An Open Letter of Response to Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Over at Stand Firm, there is a thread dealing with the sad comments made by Presiding Bishop Katharine Schori of the Episcopal Church regarding her views of Christ being the only way to salvation. In that thread, Rabbi Arthur Waskow asks the following question:

I take it that “Stand in faith” and most of your comment-posters would prefer a theology and a statement of it that Jews—even let’s say Martin Buber & Abraham Joshua Heschel—do not have a chance of salvation? That Gandhi does not? That God will not (cannot??) save anyone who does not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was (a) Messiah and (b) fully God in a way that other human beings are not?

—-  Rabbi Arthur Waskow
The Shalom center

The response to Rabbi Waskow’s question has been strangely muted and I am both puzzled and distressed by it. There are many talented and devout folk who comment on SFIF and I am at a loss to explain the overall non-response. As of this writing there have been 240 posts to that thread but only 2 or 3 have bothered to try to answer Waskow’s question directly. I am sure there are others who answered obliquely but none really caught my attention. Since I do believe that faith in Christ is literally a matter of life or death, I want to respond directly to Rabbi Waskow’s question.

Dear Rabbi Waskow,

I read with interest your comment/question on a recent thread on Stand Firm. I was distressed to see that only two comments, Andrew A’s and Deacon Synder’s, directly addressed your question and I am at a loss to explain why more did not. Be that as it may, I would like to address your question because I believe it is literally a matter of life and death. As an Anglican priest, I am also charged to be a servant of Christ and to be an evangel of his Good News so that all may be exposed to it.  In answering your question, I will assume you asked it in good faith rather than out of cynicism or snarkiness.

I cannot speak for any commenter on Stand Firm other than myself. Your question implies that there is a general desire on the part of most Christians to exclude others from living with God forever, i.e., from being “saved.” Perhaps you believe this because Christians believe that Jesus is the one and only way anyone can live with God forever (John 14:6). Unfortunately, there are some Christians who out of some misplaced and sinful sense of pride have used this passage to beat others over the head, and that gives all Christians a bad name because we are consequently painted with broad strokes to reflect those among us who use this passage in perverse ways. I do not speak for those folks.

For me, the issue is not one of exclusion but rather one of God’s gracious love toward all people. The root problem, of course, is the sin that separates us from God. God, being Holy, cannot and will not tolerate sin in his Kingdom and New Creation when it is fully established and none of us on our own can solve the problem of sin, hard as we might try (and we must keep trying, I might add). As Genesis reminds us, humans chose to sin against God and when we did, we became separated from God. Despite those who claim that we moderns have made much progress as a race of people, I see no evidence to suggest that the problem of sin has left us. We humans are still quite sinful and broken, unable to fix ourselves, and today’s technologies unfortunately exacerbate the problem.

But thanks be to God that he has taken on our flesh, entered his world as Jesus of Nazareth, and died a horrible and cruel death for us, thereby bearing the punishment himself for our sins! In doing so, he has allowed his holy and righteous justice to be satisfied and given us our one and only chance to live with him forever. This is what John 14:6 means. We Christians are not saved because we are morally superior to others (or superior in any way for that matter). We are saved because of the Cross of Christ and because we believe that God’s promises to us in Christ are true, promises that are a logical extension of God’s covenental promises made to Abraham and David. Without the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, I have no legitimate hope of ever living with him forever. Neither do you and neither does anyone else.

Does that mean God cannot or will not save those who do not believe? I cannot answer that because salvation is from God alone and for him alone to decide; it is not for his creatures to decide. But if the New Testament is true, and I believe it is, then the picture is bleak indeed for those who do not accept the free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ because we cannot make ourselves holy so that we can live in God’s Kingdom and New Creation at Christ’s Second Coming. That is why I think faith in Christ (or lack thereof) is an issue of life and death, and I do not want anyone to die.

What I have just written you is more than just an apology. I have a relationship with the Living Lord that validates, in part, what I have written. I know he lives and that he is with me (and all believers) through the Power and Presence of his Holy Spirit that he promised to us. He walks with me and talks with me, and I walk and talk with him. Even now he is at work in me, cleansing me and purging my sin so that I will some day be able to live with him forever. I do not know how this will finally be accomplished but I know from experience (and from the experience of countless other Christians across time and culture) that Christ lives, and through his Holy Spirit is working on me each day to make me holy and ready to live with him forever. He has born the terrible punishment for my sins, a punishment I rightly deserve, so that I am declared “not guilty” in God’s sight, and is now working to make me holy, to purge my sin from me entirely. That is what I mean by salvation. It is not easy and it is costly because I am having to give up my sinful nature to become more like my Lord and that is often painful. But it is life-saving and that is why I have taken the time to write this letter to you because it is my heart’s desire that everyone believe in Christ so that they too can live with this awesome and gracious God I (and countless others) know.

Since God acted decisively once and for all in Christ, i.e., since God’s invitation is extended to all, and since Christ himself commanded Christians to make disciples of everyone, I do not understand how this is “exclusivity” on the part of Christians or represents a Christian desire for some to be permanently separated from God. To the contrary, if the Christian faith is valid and true, then it would be singularly unloving on our part not to want to share this Good News with unbelievers. Why would any Christian wish permanent death and separation from God for someone else? You, of course, are free to accept or reject the Good News. However, if I love others as Christ has commanded, I have no choice but to proclaim the Gospel because there will be consequences for both of us in what we choose to do or not do.

And lest you think this is just a theoretical issue or discussion, let me make it personal. My own children have rejected the Christian faith, hopefully temporarily, and have thus placed themselves in mortal danger if they were to die before coming back into the fold. My heart breaks over this each day that I live and I pray fervently and in anquish that God will not give them up permanently in judgment to their own sinful nature. Make no mistake. I love my kids and think they are fine young adults. But they are still sinful beings like me, and like me, they do not have the power in themselves to deal effectively with their sins so that they can live with God forever. Only God can do (and has done) this through Christ. The thought of living an eternity apart from my kids is one of the most heart-wrenching fears a father could ever have and it most certainly is NOT my desire that this should happen. Again, it is not a matter of me being better in some way than my kids or morally superior to them. I will be living with God forever because I believe his promise to redeem me through Jesus Christ, and I am living in that promise right now by living a new life in Christ. It is a promise available to everyone. But we have to embrace it through faith; it will not be thrust upon us because no real relationship works that way.

So to summarize, Rabbi, the Christian faith has never advocated excluding anybody, especially not the Jews. Yes, unfortunately some have perverted the faith and used it in wicked ways, especially against the Jews, but that is not the true Christian faith delivered once to the saints. When folks really understand what God has done for them in Christ, the reaction is never some haughty sense of pride or presumption; rather, it produces a sense of profound gratitude and humility for God doing the impossible for us.

In closing, I still cannot understand why God has called me to the priesthood, let alone why he wants to have a relationship with me, because I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me (Psalm 51:3). However, it is to the glory of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that he loves us enough to be willing to deal with the problem of sin himself, once and for all, so that we could have our one and only chance to become like him and live with him forever. It is a free and life-changing offer, starting right here and now, and open for anyone to accept. May God help you (and everyone) find that truth too and accept his gracious invitation.

Whether you agree with what I have written, I trust you know I wrote it in charity and not out of spite, anger, or haughty pride.

Blessings to you,

Fr. Kevin Maney+