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I. All Religions Essentially The Same
On July 4th, 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a committee to design an official seal for the newly established United States of America. The initial proposal featured a lady holding a torch on the left side of the seal and a man bearing a gun on the right side. In between these two were thirteen small shields, one for each of the 13 Independent States of America. At the top of the seal there was a triangle with an eye in the center of it, which is the symbol of the 'all seeing,' triune God, watching over the nation. And then, at the bottom of the seal was a banner with this phrase written on it: 'E Pluribus Unum.' Literally, 'Out Of Many, One.'
The seal itself didn't really catch on. But that phrase 'E Pluribus Unum' did. To this day, you will see this phrase printed on all U.S. currency.
'E Pluribus Unum.' 'Out of the many, one.' America is a 'melting pot.' 'Toleration' is a fundamental, guiding principle of our nation.
So for example, when it comes to religion, there are laws in place to protect 'religious toleration.' The government cannot support one religion over another one. Although a few of the initial 13 States had their own 'state church,' the law of the land is, there can be no 'established national religion.' Nor can any religion establish it's own religious state within the U.S. No 'state church' and no 'church state.'
We are a nation of 'religious freedom' and we insist on 'religious toleration.' The goal of the nation is not to convert it citizens to one religion. It is the government's job to protect the freedom to worship any religion we so choose. We hold to the principle of many different religions, all living together under one national government.
So, with that bit of American history in place, let's think about how this principle is understood and carried out today. Today, the phrase, 'E Pluribus Unum,' out of the many one, is very often understood and practiced in a way that was never intended. Today, many people actually interpret 'out of the many, one,' like this, 'out of the many, same.' With the help of my Latin dictionary, this translates into, 'E Pluribus Unus,' instead of 'Unum.' Even though there is only one letter that is different between these two words, there is a world of difference between 'Unum,' and 'Unus.'
Let's do a quick comparison of these two phrases. 'Out of the many, one,' says nothing at all about the validity or content of any religion. It just says that we tolerate one another's religious beliefs. 'Out of the many same' on the other hand, makes a critical judgment about the teaching of every religion. 'Out of the many same,' claims that it knows what all religions teach, and that after a thorough evaluation, the judgment is all religions are equally valid, equally true. All religions lead to the same God even though they may do so by different roads.
Maybe you've heard the famous 'Mountain Analogy' of religion. The analogy pictures God at the top of the mountain with man down at the bottom. The goal of religion is to help men and women at the bottom of the mountain get to the top of the mountain and enter into fellowship and communion with God. The mountain has many roads. Some go straight up the mountain by a very direct route. Some wind around the mountain in a long and windy road. But all eventually end at the same destination, communion with God. 'ALL ROADS LEAD TO GOD.'
Have you ever had someone tell you that they believe that all religions are essentially the same? Maybe they said it something like this, 'it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you believe.' Or, maybe you've heard it expressed a bit more sharply, 'I can't believe that God would be so narrow-minded that He would provide only one way to heaven.' Sometimes we may even hear how this same has leaked into the Christian religion when someone says, 'it doesn't really matter what church you go to as long as you go to church.'
So, why have so many adopted the principle of 'out of the many, same' when it comes to religion?
Let me suggest one reason that I think may be the most prevalent and the most honest reason. We value PEACE more than we value TRUTH. We all know what terrible arguments and even violence that disagreement over religion causes. Why do we refrain from witnessing to the gospel of Christ like we do? Because religion is one of those topics that has the potential for creating great tension and disagreement and separation between people. Why is it that we like associating with and having friends who go to the same church we do? Because we know we will agree on our religion beliefs. So, how do we deal with this tension between 'the many' different religions we live together with? We say, all religions are essentially the same, equally true.
This is certainly one way to strive for peace. But sadly it is a peace that comes at the heavy price of the truth.
This is certainly not a new approach to peace on earth. As far back as the 16th century, people were telling Martin Luther that he should shut up and quit his teaching, because it was going to cause a terrible upheaval and separation in the church. Luther was famous for replying, 'Truth at all costs, peace whenever possible.'
Much, much earlier than that, in the days of the prophet Jeremiah, false prophets were ignoring the truth of the people's idolatry and declaring peace to God's people apart from true repentance. Jeremiah responded by preaching, 'They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace.' (Jer.6:14; 8:11).
So, how do we respond to someone who says, 'all religions are essentially the same,' or, 'it doesn't matter what you believe so long as you believe'? I think that the question that I would want to ask is this one, 'you say that all religions are essentially the same. So, I assume that you've investigated all religions and compared their various claims with each other in order to conclude that they are all equally valid'?
It's a loaded question for sure. The answer has got to be, 'no, I haven't actually compared the claims of one religion against another.' I suspect, that if the truth be told, people who say such things don't really know much about any other religions that they claim to represent. But they have this personal belief that if there is a God, He can't be so narrow-minded as to have only left one way to be saved.
