Big Idea: How can Christianity claim to be exclusively true? Because our relationship with God is not based on sincerity, morality, or religion, but on Jesus himself.
It came up at the book club in Liberty Village the other week: “What makes you think that Christianity is better than any other religion?” It’s a great question. There are billions of people on this earth, and many — most — aren’t Christian. Many haven’t even heard of Christianity. And yet Christians claim that Christianity is true, and by extension, that other belief systems aren’t true. How can Christians claim such a thing?
If you’re looking for one of the offensive parts of Christianity, you’ve found it. It seems arrogant to say that Christians are right and everyone else is wrong. It also sounds intolerant. It may even sound dangerous. If you look through history, wars — including religious wars — have been fought by those who think they’re right and that others are wrong.
At the beginning of his book The Reason for God, Tim Keller lists some of the objections that people have to the exclusivity of Christianity:
“How could there be just one true faith?” asked Blair, a twenty-four-year-old woman living in Manhattan. “It’s arrogant to say your religion is superior and try to convert everyone else to it. Surely all the religions are equally good and valid for meeting the needs of their particular followers.”
“Religious exclusivity is not just narrow— it’s dangerous,” added Geoff, a twentysomething British man also living in New York City. “Religion has led to untold strife, division, and conflict. It may be the greatest enemy of peace in the world. If Christians continue to insist that they have ‘the truth’— and if other religions do this as well— the world will never know peace.”
Exclusivity is offensive. So we need to answer the question I was asked honestly: “What makes you think that Christianity is better than any other religion?” Or, to put it differently, How can Christianity claim to be exclusively true?
To answer this question, I want to look at a fascinating encounter that Jesus had with a religious man. We just read about it from John 3. As we look at this question, I want to look at three things we notice in this passage: how we normally think we’re in, why this view is wrong, and what Jesus offers instead. Let’s begin by looking first at how we normally think we’re in with God.
How We Normally Think We're In with God
The question of which religion is best really comes down to a set of assumptions. In my observation, here are the most common things I hear when we talk about faith and what religion is best:
- All religions are basically the same.
- Each religion sees part of the truth, but no religion can see the whole truth.
- In the end, you can’t know what’s right and what’s wrong. You can only take your best guess.
- What really counts is your sincerity and your morals.
In other words, what really counts is trying your best. As long as you try your best, and you’re not an idiot about it — you don’t lead an immoral life, and you aren’t an arrogant idiot towards people of other faiths — you’re golden. The most important thing is to try your best, and to live tolerantly with others who are also trying their best as well.
If you want to push someone a little, you can ask, “Really? You think that all religions are the same? You think that Branch Davidians or religions that require child sacrifice are equally right?” And then most people would say no, that they mean that all major world religions — Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism — are basically the same, or at least all valid. The problem is that it’s hard to make this argument when you look at the facts. An introductory comparative religions class, or even a five-minute Google search, will cure you of that belief. They’re not only different, but they contradict each other. Hindus acknowledge multitudes of gods and goddesses. Buddhists say there is no deity. Christians believe Jesus is a human being and is also God, while Muslims say the notion of any human man being worshiped as God is blasphemous. Even Buddhism, which many think is much more open, flexible, and tolerant than Christianity, has its hard edges of exclusionary doctrines and beliefs. When the Dalai Lama was asked whether only the Buddha can provide "the ultimate source of refuge," he replied:
Here, you see, it is necessary to examine what is meant by liberation or salvation. Liberation in which "a mind that understands the sphere of reality annihilates all defilements in the sphere of reality" is a state that only Buddhists can accomplish. This kind of moksha or nirvana is only explained in the Buddhist scriptures, and is achieved only through Buddhist practice.
The view that all religions are basically the same is meant to be inclusive, but ends up being condescending to people of all faiths. It’s just as condescending as telling a dedicated NDP member that deep down, his beliefs are just the same as Stephen Harper’s beliefs. That’s not inclusive, that’s just rude and it completely ignores the facts. Any reasonable person would have to conclude that there are actually significant differences between the major world religions when you look at them honestly.
So the normal way of thinking that all religions are the same just doesn’t work. Once we acknowledge that there are real differences, we’re left with either thinking that the differences matter, or that they don’t. The view that the differences don’t matter is one that I’m guessing most people hold. It’s the view that all religions, despite their differences, are equally valid paths to God. This is the view that existed when most of the Bible was written. Certainly it’s the view that was around when Jesus was alive. The Romans in Jesus’ day had all kinds of time for religious beliefs. The only religious belief they couldn’t stand is the belief that one view is right and that the others are wrong. When the early Christians refused to worship other gods and take part in sacrifices, that caused major problems.
