What is the mission for which we are all commissioned? Our New Testament reading contains the truth behind one essential part of it, namely verse 12 of Acts 4, where we read,
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.
Based on that verse my headings for tonight are just two and very straightforward. After some words of introduction, they are, first, SALVATION IS FOUND IN NO ONE ELSE and PLURALISM; and secondly, FOR THERE IS NO OTHER NAME UNDER HEAVEN GIVEN TO MEN BY WHICH WE MUST BE SAVED and TWO REASONS.
Our commitment at JPC today in the 21st century is summarized as Godly Living, Church Growth and Changing Britain. But what should motivate us for that? Let me answer by asking another question: “what motivated those early disciples back then in the 1st century in their work and witness for Jesus Christ?” Of course, there were many factors. But it was not simply the Resurrection of Jesus that they preached, although it was absolutely central. As Paul said (1 Cor 15:14): “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”
Yes, the early disciples knew Christ was alive. They had witnessed his empty tomb and then met him in his risen glory. They knew it was not hallucinatory but for real. But by itself the Resurrection could have led to a Jewish Zealot movement. The Zealots were nationalistic freedom fighters whose main goal was to drive their hated Roman overloads into the sea.
Undoubtedly one essential factor that motivated these first Christians was the Pentecostal gift of the Holy Spirit and especially his “reminding” work. Jesus taught, in his teaching about the Holy Spirit at the Last Supper and recorded in John’s Gospel, that he “will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (Jn 14.26). And what they clearly remembered was that Jesus taught that they were to “go and make disciples of all nations [and not just the Jews]” (Mat 28.19). And he taught that they were to be “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1.8). Add that to the burning conviction expressed in Acts 4.12, and you will understand they could not hold back from going everywhere. Let me read verse 12 once again.
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name [than Jesus] under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.
Well, enough of introduction, let’s now look at what this apostolic conviction meant and means for today?
First, SALVATION IS FOUND IN NO ONE ELSE and PLURALISM
When Luke was writing the Acts of the Apostles the Roman Empire was the ultimate in “pluralization”. It had so many religions and beliefs. The traditional worship of subject peoples was respected (apart from British Druidism which involved human sacrifice). In addition, at the same time, there was the official imperial cult of Emperor worship for everyone. For most people to say “Caesar is Lord” in a ceremony was of little religious significance in such a plural world. It was like singing (as was sung yesterday) at the Last Night of the Proms, Land of Hope and Glory. But for the Jews and Christians to say “Caesar is Lord” was an utter blasphemy.
And with this plurality of religions there was syncretism. Syncretism is where you say religions are all similar. So you can mix them up and in doing that it is easier for new gods to be identified with old ones. At Lystra, we read in Acts 14.12, people tried to absorb the gospel into the framework of their old religion by identifying Paul with Hermes and Barnabas with Zeus. Be that as it may, the New Testament Christians lived in a very pluralistic environment. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’" (1 Cor 8.5).
Today we, too, are in a very pluralistic environment. The social scientists are now saying that modernity does not actually produce secularization and then atheistic secular-ism. Rather it “pluralizes” and then produces a multifaith “plural-ism”. Plural-ism is the situation where having many and diverse beliefs is not just recognized but celebrated. So atheistic secularism now is seen as just one more belief system. It is a fact that except for parts of Western Europe and a global band of secular intelligentsia, “religion” is back world-wide.
The Ayatolla Khomeini and the rise of extreme Islam in 1979 together with the demise of Marxist scientific materialism in 1989 helped this process. And ten years ago to the day, on the 11th September 2001, the destruction of the Twin Towers by Muslim fundamentalists, signaled a leap forward in the rise of religion in the world. Since 11th September 2001 this rise has been fed by the West’s concern to promote liberal Islam to counter extreme Islam. There is also a positive promotion of pluralism in the West to counter anti-Muslim reactions following 9/11. But there is a problem.
“Plural-ism” cannot tolerate the “exclusivism” of even a peaceful missionary religion that is open to all and seeks to win converts. Such a religion does this because it believes there is such a thing as truth. For not all beliefs that are contradictory can be true. And it believes there is right and wrong in behaviour. So not every action can be right.