But the truth of the matter is, there are significant differences in the claims of different religions that categorically conflict with each other. I've complied a very short list just from the very narrow list of religions that I'm marginally familiar with to make the point.
?? Buddhism denies the existence of a personal god, while Christianity affirms the existence of a personal God.
?? Hinduism teaches the repeated reincarnation of the soul to a different earthly body, while Christianity teaches that earthly body is reunited to the same soul in heaven that it was joined to on earth.
?? Classical Islam endorses the conversion of non-Muslims by subjugation and force if necessary while classical Christianity forbids conversion by force and insists that believers treat unbelievers with love and kindness.
There are only two possible ways of maintaining that all religions are essentially the same after doing just a bit of exploring into what they actually teach. One is by ignoring the clear contradictions between by saying that there is really no contradiction at all. This requires a flight into pure fantasy. The second, is to say that these contradictions are insignificant non-essentials. Yes, they are contradictions, but they don't really matter. This requires the stripping away of so much of what each religion teaches and stands for that eventually everything gets stripped away until you're left with something like 'the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man.' But neither of these two options is either honest or helpful.
II. The Essential Difference Of Christianity.
We've taken some time to examine and analyze the claim that all religions are essentially the same. Now, I want to take a few moments to examine the claim of Christianity that makes it different that every other religion there is.
The teaching that makes the Christian religion essentially different than every other religion is this, 'grace.' Christianity is built upon the foundation of the grace of God towards mankind. No other religion teaches that God is a gracious God except Christianity.
'The grace of God,' or 'God's grace,' are terms that we use a lot among ourselves. Maybe we're so used to hearing them that we've never stopped to think about what they actually mean. A good definition for 'grace,' is this, grace is 'undeserved favor.' The central premise of the Christian religion is that God saves men and women, boys and girls solely because of His grace. We are saved by 'grace alone.'
'For by GRACE YOU HAVE BEEN SAVED through faith.' (Ephes. 2:8) 'For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, AND ARE JUSTIFIED BY HIS GRACE as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.' (Romans 3:23-24).
Let's explore this so that we understand what it means and how precious and distinctive this teaching is.
First, let's rule out what this teaching rules out. Salvation by grace alone rules out all teaching that God saves us because of some merit or worthiness that is in us. It rules out the teaching that God saves us because of some change or transformation that has taken place in our lives. It rules out that God saves us because He foresaw that we would eventually come to faith in Jesus Christ. Any of these teachings cannot coexist with the principle of salvation by the grace of God alone which the Christian religion is based on.
No other religion is based on the premise that God saves by grace alone. Every other religion teaches that God saves because of something in man; his obedience, his faith, his goodness, his ancestry.
But Christianity says that all mankind is the same in the eyes of God. 'THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE. ALL HAVE SINNED AND FALL SHORT OF THE GLORY OF GOD.' It is not that God changes us so that He may save us. God saves us by the FORGIVENESS OF OUR SINS. The change comes afterward, at least it better. But our salvation is based solely on God's complete and total forgiveness.
And just to be sure we understand this, let's press this a little deeper. It is not that God is gracious simply because He has the power to treat men and women any way He darn well chooses to, because after all, He's God and if He chooses to forgive our sins by putting them away as far as the east is from the west, then He can do so.
No, that's not what the Christian faith teaches. It teaches that God is gracious to us for the sake of Jesus Christ and His atoning, substitutionary death on the cross. 'We are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.' (Romans 3:24) God declares the unrighteous, righteous, the final judge declares the truly guilty man, not guilty, because a truly righteous man has taken the unrighteous man's place, because the one truly innocent man has taken the truly guilty man's punishment for him.
The Christian religion is essentially different than every other religion because only the Christian religion teaches that because the one, true God is GRACIOUS, He came down the mountain to enter into communion with sinful men and women because sinful men and women cannot climb the mountain to Him.
The cause of our salvation according to the Christian religion is rooted solely, entirely in God, and not in the least little bit in man. 'God saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.' (2 Tim. 1:9)
The fundamental teaching of the Christian faith that we have a gracious God who saves us by grace alone, is the basis for all of the other differences between Christianity and every other religion. The Trinitarian nature of God, the creation of the universe by the power of God's Word, the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, all of this and whatever else is unique about the Christian faith, is all rooted in the teaching that God is gracious towards mankind and that He saves and redeems us by grace alone.
It seems to me that when we confront those who say, 'all religions are essentially the same,' with this unique difference of Christianity, we are offering them, not an argument, but a marvelous improvement over anything that any other religion has to offer. In fact, when we tell that that the Christian religion is unique because it is based upon a gracious God, we are offering them both real peace and real truth.