As there are now more Muslims than Methodists in the U.S., we must think creatively about those of other religions.

To speak of “other religions” is ultimately to refer to two-thirds of the human race. The world’s other religions present a challenge to Christians not only because they have world views that conflict at many points with our own, but also because their influence is growing. Instead of disintegrating as some of our forefathers thought they would, almost all of them have increased in number, and at least one has its own vision for winning the world.

No wonder Max Warren of the Church Missionary Society argued almost four decades ago, “The challenge of agnostic science will turn out to have been as child’s play compared to the challenge to Christian theology of the faith of other men.” Christian Islamicist W. Montgomery Watt made a similar claim in the mid-1970s when he asserted, “It is hardly too much to say that the intellectual challenge to Christianity from Islam at the present time is greater than any challenge Christians have had to meet for fifteen centuries, not excluding that from natural science.” When every allowance has been made for an element of exaggeration, these statements still contain a considerable amount of truth. And “the woeful thing is,” as religion scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith says, “that the meeting of this challenge has hardly seriously begun.”

Appreciating The Changed Context

Part of the confusion and loss of confidence felt by many Christians on this issue arises from the fact that Christians in the modern world face many questions having to do not only with other religions, but also with education, philosophy, theology, history, politics, racism, evangelism, and cross-cultural communication. What are the elements that contribute to our dilemma? Here is just a sampling:

• We live in a “global village.” Japanese corporations routinely acquire American companies, so that Americans can now have Japanese bosses, often of a different religion. High-school students find that they have a Lebanese Muslim, an Indian Hindu, or a Chinese Buddhist among their classmates.

• The concept of “Christendom” has given way to “the Pluralist Society.” There are now more Muslims than Methodists both in Britain and the U.S.; and it is estimated that within three years there will be more Muslims than Jews in the U.S. We can no longer imagine that we live in a Christian country in which the Christian faith is the only real option.

• In the West, Christianity has declined in numbers, while in some parts of the world, the four other great world religions (Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism) have proved resistant to the gospel; in some areas they have even experienced a resurgence. To our surprise, the preaching of the gospel has in many cases contributed to the revival of these ancient religions.

• We know a great deal more about other religions than our forefathers did. Comparative religion or the “study of religion” has become a sophisticated discipline. Most colleges now offer electives, if not degrees, in this area.

• We feel guilty about certain aspects of the modern missionary movement, and we are embarrassed about the imperialism (political, economic, and cultural) that was sometimes (or was it often?) associated with it. We do not want to repeat the same mistakes.

• Sensitive political and social issues, such as racism and education, are often tied up with questions concerning religion. Most countries desperately need harmony among people of different religions and ethnic origins, but evangelizing people of other faiths, or even talking about it, can be seen as contributing to division and conflict.

• Even if we want to share our Christian faith with people of other faiths in our society, we sometimes get overwhelmed because we do not understand their language, their culture, or their religion. The missionary task on our doorstep seems so enormous that we are tempted to ask, “Is it even worth trying?”

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• Some Christians are still not confident about the usual answer to the age-old question, What about those who lived before Christ and those who have never heard the gospel? The more we insist on the uniqueness of Christ, and the louder we proclaim that salvation is only through him, the more we seem to be saying that everyone who lived before Christ and all of the two billion today who have not heard the gospel have no hope of salvation. For more than two centuries it has been customary to affirm this, but an increasing number of Christians today doubt it.

• Many modern Christians, having imbibed the relativism of our culture, ask, “If all religious beliefs are relative and are determined by culture and experience, what does it mean to say that the gospel is true?”

Wrestling With Theological Issues

How shall we respond to the challenge of this changed context?

