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What Must I Do to Inherit Eternal Life?

That may be true for you, but how can you say that it is true for everyone else when there are so many different understandings of truth out there 

This is, of course, among the most common questions out there in postmodern-dom and, more specifically, in the context of the religious/ethnic/cultural diversity that is becoming the new normal in Canada and the West in general. Christians are becoming increasingly aware that there is much that is good and true and beautiful in a wide variety of worldviews and practices. We are also alert to the painful reality that the Christian worldview has all too frequently been aligned with the interests of colonialism and other less overt modes of cultural imperialism. It can be a tricky thing, this business of expressing one’s convictions about the particularity of truth amidst all of diversity and historical error and the baggage that comes along with it.

I spent part of last week in Edmonton at a theological studies conference where the topic was Christian/Muslim dialogue. We spoke a lot about the value of dialogue and friendship, about refusing to go along with the “my religion is better than your religion” narrative that we so often see in the popular media, and about the points of commonality that we could celebrate and embrace with our Muslim neighbours. But eventually, inevitably, the conversation turned to the question of the boundaries of truth and the scope of salvation. Do Muslims need to become Christians to be saved? Is “becoming a Christian” even the right category to use? How can we say that their truth is wrong and ours is right? Isn’t that arrogant of us? What if Jesus is just our way of understanding God? What if theirs is equally valid and worthy of celebration? These questions and others were all debated and discussed (in animated fashion!) one afternoon between lunch and coffee. Unsurprisingly, there was a fairly broad range of opinions expressed.

Like a good Mennonite, my instinct when it comes to big questions like these is to default to the words of Jesus. A few passages leap to mind. I don’t claim that these are the “definitive verses” or anything like that (as if there could be such a thing!), but they seem to me to be as good a place to start as any.

First, the oft-quoted words of Jesus to his disciples in an early part of the “Farewell Discourse”—the last words to Jesus before he is arrested in the garden:

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:5-6).

It’s quite clear, isn’t it? Jesus could hardly have said it more plainly. No one comes to the Father except through him. I can’t count the number of times that I have heard these verses used to “explain” the obvious truth that Jesus is clearly teaching that unless you become a Christian you will not be saved. Of course, Jesus doesn’t specifically say anything about who is “saved” and who isn’t here. In context, Jesus’ response to his disciples’ question seems to have much more to do with his own identity and his connection with the Father than it does with delineating the borders separating the saved and the damned. Nonetheless, I think it is quite fair to conclude from this text (and others) that Jesus is claiming that he is the unique and singular guarantor of the things that we most hunger and long for. Truth. Life. These are what we need and Jesus offers them.

But there are other passages, as well. I am thinking of two, in particular, from Luke’s gospel. Two times, Jesus was quite specifically asked the question that is on many of our minds and lips. What must I do to inherit eternal life? In Luke 18:18-30 the question comes from a rich ruler. Jesus’ response is well-known. He doesn’t give him a list of doctrines to believe nor does he ask him to affirm something about the nature of Jesus’ identity. He certainly doesn’t require that his interlocutor ask Jesus into “his heart” or to believe in his atoning work on the cross (hard to do that when you haven’t died yet!). He tells him, rather, to follow the pretty ordinary and well-known moral code set forth in the Ten Commandments.  Oh, and he tells him to sell all of his possessions and follow him. How many good Bible-believing Christians are inheriting eternal life on that criterion?

114217026The question is found a few chapters earlier, as well—this time, from the mouth of a lawyer. What must I do to inherit eternal life? We all know the story of the Good Samaritan that constituted Jesus’ answer to this question (Luke 10:25-37). Again, when asked a very specific question about personal salvation, Jesus does not provide a list of doctrines or ritual requirements to embrace. He doesn’t say, “well, there’s this new religion that I’m about to start, see, and if you just align yourselves with it, you’ll be fine.” Not at all, actually. What he does is tell a very uncomfortable story about what it means to love one’s neighbour—and he tells it with someone from the “wrong culture” and the “wrong religion” in the starring role. What he does is blow apart familiar and cherished and faithfully taught understandings of who is in and who is out and which people God likes and which people God doesn’t like and who understands God “correctly” and who does not and reframes the question of what salvation looks like and where it is found around the question of who and how we love.

In both cases, Jesus points not to an abstract belief system about the nature of reality—a “worldview,” if you will—but to concrete deeds of love, self-sacrifice, and surrender. And he does all of this, remember, in response to very specific questions about how to inherit eternal life.

So where does that leave us? On the one hand, we believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. We believe that Jesus is the truest picture of God that we will ever have, that he loves us and desires for us to love him in return. We believe that part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus is to invite others to get to know Jesus as well.

