Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Nature of Christ and the Exclusivity of Christianity

I was going to call this one, "Why Christianity is Exclusive, and If It Isn't, Isn't Christianity, Part Deux," but thought that was getting a little long. Today I wanted to discuss why Christianity is exclusive because of the nature of Jesus Christ Himself. But first some background to the discussion.

In the early fourth century of the Church, a man by the name of Arius had risen up and began to teach that the Son was not coeternal with God the Father. Up until this time (and this may be a surprise to the Da Vinci Code crowd), the teachers of the Church had always taught that the Son was eternal God, coeternal with the Father. Arius, however, argued that there was a time when the Son did not exist. Hence, the Son was not really God in the sense that the Father was God. He was a created, and therefore, finite being.

A man by the name of Athanasius, the Bishop/Patriarch of Alexandria (one of my all time favorite people in Church History btw) rose up to oppose Arius, and argued that the Son is coeternal with the Father, and that there has never been a time when the Son did not exist. He is very God of very God. Both men went back and forth with Scripture (although, it was clear that Arius lost the battle here, since Scripture is clearer on the matter than most may think), Athanasius sought to answer, not only the question as to Christ's nature, but why it was so important to the gospel that those who taught otherwise must be considered anathema (i.e., eternally condemned) as heretics, whose gospel would not save.

What Athanasius argued was that Christ must be God in order to save humanity from its sin and non-deity. In other words, if Christ was not both fully God and man, He could not carry those who He had saved to the redemption of their beings, since what He assumes, He saves. The argument is complex, and I don't want to get into his specific argument here, but I do want to commandeer it for what I'm about to say.

If Christ is not fully God and fully human, He cannot save anyone beyond a single person. Here's why. The writer of Hebrews argues that the blood of bulls and goats could never save anyone, and that their use in the Old Testament were only meant as a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Christ. This seems obvious, since a goat, even a thousand goats, is not worth a single human, nor are a thousand bulls. A human is worth one human. If Christ is just a man, then He can trade Himself for one other man, and that's it. He isn't worth more than one man. It would be an unjust trade at that point. Now, let's say that Christ is an angel of some sort. Maybe angels are worth more than humans, but they are still finite, and would certainly not be worth the masses and masses of people throughout all time that would come to God (more on this in a minute). But if Christ is God, then His ability to trade Himself for humans is unlimited. He is more valuable than all of creation. In fact, He is more valuable than all of any creation would ever be, an infinite amount over. Hence, the writer of Hebrews concludes,

For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who offered Himself by means of an eternal spirit without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?

So Christ cannot save anyone if He is not God. But let's say one may believe that an angel or a divine-like being is worth as many as those who will be saved. This brings us to the other point, which is, If Christ is not fully God, He cannot save anyone because His punishment would only be temporary rather than eternal. Christ only died on the cross in a moment. He suffered for a day. He was dead for three days. But that's not eternal hell, so what gives? How can Christ save people from eternal hell by transferring their punishment onto Himself if He never suffered an eternal punishment on their behalf? The answer is that He, in fact, did suffer an eternal punishment. As God, He is infinite, and what He experiences, unlike us, is eternal, even if it is experienced in a moment for us. His human nature allowed Him to experience punishment temporarily, but His divine nature allowed Him to experience it eternally in what to us was only a few moments in time. I would place this as one of the great mysteries of the gospel, as it is nearly too beyond us to comprehend, but our eternal punishment was fully paid that day, precisely, because Jesus is fully God. If He wasn't, there would be no way for Him to experience eternal death and rejection for sin in those few moments (something even the greatest of created, yet finite, beings would be incapable of achieving).

So what does this have to do with the exclusivity of Christianity? Well, because if Christ alone is the God-man, then Christ alone is able to save. Who else is the invaluable, eternal God, who has died an eternal death to save those over whom He is Lord? There is no other way, because there cannot be any other way. Again, this isn't a matter of being exclusive for the sake of having a better club than the guy down the street. It's not about being right and others being wrong, because it's not about us. It's about Christ. It's about who He is, how great and worthy He is, and how He is the only one capable of saving us.

And why is He the only way capable of saving us? Again, because salvation is not by works, but by His work. We obtain it through faith, and it is not of ourselves. We will, therefore, not boast in ourselves, but anywhere and everywhere proclaim Him as our only hope.