We begin by affirming that the gospel is for all people and that the Great Commission is therefore still an imperative for the church. We must state uncompromisingly that our understanding of Christ’s call to “go and make disciples of all nations” has not changed even if the context for our proclamation has. Christians who experience the benefits of the Cross and Resurrection and who know anything of the joy of Pentecost and the fullness of the Spirit will want to be obedient to the Great Commission. Like the apostles they will say, “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 2:1–7 to pray for everyone, since God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” That should still be our prayer.

We must do more, however, than simply reassert the uniqueness of Christ in old categories, more than just produce strategies for reaching people of other faiths. We must first do some hard thinking about other religions. Their very existence, their arrival in our midst, their numbers, their vitality, and their resistance to the gospel should be forcing us to wrestle with difficult theological questions.

Are we right, for example, in our exegesis of the “exclusive texts”? The answer is both yes and no. Two examples from Scripture will illustrate.

In Acts 4:12, Peter’s words sound quite exclusive: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Many attempts have been made to evade the plain meaning of these words. It has been pointed out, for example, that the context has to do with healing rather than with salvation, or that Peter was not in a situation where other religions were involved, and could therefore not have been thinking about other religions at the time.

But closer study of the words sōzō and sōtēria in the Gospels and Acts against the background of Old Testament texts like Isaiah 45:22 (“Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other”) suggests that there is no way of wriggling out of the straightforward interpretation of Peter’s claim. Salvation is to be found in Christ alone. That is a direct and uncompromising statement of the source of all people’s hope.

But we also need to consider Jesus’ words, “No one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). I used to think that means that a person who does not believe in Jesus has no knowledge of God—period. But my experience of meeting people of other faiths who seem to have a relationship with a personal God (even if it is not a saving relationship) has forced me to look again at the text.

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A more exact understanding of the verse shows that Jesus is talking precisely about relating to God as Father, and, by implication, he points to himself as the Son. When he says, “I am the way,” he therefore is stressing “I am the way to the Father,” because he goes on to explain, “no one comes to the Father but by me [that is, by me, the Son].” We can fill out the other statements of the passage similarly.

The words of Jesus do not therefore mean that people of other faiths can have no relationship with God at all. They mean, rather, that people of other faiths cannot know God as Father and enjoy that kind of intimate relationship with him unless they come through Jesus the Son. This interpretation seems to make sense not only of the text, but also of many people’s experience with people of other faiths. Some devout Muslims I know would never dare to call God Father, but the quality of their lives hardly suggests that they have no relationship with him.

The World Comes to First Baptist

Few areas in the U.S. can boast the incredible ethnic and religious diversity of Flushing, New York, on Long Island; but more and more will. Churches in the midst of cultural pluralism will stand at a crossroads, just as ours—the First Baptist Church of Flushing—did almost two decades ago.

At the time our church had to ask, Will we continue to cater to the dwindling group of traditional Anglo-Protestants? Or will we become a multicultural church? It was not easy at first, but members and leaders began to realize that the Great Commission could be fulfilled in our own neighborhoods. The “ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) had come to our doorstep.

The congregation called its present senior pastor and team leader in 1978. We realized we had to direct the church in the penetration of its diverse community and in the development of a heterogeneous congregation of Anglos, Eastern Europeans, blacks, Hispanics, Portuguese, Chinese, and Asians. Today, baptismal services in this congregation often record converts from five of the world’s six continents. Services are conducted in Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, Cantonese, and English. For most of the English-speaking congregation, English is their second language. Over 40 different native languages are represented among members of this congregation.

We now offer God’s love in and around New York City, where 300,000 Muslims reside. In the metropolitan area, over 100 Islamic centers of worship and culture serve people representing Islam from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, as well as Africa. First Baptist of Flushing has an open-door policy, reflected in its “welcome” signs in Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu. The needs of Islamic people are served in the areas of language acquisition, immigration service, employment, housing, day care, furnishings, and clothing.

