The Christian Church must proclaim its unique message positively to followers of non-Christian religions
Soon to be released on commercial stations for public-service showing is a series of thirteen panel discussions sponsored by the Educational Communication Association on the subject “God and Man in the Twentieth Century.” The series was filmed under a grant from the Lilly Endowment and is also available for rental use by church and educational groups.
Panelists discussing “The Gospel and World Religion” are the general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, Dr. Josef Nordenhaug, whose roots are in the Southern Baptist Convention (the more than 2,000 Southern Baptist missionaries from North America outnumber those of every other American denomination); Dr. Richard C. Halverson, executive director of International Christian Leadership and vice-president of World Vision (Dr. Halverson’s ministry in the United Presbyterian Church links him to the Division of Foreign Missions of the National Council of Churches, which has some 9,500 missionaries around the world—1,300 Seventh-Day Adventists from North America); and Dr. Clyde W. Taylor, executive secretary of the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association (which with the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association has more than 13,000 missionaries—the largest contingent of missionary leaders and workers around the world in our time). Moderator of the panel is Dr. Carl F. H. Henry, editor ofCHRISTIANITY TODAY.
Dr. Henry: Gentlemen, religion has always exercised a very influential role in human history, and does so still today. Does the presence of tens of thousands of Christian missionaries around the world mean that Christians must say only bad things about the non-Christian religions?
Dr. Taylor: I think not. Some of these world religions are outstanding in their teachings of ethics—for example, Buddhism, Confucianism, and also some of the other Oriental religions. Also, we can say that Islam is very strong in its teaching of personal discipline of the individual in regard to his religious convictions. And, as far as that goes, some negative things could be said about some forms of Christianity.
Dr. Halverson: I think of a personal experience I had with a friend in Japan, a pastor who was converted to Christ from Buddhism. He has great concern about the fact that missionaries so often alienate Buddhists by being negative toward Buddhism, instead of simply presenting Jesus Christ and his love and his offer of salvation. As a matter of fact, he once said that he really believed that, had Buddha been alive when Christ was upon the earth, he would have been a follower of Christ. He encourages missionaries in Japan not to be negative toward Buddhism but to be positive toward Jesus Christ and his love. I think this is a valid approach.
Dr. Nordenhaug: Then too, Dr. Henry, the world religions outside “the Christian family” are also missionary. In recent days they have intensified their own missionary effort to win converts among other religions, including Christianity. This means that we ought to understand them well and listen to them with sympathy. We are not called upon to give up our basic convictions, I think, but to show respect and understanding of their convictions, and to try to find a ground from which we can make the message of Christ applicable to them as well as to ourselves.
Dr. Henry: So that the problem of competition for adherents and this competitive stance on the part of one religion toward another is not something that Christianity faces alone today; it is a problem that accrues to all the world religions. Now, in a world such as ours, in which there are many forces that work against faith in the supernatural and against belief in eternal law and eternal truth—I think of Communism and scientism and secularism, for example—is there any room for some cooperation among the great theistic faiths? Are there some things they can do together?
Dr. Halverson: Well, you’ll have to forgive me for again resorting to a personal experience. On one occasion when we were in Burma in World Vision pastors’ conferences, General Ne Win, who was then the leader of the Burmese government and a Buddhist, entertained those of us who were on the World Vision faculty for these pastors’ conferences, which had gathered together, I think, over 2,000 Burmese pastors for a five-day meeting. He felt, though he was a Buddhist, that this opportunity with the Christian pastors of Burma represented a common front with the Buddhists against atheistic Communism. And so he was anxious not only to entertain us but to entertain all of the pastors, which he did later on.
Dr. Henry: Would you say that there are limits on the ways in which the non-Christian religions and Christianity can cooperate, or is there a possibility of unlimited cooperation?
Dr. Nordenhaug: There is an area in which there is a certain degree of cooperation, in social concerns, and concern for the welfare of people and the common striving of all the people of the world. But there are limitations. I think I as a Christian would be very hesitant to associate myself too intimately with a religion that would be tied to a certain political point of view, and promote a certain cultural pattern, lest my Christian faith be an adjunct to these political and secular endeavors rather than coming into society with a message that is revealed and that talks to man in all his conditions and circumstances.
Dr. Henry: Yes, and you do have examples certainly of world religions today which are so intimately tied to political nationalism that it is very difficult to draw any line between the two.
