Why I’m Not a Christian Part 1 - “How can there be only one way to God?” Acts 4:12–13; 10:2–36

I don’t think there’s anybody who hasn’t dealt with that question. I’m sure it has come up and maybe you haven’t quite known how to answer it. It is one of the hardest… Have you ever met someone from another religion… and after being around them for a while you felt like they were nicer, a better dad, more conscientious than you…maybe they weren’t even religious at all (an atheist) and they are one of the nicest people you’ve ever met… you’re like, “So, the Bible teaches these people aren’t going to heaven because they haven’t accepted Jesus?” Doesn’t really seem fair for God to choose this one, arbitrary characteristic and pass over people who are every bit as morally good… “Ha, ha… you don’t know the password.” Illus. It seems like I remember playing once as a kid… kid built a fort, “What’s the password?”

In addition to that, if you ask people today what the biggest cause of division and violence is in our world, your most likely answer would be radical religion--especially a religion that claims to be the only way to God. Believing that your way is the only way is what causes people to fly planes into buildings, or so people think. 

It may surprise you that I will say, as a Christian minister, that religion, by its very nature, does tend to divide people and bring out the worst unfamiliarity; that unfamiliarity then breeds suspicion and contempt; and that contempt can lead to violence. So, I agree. But today what I would like to do is try and show you why the Gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t at all like that… I’m going to try and show you that, at its core, authentic Christianity is one of the most humble, inclusive, loving, peace-promoting worldviews ever given. I am going to show you that be taking a look at the preaching of Peter in the book of Acts… and then along the way dealing with some of the main objections that I hear to Jesus being the only way...

First stop, Acts 4. Peter has gotten in trouble for making this statement, “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) It would have been fine with everybody if Peter had said, “Jesus is our way, our God, and you have yours.” What got the Apostles in trouble was their claim that Jesus was the only way (no other name under heaven).

  • You see, Rome had a society that was built on pluralism. Rome had conquered the world and all the peoples they had conquered had their own gods, so the way Rome saw it everybody could have their own god, but each god only had a limited sphere… the Ephesians had their god which was “the god of the Ephesians,” the Egyptians had their god, the Jews had a God that was God of the Jews… Some gods were not geographical but restricted to a certain dimension of life like fertility or traveling or war… and that was all cool with Rome, but Roman historians tell us the one thing no one was allowed to say was that their god was superior to all the others or the one supreme God, because if one people claimed their god was the supreme god, it would follow that they should be the in them. What happens is religion gives you a standard for what is good and acceptable… and so if you live by that standard you almost can’t help but look down proudly on the people who don’t; and so you want to separate yourself from them; that separation causes supreme, ruling people. And then, they would try to make war on the other nations.
  • So, Rome tried to ensure peace by letting everybody worship their own god but allowing no one to claim that their god was the supreme God. In fact, they had a Pantheon where they housed all the gods. An emblem of Caesar stood on top of it, and all the gods got along harmoniously in the building each with his own little room. Basically, the message of that building was “to each his own as long as you acknowledge we’re in Little Caesar’s universe.”
That was the world Christianity was born into. You see, people have this idea that back in the day everybody thought their religion was the only way. And when Christianity was introduced, everybody said, “Believe Jesus died for us? Love our neighbor? Yeah, that sounds better than worshipping the fish god.” And they all converted from the fish god being the only way to Jesus being the only way. And only now in our globally-pluralistic society are we starting to discover that there is good in every religion and we should be open to multiple paths to God.

But no. If you study Acts, Rome’s problem with the Apostles had nothing to do with the fact they wanted to worship Jesus. Hey, what’s one god more? It was their insistence that Jesus was the only way. In fact, later in the 1st century the Emperor Severus decided that the Christians had been persecuted for too long, and so he declared he would add a statue of Jesus to Caesar’s Pantheon and let the Christians have a seat at the table. What do you think the Christians did? Did they say, oh we’ve arrived! Jesus in the pantheon! One of our people in Congress! No, they protested Severus and said, “Get Jesus out of the Pantheon! He can never be just one among the gods! He is the Lord of Lords.”

So, the point… “Global pluralism” is not a new thing like many people think, and the Apostles’ claim that Jesus was the only way was a direct challenge to the prevailing pluralistic worldview then and now.

Now, back to Acts 4, Peter is called in and told not to preach like that any longer. Notice what he says in defense: 4:19 “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, 20 for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”

One of the things people say about claiming there is one way to God is that it is arrogant, (“Claiming that there is one way to God is arrogant”  ) like you believe you have some superior knowledge or vantage point to everyone else. But notice exactly what Peter is saying here. He’s not saying, “I know this because I’m smarter or because I have some kind of superior knowledge… I’m just telling you what I’ve seen and heard. We saw a guy raised from the dead and this is what he told us and commanded us to tell others…” You can call that a lot of things, but arrogance is not necessarily one of them.

