By Mike Ivaska
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” – Matthew 7:13-14
“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” – Acts 4:12
“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” – John 14:6
This last week’s sermon covered a difficult subject: Why does God not save everyone? When it came to our Tuesday night Supper and Study group, I did my best to facilitate the discussion and let people be as open and honest as they could be. Sometimes it can be a scary job facilitating these kinds of topics. It would be easy to just throw down the “right answer” and move on, ignoring the questions, confusion, and feelings of people who’ve perhaps never really wrestled with questions like this. It would also be easy, but incredibly unfaithful to the gospel, to not point people towards real answers. I won’t venture to judge how well I did. But our discussion at Study last night has inspired me to lay out what I think are some important points to remember…
1. Humanity’s universal predicament
The point of Romans 1:18-32, which both the sermon and the Supper and Study groups this week have touched on, is that God’s wrath is his response to human evil. And the root of this evil is the refusal to honor God and thank him for our lives (see verse 21 in particular).
The Bible never treats the existence of God as a doubtful issue that needs to be proven. And in this passage in Romans, the apostle Paul tells us that “what can be known about God is plain [to people], because God has shown it to them” by means of the creation. Humanity’s folly is to see the good things God has made, and instead of turning to God and thanking him, they live for and worship (and even fear) the things themselves. And because we become like what we worship, humanity’s universal bent towards idolatry leads to a universal distortion in our humanity. From what we do with our minds to what we do with our bodies, everything becomes corrupted when we stop worshiping God.
2. God’s perfect solution
The Bible is also clear that God has provided a solution to this universal problem. When humanity walked away from God and became more and more corrupt, God declared that this would not be the last word in the story. In the person of Jesus, God came after us. He taught us about our heavenly Father. He showed us the true intent of God’s commandments. He also revealed to us just how godless we had become. And then he dealt with the mess we have made once and for all at the cross.
The relationship between God and humanity had been destroyed from our side, and none of us were willing or able to fix it. The covenant had been broken. But by becoming man in the person of his Son Jesus, God upheld both sides of the covenant. Where we disobeyed, Jesus obeyed. Where we worshiped our wallets, our stomachs, or our egos, Jesus worshiped the Father. But Jesus did not just obey in our place. He identified himself with us as sinners. He allowed himself to be baptized, though he had no sins from which he needed cleansing. As the apostle Paul says elsewhere, Jesus became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). He obeyed in our place, and he also suffered the wrath of God in our place. He suffered as man. But he also suffered as God. In Jesus Christ, God himself became the solution to mankind’s alienation from God. If God himself has provided the solution, no other solution is needed. If God himself provided such a costly solution as the death of his Son, clearly there was no other solution that would work. Jesus himself is the answer to the problem of human evil. Jesus is our salvation.
3. Who then will be saved?
The Greek word for “grace” is charis. The Greek word for “gift” is charisma. In the New Testament, salvation is by God’s grace – which means that it is a gift. No one earns salvation. From the beginning, God’s desire and plan was to be in a covenant relationship with mankind. It was us who walked away. And that could have been the last word. God could have let us just have what was coming to us. Instead, he came after us. In Jesus, he re-established the covenant that we had broken and took upon himself the pain and loss which our rebellion deserves. Now he offers reconciliation freely to all. But it is a gift we have to receive, and it is a gift we receive through Jesus.
John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world he gave his only son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” So the life we receive through Jesus is a life we receive through faith. When we believe in God’s solution to humanity’s problem, we become partakers of that solution. We get in on what God is doing. Our sins get washed away. We find ourselves reconciled to the God who made us. But this is where the conversation gets tough…
What about people who have never heard of God’s solution?
Well, we have already seen from Romans 1:18-32 that people who have never heard of God’s solution are still not exempt from humanity’s problem. They still have the issues of idol worship and sinful behavior that not only keep them from God, but serve as evidence that they too have turned away from God. And the Bible’s number one answer to their predicament is that people who do know Jesus need to go and tell them about him! This is the entire missionary enterprise – whether it means going oversees or going next door.
But what about those whom missionaries haven’t reached yet?
In the book of Acts, a gentile named Cornelius receives a vision about the apostle Peter. An angel comes to Cornelius and tells him that there is a man who can tell him about salvation (see Acts 10). In this instance, the angel merely sets things up for Cornelius to go find Peter. It is Peter who ultimately tells Cornelius and his friends about Jesus. But today, numerous stories arise from time to time about Muslims who are meeting Jesus in dreams and visions. In the past, stories have been told of Hindus and Sikhs seeing Jesus in visions or being directed by angels to find Christian missionaries. In American history, I have heard of more than one Native American tribe (I remember one specific instance in Canada) who have come to faith in Christ through the visions of their medicine men. When these tribes have met Christian missionaries, both missionaries and tribesmen have realized that Jesus Christ is the Savior the Indians already knew.
These stories make the point that salvation is still always by the grace of God and through faith in Jesus. They don’t eliminate the Bible’s number one answer to the problem of people who don’t know Jesus. God’s plan is still to use his people to tell others about him. But it reminds us that God is not limited.
If John 3:16 is true, we first of all need to realize that salvation is not just limited to conservative, evangelical, Pentecostal fundamentalism. I say this a little tongue in cheek, but it is still worth remembering. If “whosoever believes” is a real promise, then the breadth of the church throughout the world and throughout history is much broader than many of us suppose. I am a Bible-believing, evangelical, Pentecostal Christian (perhaps not a “fundamentalist,” depending on what you mean by that) for a reason. I think evangelical Christianity has a better grasp of the New Testament message than most other Christian streams. But because I am a Bible believing evangelical, I have to affirm and emphasize the whosoever of “whosoever believes.” Be they Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, Protestant, or of some indigenous church, wherever Jesus Christ is preached and believed in, salvation is there.
Jesus told us that “few” would find the way that leads to life, but the apostle John saw a vision of “a multitude that no one could number” worshiping the triune God (see Revelation 7:9-12). In Jesus’ day, few indeed accepted the Messiah who had come to them. In our own day, too, it seems that few have any real interest in Jesus. Mankind has rebelled and the wrath of God is real. But God is a God of love, and his desire is that none should perish. How narrow is the way of salvation? It is as narrow as Jesus and as broad as the grace of God.