Dr. Nordenhaug: Yes, that’s true. There are religions that have adopted political means to fight other religions. We can think of the tension between Buddhists and Muslims in the Far East. We can think of the Soka Gakkai movement in Japan, which is actually a nationalistic, politically tinged movement. So we have to be on the guard against becoming too involved and becoming the satellite, so to speak, of some other purpose.
Dr. Taylor: Yes, in each of these groups there is an infinite variety of points of view, just as in Christianity we have many divisions.
Dr. Halverson: Of course, I wasn’t thinking so much of the cooperative movement when you asked that question as I was of the integrity of what we are as Christians and what they are as Buddhists and as Muslims and so on. Just because of what we are, we represent a common front against atheism, against the enemies of God in that respect, in a very general sense. But I certainly would not think in terms of an official or formal cooperative …
Dr. Henry: Yes, an amalgamation of religions or anything of that sort. After all, religions per se don’t cooperate with one another; but it’s human beings in a quest for justice and for the higher things of life.
Dr. Taylor: Don’t we assume, too, that all these religions are theistic? Of course, most of the primitive religions are; but not all religions are theistic. Some of these world religions are atheistic in the sense that they do not believe in a personal God. And we of course as Christians then would be brought to the position where we would be compelled out of loyalty to Jesus Christ to confront them with Jesus Christ.
Dr. Henry: Are you suggesting that Christianity is a unique religion—and if so, aren’t all the religions of the world unique? Don’t they all have distinctive features? Or are you implying also that the non-Christian religions are hopelessly inadequate and even false when judged from a biblical point of view?
Dr. Halverson: Dr. Henry, to me the answer to that is in the testimony of the great Indian evangelist Sundar Singh who, reared as a Brahmin, was never satisfied somehow with Brahminism in spite of all that his father and family did to encourage him in this area. He was constantly searching in his younger days for reality, and finally he found it in Jesus Christ. Then he traveled all over the world as a great evangelistic influence for Christ. When asked what he found in Christianity that he did not find in any of the Eastern religions, he said, “What I found in Christianity was Christ.” So in this respect Christianity is absolutely unique; it has Christ. Christians do not make pilgrimages to a grave to worship a dead teacher or master; they worship a risen Christ. He is love incarnate, one who himself shed his own blood on the cross of Calvary for the salvation of men. No other religion has this, which certainly makes Christianity absolutely unique in this particular area.
Dr. Henry: He brought life and immortality to light, I think the New Testament says of him.
Dr. Taylor: There is another unique factor in Christianity, and that is, that we have a Book. Now the Word of God, the Bible, is the most translated book in the world. It is now in over 1,250 languages. It is circulated all over the world. It is believed by hundreds of millions of people. We of course share this book with Judaism, as far as the Old Testament is concerned. We consider that the New Testament is the further expounding and fulfillment of the Old Testament. And this book itself is the source of all we know about the living Word, Christ Jesus. The written Word, the Bible, therefore becomes the fount of our main authority as far as the Gospel is concerned.
Dr. Halverson: It seems to me too that just the fact of the Bible—its composition, its growth over a period of 1,500 years, its authorship, more than forty authors, and yet its being a book between two covers that we think of all over the world as one book and have historically, with one theme, with a unity—this to me makes it absolutely unique among books.
Dr. Henry: There is an inspiration of the living God that is involved in the preparation of this literature which has been set apart from all other literature—so the Judeo-Christian movement has historically contended.
Dr. Taylor: No other book, of course, has been so attacked, so analyzed, as this book; and yet it still survives.
Dr. Henry: While the critical views perish.
Dr. Taylor: Right.
Dr. Nordenhaug: The uniqueness of Christianity is of course in Christ and in a book that is centered on Jesus Christ. The message of this Christ in the book, and in the persons who believe on him, is the message of the Gospel. This is the Gospel: that God was in Christ, that God revealed himself in Christ.
Dr. Henry: Develop this just a bit more for us now. I know that the Greek word euaggelion means “good news”, “good tidings.” What are the “good tidings” that Christianity proclaims?
Dr. Nordenhaug: I think quite simply it is that God is a loving, concerned God with every generation and every individual, and that in order to become intelligible and known by us he was incarnate in Jesus Christ. God was in Christ reconciling the world, which needed reconciliation, unto himself. We sometimes do not think this through quite, and we think that God needs reconciliation—as in many world religions you have to appease a god. But this is not Christianity. We need reconciliation, and he has provided for it in Christ. God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not putting on the books the transgressions and sins that we had committed, but gave us a message of reconciliation. So Christianity goes into all areas of the world, to other religions, with the message of Christ, which is essentially a message of reconciliation to God, who is a loving God.