On the other hand, though, we must remember that this same Jesus had (and has) an uncomfortable habit of having very little use for our systems and categories and border policing. Indeed, when pressed to make these distinctions clear, he would often do something irritating like tell a story—and usually a story that left the questioner rather red-faced and bewildered.

I don’t know who is in and who is out. I don’t even want to know, truth be told. I am happy to leave these decisions to the one true judge who will do what is right (Gen. 18:25). I am increasingly finding that I have more than enough to worry about in learning to align my own habits and thoughts and behaviours with the things that Jesus cared about without presuming to pronounce upon the salvation of others. What I do know—what I am supremely confident of, in fact—is that if Jesus is the most comprehensive and accurate embodiment of the nature and character of God and his purposes in and for the world, then the final chapter of our story will contain a few surprises in it. I have seen too much of the unsettling and jaw-dropping mercy of God to expect anything different.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. mike #

    …EVERY knee will bow…

    May 14, 2013
  2. calcapp #

    Dear Ryan,
    You are a learned man, and I perceive that you are a student of the scriptures. You are “diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth”(2Tim.2:15, NKJ). My concern is that you are proof-texting, doing the very thing I have been guilty of in times past, and must continually guard myself on. We must remember, “Scripture interprets Scripture.” And there are far too many scripture verses in both old and new testament which affirm the truth that “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved”(Acts 4:12, NIV).
    You yourself have noted, “He certainly doesn’t require that his interlocutor ask Jesus into “his heart” or to believe in his atoning work on the cross (hard to do that when you haven’t died yet!).” The latter part of your comment (in brackets), is crucial to the issue at hand here. Paul addresses the people of Athens who worshiped “The Unknown God” in no uncertain terms, “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead”(Acts 17:30-31, NKJ) We must remember that a new covenant was implemented at the time of Jesus’ death & resurrection, at which time the old was done away with (Heb.8:6-13).
    At the beginning of your essay you note a much used passage of scripture pertaining to the question at hand, namely: “is there only one way to be saved?” In making reference to John 14:5-6, you are careful to make note that, “Jesus is claiming that he is the unique and singular guarantor of the things that we most hunger and long for. Truth. Life.” He is also stating emphatically that “He is the Way,” there is “no other way.” Luke 13:23-24 comes to mind, when the disciples asked Him, “Lord, are there few who are saved?” And He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” Paul in his second epistle to Timothy chapter 2, following his exhortation to pray for all who are in authority, that we mighty lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence, states, “For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time”(1Tim.2:3-6).
    Two quotes to end my comments: Erwin Lutzer in his book “CHRIST AMONG OTHER gods”, states, “Although other religions take bad men and try to make them better, only one is qualified to take dead men and make them alive”(pg.24).
    And I will end with a quote from Bonhoeffer in his book The Cost of Discipleship, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
    God revealed to me, twenty-five years ago, the leaven of “Eastern Religion” that would be “robbing the Church of her light and saltiness.” The enemy is “subtle”! The Church must come back to “the Word”, it is crucial in this late hour. We have a Church today (especially in the West), that is malnourished and weak, for lack of the “Bread of Life.” We need preachers and teachers today more than ever, that will heed Paul’s admonition and exhortation, “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables”(2Tim.4:1-4, KJ).
    “And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.” (Rom.13:11-12)
    Humbly submitted in love, Calvin

    May 14, 2013
    • Thanks for your comments, Calvin. There’s a lot that I could say in response, but my sense is that we are not in substantial disagreement on much here—it would be more a matter of what we mean by this or that word, phrase, etc.

      To be clear, I absolutely believe that Jesus is the (not “a”) way, the truth, and the life. I do not think that affirming this is the same thing, however, as claiming that everyone who has ever and will ever live must explicitly give verbal assent to a specific cognitive package that includes a list of doctrines and propositions about Jesus and salvation and how it all works. Among the many problems that come with this view (to cite just one example, What about those whose only exposure to Jesus has come via a package that includes colonialism, oppression, and an utterly inadequate presentation of the nature and work of Jesus?), this seems to make salvation dependent upon us—upon our getting it right, understanding, affirming the right stuff about Jesus, etc.

      Re: proof-texting, I certainly want to be open to the charge here. In my defense, I did make it clear in the post that these were not the first, last, and only word on these matters and that I was choosing Jesus as a starting point. Having said that, I do not apologize for prioritizing the words of Jesus above anything else. This is basic to my understanding of the nature of Scripture and to God’s definitive self-revelation in Jesus. The narrative of Scripture exists always and only to point to the Living Word of God, Jesus Christ. I do not see my task as to treat Scripture as a theological source book which must be harmonized and systematized yielding a comprehensive doctrinal case for this or that “issue.” In my view, everything in the Bible must be read through the lens of Jesus (life, teaching, death, resurrection, ascension, reign, the whole package), whether we are talking about difficult passages in the OT, the writings of the Apostle Paul, or whatever. Where there is an apparent contradiction or difficulty, or just something I can’t figure out yet, I will unapologetically always go back to the question, “What did Jesus say?”

      A question for you, if you don’t mind. What do you make of the two passages from Luke that I discussed? What do you make of Jesus’ answer in response to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus could have alerted his questioners to the upcoming implementation of the new covenant, after all. He could have talked about his upcoming death and resurrection (he clearly anticipated this). He could have said a lot about what they needed to believe. Why do you think he responded in the way that he did? What do you think we are meant to learn from this?

      May 15, 2013
  3. “Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints. For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ. I will therefore put you in remembrance, though ye once knew this, how that the Lord, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed them that believed not”(Jude 3-5)

    May 15, 2013
  4. Ryan, I’d simply say that on both passages in Luke, Jesus reiterates the law and presses the impossibly high standard of the law against those who wrongly try to set themselves forth as people who keep the law. In order to attain eternal life, one must be perfectly righteous. That’s always been true and will always be true.

    In Luke 18, Jesus nails the rich young ruler with the question of loving the neighbor (which he admittedly didn’t do nor apparently wanted to do) and in Luke 10, Jesus’ whole story/parable about the Good Samaritan is an answer to the lawyer’s question in 10:29. The Pharisee saw their “neighbor” as only another Pharisee, and the common Jew was taught that only another Jew was their “neighbor”, both based on a misunderstanding of the phrase “your people” (Hbr. “sons of your own people”) in Leviticus 19:18. Jesus story of the Good Samaritan is simply an answer to the question “who is my neighbor?”, and Jesus then follows up the story with telling the lawyer to go and love all people like the Samaritan in the story did…hence Jesus’ final statement is “go and do likewise”. That’s another way of Jesus saying “this is what it looks like when you ACTUALLY perfectly keep the law”. Jesus was crystal clear that there was one way to salvation, and that was to perfectly keep the law.

    That’s utterly impossible, and both Jesus and the lawyer knew it.

    The point of the story of the Good Samaritan is that nobody is a Good Samaritan; nobody could possibly ever be.

    That’s why all men need the imputed righteousness of Christ; ours will never cut it. We’ll never have the righteousness needed to attain eternal life (which is a synonym for “the resurrection” spoken of in Daniel 12:1-2). We’re trapped between the “rock” of God’s impending righteous judgment against sin and the “hard place” of an impossible requirement of perfect righteousness needed to escape it.

    The imputed righteousness of Christ is the way out from between the rock and the hard place.

    Just some clarification on the passages in Luke.

    June 2, 2013
    • Thank you for the interesting “clarifications.”

      Re: Luke 18, I don’t see Jesus discussing much about loving neighbours in this chapter. Perhaps I am missing something.

      Re: Luke 10, The point of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is that nobody is or could be a Good Samaritan? So, the contrast Jesus makes between the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan (in the context of a conversation with a Jewish expert in religious law) was more or less incidental in what was essentially a lesson about the need for imputed righteousness? Seems like an attempt to squeeze this parable through a pretty specific theological grid to me.

      Call me crazy (or biblically unsophisticated or whatever), but I think that the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan was a summons to love and care for others like this. It was a call to expand the category of “neighbour” beyond what was assumed or expected (or desired), and to love others at great personal cost. It was also an indictment of Israel’s religious elites and their utter failure to understand and teach the spirit of the law.

      (To be clear, I’m not arguing against the need for imputed righteousness. I just don’t think that’s what’s going on in Luke 10.)

      June 2, 2013
      • Ryan,

        I’m definitely glad you see the need for imputed righteousness. I’m wondering though that if I take some time to walk through the text, is that going to me simply pontificating (i.e. is your mind already made up?) or will that be welcome?

        I know we’re on far different places across the spectrum of theology/biblical understanding and I’m guessing that discourse from my side of the fence is taken with a bit of an eye roll.

        June 5, 2013
      • What do you think the lawyer would have taken away from the story Jesus told?

        June 5, 2013
      • (You are, of course, welcome to “walk through,” explain, instruct… whatever you wish.)

        June 5, 2013
      • Larry S #


        I’ve been reading and interacting with Ryan for the past few years.

        I think that Ryan will engage with you without “eyerolls” even though you both come from different places. I think he’ll interact with you with respect.

        I don’t think he will simply abandon an online conversation midstream (contra the pacifism thread on your blog where I attempted to engage with you).

        regards, Larry S

        June 6, 2013
  5. mike #

    “….he’ll interact with you with respect.” …I’ll vouch for that.

    June 6, 2013
  6. Thank you, Larry and Mike, for your generous affirmation.

    June 6, 2013

    November 27, 2013

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