“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” John 14:6
An extraordinary exchange occurred this week during a congressional hearing in the United States Senate. No, it wasn’t former FBI Director Comey discussing private conversations in the Oval Office. Rather, the Christian faith of Russell Vought came under scrutiny as Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) were questioning President Trump’s nominee to serve as Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget.
In summary, Sen. Sanders raised the subject of an article penned last year by Vought over the controversy at his alma mater, Wheaton College. The school dismissed a political science professor for expressing comments on her Facebook page that, while intended to show solidarity with Muslims, strayed from the Christian university’s doctrinal stance on salvation being solely through Jesus Christ. Bernie Sanders took particular offense at Vought’s statement,
“Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.”
Many have commented that the exchange is disturbing on multiple levels. I see at least three important areas of concern.
- A Religious Test for Public Service
- The Doctrine of Christian Particularism
- Religious Bigotry and Hateful Discrimination
Many have already weighed in on the first point. With all it’s legal and constitutional implications, I am unqualified and will not pretend to be able to add to what has already been said. As for the second point, Emma Green at the Atlantic wrote a particularly thorough account of the exchange. In her article, Green presented the Biblical basis and historical context for the doctrine of Christian Particularism, the historic belief that Jesus Christ is the one true God and only name by which humanity can be saved. I encourage you to read Green’s article carefully.
What I have not yet seen is an adequate response to the accusation that this doctrine is bigoted and hateful. Without being disrespectful to either Senators Sanders or Van Hollen, it seems by their statements that they are making an inherent assumption about Christianity. Christians, it appears, must believe themselves to be somehow superior to other people or belief systems.
In his opening statement, Sen. Sanders said, “In my view, the statement made by Mr. Vought is indefensible, it is hateful, it is Islamophobic, and it is an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world.”
To be clear – there are many hateful, bigoted, Islamophobic, and discriminatory people in the world, and tragically, in the Church as well. Bigotry and hate of another person or people group are abhorrent. They are an affront to God, His design for human flourishing, and should be repudiated. Yet, Sanders said that it was Vought’s statement that was hateful, not Vought himself. However, the objectionable statement – even if taken out of context – is a straightforward and concise implication of the doctrine of Christian Particularism. If Jesus is the only way to God, then no other way to God exists.
Why does it matter?
This exchange in Congress is concerning for any person who claims to be an adherent to doctrinal Christianity. Remember that Christian Particularism was Jesus Christ’s own claim to be the exclusive path to salvation and way to be reconciled to God (John 14:6). Anyone who holds to this doctrine is simply agreeing with what Jesus himself established as a basis for understanding the Christian faith.
Sander’s continued in his opening statement by saying, “this country, since its inception, has struggled, sometimes with great pain, to overcome discrimination of all forms … we must not go backward.” Backing Sen. Sander’s accusation, the Atlantic article reported, “[Sen. Chris] Van Hollen said it’s “irrefutable” that comments like Vought’s suggest to many that he’s condemning all people who aren’t Christians.”
How does the Christian respond to these damning accusations? Is holding to Christian Particularism truly tantamount to religious bigotry?
In his own defense, Vought clarified that this historically consistent articulation of Christian doctrine in no way made him Islamophobic or hateful of non-Christian adherents. He claimed all people are made in the image of God and have inherent value, dignity, and worth. I would simply add that this country – since it’s inception – invoked this uniquely Judeo-Christian philosophical perspective when our founders wrote: “all men are created equal.”
So, how else might we respond? I would suggest three ways.
First: Jesus is the one who condemns… and forgives.
The Bible is clear in Romans 8:34, that Jesus is the one who condemns. According to Scripture (Colossians 1:15-20), Jesus was the one who created the world and holds it together. He alone has that right and authority to condemn people and anyone who says otherwise is deluded or deceitful. Either way – they do not represent Christianity.
Even though Jesus is the one who condemns, Romans 8:34 continues to tells us that Jesus is the same one who willingly died making atonement for our sins. God raised Him from the dead back to life, and now He is praying for all who believe in Him. Those who trust in Jesus’ sacrifice for their sins will not perish or be condemned but will be forgiven and have eternal life with God.
Second: Christians are not better… just forgiven.
At one point during the hearing, Sen. Sanders continued his questioning by saying, “I don’t know how many Muslims there are in America, I really don’t know, probably a couple million. Are you suggesting that all of those people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too?”
I am not sure how I would have answered a direct question like that, especially in such a public venue as a congressional hearing. I hope I would respond by saying, “Yes. But the truth is far graver than that, senator. The truth is that ALL people are condemned. Not one person is righteous, not even one.” Because there is one standard to which all people will be measured – the holiness of God – and all people have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. But, in His loving-kindness and mercy, God himself made a way for every single person to be reconciled to God’s holiness by sending the perfect and sinless Son of God, Jesus, to willingly die on the cross so that the debt of sin could be paid.
The doctrine of Christian Particularism is not a cause for gloating – because it requires us to recognize that there was nothing I did or ever can do to stand justified before God. The only way to stand before God and not be condemned is to trust in the self-sacrificial work of Jesus on the cross. When I stand before God, all I can do is trust that Jesus’ sacrifice is sufficient for my sin. The great promise of Christ on the Cross is that God will look at me and say – not that I am condemned, but forgiven.
Third: Christians are not made superior… but servants.
The Bible teaches that the moment a person accepts God’s forgiveness through Jesus, they are set free and no longer a slave to sin. But Galatians 5:1 says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set you free.” From the moment a Christian is set free, they become a servant – to all people who have not yet heard that Jesus Christ came to save them from their sin. Christians are entrusted with the message that God has made a way for every person to be reconciled to God and forgiven (2 Cor. 5:17-21).
But there is the catch, God has made just one way, Jesus.
It has to be this way because the salvation that is for the forgiveness of sins is precisely what made Jesus so special and unique (Luke 1:77). But what is even more marvelous is that the forgiveness is available to all people – Jews and Gentiles, people in every nation and generation. No matter your ethnicity, religious background or heritage, Jesus’ forgiveness is available to you. Jesus’ forgiveness is as available to you if you were raised in an evangelical church in the American south or an Islamic Mosque in Central Asia. Historically, Christians have been motivated by a love for Jesus and His love for all people to traverse oceans and continents to reach across cultural barriers to share this good news of salvation with those who have not yet heard.
To the Christian: there is no condemnation, but you are forgiven and set free for freedom’s sake. You are not better than those who do not believe in Jesus. You had a debt you could never pay and Jesus paid it for you. That leaves you with a debt you can never escape, to tell others that forgiveness is available through the cross of Jesus Christ.
To the non-Christian: I simply ask you to honestly reflect on your life. Do you believe you would be justified if you were to stand before God? Or is there something in you that is broken, or just seems off and you would fall short of the standard of holiness set by God? That’s what sin is – it is just missing the mark of all we were created to be. No one can answer that question for you. Do you have a sin problem or not, the choice is yours.
However you decide, know that I do not and cannot condemn you. The doctrine of Christian Particularism is this: there is only one who has that right, and he died for you to once and for all set right what sin made wrong. Will you accept His free gift of salvation?