Dr. Henry: Yes, and does not Paul say in First Corinthians 15, when he gives a summary of the Gospel, that Christ died for our sins—the atonement has been made, God is propitiated, our sins are covered. And the good news, as I see it, is that God has provided salvation for all men who will believe in Christ, who will believe that forgiveness of sins is possible, that a new life is possible in Christ, that Christ has died for us and he lives to conform us to the holy image of God. He redeems us from the guilt and the penalty and the power of sin and restores us once more to holiness and to fellowship with God—is not this at the heart of the Gospel?
Dr. Halverson: This suggests also to me another very clear distinction, namely, that in Christianity salvation is a free gift that Christ has purchased and offered to man, to anyone who will believe, whereas in all other religions, irrespective of their labels and details, salvation is a goal achieved by man through his own effort, by his own works.
Dr. Henry: I remember years ago—what you have said carries me back to college days—one of my professors in a course in the history of ethics expressed this same contrast, if I can recall it, by saying that the philosophical moralists and the non-Christian religions all agree in emphasizing that man is to find salvation by the gradual perfection of his old nature, whereas Christianity insists on the crucifixion of the old nature and the birth of a new nature by the Holy Spirit of God. This may be a very abstract and profound way of putting it; but what you said is essentially right, that the non-Christian religions emphasize that man should be good in order to be saved, as it were, whereas Christianity says that your works will never be good enough to save you in the presence of a holy God. Salvation must come as a gift, and God offers it; you should receive salvation as a gift in order to do good works. Isn’t this the essential distinction?
Dr. Taylor: Yes, but one of the interesting things is that, if we are not careful, we even lose this uniqueness from the Gospel. I know when I was running a school down in Latin America, I discovered that many forms of Christianity down there had ceased to emphasize this uniqueness of the Gospel, that salvation is by faith. As Paul said, you are saved by faith and not by works. This is grace. And we found that there the stress was again on formalism and on good works without a real assurance of salvation now—you could only know after you died. And this of course is to lose the genius of the Gospel, because we can have assurance of salvation now and know that we have forgiveness of sins and eternal life. This is the great truth of the Gospel.
Dr. Henry: When we look at the Bible as a unique revelation, as an inspired revelation, we find here a special concept of God, a distinctive view of the good life, and a special view of human destiny—and Christianity in a sense is a schematic whole, isn’t it? It’s a comprehensive view. You can’t just chop off this part of it or that part of it. You must take the whole in terms of a divine revelation. And isn’t it remarkable that this is a coherent revelation that speaks to all the questions that philosophers and the world religions have raised and have left unanswered in many cases—that Christianity gives an adequate reply to them?
Dr. Taylor: Dr. Henry, isn’t it interesting how people will stress one little aspect of this and apparently ignore all the rest and forget that one is dependent upon the total whole.
Dr. Henry: Yes. Let’s zoom in, however, on the really central issue. Does the Bible teach that apart from a saving experience of Jesus Christ all men are lost?
Dr. Nordenhaug: There is no doubt about it. The answer is yes. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” “You must be born again.” We could quote ad infinitum from the New Testament.
Dr. Halverson: That would be the problem here. You could spend a lot of time quoting verses. But I think immediately of, “There is no other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” I think of Christ saying, “No man cometh unto the Father but by me.” This exclusiveness is certainly clear throughout all of the pages of Scripture, and pre-eminently in the person and teaching of Jesus Christ.
Dr. Taylor: May I just say too, Dr. Henry, I think this is largely a philosophical question in high developed cultures, because you go to most peoples of the world and this isn’t even a question. They are quite aware that they are sinners, and they are quite aware that they are lost. It’s only the intellectuals that try to talk themselves out of this. Every primitive culture that I’ve known—and I’ve lived among the savage Indians of the Amazon, for example—and this is one question you never have to argue with them. They acknowledge this immediately.
Dr. Henry: Well, then, I take it that the day of a missionary vocation and a missionary career is not over.
Dr. Taylor: This is for sure.
Dr. Halverson: I think from the missionary standpoint, even if you think of it conventionally, (which I personally don’t, because I’m primarily interested in the involvement of the layman of the Church in the mission of the Church, beginning right where he is to the ends of the earth), but even thinking of it conventionally, I think these are the most exciting days in history for the extension and the expansion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his Church, the greatest opportunity.
