John 14:6: Exclusive or Inclusive?

In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Next to John 3:16, this is the most used text in the New Testament. You hear it from my lips; I hear it from yours.” It also shows on billboards along the highway and on banners at baseball games.

• There are those who believe this text is exclusive. That it serves as a handy divider between the sheep and the goats, the saved and the unsaved. They say the text excludes everyone from God except believing and baptized Christians.

• There are those who believe this text is inclusive. That its primary purpose is not to separate the sheep from the goats and sort ou the saved from the unsaved. Rather it is about the unique relationship between God the Father and God the Son and the unlimited atonement (at-one-ment) between God and humankind that God accomplished in his Son, Jesus Christ.

What do you think? Perhaps I can help you to refine your thinking by introducing to you a few of the many questions that have come to me over the years.

One question stands out above all others. People ask, “What about those people who lived before Jesus Christ? Certainly, Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, and Elijah and all the Old Testament saints will get into heaven, but what about Nefertiti, Hatshepsut, Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, and their followers? I usually answer that question by referring to John chapter 1. There in we read:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God; 3 all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made..”

If we believe that Jesus was present at the creation, then no one lived before Christ, and we can trust Him to do right by those who were born into this world before he robed himself in human flesh to become one of us, at the same time revealing the very heart of God.

Or what about this? I once had a man say to me:

“Worth, I believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I believe I am saved and safe because of what he has done for me. However, I cannot believe that when Hitler and the Nazis gassed 6,000,000 Jews, adults, and children, and then incinerated their bodies in gigantic ovens, God just allowed them to continue to burn, and not just for a moment, but for all eternity. If God did that, would it make God a bigger monster than Hitler”

I am not making this up. Many of you know the man who made that statement. What do you think? Do you agree with him, or do you disagree? I agree with him primarily because I believe in a God of Love who is good, and wise, and just. More than that, I have the testimony of Scripture. According to St. Paul himself, he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews.” Paul embraced the Risen Jesus as the Messiah, but he ever quit being a Jew or turned his back on his people. In Romans 9-11, Paul honestly struggles with Israel’s rejection of Jesus. He then opines that God has a plan. The Jews have temporarily rejected Jesus, but even now God is using the Gentiles to make the Jews jealous, and, after the full measure of Gentiles have come in, Israel will turn to Christ, and “All Israel will be saved!” This theology is complicated by the passage of years–but Paul says this must be so because the gifts and call of God are irrevocable.

Or, what about this? Almost all people of faith believe that God has made a special provision for children. Calvin—had a stern theology—insisting that if God elected some to heaven, while sending, or leaving others to the “other place;” but even Calvin softened when it came to children. He said that God immediately whisked into heaven all the babies who die at birth, or shortly after, so as to ensure that the number of the saved is greater than the number of the lost. This implies an “age of innocence” and over the centuries, many have insisted that the “age of innocence” is extended throughout childhood. In the Jewish faith, just before a boy turned twelve or thirteen, he would go to his father, and say, “Father, I have committed the last of the sins for which you are responsible. I wish to become a man.” He had reached the age of accountability. There was a similar ritual for girls.

I like this doctrine about “an age of innocence,” and think it deserves a closer look. On the one hand we do well to note that some children mature at a younger age than others. They are capable of great faith. Zinzendorf used to say that at the age of five he was as certain that Christ was his savior as that he had five fingers on his right hand. And, on the other hand, we must note that some children mature later than others. Some teenagers are still terribly immature when they are 14 or 15 or even older. And what about those children and adults who live their full three score and ten, or longer, yet never develop the ability to comprehend and embrace the gospel? Will God hold this against them? I think not.

Or what about this. What about all those people who live in places where the name of Christ has never been spoken, at least with integrity and authority. Will God automatically condemn these people? Again, I think not. In Acts 17, St. Paul visits the city of Athens. As he walks around the city, he notices that among the many gods of the city, the Greeks have erected an altar to the unknown God. When he is invited to preach—he begins in conciliatory fashion and announces that he has come to tell them about this unknown God. He tells them that he is the creator of heaven and earth, and that he has made from one blood every nation that we might feel after him and perhaps find him, for, as their own poets have said, “in him we live and move and have our being” and he is not far from each of us. Then Paul takes makes a hard right turn, and puts the resurrection trumpet to his lips, saying:

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands everyone everywhere to repent, for he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness, by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead!”

