It may seem unfair, unjust, or even arrogant for Christians to say that Jesus is the only way that a person can have a relationship with God. These misconceptions, however, can be cleared up by coming to a clear understanding of the issue. After we do this, we will look at some objections to this claim.
Christians did not invent the idea that a person can only be saved by Jesus
Christians say that Jesus is the only way to God because Jesus Himself said He was the only way to God. It is Jesus’ claim, not our invention. Consider these verses where Christ eliminates alternative ways to God: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through me” (John 14:6). “For unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18).
Christ’s apostles later affirmed His claim: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved,” Peter says in Acts 4:12. Paul writes “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). And the apostle John writes “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23). It is not arrogant for Christians to make such an exclusive claim since we are only relaying what Jesus taught and being faithful to what Jesus told us to do (Matt. 28:19). If we come to understand why Jesus is the only way, we will see that it is not unfair for Him to make such claims.
Why is Jesus the only way?
Every person is separated from God by their sin and in need of forgiveness. Because God is just as well as loving, we cannot cross this gulf and have a relationship with Him (eternal life) unless the penalty for our sin is paid–eternal death. If God did not judge our sin, He would no longer be just.
Living a good, moral life cannot save a person because good works do not pay the penalty for sin. Just as we can only pay a $50 speeding ticket with $50 (not by baking cookies for the judge or even paying $49), only death can pay the death penalty for sin. Being religious cannot save a person either, because religion does not pay the death penalty.
Fortunately, because of His love for us, God sent Jesus to die in our place to pay the death penalty we deserve for our sin. Jesus chose to do this because He loves us, and was the only one able to do this because He is fully God (He had to be infinite to pay the penalty for more than one person) and He is fully man (He had to be a sinless human to pay the penalty for a sinful human). Jesus is not only sinless, but He is 100% God and 100% man.
On the cross, God judged Jesus for our sin so that we wouldn’t have to be. That’s why He is the only way to God–only Jesus was willing and able to die for us to pay our death penalty, thus providing forgiveness for our sins. No one other religios leader has done this; no one else could have done this.
So now there are two options. Either a person can pay this penalty themselves–and so not be saved–or Jesus can pay it for them–and be saved. In both ways, God is just because the penalty is paid. The decision is ours to make, and all we need to do is accept God’s offer of forgiveness in Jesus. Either we pay the penalty, or we trust Jesus to save us and He pays the penalty.
To summarize, we can receive forgiveness and eternal life only through Jesus because only He has taken away our sin and bridged the gulf between us and God. It took His death to pay the penalty for our sin. If there had been any other way, Jesus would not have died (Gal 2:21). Considering the sacrifice Jesus made, we should not think it is unfair that there is only one way, but we should be glad that there is any way at all. Now we will look at some problems that people have with accepting this exclusive claim.
Objection #1: Christianity is too narrow
Just because something is narrow and exclusive does not make it wrong. Life is full of things that are narrow and true. For example, we want the airplane pilot to land on the runway, not the highway; to land right-side up, not upside down. Truth is always exclusive of error. Two plus two equals four is very narrow, but it is still right.
The problem comes if people are insensitive about saying that Jesus is the only way. It is unfortunate that this sometimes happens, but just because the presentation was wrong does not make the message itself wrong. If someone went around killing people in the name of love, we wouldn’t conclude that love was wrong, would we?
We must also understand that Christianity is not the only religion that makes exclusive claims. Judaism and Islam, among other religions, also make exclusive claims. All religions cannot be true because they disagree with each other on major issues, such as how to be saved. For example, Christianity says that salvation is a free gift from God. Every other religion says that salvation is not a gift, but that we must earn it. How can salvation be free and earned at the same time? So this leads to the question, “Why should one believe Jesus’ claims and not the others?”
Objection #2: There are so many religions that we cannot know who is right
We can believe what Jesus said because He gave evidence that validates His claim. Jesus not only claimed to be the only way to God, but He also claimed to be God (John 5:18; 10:30-33). He then rose from the dead, proving that what He said was true. There is more evidence for Christ’s resurrection than any event in ancient history. Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed and all of the other religious leaders of the past are still in their tombs. But not Jesus. Who would you believe?
Objection #3: Truth changes from person to person
Sometimes people say “It may be true for you, but it is not true for me.” But simply believing something cannot make it true. We believe something because it is true, not to make it true. People used to believe that the earth was flat, but that did not make it flat; it was still round. Jesus’ statement in John 14:6, “No one comes to the Father, but through Me,” is a universal truth. It applies to everyone, even if they do not believe it. And since Jesus is God and rose from the dead, He has the authority to say this.
Objection #4: It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you are sincere
A common belief today is that God will accept people no matter what they believe, as long as they are sincere. Sincerity, however, cannot determ ine whether something is true. It is possible to be sincerely wrong, because faith is only as good as its object. Several years ago a nurse in a large hospital changed an oxygen tank for one of her patients. She sincerely believed that there was oxygen in that tank, but the next nurse to check on the patient found him dead. The tank had been wrongly labeled at the warehouse and contained nitrogen, not oxygen. This nurse was sincere and had a lot of faith in that tank, but the nitrogen still had terrible consequences for her patient.
To further illustrate that faith is only as good as its object, let’s say that I put all of my trust into a potted plant to teach me calculus. Will I learn calculus from this plant? No, because it is the wrong object. In the same way, a person can not get to heaven by trusting in religion or good works, because that is trusting in the wrong object–these things cannot pay the penalty for our sin. Only Jesus can.
Lastly, we must always remember that people of other religions can be saved, but not by their religion. If they come to Jesus, He will save them. The invitation is open to all.
Objection #5: This person is following God, just not following Jesus
The New Testament answers this by saying that the test of whether someone is really following God is whether they publicly believe in Jesus. In other words, if a person is actually following God, then when they hear about Jesus, they will accept him and follow him. Those who have heard of Jesus and yet do not follow him are not following God and do not have a saving relationship with him that leads to eternal life.
We see this in many passages. “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (John 3:21). The “light” there is Jesus. If anyone is honestly following God, then when they hear of Jesus they will follow him. “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this we know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:1-2). “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).
This is also one of the controversies that Jesus had with the Pharisees. In John 8, for example, the Pharisees said “we are following God — we just don’t believe in you.” What was Jesus’ response? He said “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here” (John 8:42). “If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (John 8:46-47). In the context here, “the words of God” are the words that Jesus speaks. The Pharisees do not believe the words Jesus is speaking, and his response to them is “you are not of God.”
If someone says “this is astonishing,” I say: I agree. It shows how great Jesus is. God cannot be accessed apart from Jesus, because Jesus is the only one who has died for our sins and is himself God. “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus is the supreme revelation of God; He is God. Therefore if a person is not following Jesus, they are not following God either.
Note also that in the above passages, the focus is on our response to Christ. They are not simply saying we can only be saved because of Jesus; they are also saying we must believe in him in order to receive his salvation. “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23). “For unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). “…Yet you refuse to come to me, that you may have life” (John 6:40). “”Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life” (John 6:47). “For whoever acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33).
What about those who lived before Christ?
The basis for salvation has always been the same–Christ and His death on the cross. Even the people who lived before Christ were saved because of Him. The means of salvation has also always been the same–by grace (God’s undeserved favor) through faith. The content of this faith, however, differed before Christ and was not as specific, but it still pointed to Christ. In the Old Testament, God commanded the people to do animal sacrifices, because these pointed to the time when Christ would die once for all to take away sins. These people still had to respond to what God had revealed.