You see, here’s what people today think… If we’re humble, then we realize that none of us is smart enough to know everything, so the humble thing to do is to recognize that everybody has a perspective that is at least equal to ours, and really, it’s only when we listen to everybody’s perspective that we’ll get the full picture. I’ve often heard it described like this:

  • Indian parable… Three blind men were asked to describe an elephant. Each one walked up to the elephant, and touched it, but at different parts. The one who touched the body of the elephant said, "The elephant is like a wall." The one who touched the trunk said, "The elephant is like a snake." The one who touched the tusks said "The elephant is like a spear." The moral of the story is that no one blind man had the whole picture, so they should all be open to what each of the others added to the picture. Each of them was right in what they saw; but each of them was wrong to argue that what they saw was the whole thing. In the same way, the parable goes, no one religion has the full picture. We should be open to other religions, because only then will we get close to the actual truth.
  • Lesslie Newbigin, a missionary to India, said in his book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society that he heard that parable so many times in India until he finally realized: In order to tell the story, you had to see the whole elephant. The only way to claim that each blind man only saw a part of the elephant was if you were not blind and could see the whole thing. Right? That’s how you would know. You are claiming to be able to do the very thing you were telling everybody else they could not do.
  • To claim that all religions are right, you claim to have a superior vantage point from each of the religions. That’s why you can say each one doesn’t have the full picture.
    • Recently I saw a Dean at Stanford University forced a group of students to stop proselytizing others on campus… What was intriguing to me was his rationale: “don’t proselytize; all faiths are equally valid as religions.” You shouldn’t be telling people their religion is wrong because I can see the whole elephant and that all religions are equal and that’s why I can say that you’re wrong to tell them they’re wrong.
  • But see, you are doing the very thing you are refusing to let anybody else do. That’s not fair.
By contrast, Peter is not saying he has a superior vantage point. Peter’s whole deal is, “Look, I don’t think these things because I think I’m superior, I’m just a barely educated high school-dropout fisherman from Galilee, but a guy raised from the dead and told us what the deal was and we believe him.” Peter’s like, “Face it, if the guy raises from the dead we felt like that gave him the right to make the rules. You disagree, take it up with him. Oh, that’s right, you did, you killed him and he came back from the dead. We’re sticking with him.”

  • That’s not arrogance, that is just taking Jesus at his word. And that’s a decision you have to make, “Is Jesus who He claimed to be?”
    • E.g. Airplane exit rows… Like when I get on airplane... I’d prefer to go out right here. “Fine, you can call your row an exit row but you didn’t build the plane and if we crash and the plane is on fire and you try to go out there it’s probably not going to work out for you.” It’s not arrogant for her to insist we go out the exit door. It’s because the designer of the plane designed the door here.
    • (Abbreviated) Bertha… “You’re trying to tell me Jesus is the only door into heaven?” It’s not arrogant of the pilot to insist that he land the plane wheels down on the runway; it’s just believing that the people who built the planes and the runways know how best to land it.
  • So, again, I would suggest that believing what Jesus said is not arrogant; it’s actually one of the humblest of all the truth claims because it says, “It’s not that I’m smarter; it’s not that I see better or have a better vantage point; I just believe that Jesus is who He says He is and I’m going to take Him at His word.”

Peter’s insistence that Jesus is the only name under heaven by which we can be saved also confronts another thing I hear a lot… and that is that “religion is just a matter of personal preference.”  This view assumes that “Well, all religions say the same things. Love people, be good. Whatever you believe specifically is up to you—Jesus, Allah, Buddha, a gigantic cat named Fester… it’s all the same, and that is a private matter.”

  • That’s very different than what Peter says… Peter says, “It’s got nothing to do with what I prefer or what works for me, it has to do with who God says He is and how God says we get to Him.”

The prevailing view of religion in our culture goes back to a guy named Immanuel Kant. You may never have heard of him but you are influenced by him. He said that all religions are subjectively helpful, none are objectively true. Here’s what that means: He said, “there’s two kinds of facts”… Objective; subjective… 

