I have been wading through No Other Name: A critical survey of Christian attitudes towards the World Religions by Paul Knitter. It’s actually not all that bad except that Knitter seems to intentionally misrepresent Conservative Evangelical theology and misses some key distinctions. One of the most important misrepresentations comes in his discussion of the similarities between Christianity and Pure Land Schools of Amida Buddhism and Bhakti forms of Hinduism. (Caveat: I’ve read some on Pure Land Schools and have never heard of Bhakti forms of Hinduism.). Knitter contends, “Amida Buddhism seems to teach the same essence of St. Paul and the Reformers’ insistence that we can find ‘salvation only by by faith’ and only ‘by grace’. (Barth admits that the same could also be recognized in Bhakti forms of Hinduism).”
Here’s the issue: Christians (at least orthodox Christians) don’t teach that faith saves you. We believe works save. Not our works, but the works of Jesus Christ. His active righteousness and obedience fulfilled the Covenant of Works that Adam (and every subsequent man, woman and child) have broken (Rom 5:12-21). Moreover, his passive obedience on the cross atoned for the guilt our disobedience deserved (Col 2:13-14). Our covenant unfaithfulness and sin is imputed to him and it is paid in full. His covenant faithfulness and righteousness are imputed to us and we are declared righteous holy saints. His works save us.
What then is the role of faith? Our faith unites us to Christ. Our faith is brings us to be “in Christ”; by our faith we are incorporated into Christ and his blessings.
Philippians 3:8-11, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
Back to Knitter, two things come to mind. First, evangelical views are often intentionally twisted and misrepresented. In reading Knitter on evangelical views of world religions I found myself disagreeing with the ‘evangelical view’. Why? Because it wasn’t really the evangelical view! I find it absolutely bizarre (scandalously irresponsible) that Knitter fails to mention the historical nature of the atonement in his chapter on Conservative Evangelicals. He writes characterizing the evangelical attitude as, “My mind’s made up. Don’t confuse with me the facts…The Bible tells us that salvation through faith is possible only in Jesus Christ.” Yet, he offers no real explanation of the evangelical understanding of the cross and atonement – of how faith in Christ saves! This is more than oversight in my opinion. He quotes Stott at length. If he’s ever read Stott, he couldn’t have missed his emphasis on the importance of the atonement.
If you listened to Knitter you’d think evangelicals believed it was their faith that saved them and he then concludes that we are inconsistent in failing to recognize that the Buddhist’s genuine faith or the Hindu’s genuine faith could save them. Only when he comes to discuss the Mainline Protestant view does he get to a discussion of the atonement as the ‘ontological necessity of Christ’. He quotes Newbigin, “In Jesus the one thing needed to happen has happened in such a way that it need never happen again in the same way. The universe has been reconciled to God. Through the perfect obedience of one man a new and permanent relationship has been established between God and the whole human race. The bridge has been built.”
Second, this was just a good reminder for me that we can never talk about faith saving, especially now in our pluralistic context. It’s not our faith that saves, it’s the object of our faith – the person and work of Christ. Everyone talks about faith nowadays. In fact, religions aren’t religions anymore, their ‘faith traditions’. In the muddy waters of today’s pluralism and relativism the Christian church needs a new clarity in what we proclaim. We are saved by the amazing grace of God who sent his Son to live and die for sinful humanity, satisfying his justice and wrath and demonstrating his inexpressible love. This gift of God becomes our through faith. Our faith isn’t a good work that saves. The sincerity of our faith isn’t what saves – the object of our faith, namely Christ, saves.