Of obtaining eternal salvation only by the Name of Jesus

Nearly five years ago, at the invitation of one of the editors, I wrote a response to an editorial published by Anglicans Online in which the writer opined that the doctrine drawn from the fourth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles and forming the basis of Article XVIII of the Articles of Religion (“Of Obtaining Eternal Salvation Only by the Name of Christ”); viz., that we may be saved only through Jesus’ Name, was a narrow doctrine leading to “crusades, cruelty, forced conversions, and a host of other non-Christ-like actions” that modern Christians could not hold.

Here is the text of my response of April 2003.

Acts 4.12 — Jesus is Lord

Throughout the pages of the New Testament the Gospel is presented as a public, universal message: that God has reconciled the world – the whole cosmos and all of humanity – to himself in Jesus, God’s Messiah. And in resurrection, God has declared this Jesus to be Lord, a resurrection that anticipates the transformation and renewal of humanity and of the whole world through Jesus.

From the beginning the witness to the gospel was public. Jesus proclaimed the reign of God in synagogues, hillside, and temple court, and the apostles followed his example in marketplace, law court, lecture hall, and synagogue. We even find a hint of the public and universal character of the Gospel in the apostolic community’s not naming itself by any of the Greek words current in the first century for movements or cults that promised personal salvation to those who availed themselves of that cult’s teachings or liturgical mysteries.

Instead, the early Christian texts denote the apostolic community by a secular, political word: ecclesia, the meeting of the citizens of the polis to deal with public matters. But this is an ecclesia, a public assembly, with a difference: it is the assembly of God, the assembly of those who confess that Jesus is Lord. And it is this apostolic confession of Jesus as the “Savior…the Messiah the Lord” (Luke 2:11) that would bring the early church into confrontation and conflict with a far-flung imperial regime that claimed Caesar as savior and universal lord. This conflict makes sense only insofar as the church was making this confession not as just one “religious” option among many but as a witness embracing the whole of life.

Extending the Jewish confession of YHWH as Lord of heaven and earth, and against an imperial politics claiming saving lordship as well against religious movements offering personal salvation, the church proclaims to all peoples and to every person the good news of Jesus’ universal lordship and the renewal, reconciliation and salvation of humanity (and of the whole cosmos) through him alone. It is not Caesar, “Savior and Lord”, who will save you, proclaimed the early church. It is not your participation in the worship of the ancient gods of Rome or in the Greek and Egyptian mystery cults that will save you. It is through Jesus, and him alone, that God will save you. Jesus will reconcile you to God, and in Jesus you – with all of humanity and the whole cosmos – will be renewed and transformed.

But, as children (even as errant postmodern children) of the Enlightenment, we greet such a claim with skepticism or with outright disbelief. Notions of salvation belong to a private, “religious” sphere, a sphere in which there can be no universal claims, but only personal ones. It most emphatically does not belong to a public, social sphere. The courtroom declaration of Peter and John in Acts 4:12 (read on Easter 3 in the Episcopal Church’s lectionary and on Easter 4 in the Revised Common Lectionary), that “there is no other name under heaven given… by which we must be saved” strikes us as “dogmatic”, exclusive, and dangerous.

When this dangerous and exclusive claim confronts us (in these very words from Acts) in Article XVIII of the Articles of Religion we are content, perhaps even anxious, to let the article slip back into its historical context (forgetting that Cranmer and his Elizabethan heirs actually framed the christological exclusivism – “Jesus only” – of this article as a gospel critique of a medieval institutional-ecclesiastical exclusivism – “Church only”). We confess Jesus as Way, Truth, and Life, but we stop at the universal implications of his lordship. We will gladly speak to those who would ask us of Jesus and our trust in him (as indeed we should), but a public proclamation of the Gospel to believers in other faiths or in no faith at all strikes us as insensitive, narrow, and possibly even dangerously on the way to crusade and forced conversion.

In all honesty, we must admit that the church has at times mistaken coercion for evangelism – and the fault there lies in human sin, not in our Lord’s command to proclaim the good news. In this time between the Resurrection and the fullness of the Kingdom in the Second Coming of our Lord, the same church that is the Body of Christ has also been guilty of unchristlike actions. But over against the forced conversion of the Saxons by Charlemagne, the expulsions and forced conversions of the Reconquista and other such coercive movements, the history of Christian witness is overwhelmingly the history of women and men who, in fulfilling the apostolic calling to proclaim Jesus as Savior and Lord to every person and to all peoples without distinction, have known their witness to the Gospel to be a fulfillment of their love of God and neighbor.

The proclamation of the Gospel invites the commitment of all people to Jesus as Savior and Lord, but our witness to Jesus as universal Lord and Savior must be accompanied by the sign of unity. The one Shepherd is Lord over one flock, the ONE, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Disunity between traditions and denominations, as well as divisions based on race, culture, ethnicity, or wealth and social standing make us liars when we claim to acknowledge Jesus as Lord over all. Commitment to Jesus as Lord makes us members of one apostolic and catholic (universal) community of witness, the community of those who are being reconciled and renewed in Jesus, who even now embody (if only provisionally and imperfectly) the coming reign of God, who are called live out the great sign of Jesus’ lordship: eating together at the same Lord’s Table without ethnic or cultural distinctions, without racial or class divisions, and without denominational divisions.

The text as published originally at Anglicans Online is here.

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