  • For example. Illus. We’re in a classroom and I ask the class, “What is the capitol of New York?” New York City. I say, “No, it’s Albany.” And he says, “I don’t think Albany should be the capital… NYC is a better city. City so nice they named it twice. He feels passionately about it. He asks for a vote, and ¾ of the class vote with him. Still does not make it true. You are right, he is wrong. Now, I think it is hot in here. A student says, “No, it’s cold.” If you told him he was wrong, you would be thrusting your definition of cold on him. You would be wrong to tell him he was wrong. Kant said that religion was that second kind of knowledge… subjective. Therefore it is a private thing. The question is what works for you. All religions are subjectively helpful but none are objectively true.
  • But why? Peter is saying, “I’m not talking about my personal preference, I’m talking about what Jesus who was raised from the dead said about these things.”
  • You have a choice to believe that Jesus is who He says He is, but you can’t just shove Him into a group of religions that you can worship if it’s your preference. That’s exactly the opposite of what Peter is here saying.
  • You have to choose…. Who defines what reality is? Is it the world system who says that all religions are equal? Is it you… do you get to decide and pick your own reality? Or is it Jesus?
    • Whatever you choose, you will be someone’s infidel. The world calls me an infidel because I won’t submit to the reigning viewpoint that all religions are equal. But the one thing Jesus will not be is one among many. He won’t let you put Him in your pantheon of gods. He’s either Lord of all or not Lord at all, and you can’t call Him Lord and deny Him on this matter. You have to choose, are you sticking with the world or with Jesus? Whoever you choose, you’ll be the other one’s infidel.
    • I’ll be honest with you… Part of the reason I think people don’t like to even entertain the idea that there might be one right way is that if there is one way then they themselves have to submit to it. They don’t want to be told what to do so they hide behind this “all religions are equal” so they can decide what way they want to go in life. That’s a choice you have to make.

Next, I want to deal with the charge that “Claiming that there is one way to God is divisive” … that it causes people to feel superior to others and look down on them and despise them… Let’s turn to another of Peter’s sermons, this one in Acts 10:  (Summarize Acts 10:2–16)

  • Opens with a guy named Cornelius… Roman soldier/very good man/he has a vision: angel says, “Your good works have come up before God. I’m going to send Peter to you who will tell you how to be saved.”
  • Meanwhile, Peter’s up on a deck smoking a cigar before dinner and he has a strange vision… all kinds of traditionally unclean animals… “rise and eat.” For a Baptist preacher, like a vision for a crack pipe and a Bud Light with the command “smoke and drink.”

17 Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood at the gate. Peter has the dream… “what’s it mean?” There’s Cornelius’ men. Peter’s like, “aha.” It was about Cornelius. Peter had previously thought that Jews were a superior people… non-Jews were unclean, so Jews like Peter would not even go into a Gentile’s house. So, after the dream Peter goes in to Cornelius’ house and says, 10:28 “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.” He goes on 10:34 “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. Peter goes on… 39 They put Jesus to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear to us… 42 And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43 To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” 44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and praising God.

When the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius, it says he did two things: “spoke in tongues and praised God.” Those two things indicate two huge changes… one in Cornelius… and one in Peter.

  • First, Cornelius “praised God.” This indicates a significant change for Cornelius. (“Praising God.”) You see, Up until this point, you would have praised Cornelius for his goodness. He was a great guy, set above other men. In fact, how this goes down is confusing to people. You’d expect the angel to come in and say, “Hey, you’re a great guy, set above other men and praiseworthy… God wants you to know he appreciates that and that is why he is going to take you to heaven.” Instead he says, “Your prayers and good works have come up before God… So Peter is coming to you to tell you how to be saved.” And when Peter gets there he doesn’t congratulate Cornelius for his goodness, he tells him he needs Jesus to save him and forgive his sins.
  • For most people, they would assume that because Cornelius’ goodness distinguished him from other people that would have made him better than other people so that he wouldn’t need to be saved. But the Gospel says, “Your morality is not what makes you acceptable to God, because when our hearts are exposed, God sees that we’re all sinners.
  • Like Nicodemus…. Who is the best of the best and what does Jesus tell him? Not “congratulations,” but “you have to be born again.” Not even, You need to grow a little bit in this area Nicodemus and then you’ll be complete, but you need to be born COMPLETELY again!
  • The Gospel doesn’t come as a reward to morality. It challenges our whole way of thinking about morality: No man will get to God because he distinguishes himself… it is what Christ does for you, by living the life you should have lived and dying the death you should have died.
  • In verse 46, Cornelius is now praising God, not himself, because of what Christ has done for him.
  • The Gospel means that no person can every proudly distinguish themselves from others and praise themselves. The Gospel doesn’t allow you to separate the good and the bad, it says that all people, even the ones we think are the good ones, are sinful people in desperate need of God’s grace.
  • You see, here’s how religion usually works: every religion sets a standard and says, “If you live a certain way and when you keep the commandments or live the proper life then you are to be approved by God.” The good people are in; bad people are out. And so, you look at yourself and say, “Because I have superior morals, or better insight, or better discipline, I am better than others.” The Gospel says, “No. You’re a sinful person in desperate need of God’s grace.”
    • Well meaning people say, “I just don’t think you have to believe in Jesus to be saved. All good people can find God.” What I’m about to say is not rhetoric: if only good people find God, who doesn’t? Moral failures. In your attempt to be inclusive, you just left me out. You say, “Come on.” No, I know my own heart. Maybe you don’t know yours. You set up a standard, and some are in, some are out.
    • The secularist… who says, “I’m not religious…” you still have your standard as to what constitutes a good person. You feel like it is the enlightened, the honest, the compassionate, the diligent… Secularists are often every bit as self-righteous as religious people. Try living in CH and driving an SUV with an NRA sticker on the back and telling people you refuse to recycle and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about (not that I have one of those). 
  • Everyone has exclusive beliefs. But the Gospel you learn to say, “Really, I am no different than anyone else; my sin put Jesus on the cross. I am acceptable not because of what I have done but because of what Christ has done for me.” And the Gospel humbles you… and causes you to gratefully praise God, never yourself, and you suddenly become open to receiving other sinful people the way that Jesus received you.