Required classes

Our church has refused to adopt a fortress and maintenance mode. Instead, it is committed to preparing every believer to minister and witness for Jesus. When those from other religions convert, they go through a class that trains them in the basics of the Christian faith. Since the majority of the congregation is not from a Judeo-Christian background, training in the Scriptures and “How to Share Your Testimony” is required for equipping the saints to minister to a globally diverse community. New believers who are zealous (as are these converts from other religions) often have the motivation to share their faith with their friends. And unlike long-term believers, they still have the circles of contacts to do so.

The witness of Christ’s people has been well received by immigrants uprooted from their native lands. With migration into a new environment, these new arrivals have become open to the world view of others, particularly loving Christians who embrace their felt needs.

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A few years ago we helped many refugees from Afghanistan who had fled to this country. During one of our friendship dinners, over 150 Afghan people heard a former missionary to their country share the message of God’s love in Christ. Among those present were the former mayor of Kabul and the minister of education. Through the loving relationship of a Christian woman, a young Afghan widow trusted Christ as her Savior. This new believer was then discipled by a missionary seconded to the church.

The linking of First Baptist with mission societies and parachurch groups has also been beneficial. The mission personnel provide the biblical and religious knowledge; the congregation provides the loving relationships. This team-ministry approach effectively reaches those who have migrated to our community.

Through friendships and small-group evangelistic Bible studies, we have introduced a number of people to faith in Jesus Christ. This has occurred in the diamond district, in utility companies, in the United Nations, and in other business settings.

For example, Hindu families and friends, invited by members of their cultural community from First Baptist, have experienced God’s forgiveness and salvation in their lives. The formerly Hindu families in our congregation have been delivered from the bondage of devotion to false deities and an impersonal god. They have discovered the responsiveness of the Lord Jesus Christ who nurtures, counsels, and protects.

The church in today’s urban world must confront diverse cultures, world religions, secularism, atheism, and satanic spiritism through a laity trained to release love to the lonely migrants from the nations of the world.

To advance the gospel in our multinational communities today our churches must open their hearts to God, so they see no man as after the flesh. Their ears must be alert to the cries of those uprooted from the nations of the world. Their mouths must communicate in love the name of Jesus.

The heterogeneous church speaks powerfully to a fragmented and prejudiced society. The reconciling grace of God that makes believers of diverse culture, race, and nationality one body has a magnetic attraction for the unbelieving. There is no more powerful witness than a diverse but unified people who live the reality that they are “one new [person] in Christ Jesus.”

By Russell Rosser, senior pastor, First Baptist Church of Flushing, New York.

A Theology Of Religions

But how shall we understand other religions theologically? If our theologians have spent time trying to understand why God allows evil, we now have to turn our minds to the question of why he allows other religions. How can they exist within the sovereignty of God, and what kind of revelation (if any) do they contain? As Wilfred Cantwell Smith says, “We can explain the fact that the Milky Way is there by the doctrine of creation, but how do we explain the fact that the Bhagavad Gita is there?”

Is religion entirely man-made? Is it nothing but human beings seeking after God? Are the instincts that draw people to the New Age entirely distorted and misdirected? Are all forms of religion under divine judgment?

When we turn to the Old Testament to answer questions of this kind, we tend to turn first to verses like these: “You shall tear down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Asherim with fire; you shall hew down the graven images of their gods …” (Deut. 12:3); and “all the gods of the peoples are idols; but the LORD made the heavens” (Ps. 96:5).

But we soon discover that it may not be quite as simple as this. Melchizedek, for example, is described as “priest of God Most High” (el elyon), and Abraham seems to identify Melchizedek’s God with Yahweh when he speaks of “LORD God Most High, maker of heaven and earth” (Gen. 14:18–22). This same God of Abraham communicates with an outsider like Abimelech in a dream (Gen. 20:6–7). And Job, who lives in the land of Uz, perhaps during the time of the patriarchs, has no contact with them and yet has personal dealings with Yahweh (Job 38:1).