Before we look at the problem with this view, I want to pause to point out that the view that all views are valid is itself a religious view. It’s actually a truth claim that’s as exclusive and dogmatic as any truth claim Christianity makes. In other words, if you argue that all paths to God are valid, then you are claiming that your view of faith is valid, and that all opposing views are false. It doesn’t solve the problem of competing belief systems; it simply adds another one. It’s saying that your Enlightenment Western individualistic faith assumptions about human nature and religion are privileged over other views, and even that you have a right to impose these views on others. Tim Keller makes a really good point when he says:
Everybody has a take on spiritual reality which is based on a set of religious assumptions, based on faith. Everybody thinks their take on spiritual reality is better, and other people should adopt it, and the world would be a better place. Therefore, everybody has a set of exclusive beliefs. Everybody has a set of exclusive beliefs!…Don’t say, “Oh, Christians, you have exclusive beliefs, but I don’t.” You don’t know yourself. You may not think you do, but you do. Everybody has exclusive beliefs. Therefore, the real question is which set of exclusive beliefs produces the most peace-loving, reconciling, inclusive behavior. That’s what you want to know.
So there we have it. There’s no escaping the fact that everyone claims to have the truth. Christians do, and so do Western Enlightenment individuals who claim that all paths are equally valid, that all paths lead to God. The real question is which claim is right. So what I want to do is to look at the story at John 3, which is going to tell us a couple of things. It’s going to tell us the problem with the view that all paths lead to God. It’s also going to show us a better way, one that is going to be challenging for everyone here, regardless of whether you are a Christian or not.
What Jesus Thinks of Our Way to God
John 3 is a fascinating look at our attempts to find a path to God. In John 3, we meet a good test case for the theory that all paths lead to God. The guy we meet is remarkable. He’s Nicodemus, and he’s introduced as a ruler of the Jews and a teacher of Israel. He was a Pharisee, someone who was meticulous about obeying God. Sometimes the Pharisees are regarded as the bad guys now, but everyone back then would have seen the Pharisees as one of the good guys So this man is religious. He’s also a distinguished teacher. It’s possible that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of 70 men who had authority over every Jew on earth, and the greatest teacher in Jerusalem at the time. This is a very devout and religious man who is sincere about his faith and known for being a good guy. He’s the perfect case study for the idea that all paths lead to God. If Nicodemus can’t make it in, we’re all in trouble.
In the chapter we have before us, Nicodemus comes to Jesus one night and initiates a conversation. This is, in essence, a collision of a good person who is very sincere and righteous, and Jesus. What happens when a good, moral, upright, religious person meets Jesus? Will Jesus affirm him and encourage him, or will Jesus challenge and confront him?
When Nicodemus approaches Jesus, he addresses Jesus as Rabbi. He’s off to a good start, because he’s showing respect to Jesus. His first words to Jesus are complimentary. For someone who is a leading religious figure in Jerusalem, he’s being very respectful, even deferential, to Jesus. But Jesus cuts him off and gets right to the heart of the matter. Jesus says something that as been misunderstood throughout the years, but something that is crucial if we are going to answer this question. Look at what Jesus says to him:
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)
This is the part that’s caused a lot of problems and misunderstanding. If you ask people what “born again” means, you get the idea that it’s a certain type of Christian. Some claim to be “born again Christians” and if you’re like me, the people you think about who fit that label are the people you invite to a party if you want to shut it down. But that’s not at all what Jesus means by the term.
So what does he mean? What he means is this. Nicodemus has a lot going for him: knowledge, gifts, understanding, position and integrity. He’s the equivalent of a Buddhist bodhisattva, a Catholic Cardinal, or a Protestant Billy Graham. If all roads lead to God, Nicodemus is at the very front of the road. But Jesus says that all of this — his knowledge, his gifts, his standing, his obedience — counts for exactly nothing. You have to admit that Jesus is not discriminatory here. This applies not just to people who identify as Buddhists, Muslims, or Hindus. He applies it to people who identify as Christians as well. We all have the same basic standing: zero.
