“Jesus? Who is that?” he asked with a genuinely inquisitive look on his face.
“Umm, you know . . . Jesus,” I said.
“I’ve never heard of him,” he replied.
I was a nineteen-year-old college student in a large city in Southeast Asia talking to another student about cultural things, and then the conversation moved quickly to spiritual matters.
Although I had heard there were people around the world who have never heard of Jesus, I had never actually met one. But something clicked for me that day like it never had before. Here I was on the other side of the world sitting face to face with someone my age, heartbroken that he had never even heard of Jesus and the salvation he accomplished on the cross and in the resurrection.
Although I had heard that there were people around the world who have never heard of Jesus, I had never actually met one.
By God’s grace, I was able to share the gospel that day with my new friend. God also used that encounter in Southeast Asia to completely change the whole trajectory of my life. I didn’t know it then, but the Holy Spirit was using the Reformation truth of Sola Christus (Latin for “Christ Alone”) to ignite within me a passion for global missions. From that moment on, I wanted to spend my life helping get the gospel to those who had never heard of Jesus.
Centuries before my conversation with the college student that day, the truth of Sola Christus was one of five key declarations made by the leaders of the Protestant Reformation that began in 1517. Today, it remains a vital reminder to Christians all around the world of the necessity of Christ for salvation. At its core, Sola Christus emphasizes that the sinless life, substitutionary death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ are not only necessary for salvation, but they are entirely sufficient to save those who place their faith and trust in Christ’s finished work.
Commenting on the significance of Sola Christus, Martin Luther wrote, “What I am telling you is that it is easier for us humans to believe and trust in everything else than in the name of Christ, who alone is all in all, and more difficult for us for us to rely on him in whom and through whom we possess all things.” (Luther’s Sermons, Vol.5, p. 79, Baker Books)
Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli proclaimed, “Christ is the only way of salvation of all who were, are now, or shall be.” (Theology of the Reformers, p. 129, by Timothy George, B & H Academic)
Luther and Zwingli rightly understood that only Christ can bring salvation.
The apostle Paul made plain in the first two chapters of Romans that it is not enough to merely learn about God by observing his creation. This kind of knowledge—also called general revelation—can never unite God and man in right relationship. Redeemed relationship with God is only possible through repentance and faith in the finished work of Christ, and one comes to that understanding through special revelation.
Sola Christus under Fire
Not long ago, I attended a large global missions conference in Southeast Asia where a keynote speaker was criticized and labeled as narrow-minded for boldly proclaiming the necessity of Christ in salvation. This happened at a missions conference where roughly one thousand self-identified evangelicals from over one hundred countries were in attendance. The truth of Sola Christus is now being questioned and doubted by not only the lost world but by professing Christians!
Former evangelical theologians Clark Pinnock and John Sanders have argued extensively for salvation apart from explicit faith in Jesus Christ. In essence, these men would agree that faith is necessary for salvation, but that salvation is also possible through general revelation. In addition to the salvific nature of general revelation, Pinnock and Sanders also contend for the possibility of post–mortem opportunities for salvation. That is, they believe that people will have the opportunity after death to repent and trust Christ. These assertions may initially seem shocking to some, but the reality is that this type of thinking has subtly penetrated many evangelical churches today (Clark Pinnock, A Wideness in God’s Mercy; John Sanders, No Other Name).
Sola Christus, Salvation, and the Great Commission
Sola Christus served as one of the rallying cries of the Reformation many centuries ago, but evangelical churches, pastors, and missionaries must recover this vital truth today. If salvation is possible apart from explicit faith in Jesus Christ, then there is no urgency or impetus for taking the gospel to the 2.8 billion unreached people around the world.
If salvation is possible apart from explicit faith in Jesus Christ, then there is no urgency or impetus for taking the gospel to the 2.8 billion unreached people around the world.
Sola Christus reminds us the only hope for the nations is the good news of the gospel and the finished work of Christ on the cross. There is no justification for sinful humanity apart from faith in the atoning work of Christ. Moreover, there is no good news for those who never hear of the saving work of Jesus. As Carl Henry said, “The gospel is only good news if it gets there in time.” (I Am Going, p. 67, by Daniel Akin and Bruce Ashford, B & H Publishing Group)
May God use the mighty truth of Sola Christus to inspire believers everywhere to spend their lives declaring the gospel to those who have never heard until our King returns again.
Paul Akin is the senior aide to IMB President David Platt. He can be found on Twitter @pakin33.