The Line in the Sand
This crucial difference is why, as always in this discussion, the person of Jesus Christ constitutes the essential line in the sand. According to the gospel, God has not left the claim “We want you God, but we do not want your Son” available to us. Such a claim is an affront to God and an insult to the costly redemption he has provided through Jesus: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). To repudiate God’s gift of his Son is to repudiate God himself. This is the explicit verdict of no less than Jesus himself:
Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me (Luke 10:16).
The Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him (John 5:22–23).
It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me (John 6:45).
I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).
Hence this was also the testimony of Jesus’ followers:
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5).
As you come to [Jesus], a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 2:4–6).
No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also (1 John 2:23).
Christians affirm each of these biblical claims about Jesus, while Islam rejects them. This is the decisive difference between these two faiths. All the other differences stem from this one.
Notice how asking the right question enables us to cut through the fog generated by starting with the wrong question. It also allows us to skirt an issue relatively few of us are qualified even to address, much less pontificate about; namely, what Islam or the Qur’an does or does not teach. The above analysis supplies the clarity we need by focusing on only three unchallenged points: (1) Christianity’s confession of God’s eternal, Son-centered, Spirit-empowered plan of redemption as revealed in the Bible; (2) Islam’s explicit rejection of that plan; and (3) Christ’s verdict about the implications of such a rejection. For many, these three points answer the underlying question they were asking in the first place.
The “Sameness” Issue
If their contrasting responses to the gospel represent the critical difference between Christianity and Islam, what about their points of similarity?
In dealing with this question, it is essential that we maintain a clear distinction between two contexts. The first is a theological context, such as the discussion above. The second is a missiological context. Here the focus shifts, from a theological assessment of the two faiths to the question of how best to understand and relate to Muslims. The “sameness” issue plays little role in the first but a potentially significant role in the second.
In a theological assessment of the two faiths, the three points above identify the determinative issue. Jesus taught that those who reject him, by that one and the same act reject the God who sent him. Thus it appears inescapable that in its repudiation of God’s Son-centered gospel, Islam as a religion places itself under Christ’s verdict. This verdict is a hard saying—Jesus specialized in hard sayings—but it is one we dare not shy away from. It’s a verdict every Christian should hope and pray every Muslim is given the opportunity to weigh.
Notice that Christ’s hard saying does not require that there be no “sameness” between Christian and Muslim ideas of God. According to Romans 1:19–20 God has made at least some minimalist knowledge of himself—his existence, his eternal power, his divine nature—available to everyone. Thus there is nothing inherently misguided about acknowledging that a Christian and a Muslim may hold in common at least some basic understanding of the Creator. This is, after all, the One both claim to be worshiping, and Paul attests that it is God himself who has made such a claim arguable.
Yet even this minimalist claim is more complicated than it may seem. How much sameness does it really entail? The answer can be maddeningly difficult to pin down. Consider, for example, these two analogies: