“Surely you don’t think your way is the only way!” Anyone who has publicly argued that Jesus is “the only way” has faced this objection. Christianity’s claim of exclusive truth has long offended skeptics, yet our pluralistic society increasingly finds this claim narrow-minded and absurd, if not dangerous. And many evangelical Christians are questioning whether a loving God could torment people for eternity, especially those who have never heard of Christ. Yet John Piper in Jesus: The Only Way to God (Must You Hear the Gospel to Be Saved?) argues that the biblical answers to these questions are clear and crucial for our day.
Piper’s purpose is explicit from the start: “to motivate missions, magnify the necessity of the gospel, rescue the perishing, and glorify Jesus as the only way to God” (16). Borrowing heavily from sections of Let the Nations Be Glad, he argues for the urgent need to proclaim the gospel by answering three questions:
Question #1: Will anyone experience eternal conscious torment under God’s wrath?
Question #2: Is the work of Christ necessary for salvation?
Question #3: Is conscious faith in Christ necessary for salvation?
While Piper will answer yes to all three, he lays out the negative responses to each in chapter one. Universalists and annihilationists reject the notion of eternal divine punishment. Pluralists deny that Jesus’ death and resurrection are the sole means of salvation. Inclusivists spurn the claim that explicit faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. Piper offers a brief but fair treatment of each view.
Piper then sets out to undermine each view. He argues in chapter two that the apostles and Jesus taught eternal torment for unrepentant sinners. This does not mean that God is too harsh or unfair. Unending punishment is just and appropriate since our sins undermine God’s infinite worth. Our view of hell must flow from God’s character, not what “makes sense” to us (51–52). Due to Scripture’s clarity on eternal torment, Piper prefers “humble affirmation” to “humble agnosticism” (47–48, n. 10). Chapter three argues from biblical texts that Jesus’ work alone can free men from the eternal punishment they deserve.
The second half of the book is devoted to Question #3: Is conscious faith in Christ necessary for salvation? According to Piper, it is. His argument comes in four parts. First (chapter four), Christ’s first coming triggered a shift in the history of salvation. The “mystery of Christ” has been revealed, (Rom. 16:25–27; Eph. 3:4–10). The “times of ignorance” are past, and God now calls all peoples to turn to him (Acts 17:30–31). Jesus “is now openly installed and declared as Judge, and he alone can receive the appeals for acquittal” (76).
Second (chapter five), the case of Cornelius (Acts 10) shows that true God-seekers still need the gospel. Cornelius was not saved apart from the gospel. He was saved through it.
Third (chapter six), the apostolic message was that men are saved by Jesus’ name (Acts 4:12; Rom. 9:30–10:21). Nowhere do we see men saved unaware. All are saved by an explicit confession of Christ. And this comes only through the preaching of Christ.
Fourth (chapter seven), the missionary vision of Paul and John called for repentance and faith of all. Their message was “Repent and believe, and you will be saved.” It was never, “Great news, you’ve already been saved!” They preached the necessity of explicit repentance and faith to both Gentiles (Acts 26:15–18) and Jews (Acts 13:38–52).
Piper has given us a concise but thorough refutation of views that threaten evangelistic zeal. His arguments are meant to be decisive and are clearly derived from Scripture, never over-arguing his case. He acknowledges which passages leave room for opposing views before showing how others rule them out. Those who would challenge his conclusions are forced to deal with the relevant texts.
Some readers may struggle in a few places to follow Piper’s tight reasoning. Attentive reading and careful thinking is required, yet most of the book is easy to follow. Readers would be helped to have an open Bible at their side.
This short book is an ideal gift for anyone attracted to pluralism or inclusivism. It’s a great tool for thoughtful Christians in conversation with nominal believers. Most broadly, it is a brief and accessible means for any believer to fuel evangelistic zeal.