Jesus says that we need to be born again. What does this mean? To be “born again” means that we receive from God nothing less than a completely new life: a completely transformed, completely forgiven life. Here’s the amazing thing: even a man like Nicodemus needs this. In order for Nicodemus to be accepted by God, God must completely remake him from scratch. Nothing less than than a completely new beginning can put right all that’s wrong with us. Basically, we’re a write-off. Nothing is salvageable. John Calvin put it this way: “By the term born again He means not the amendment of a part but the renewal of the whole nature. Hence it follows that there is nothing in us that is not defective.” There’s nothing in us that hasn’t been corrupted by sin.
When we got married, my mother gave us a clock. It was a beautiful clock with a pendulum. A few years after we got it, the batteries leaked and the clock stopped working. The mechanics of the clock were all corroded by that acid. We took it in to get fixed, and there was nothing they could salvage. The whole insides of that clock had to be replaced. That’s exactly what Jesus is saying. From the outside, we look okay. But inside, corrosion has taken place. We don’t need a minor tweak. We need every part of us that’s been corroded to be changed. We don’t need an upgrade; we need a completely new heart.
This is a little bit depressing, but it’s also encouraging as well. What this means is that we’re all on equal ground. “The most pulled together, accomplished person and the person whose life is the biggest failure come to God as equals” (Tim Keller). Being sincere, moral, and religious doesn’t help. Our relationship with God is not based on sincerity, morality, or religion. It can’t be. We need to be completely remade from the inside out. Christians can’t claim a higher moral standing.
So let’s summarize. All religions aren’t the same. They are contradictory. And, according to Jesus, our relationship with God is not based on sincerity, morality, or religion. You could take the leading followers of any religion, including Christianity, and all of them have the same standing before God: zero — until we’re remade from scratch. This leads us to the last thing I want to look at:
What Jesus Offers
What do we do about this situation? There are pretty much two answers to this question in this passage. I wish we had time to look at it completely. But the answer to these questions is at the core of the good news that I want to give you today. Here are the two things:
First: We can’t do anything about it ourselves. This is the hardest thing to accept, and it’s also what sets Christianity apart from every other religion. It’s inherent in the phrase “born again,” and it’s repeated when Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). We need a new beginning, a new birth that cleanses and renews to our very core. We can’t do this. God has to do it for us. Tim Keller says:
Therefore, everybody, the best and the worst, come equally and need the grace of God. If they’re going to be saved, if they’re going to have a relationship with God, if they’re going to be born again, it has to be God’s grace, God’s intervention, God’s power. You can contribute nothing. That’s what that term means.
Babies do not contribute anything. They don’t bring themselves about. They don’t get born because they’ve planned on it. It all has to do with what the parents have done. It has nothing to do with what they do. Therefore, you are saved by grace. That’s the first key, because understanding salvation by grace and experiencing God’s grace always go together.
I want you to understand this today. Christianity is not about you making yourself a better person. It’s not about getting your act together. The only thing you bring to God is your need, but that’s exactly what God wants from you.
Second: The way that we’re changed is by looking to Jesus. Jesus says something strange in verses 14 and 15: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). Jesus referred to an unusual story from Hebrew history (Numbers 21:4-9). God’s people grumbled, and God sent poisonous snakes as a punishment. But God also provided a way out: a bronze serpent (representing God’s punishment for his people’s sin) that Moses put on a pole. No matter how badly they were bitten, no matter how many times they’d been bitten, no matter how sick they were, they just had to look in faith and live.
Jesus says in this passage that he is that new provision for our sin; that he would be lifted up, and that whoever looks in faith at his provision for their sin would live. How do we get new hearts? How are we completely made new? By looking in faith to Jesus, who was lifted on the cross. “The radical change, the new birth, is possible only when he takes our infected natures upon himself, bears the venom, and imparts a new nature to us” (Kent Hughes).
We began by asking the question: How can Christianity claim to be exclusively true? And the answer is this: Because our relationship with God is not based on sincerity, morality, or religion, but on Jesus himself. You don’t need enlightenment. You don’t need improvement. You need a Savior. Jesus is that Savior, and he invites you to look to him and live.
Father, thank you for Jesus. We thank you today that he diagnosed our condition perfectly. I thank you that he has also provided a way for us to be made new. The new nature comes on the basis of the work of Christ for us.
The Scriptures say:
Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.
So we turn to you today, we look at Jesus, because you are God and there is no other. Help us to do this today. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.