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We find occasional stories with a similar perspective in the New Testament. After meeting Cornelius, Peter says, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism [NIV], but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable [dektos] to him [RSV]” (Acts 10:34–35). But what precisely does “acceptable” mean? Even if it does not mean “justified” or “saved,” it must mean that these people are in a different position from people who have no such faith. Does it apply only to those who were proselytes to Judaism, or could it also be applied to people of other faiths today who have the fear of God in their hearts?

What about Paul’s theology of religions? He gives us several significant clues in Romans 1–2. And in the context of Corinth he says, “What pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God” (1 Cor. 10:20).

But in Athens, although he is deeply distressed by the idolatry around him (Acts 17:18) and proclaims, “We ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone” (v. 29), he also recognizes that there is something that is genuine in the people’s searching. “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” (17:23, NIV). “What you worship but do not know—this is what I now proclaim” (NEB).

As we work out our theology of religions, therefore, we cannot be satisfied with saying that other religions are simply “satanic delusion” or “human attempts to find the truth” or “preparations for the gospel.” If we are to relate all that we know about people of other faiths today to all that we find in Scripture, our theology of other religions will have to be flexible enough to include elements of all three explanations.

Looking At The Unevangelized

In simplest terms, questions about the unevangelized can be phrased thus: Is salvation only for those who consciously and openly profess faith in Jesus Christ? Are people of other faiths, before and after the time of Christ who have not heard the message, excluded from the possibility of salvation?

Until recently, most evangelical Christians, if not all, would have answered both questions with an emphatic yes. It is often pointed out, for example, that it was the vision of millions perishing in China that motivated Hudson Taylor.

In recent years, however, respected evangelical teachers have begun to ask whether we can give quite such a clear-cut answer. Sir Norman Anderson, for example, writes: “I cannot believe that all those who have never heard the gospel are inevitably lost.… I believe there is much, in the Bible and experience, to point to the fact that God can and sometimes does, work directly in men’s hearts to convict them of sin and prompt them to throw themselves on his mercy” (Christianity and World Religions: The Challenge of Pluralism, InterVarsity).

It should be emphasized that writers such as Anderson are not simply saying, “We can’t believe that a God of love condemns people to hell when they haven’t had an opportunity to hear the gospel.” They appeal to passages such as Luke 18:9–14, where the publican in the parable throws himself on the mercy of God with the words, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” or to Matthew 25:31–45, where in the parable of the sheep and the goats the sheep are surprised to find themselves welcomed into heaven.

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However difficult and sensitive this issue may be, I suggest there are at least three reasons why we need to grasp the nettle: (1) In several missionary situations in the world (such as Africa and the Far East), inquirers and new believers are constantly asking, “What about our ancestors?” (2) Those who do not think of themselves as evangelicals have developed positions in recent years that are much more sophisticated than the old universalism, which simply said, “Everyone will be saved”; and if we are to be taken seriously and make any contribution to this debate in the worldwide church, we need to be able to articulate more clearly what we believe. (3) Our motivation for mission needs to be undergirded by a coherent and convincing theology that clearly upholds both the justice and the love of God, and that both fuels our urgency and informs our efforts.

It is important for evangelicals to see those areas where there are minor differences of emphasis among ourselves within the context of a wider consensus where we all agree. Could we not start with the following affirmations?

• Salvation is only through Christ, and it is a gift of God’s grace, received through repentance and faith.

• The church as a whole has the responsibility and the privilege of proclaiming the gospel, and like Jonah it is constantly running away from its divine calling.

The Perennial Debate

Throughout history Christians have wrestled with the question of salvation for those who have never heard of Christ. No single answer to this question has ever won consensus in the church, and committed Christians have espoused widely differing views. An overview of their perspectives is helpful in any discussion of today’s encounter with world religions.

