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The cure for a lost soul

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: John 14:1-9

Two weeks ago a dear friend told me this deeply spiritual story. It seems a lady phoned a Baptist pastor to say that she’d been visiting and wanted to join. “That’s wonderful,” he replied. “Yes, but first I’d like to ask you something. My dog just died, and I’d like to bury him at the church.” The pastor was shocked: “Ma’am, we don’t do such things in the Baptist church. Maybe the Methodist church down the street would do that for you.” “I’m so sorry,” she replied. “I was thinking of giving half a million dollars to the church.” The pastor immediately answered, “Oh, you didn’t tell me it was a Baptist dog.”

Being Baptist or Methodist has never mattered less than it does today. A new study reports that for the first time in American history, Protestants will soon comprise less than 50 percent of the total population. The proportion of Roman Catholics in the general population will remain stable at 25 percent. But the group growing the most quickly is those who declare no religious affiliation at all.

The watchword in our culture today is “tolerance.” After 9-11, for three years we heard from every side that adherents to Islam and Christianity worship the same God, that we must learn to respect and affirm each other’s faiths. To claim that Jesus is the only way to God is to persist in the kind of intolerance which led to 9-11.

Most Americans believe that. Many Christians believe that. Perhaps some of you believe that this morning. But should we? And what difference does the answer make?

The claim to Christian uniqueness

Let’s begin with a quick review of four facts Jesus claims in our text today. I’m not assuming we all agree with these facts, but at least I want us to understand what Jesus actually claimed for himself.

First: he is God (v. 1). “Believe in God; believe also in me” he says. In v. 9: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Earlier the authorities tried to stone him to death “because you…claim to be God” (John 10:33). Other religious leaders claim to reveal God; Jesus claims to be God.

Second: he is preparing heaven for us (v. 2). “Prepare” means to go before and make ready for the arrival of others. Other religious leaders told their followers how to get to heaven; Jesus is preparing heaven for us.

Three: he will take us there himself (v. 3). “Take you to be with me” means “to walk alongside of.” Other religious leaders pointed the way to heaven; Jesus will take us there personally.

Four: he is the only way to God (v. 6). His Greek was emphatic: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Later he was even more emphatic: “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). No one in all of human history ever made this claim. Other religious leaders said, “I know the way, truth, life;” Jesus claimed to be the way, truth, and life.

Are we clear on these claims to uniqueness?

I am God; I am preparing your place in heaven; I will take you there; I alone can take you there.

Acts 4:12 says, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” The Bible clearly claims that Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father, the only way to heaven.

The case for religious relativism

Now, this claim to absolute truth flies in the face of contemporary culture. These statements are politically incorrect, to say the least.

93 percent of Americans say that they alone determine what is moral and what isn’t in their lives.

Only 13 percent of us believe in all ten of the Ten Commandments.

Only 2 percent of Americans are afraid of going to hell.

62 percent of us say it doesn’t matter what we believe about God, so long as we’re sincere.

Here’s the result: I can claim that Jesus is my way to God, and find little or no resistance in the public square. But the moment I tell this culture that Jesus is their only way to God, I am immediately branded a radical, hypocritical, judgmental, narrow-minded, intolerant fundamentalist. People think that for three reasons. Those who believe John 14:6 is true have three opponents in the debate.

The first is called “relativism:” truth is subjective and personal. No “objective” absolutes exist. Everyone “knows” that’s so.

We don’t know reality, only our perception and experience of it. Words do not describe reality, but only our version of it. There can be no objective truth claims, only subjective experiences.

And so it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you’re sincere, and tolerant of the beliefs of others. I heard recently about an Ivy League school whose promotional video shows a student saying, “The greatest gift this university has given me is the ability to be an intellectually-fulfilled atheist.”

Richard Dawkins of Oxford even claims that “religion is a virus which has entered the human software and somehow must be expunged.”

Most people we know wouldn’t go that far. But neither do we necessarily believe in our hearts that every person who has not accepted Christ as Savior and Lord is destined for an eternity in hell, because all truth is relative.

Our second opponent is “universalism,” the idea that we’ll all end up in heaven. A loving Father could not condemn one of his children to hell. Could you send one of your children there? The idea is abhorrent. We’ll all be in heaven, no matter what we believe, because God loves us all.