“Speaking in tongues… ” The second thing Cornelius does is speak in tongues. This indicates a significant change for Peter…

  • Peter recognizes this as the same thing that happened at Pentecost. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit had fallen on the Jews and they’d all spoke in tongues of other languages. The significance of that was supposed to be that God now saw all races and peoples and cultures as equals. Up until Pentecost Jewish people had believed you had to be a Jew to be saved. Thus, the Hebrew race, Hebrew culture, Hebrew language, was seen as superior. Speaking in tongues was a sign that God sees all people equally and no people preferentially.
  • Well, now, it is happening again. This is the only other time in Acts that someone speaks in tongues when they become a Christian. Why? Peter hadn’t gotten the message yet. See what he says in when he came into Cornelius house? 10:28 “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.” Peter’s still got this tendency to think that Jews are superior. So this is like a DUMMY COURSE… Jewish men prayed each morning: Thank God I am not a slave, a woman or a Gentile… all the people in Acts that are coming to Christ are slaves, women, or Gentiles.
  • The point: The Gospel did not produce division, it destroyed it. No longer would our race, our culture, our backgrounds, even our morality distinguish us from others.
    • The Greeks and Romans would not mix rich and poor. The Christians did. The Romans and the Jews would not mix races. Christians did. The Gospel produced the most inclusive community the world had ever known.

Why? Ultimate reality for the Christian is a Man on the cross loving people who don’t love Him. Giving himself for people who didn’t agree with him.  Study Acts and you’ll see new classes and castes of people mixing together… you’ll see people giving away their money in unheard of ways!

  • (Church, that’s why this is the one place there should be diversity!) In this room we’ll have together the morally upstanding and the moral failures; we’ll have the black and the white… all united praising God because it didn’t matter what kind of sinners we were but because of the kind of Savior He is.
  • If your belief in the Gospel ever causes you to feel superior…confess: sometimes it does. We think we are accepted because we are smarter, or more moral… When it does, it shows we have no concept of the Gospel.

The point: Everybody has an exclusive view of what is good and bad. You separate the good from the bad, the enlightened from the unenlightened… The question is which set of exclusive beliefs produce the most peace-loving, inclusive attitude toward humanity… and it is the Gospel!

Christianity is exclusive, but it is the most inclusive exclusivity there is.

Let me deal with one final thing people say about this…“ It is Cruel” It is cruel to say that Jesus is the only way and that only people who know Him will go to heaven.

  • I want you to think about it from my perspective. It is not cruel if it is the only way to safety. I didn’t make this up… I cannot but say what I have seen and heard.
  • Or say that we were rock climbing and you had a choice… I can only tell you what I’ve seen and heard.  You don’t have to believe it, but you need to ask, ‘Who is Jesus? Is He who He says He is? And you can write Him off for fool, but you can’t just shove Him in the pantheon with all the other gods.”
  • You can’t say sincerity is what matters… George Washington…bled to death.
    • ((Illus. pneumonia. I’d rather have a head cold.
    • 555-1236))
  • Finally, if you’re still tempted to write Jesus off as one of many ways, let me ask you this one final question, and I want you to think about it… If there are a lot of different ways, why the cross? Why would Jesus have undergone a torturous shameful death if there were multiple ways to God? I’ve heard it said: “Oh, it is a show of God’s love.” But how does that make sense?
  • The resurrection shows us that Jesus has the authority to tell us what is going on out there. The cross shows us that we can trust Him. I invite you to JESUS!

Maybe you are now convinced, and you’re ready to trust in Christ. If so, just believe on Him: “I trust you. I am ready to receive you as my Savior. I am ready to follow you.”

Maybe you’re not there yet, but you are open to learning more: “I want to learn more about you. If you’re real, if you are the way, the truth and the life, please show me.”

This sermon was provided by J.D. Greear, lead pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh, NC.