The early church—which, until A.D. 313 when Constantine and Licinius made Christianity a fully licit religion, was a minority movement fighting for its place in society—produced a plethora of answers. Justin Martyr (c. 100–c. 165) said, “Those who lived according to reason [the logos] are Christians,” even though they did not know about Jesus. Tertullian (c. 160–c. 220) claimed that it had been a common belief since the days of the apostles that Jesus descended to hell and preached the gospel. There was debate, though, as to who benefited from the preaching. Irenaeus (c. 130–c. 200) and Tertullian held that Jesus delivered only the believers of the Old Testament from hell. On the other hand, Clement of Alexandria (mid-100s), Origen (c. 185–c. 254), and Athanasius (c. 296–373) taught that Jesus delivered from hell both Jews and Gentiles who accepted the gospel and that postmortem evangelism continues even today.

Augustine (354–430) rejected such ideas, arguing that before we die we must know about Jesus in order to be saved. Consequently, he believed that all the unevangelized are condemned to hell. Much later, Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–74) agreed with Augustine on the necessity of knowing about Jesus, but went further to claim that for those few “brought up in the forest or among wolves,” God would send the gospel message through miraculous means.

The “age of discovery,” during which the voyages of Columbus, Magellan, and Drake brought Christians into contact with other cultures, revived the issue, but the Reformers were not able to give it a great deal of attention. Martin Luther held out hope for the salvation of the unevangelized (especially the Roman orator Cicero), but he did not dogmatize this view. Ulrich Zwingli believed that pagans like Socrates and Cato were saved.

John Calvin took a more restrictive view, believing that all unevangelized and those of other religions (primarily the Turks) would be damned since “apart from Christ the saving knowledge of God does not stand.” Dutch Reformed controversialist Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609) taught that anyone who had not heard the gospel would receive an opportunity even if by direct revelation from God.

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The topic was also broached in several early Protestant confessions. The Second Helvetic Confession (1566) asserted that, while it would be unusual, God could send the gospel to whomever he wills through miraculous means. The Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles (1563) and the Calvinistic Westminster Confession (1647 and 1649) did not rule out such views, but they did rule out the idea that non-Christians are saved by their religion instead of by Christ. Later, some Anglicans like high-churchman Edward Pusey (1800–82) interpreted this to mean the possibility of the unevangelized being saved in their religion, but by Christ.

Since the eighteenth century the topic has received much discussion. John Wesley believed that many of the heathen were taught by the “inward voice” of God and that no person should “sentence all the heathen and Mahometan world to damnation.” Jonathan Edwards took the opposite view, holding that no one can be saved unless he had explicit knowledge of Jesus.

Then, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the rapid expansion of American and British influence coincided with the establishment of Bible societies and mission efforts. This great missionary expansion brought the issue to the fore. European Protestant divines such as Johann Lange and Frédéric Godet suggested that the unevangelized will receive an opportunity to accept Christ after death. The Princeton Calvinists Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield ruled out all hope for those ignorant of the work of Christ; whereas William Shedd, the noted Calvinist defender of orthodoxy at Union Seminary, and Northern Baptist theologian A. H. Strong believed otherwise, arguing that the unevangelized would be saved if they accepted the light God had given them.

Each of the views mentioned above is represented in contemporary evangelicalism, but two positions are especially popular. Perhaps the dominant view, espoused by L. S. Chafer, Carl F. H. Henry, and R. C. Sproul, is that no unevangelized person will be saved. The other popular evangelical position, held by J. N. D. Anderson, Clark Pinnock, and Charles Kraft, is that if any unevangelized person repents and desires God’s mercy, he will be saved by the work of Christ even though ignorant of that work. Other perspectives include that of Norman Geisler, who says that anyone who follows the light he has will receive an opportunity to hear the gospel before death, and Donald Bloesch, who affirms the possibility of conversion after death. John Stott believes that multitudes of the unevangelized will be saved, although he has not advanced a theory of how this may come about. J. I. Packer and Roger Nicole allow some possibility for the salvation of the unevangelized but say that instead of speculating about it, we should leave it in the hands of God. Although God’s decision on this issue is final, the church has never agreed on the nature of that decision.