Now consider the phrase—“the times of ignorance,” which is another way of saying “the age of innocence.” Obviously, the times of Ignorance were over for those Athenians who heard Paul’s sermon. But what about those who lived at the far reaches of the Roman Empire and beyond> What about those who lived in Briton, Ireland, Scotland, and in the far reaches of the Barbarian lands? And what about those tribes that even today dwell deep in steamy jungles and in the frozen places of our planet? Is it not possible that they are still living in “a time of ignorance?”

Most of the time we like things neat and settled. We like our theology tied up in bows and ribbons. But things are not always so neat, and sometimes we are glad that it is not. Just this week, I was reminded of another hope held out to us in the New Testament, this one on behalf of the people we love. I spoke to the widow of a dear friend. She said to me, “Worth—my late husband is everywhere and nowhere.” I knew what she meant. Though her husband was a believer, she is not. She is one of the best people I have ever known—she lives for others, and I have always wished I could give her the same sort of hope that dwelt in the heart of her husband. Of course, I never could for no one has that power. Nevertheless, as I closed our conversation I silently thanked God for Paul’s word in 1st Corinthians 7:14 , that, “the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband.” The same text lays down hope for the children of even one believing parent. As Psalm 103 declares:

The steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children.

As parents and as grandparents we have a hope for our children, and for theirs. What is it? That is not for me to know. But I trust the promises of God.

Let me give one more example. Following the death of India’s great patriot, Mohandas Gandhi, a Hindu came to Stanley Jones, a Methodist Missionary in that nation for many decades, and asked, “Do you think God will let the Mahatma “the Great Soul” Gandhi into your Christian heaven?” Jones responded, “Well—I am not God, and I am glad that I am not, for only God is good enough and wise enough to judge the fate of individuals and peoples and nations; but I will say this: If God did not let Gandhi into heaven, then heaven would be a poorer place, as it would be without you.” I have always admired the humility of Jones’s answer. He did not condemn Gandhi—nor did he issue a pass he had no authority to issue. It is based on a text from Romans 2 where in St. Paul writes:

4 When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

Many years ago, I preached a sermon not unlike the sermon I preached this morning. When I finished a fellow pastor came to me and told me I was wrong. He pointed out that the Ground of the Unity itself declares that “there is no salvation apart from Him (that is “Jesus”).” I told him to read the whole sentence in which this phrase occurs. It declares:

We believe and confess that God has revealed Himself once and for all in His Son Jesus Christ; and that our Lord has redeemed us with the whole of humanity by His death and His resurrection; and that there is no salvation apart from Him.

I said, “Brother, how can there be any salvation apart from Jesus Christ, because ‘our Lord has redeemed us with the whole of humanity by His death and Resurrection?’”

John 14:6 is not an exclusive statement. John 14:6 is an inclusive statement. It teaches us that God the Father and God the Son, along with God the Spirit, are One, and that the death of Jesus Christ is sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world. In the death of Jesus “for us,” God has kept his promise to punish sin. In the Resurrection of Jesus, God has proved he has the power to do anything he chooses. Now God is absolutely and completely free to forgive whomsoever he will, for whatever reason he chooses. The atonement, the at-on-ment between God and humankind is unlimited.

Of course, there is one way to be sure. We can look to Jesus Christ. He said, “I am the way,” meaning he is the way to live and the way to God. He said, “I am the truth,” meaning that he is the truth about God. We can be confident that all other revelations of God will be Christlike—not just until the end of time but throughout eternity.. He said, “I am the life,” meaning that he now shares with us the Eternal Life that ultimately belongs to God alone. He said, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” for He and the Father are One. To see Jesus is to see the Father. To know Jesus is to know the Father.

After the same sermon, another Moravian pastor came to me and said, “Worth, I agee with every word that you said, but why did you say it? Doesn’t it remove the impetus for evangelism.” I said, “The impetus remains with us—it may remove many an impediment, clearing the way for unbelievers to become believers.”

Why? Because people want to know what God is like. Is God loving? Is God merciful? Is God just? Is God on my side? Is God like Jesus Christ? I believe that he is. He must be, for God the Father and God the Son, along with God the Holy Spirit are one.


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