And when the Christians preached about Jesus they were exclusive as they are today. They said “salvation is found in no one else”. You will understand the reaction. They were opposed by the Jews and they were opposed by the Romans. And they are opposed today by the promoters of multi-faith pluralism.
But why were those early Christians willing to carry on preaching and teaching about Jesus in spite of the opposition? Answer, because they had this burning passion to teach what they knew to be true. If 11 years ago on 11th September 2000 you had somehow known for sure that on the 11th September 2001 there were two pilots (at least) who were Muslim extremists and were seriously planning to fly two Jet Airliners into the twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, would you have been silent? I trust not. If you know a truth others must hear, you will not be silent.
But why did the early Christians think that no other religion or philosophy, at the end of the day, could “get you to God” somehow or other? Why were they so exclusive? That brings us on to our …
... second heading, FOR THERE IS NO OTHER NAME UNDER HEAVEN GIVEN TO MEN BY WHICH WE MUST BE SAVED and TWO REASONS
Notice that word must in “by which we must be saved”. There is an urgency about all this. But how is Christ so unique? Why cannot other people’s experiences of the divine be other ways to God? Let me give you two fundamental reasons.
First, the Christian faith is not about some experience of the divine such that you can compare it with other experiences of the divine from other religions. It is altogether different. It is fundamentally “Good News” or, to use that old English word, the “Gospel”. It is the good news that Jesus came, as the Gospel writers report, proclaiming that with him the very reign of God itself (the kingdom of God) was near or breaking into this world of space and time. He was making an announcement of an event that was decisive for all men and all women for the whole of their lives and for all time and eternity. This event was a cosmic happening and of universal significance. For God – God the almighty creator of this wonderful universe – was bringing all his purposes to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. So on reflection, a little later on, as Paul writes in Colossians 1.15-18 (a passage the staff were studying at their retreat last week):
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
So the gospel fundamentally is neither an experience of the divine nor, indeed, religious ideas that bring to completion the religious teachings of all the ages in an amalgam of wisdom. No! It is an announcement of a fact. And the fact is that almighty God, in the person of Jesus Christ, the creator and redeemer of the universe, came to seek and to save a lost world that having rejected God was in spiritual and moral chaos. Of course, it involves teaching and an experience of new life. But fundamentally it is about a fact of history.
The fact was, as we say in the creed, “under Pontius Pilate”. That is when what happened, happened. The missionary Bishop, Leslie Newbigin, who worked in India, is so clear on this. Historicity puts the Christian faith on to a different planet to that of Hinduism. That is why they cannot both be correct. Newbigin wrote:
“I have never forgotten the astonishment, with which a devout and learned teacher of the Ramakrishnan Mission regarded me when he discovered that I was prepared to rest my whole faith as a Christian upon the substantial historical truth of the record concerning Jesus in the New Testament. To him it seemed axiomatic that such vital matters of religious truth could not be allowed to depend upon the accidents of history. [He said] If the truths which Jesus exemplified and taught are true, then they are true always and everywhere, whether a person called Jesus ever lived or not.”
That is so wrong because Jesus Christ came not only to teach what is true, but to live, die, rise again, ascend and reign. This was all for human salvation, if only people will accept him and trust him .And no-one else has ever done, or ever will do, that. For what is necessary has been done. So Jesus is not only unique but final. He has no equals or successors. And he relates not only to past history, but to future history. For one day he will come again to complete all God’s purposes for us. And that day will also usher in an awful day of judgment. The Bible calls it a “Day of Wrath” (God’s wrath) – in the Latin, the dies irae of the Requiems you hear at concerts like the Proms by Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi, Stravinsky and a host of others.
But for the early Christians it was far from being something just for high-brow entertainment. It was for real. And so it should be for us today. Early Christians were defined as people who …
… turned to God from idols [the many other gods] to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead--Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath (1 Thess 1.9-10).
So rescuing from a future “coming wrath” together with all those cosmic and universal events of past history is a reason why there is “no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved”.
But there is a second reason.
Before I explain, let me just say that claiming the exclusiveness of Jesus Christ is not to deny any good in other religions and philosophies. Of course not! Always remember there is what the theologians call General Revelation as well as Special Revelation, and Common Grace as well as Saving Grace. The Bible makes it clear that God has revealed himself in and through his created world. This is for all to see. So it is General Revelation. The Old Testament says (Psa 19:1): The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” But as Paul says just before endorsing this truth about General Revelation, because of sin the “godlessness and wickedness of men … suppress the truth [that is, of General Revelation] by their wickedness (Rom 1.18).