By John Sanders, who teaches at Oak Hills Bible College, Bemidji, Minnesota.

• While some of us believe (on the basis of certain Scriptures) that those who do not hear the gospel have absolutely no hope of salvation, and others (on the basis of other Scriptures) hold back from such a conclusion, we all agree that salvation comes only through the name of Jesus, and that the only way by which anyone can be sure of salvation is by responding to the preaching of the gospel in repentance and faith.

Recognizing Nontheological Issues

The more we get to know people of other faiths and study their religions, the more we find that we are also dealing with issues that have little or nothing to do with theology. Consider, for example, these questions:

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• How well do we relate to people of other faiths as people, and how well do we understand their culture? Many of our difficulties have to do with their culture rather than with their religious beliefs. People say to me, for example, “It’s the smells of their cooking and the way they treat their teenage daughters that I find hard to take.”

I am convinced, therefore, that teaching about other faiths in our churches generally needs to begin with encouraging relationships on this personal level rather than by presenting people with vast amounts of new information about other religions. We need help in understanding customs and ways of life that are different from ours. We have to deal with ethnocentrism and all the arrogance, superiority, and complacency that are part of Western culture.

This means there is a place for listening to the testimonies of those we try to reach. And we must pray constantly for the discernment that enables us to see where we can agree and where we differ so that when we have opportunities to speak of Jesus, our testimony is related to their questions, not only to ours.

• How much do we understand other faiths? Most of us as Western Christians would have to admit that our knowledge of other faiths is superficial. If we have not mixed with people of other faiths in our own country, or traveled overseas, or taken the trouble to do some serious study, it is understandable that we will be influenced by popular prejudices and stereotypes. Sometimes, however, the problem is not lack of information, but a total lack of sympathy—or, if the word sympathy implies too much agreement, of empathy.

• Are we aware of the racism within ourselves, our society, and our churches? If ever we find ourselves thinking about people of other faiths in the same way that Jews thought about Samaritans, we will not find it easy to share our faith with them. There were plenty of nontheological prejudices in the hearts of the disciples, which had to be rooted out by the Holy Spirit.

I have heard several missionaries returning from work overseas saying how shocked they have been to find so much racism in British churches. It has taken us some time to realize that Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is not just about Islam. It is also about migration from one culture to another, and it has some uncomfortable truths to tell the British about the way we treat foreigners. One Muslim writer said recently that Rushdie had cut himself off from his cultural and religious roots, but he expressed the hope that he would one day return to Islam. He went on to say that if and when he did, Muslims would have British racism to thank for it.

The Open Secret

Paul’s prayer at the end of Ephesians has special relevance for us as we think and pray about the challenge of other religions. When he speaks of the “mystery of the gospel” (6:19), he uses the word mustērion, which comes straight out of the mystery religions of his day. But for Paul, the good news about Jesus is not a mystery to be shared only with the initiated; it is an open secret to be shared with the world.

He then uses the word boldness, asking the believers there to pray that he will have the courage to speak fearlessly, and the wisdom to find the right words to communicate to each different audience (Eph. 6:19–20).

There is another context in which a whole group of Christians prayed for this same gift of boldness. Peter and John were leading the Jerusalem church in prayer, asking God to release them from their fears: “Grant unto your servants to speak your word with all boldness.” At the same time, they were realizing that their own words were limited, so they asked God in his own sovereign way to reveal his power through all they did in Jesus’ name.

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Amid the complexities of our pluralistic world, such is the boldness that we need as well—a boldness that will drive us to our neighborhoods, communities, countries, and the ends of the earth with the good news, shared compassionately, and shared earnestly.

How long, then, will it be before we can stop saying, “The woeful thing is that the meeting of this challenge has hardly seriously begun?”