Our third opponent is “pluralism,” the notion that all religions lead to the same destination anyway. 64 percent of us say that all religions pray to the same God. And 56 percent say that you can work your way to heaven by being good, no matter what religion you claim.

Here’s the result: since truth is relative, God wants us all in heaven, and all religions lead there, John 14:6 is wrong, and we are right.

My kind and decent neighbor who loves his kids and works hard, who believes in God and lives a moral life but happens not to have experienced salvation as we have—he’ll be fine. A loving God would not send such a good person to hell.

And we who claim to follow Jesus personally have no right to tell others they need to follow him. How would you feel if a Mormon or Buddhist told you that you were going to hell unless you accepted their religion?

So continue to follow Jesus if you like, if that’s what works for you. But don’t tell me that I have to believe what you believe. Live and let live. Tolerance is the way to a world filled with peace and harmony. So says pluralism.

The case for Christian uniqueness

What do we say to a culture which is so sure it is right, and the Bible is so wrong? Let’s address our opponents in reverse order. First, here’s the case against pluralism: the world’s religions are not different roads up the same mountain, but very different mountains.

Hinduism believes we are ultimately absorbed into reality, and cease to be. Buddhism seeks a “nirvana” or ‘blowing out” whereby we cease to be. Islam believes that we will be in heaven to the degree that we are obedient to the Koran and follow the teachings of Mohammed. Judaism worships Jehovah God, but refuses to believe that he has a Son or that heaven comes by him.

If any of these are right, Christianity is wrong. These are not different roads to heaven and God, but very different heavens and gods. They are not the same.

Here’s the case against universalism. This theology argues that God wouldn’t make just one way to heaven, because that would be unloving and unjust. Christianity answers that one way is enough if it works for everyone and is available to us all. And the gospel does, and is.

Fortune magazine recently profiled Don Wetzel, a Dallas man who pioneered the now-ubiquitous ATM machine. Mr. Wetzel has never used one himself. But there’s now one of his inventions for every 284 American households. But here’s the catch: you have to have the right plastic card with the right magnetic strip. Your friend’s ATM card won’t work for your account. Only one card will work, no matter how sincere or moral you are. If one card is right, none of the rest can be. So long as one card will work, that’s all you need.

And here’s the case against relativism: to deny absolute truth is to affirm it. If I say, “There is no such thing as absolute truth,” I’ve made an absolute truth claim.

We don’t accept relativism with the Holocaust, do we? With our doctor when we’re sick, our food when we eat, the airplane when we board, or our keys when we get ready to leave today? Just with our religion and our ethics, when relativism is convenient.

Jesus’ claim to be the only way to God may be true, or it may be false. But it cannot be subjective, merely personal. Either Northwest Highway will take me to this church campus, or it will not. If it works for me, and you live on my street, it works for you as well.

And if Jesus is the way to God, then he’s the way for your friends and neighbors and family members as well. Do not allow their eternal destiny to rest on the naïve belief that all truth and religions are the same, since God loves us all. Believe that the Bible is right and our culture is wrong, that Jesus is the only way to heaven. You owe it to those you care about to tell them what you know. So do I.

Suppose that you and I have the same kind of cancer. I have found a single chemotherapy which has cured my malignancy and saved my life. It is indefensible for me not to give it to you. You can decide whether to receive it or not, whether to believe that it is your only hope or not. But if I care about you, I must give you what has worked for me. I don’t have an option.

Conclusion

My appeal today is first to those who have not made Jesus their way to the Father’s paradise. Don’t wait another day. If 9-11 taught us anything, it is that we are not promised tomorrow. Come to him by faith today.

But my appeal is also to those who have made Christ their Lord but have lost their passion for helping others know him. Those who have accepted a practical universalism, the religion of tolerance, the pluralistic universalism which decides to live and let live, just to all get along. If that position is right, God’s word is wrong. It’s that simple. Do you want to stake eternal souls on popular opinion, or the word of God?

Helmut Thielicke was a pastor in the city of Stuttgart during World War II. Bombing raids reduced his city to ashes. As the pastor stood before the concrete pit of a cellar which had been shattered by a bomb, a woman came up and introduced herself. Then she said, “My husband died down there. His place was right under the hole. The clean-up squad was unable to find a trace of him; all that was left was his cap. We were there the last time you preached in the cathedral church. And here before this pit I want to thank you for preparing him for eternity.”

Who will thank you?