I'll end here with a story about a conversation I had with my wife's grandfather before he died because I think it pertains to what we've talked about here.

We had been visiting Allison's parents for some holiday. Everyone had been sitting outside, but it was getting late, so everyone, with the exception of her grandfather and myself, had moved inside. I remember it was in that time of the evening when there was still a bit of a glow in the sky enough to give some bluish light. He began talking to me about the war. He had been a part of special forces in WWII, and everyone had admired him for it (I know I did). But it became clear that, in his mind, he had more regret than anything to boast about. He started saying to me, over and over again, "There is no way God will forgive me for the things that I've done, not for the things that I've done, no." He said this a few times to me. Now, at this point, I realized that he may have said this to others before, or I could have been the first one. I just didn't know. But I guarantee that if he had said to others before, what he said would have been met by most people (including Christians) with, "Oh no, Charlie, God is forgiving. You're a good person. Don't worry about that. God is love and will certainly have mercy on you." However, if it had been said to him before, it clearly didn't comfort him, and it shouldn't have. We may think that such puffing up of ourselves and talking about a God who arbitrarily forgives is going to comfort us, but at the end of the day, all of us know, down deep, that it's just not true. We aren't good people, and we know it. We know that God will be bringing us into judgment for everything we have done here. And even if many suppress that knowledge, it was clear that her grandfather had not. He would not have been comforted by a lie, and knowing he was going in for surgery soon, I was not going to lie to him. So instead of that supposedly comforting answer, where I tell him that he's a good person and that God will just forgive him, I decided to agree with him, and said, "You're right. God cannot forgive you for the things you've done wrong. You do not deserve to be forgiven by being a better person today, and God is just and good. He will not just forgive you." But then I added, "But that is exactly why Christ came to die. That is why God sent Him. It was because we were not worthy to be forgiven. It was because we could not be forgiven. If you were worthy enough to be saved, Christ would not have needed to come and die. But Christ is worthy. Don't say that you cannot be forgiven if you trust in Christ, because Jesus is so valuable that His punishment completely replaces yours. To say that you cannot be forgiven because of what Jesus has done is to say that Jesus isn't good enough to save you."

Now, what I actually said was a lot less convoluted than that, but that is the jist of it. I think God gave me better words, words that he understood in the moment, but it was just that direct. Many would have thought me rude and out of line for saying that he was right and didn't deserve to be forgiven, but he later came in that night and said to my wife how I had set him straight. He also wanted to talk more about it when I saw him once more before he died from that surgery. I am extremely confident that her grandfather was saved that day because I was out of line by exalting the greatness of Christ over the American religion of "be a good neighbor and God will just save you anyway." That religion was losing all of its luster to him as he grew nearer to the time of accountability. Down deep, we know that justice is not served if God arbitrarily forgives us, nor if we just really behave after doing what is evil. I'm glad to say that he received the gospel with joy. I could see it on his face when he said it to my wife, and in his excitement about God when I saw him again. I'm confident that I will speak to him again one day in the kingdom of God, not because God arbitrarily forgave him, or because he earned his salvation by following what he knew best, but because all of that was seen as the dung that it was, and he exchanged his Americanity for the glory and exaltation of the worthiness of Christ and His work on the cross, a worthiness that infinitely outweighs the mountain of our sin. I am reminded of Romans 4:7, which says, "Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, And whose sins have been covered. "Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account." And why are they blessed? Because they have been justified as a gift of His favor that is IN Christ Jesus (3:23). It is Christ who has the favor, and it is in Him, in the only One who can save us, that we receive the salvation with Him that He has acquired.

My point of this story is to illustrate that the centrality of Christianity is not in being a good person (something that only results from the centrality slowly and surely, but is not central itself), but it is in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. He alone is able to save. You cannot be saved by following your own religion because you cannot be saved by good works. You must trust in Him, for He alone is the God-man who is worth enough to take upon your punishment and save you from that eternal fate toward which, all of us, down deep, know we are growing closer and closer each day. Hence, people cannot be saved by other religions, and they cannot be saved by supposedly following the light of Christ in other religions, since salvation is bound up with the Person of Christ revealed in Scripture and the cross upon which all who would be saved must place their trust and hope. There is no other way because there can be no other way.

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