Dr. Nordenhaug: The spread of the Gospel then is, as we all agree, not in the hands of an elite professional staff of clergy. This is something we are all called to do; regardless of what our vocation may be in life, we are missionaries.
Dr. Halverson: The work of the ministry belongs to the man in the pew, Paul says, it seems to me.
Dr. Nordenhaug: “He has committed unto us the word of reconciliation”; to us, all of us who believe.
Dr. Halverson: The whole Church.
Dr. Taylor: I would say, that the usefulness of and demand for the missionary will depend to a great degree upon how effective the missionaries themselves have been in involving the national church and the lay people of that church in evangelism. And I think the greatest challenge today is—where this has not been done effectively—to see that it is corrected, because this is the only hope of reaching a world with a knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Dr. Henry: The Bible teaches that whoever has a personal experience of Jesus Christ partakes of a more abundant life, not only in the life to come but in this life. Did Jesus promise his disciples greater material blessing and a larger portion of the material things of life?
Dr. Taylor: No, I would say he did not. But on the other hand, it is interesting that wherever Christianity is proclaimed, the economic and social status of the people improves. God does bless obedience, and this may give the impression very often that these people are enjoying greater economic benefits. This is rather a unique aspect of Christianity as well.
Dr. Halverson: Well, I think that’s because, for example, Christianity infuses men—now there are exceptions to this—infuses men with a sense of responsibility, with the dignity of labor. I think of my experiences in Asia. It’s very hard to find in these Eastern religions any concept of the common good, any sense of responsibility to others—except, for example, as poverty is there in order that I might earn virtue by meeting the need of poverty, but no compassion toward that poverty.
Dr. Nordenhaug: Dr. Halverson, you mean to say, then, that the Christian religion will create in a man a concern for others, and take the center of gravity away from him and put it in God’s will for the total world, including his neighbor to the ends of the earth?
Dr. Halverson: I believe that that’s what it does, absolutely.
Dr. Nordenhaug: I believe that too.
Dr. Halverson: And of course this is what missionaries have done historically. They have gone out to reach the lost for Christ and preach the Gospel to them. The lost have had sick bodies, so the missionaries have healed them and built hospitals. They’ve been illiterate, so they have taught them to read and built educational systems. They’ve been hungry, and they have fed them; naked, and they’ve clothed them. This has been spontaneous in the missionary activities of the church.
Dr. Taylor: But it’s not the primary drive, is that right?
Dr. Halverson: No, they go out to preach the Gospel.
Dr. Henry: Well, the diversity of world religions is probably greater—numerically, there are probably more religions today than there ever have been. Do you think that the Apostle Paul, looking over the world of religion as such, would issue the same judgment that he issued in the New Testament on the world of Gentile religion in his day, that the multitudes were strangers to the living God and in need of redemption?
Dr. Halverson: I think he would, of course. I think this is true of humanity in all of history.
Dr. Henry: Gentlemen, that just about brings us to the end of our time, I believe, except for possibly a closing comment from each member of the panel. Perhaps, Dr. Nordenhaug, you would begin by telling us what Jesus Christ can bring that humanity desperately needs in our time.
Dr. Nordenhaug: Dr. Henry, if I may just put it in a personal witness and a personal word: Christ calls me to witness for him. He says, “Come,” and when I come he says, “Go.” He always says Come before he says Go, and he never says Come without saying Go.
Dr. Halverson: I think of a verse in Paul’s letter, “In everything you are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge.” Jesus Christ has meant meaning and purpose to me, and I recommend him highly to others because of this.
Dr. Taylor: With the entrance of Christ into my life I shared first of all this joy of salvation. The Scripture tells us that the joy of the Lord shall be our strength. And then this love for lost men: God showed me my personal responsibility to see to it that they had a chance to hear the Gospel.
Dr. Henry: John R. Mott once said that whoever has a religion must either give it up or give it away—give it up if it is a false religion, and share it with others if it is the true religion. Thank you, gentlemen, for sharing your convictions on “The Gospel and World Religion.”
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingChristian and Missionary Alliance Will Ordain WomenMinisters may now use the title “pastor” regardless of gender.
- From the MagazineOur Worship Is Turning Praise into Secular ProfitWith corporate consolidation in worship music, more entities are invested in the songs sung on Sunday mornings. How will their financial incentives shape the church?español
- Editor's PickMost US Pastors Use Armed Congregants as Church SecurityWith shootings on the rise, more churches are dropping no-firearms policies and turning to gun-carriers in their flock, survey finds.