By Colin Chapman, former missionary to Egypt, currently instructor in mission and religion at Trinity College, Bristol, England. He is the author of Christianity on Trial and The Case for Christianity (Eerdmans). This article develops themes of his address given at Lausanne II in Manila in July 1989.

Truly Christian, Truly Sri Lankan

The temptation in a pluralistic culture, such as ours in Sri Lanka, is to give up on evangelism, to soft-pedal the uniqueness of Christ as the way of salvation. As the United States sees increased tolerance of world religions, American Christians may be able to learn from the way believers in other pluralistic cultures have coped with this challenge.

When I first went to college, I was surprised to find myself yielding to this temptation. The college had until recently been a Buddhist seminary; its president was a Buddhist monk, and I was reluctant to make it known that I was a Christian. It was a period of strong nationalism, and Christianity was considered an affront to the national heritage. For over four centuries we had been ruled by “Christian” powers who had used repressive measures against the other religions. It did not help that Christians were among the most Westernized people in the country and that our worship styles and other forms of religious expression were alien to the national culture.

Nevertheless, while still at college, I tried to overcome my reluctance and resolved to expound afresh this uniqueness and help foster a Christianity that is truly Sri Lankan.

Sharing the Christian faith among Sri Lanka’s Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims meets with resistance, however. Most Sri Lankan non-Christians think the gospel actually encourages sinful behavior, that Christians believe they can live any way they want, ask their “kind” God to forgive them, and then go back to their sin assured of continuous forgiveness. We have to place special emphasis in evangelism on the holiness of God and the lordship of Christ.

We have also found that the gospel of grace is a challenge to those who believe they can save themselves by their efforts. Christians sometimes mistakingly admire the ardor of non-Christians without realizing that such zeal may represent little more than the effort of persons who want to save themselves—independent of God. The message that Christ has done all that is necessary for salvation is not good news to many, for it implies that they must let go of the gratification of trying to save themselves.

When one understands the message of grace, however, it becomes good news of liberation from a hopeless situation. My grandmother was orphaned in her teens and widowed in her thirties. Being a Buddhist, she assumed that she was suffering for bad karma (the consequences of past misdeeds) accumulated during past lives. The message that Christ had paid for her sin (or karma), was good news indeed. She became a radiant Christian and a spiritual mother to her descendants.

One of the greatest challenges to the proclamation of the uniqueness of Christ in this setting is syncretism, the mingling of different religious beliefs. Many Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka worship a multiplicity of gods. Some Buddhists simply keep the gods of their animistic past, overlaying primitive beliefs with the tenets of Buddhism. They fear they will suffer reprisals if they forsake their gods to follow the Christian God. We therefore introduce God as the supreme Creator of everything, more powerful than all created things.

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When patience meets opportunity

Along with the obstacles, our culture presents us with many opportunities to share Christ. The demonstration of the power of God as he heals sickness and answers prayer helps us capture the attention of non-Christians. So does Christian compassion. Though Christians are a small minority, they have been in the forefront of relief operations during times of crisis, such as the recent riots in our country. The Christian community with its warmth and concern for people also has a strong attraction for non-Christians. Our cultures stress community solidarity, but Buddhism and Hinduism do not have corresponding concepts of community life.

Recently I did an informal survey among converts to Christianity in our ministry asking them what it was that led them to become Christians. Many said that they first came to a Christian program because they were invited by a Christian friend. The welcome they received there made them want to return.

Anyone working with non-Christians must learn to be patient. Most of the converts in our ministry accepted Christ months—sometimes years—after they first heard the gospel. But the knowledge that without Christ these people are empty and restless helps us persevere. Only Christ can truly satisfy. As the Indian Sikh persecutor-turned-evangelist Sadhu Sundar Singh once said, “Without Christ I am like a fish out of water. With Christ I am swimming in an ocean of love.”

By Ajith Fernando, national director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka, and the author of The Christian’s Attitude Toward World Religions (Tyndale).

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