to spread the message of salvation to all He’s appointed to receive it! He uses us for that purpose. He assigns us that privilege. But He doesn’t need us. He can get it done with or without our help!
When I was a child I read one of the brief biographies of Samuel Morris, a native of Liberia who came to the US in 1891 at age eighteen and enrolled at Taylor University. His legacy is still remembered there even though he never graduated. He died of a respiratory infection in 1893, at age 20. Samuel was a prince in the Kru tribe and was taken captive in a tribal battle. He was mistreated by his enemies but one night, as he was losing hope, he suddenly found that his was free of his restraints and he followed a light through the jungle at night that eventually led him to a home where he met up with a missionary who led him to saving faith. Not every story happens this way. But God is more than able do such things. The spread of His gospel toward the magnification of His glory is His highest priority. We don’t need to worry that our heart for the lost world is greater than His, or that His ability to save the world is limited by our imaginations.
The work of Christ that reconciles us to God is available to all who will believe, and some will believe from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev.5:9). Christianity is not too narrow. It’s the miraculous, one-of-a-kind way of salvation that God has provided in Christ. And there’s just no other way available!