So God in his goodness has, by his Holy Spirit, provided us also with Special Revelation, through prophets and apostles and other writers. We have this now in the Bible which tells us clearly about Jesus Christ and his way of Salvation. And this is vital truth people need to hear over and above General Revelation. However, aspects of General Revelation can, indeed, be reflected in the teachings of other religions and philosophies.
Then there is Common Grace as distinct from Saving Grace. Common grace, like General revelation, is for all. Jesus tells us in Matthew 5.45 that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
But Eph 2:8 tells us that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”
That is of supreme importance, for it is not part of Common Grace. It tells of the Saving Grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ alone. That is what people desperately need to hear. So you must not be confused and make wrong assumptions.
Take Islam (but you could do the same with other main religions). Yes, Islam includes truths from God’s General Revelation. And yes, of course, Muslim people are loved by God and experience his Common Grace. But some people then assume they have God’s Special Revelation in the Koran and they experience God’s Saving Grace through the five Pillars of Islam – namely the declaration of faith, praying five times a day, giving money to charity, fasting and a pilgrimage to Mecca (at least once). But that is to confuse General Revelation with Special Revelation, and Common Grace with Saving Grace.
You must never do that, as people can experience God’s Common Grace but reject his Saving Grace. For the Christian, one of the tragic features of Islam is that it rejects the Cross. But this is at the heart of that Saving Grace and God’s saving purposes that all must understand. The Koran says that the Jews “uttered a monstrous falsehood” when “they declared ‘we have put to death the Messiah Jesus the son of Mary, the apostle of Allah,’” for “they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but they thought they did.” But that implies there is no need for the sin-bearing death of a Saviour. Muslim theologians have interpreted this statement in different ways. But a common belief is that God somehow rescued Jesus. That is so sad.
There was a Muslim student who was brought up on the Koran, said his prayers and led a good life. Christian friends then introduced him to their church and he started to read the Bible. He there learnt that Christ had died to forgive his sins so he could be right with God. And he accepted that forgiveness, asking God for mercy on him through Christ. He then wrote this:
“the burden of my past life was lifted. I felt as if a huge weight … had gone. With the relief and sense of lightness came incredible joy. At last it has happened. I was free of my past. I knew that God had forgiven me, and I felt clean.”
Who needs to experience Christ’s forgiveness tonight? It is always on offer. In prayer, like that student, simply accept it by faith and commit yourself to Jesus Christ as Lord.
So, this is a second reason there is “no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.” The name Jesus means “Saviour”. And it was given “because he will save his people from their sins” (Mat 1.24). And all need saving.
I must conclude.
In a pluralistic world, it will never be easy, “proclaiming Jesus and the Resurrection” as Peter and the other apostles were doing. But their mission of witnessing to the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ, whatever the cost, was their calling. And it led to the amazing growth of the early Church. Our calling is to follow in their footsteps.
Yes, we must attend to management issues, structural issues and modern communication theory. All that is involved in what our own Founders (whom we are celebrating in our 150th anniversary year) called the “promulgation” of “sound scriptural and evangelical truth”. But you must “maintain” that truth, as our Founders also understood.
You must ensure you do not drift away from proclaiming Jesus Christ in all his risen glory as the one “name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved”. Otherwise you will soon have nothing to promulgate and no motivation for what you do. So let me end by two quotations – first, the late John Stott’s summary regarding the uniqueness of Jesus (the fact that he has no competitors) and his finality (the fact that he has no successors):
“It is not the uniqueness of ‘Christianity’ as a system that we defend, but the uniqueness of Christ. He is unique in his incarnation (which is quite different from the a-historical and plural ‘avatars’ of Hinduism); in his atonement (dying once for all for our sins); in his resurrection (breaking the power of death); and in his gift of the Spirit (to indwell and transform us).”
And, secondly, (and centuries earlier but because of those facts) Article XVIII of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England:
“They also are to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the Light of Nature. For holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.”
May Acts 4.12 motivate us all this coming twelve months as, in our various ways, we witness and work for Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.