The Gospel Yesterday and Today
Howard Coles, Coleford, England
We look at the world where pluralism is the dominant ideology. We may see examples of this in so-called political correctness, which is a child of pluralism. That is where we never say anything that is likely to cause offence to anyone or what someone may deem will cause offence to another. Words that are associated with race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical attributes, abilities or lack of them are all expunged from the language. Political correctness sees the use of such words as judgemental, and judgement words imply a superiority/ inferiority relationship, which is rejected by pluralism where all things are treated as being equal and of equal value. Tolerance is the greatest virtue of the politically correct; they tolerate anything, except intolerance, that is, of which they are intolerant themselves. Euphemisms are the order of the day. Anyone with a difficulty is referred to as ‘challenged’ in some way or another. Couples co-habiting are called ‘partners’. Those who in the past were considered deviant are now said to be engaging in an ‘alternative lifestyle’. While we seek not to cause or give offence, we must not remove the offence of the Cross.
We see examples of pluralism in the media where all religions are treated as equally valid and none can claim to have ‘the truth’ for truth is considered personal and relative. Religion has been relegated to the private sphere of life. Now all religions are treated as commodities in the supermarket of ideologies and one can pick and choose or mix-and-match as one may please. Indeed, any and all lifestyles are treated as equally valid. It is a fundamental tenet of pluralism that there is no criteria for judging different lifestyles as all are true for those who believe they are true. Truth becomes a personal truth, a subjective truth. Truth is no longer something that is open to falsification; it is no longer something that is in the public domain; it is no longer absolute.
Pluralism in New Testament Times
If we examine the times and culture of Christ and the early church, we may be surprised to find that very little has changed. It was into a world of religious pluralism that the gospel of Jesus Christ came and ‘turned the world upside down’, Acts 17. 6, or as some have said, the right way up!
The Jews, and initially the early Christians, held a special place in the Roman Empire in that they were allowed to keep their own religion. They did not have to participate in Emperor worship. Indeed, at one time, the Jews rioted when Pontius Pilate brought Roman standards into Jerusalem. The Jews saw the Roman standards as graven images, which God has prohibited in the ten command-ments. The rest of the Roman world, however, was happy to accept all and any gods that were going. They had no problem in accepting Mars or Caesar. No problem in accepting Greek gods such as Apollo and Neptune. No problem in accepting Egyptian gods such as Isis and Serapis. There were also mystery religions which were attached to one god or another. The ceremonies of these mystery religions were secret. Those who became members of these religions found salvation in being initiated into the secret practices of the religion. It was not uncommon for zealous religious people to belong to more than one mystery religion. Mystery religions were by their nature all very similar.
The gospel confronted the pluralism of its day, which is not so dissimilar to what we see today. Paul’s preaching in Athens, Acts 17. 16-33, provides us with a masterful presentation of the gospel in confronting and refuting pluralism. When ushered before the Aeropagus, which was a ruling body on religious affairs in Athens, he highlighted the weakness in the beliefs of the materialistic, pantheistic Stoics and pleasure-seeking Epicureans. He showed that God, the Creator of all things, had no need of a temple, which they would normally assign to a new god entering the Athenian pantheon. God, the Author and Sustainer of life, is the ultimate Judge, not the Aeropagus, who themselves would be judged. The time of ignorance was over, now was the time to repent.
Paul’s basis for the presentation of the gospel is God’s revelation, not just in creation, but in the Person of Jesus Christ. Paul makes no concessions to the Athenians of the Aeropagus. He noted that they were ‘too superstitious’, Acts 17. 22. This he does as a comment and not in any way approving of what they believed. Paul only ever preached one way of salvation, as there is, indeed, only one way of salvation.
Christ is Supreme
Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, shows that all men are under the judgement of God. There is no exception for none is righteous, ‘for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God’, Rom. 3. 23. We all need the salvation which has been provided by God in His grace through Jesus Christ, to all who repent and trust in Him, Rom. 10. 9-13. Paul never counsels any other way for salvation. Indeed, Paul reserves very strong language for those who preach ‘another gospel’; such people are an anathema (or accursed), Gal. 1. 7-9.
The letter to the Philippians leaves the reader in no doubt that Jesus is Lord, and an eschatological day is coming when all of creation will confess this, Phil. 2. 10-11. From the start of Christian preaching, the person of Christ has been shown as the unique Saviour. ‘Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved’, Acts 4. 12. From the days of the early church, there has always been only ‘one Lord, one faith and one baptism’, Eph. 4. 5. The pluralistic world had many lords or gods, 1 Cor. 8. 5, but the gospel is that, ‘there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’, 1 Tim. 2. 5.
The pre-eminence of Christ comes out so clearly in the epistle to the Colossians, see Col. 1. 12-19. Note that the term ‘first born’ here is one of title and not one referring to a place in time. There are many philosophies in the world, but if they don’t point you to Christ, then they are nothing but a deceit, ‘For in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power’, Col. 2. 9-10.
The writer of Hebrews brings out how Christ is superior to anything or any system. He is greater than any angel, Heb. 1. 5, and He is greater than Moses, Heb. 3. 3. He alone is the great high priest, Heb. 4. 14, and the only one ever who was in a position to offer Himself as a spotless sacrifice to God, Heb. 9. 14. He did not need to offer many sacrifices; all He needed to do was to offer the single sacrifice of Himself for the putting away of sin, Heb. 10. 12, 14. We see that there is no ‘also ran’, as indeed there is no other who fulfils scripture and brings to men the blessings God intended for them. There is no competition when it comes to the Lord Jesus as He is the only way to God. He Himself said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me’, John 14. 6.
The letter to Timothy and the Book of Revelation show us that Jesus is ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’, 1 Tim. 6. 15; Rev 19. 16. He is not one among many; He is the only One there is, the only Way by which we find and come to God. In taking the gospel to a pluralistic society, we do not face any challenges that have not already been faced by those of previous generations. They did not bow the knee to whatever was the prevailing ideology and water down their message. They preached the uniqueness of Christ as the all sufficient Saviour. History tells us that they were successful in their generation. The Roman Empire with its many gods collapsed and the Christian worldview became the dominant worldview across Europe. Let us, faced with the same challenge as our brethren of the first century, take this life-saving gospel to a dying world.