There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.
— Acts 4:12, NRSV
Today, them’s fightin’ words.
We live in an era in which “religion” is frequently scorned; the word conjures associations of stuffy institutions and outdated rules. In its place is a vaguer notion of “spirituality” which can be pretty much whatever you want. That fits better with our postmodern and radically individualist society.
So how dare anyone say that there is salvation only in Jesus? That’s so sectarian, so exclusivist, so… so… arrogant.
Well, let’s think about that for a moment.
First, let’s just admit it up front: the critics of institutional religion, which includes the church that claims to worship Jesus, are not entirely wrong. We Christians are often poor examples of what we profess to believe. Stories of hypocrisy and abuse abound, and understandably, people use these as justification for turning their backs on the church.
So, your Honor, the defense stipulates to that point. The church can indeed be exclusivist and arrogant, narrow-minded and hypocritical.
But that doesn’t answer the underlying theological question.
Let’s start with the fact that, in the verse above, Peter is not speaking to a secular audience, nor talking about spirituality in general. He is a Jewish man arguing with Jewish leaders about the identity of the Messiah and the intentions of the God of their common ancestors. Later in the book of Acts, and in the letters of Paul, the argument will expand: can the God of Israel also be the God of the Gentiles? But for now, it’s a pointed disagreement between members of the same family.
Who’s right? Who gets to decide?
Peter takes a tack that’s similar to the one taken by Jesus. Both pointed to Scriptures that their opponents took as authoritative, and to miraculous works that stood as signs of the power of God. The message was: These signs should tell you that God is behind this. If that doesn’t fit with your reading of the sacred texts, then you’ve misinterpreted what God intended all along.
God’s intention is salvation, restoration, taking hold of a broken world and making all things well. There is salvation in no one else, because Jesus is the one God sent; no one else bore the sins of the world on a cross. The Jerusalem leaders had refused the signs and crucified the Messiah. But the newly risen Messiah, Peter demonstrated, was still at work bringing signs of restoration through works of healing.
Peter’s argument with the Sanhedrin, in other words, was not about whether there was only one true God. It was about what the God they all believed in intended for the world and his people, and how he had decided to go about it.
What, then, about the secularist or relativist argument that it’s inherently arrogant to claim that Jesus is the only way to salvation?
The central underlying theological issue is whether there is just one true God, as the Bible insists from cover to cover. To state the obvious, there either is or there isn’t, and what we believe doesn’t make it so.
If there is only one God, the next question follows: what is the nature of that God? Is God sovereign? In other words, does God get to call the shots or not?
And third, how can we know? Is God even accessible or knowable?
The biblical answer to these questions is that there is one and only one true and sovereign God, and we can only know God through what God chooses to reveal. And the ultimate claim of the New Testament is that Jesus is the self-revelation of God’s nature and plan. The Bible itself, Christians believe, is the authoritative record of that self-revelation.
Here’s the thing. If you believe that (a) there’s only one God, (b) that God is sovereign, (c) that God can only be known through self-revelation, and (d) that revelation comes through God’s Word, as written in Scripture and embodied in Jesus, then where’s the disagreement? Between Peter and the Sanhedrin, it’s only on that last point — that Jesus was God’s Word in the flesh — and the healing signs, in part, were meant to settle the issue.
But those who claim that Christians are being inherently arrogant by claiming that Jesus is the only way to salvation are starting from different premises. Not everyone really believes in a single sovereign God who exists independently of what I think God should be. Both the one-way and the many-ways arguments make sense on the basis of their own premises, and it’s hard to have a meeting of the minds without more common ground. Each side just thinks the other side is being naive, pig-headed, or both.
Is there a way forward?
Sure: just do a miracle. Heal someone who’s been lame for decades (Acts 4:22) and has been seen by thousands.
Better yet, raise someone from the dead.
But if that seems to be too much to ask, try this: be the evidence. In the power of the Holy Spirit, show what salvation means by the way you live, as individuals, in your families, in your churches and communities.
That’s how people will know who’s been with Jesus, and be drawn to him.