The Icon Of ToleranceErwin W. Lutzer | September 19, 1993
Selected highlights from this sermon
In today’s society, tolerance takes even the most absurd contradictory ideas and makes them look as if they are special, unique, and rich. But if you say you have found truth, suddenly there is intolerance.
And though everyone is entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own truth. Truth can be known, and it is never inconsistent or contradictory. Jesus said that He Himself was the truth, and if He is the truth, He is the truth for everyone.
Before his death, the famous historian Toynbee said, “The governments of the word will unite either by force or federation, but,” he said, “they will never be successful unless there is a universal religion.” The Parliament of World Religions that met here in the city of Chicago is a giant step toward that direction – 5,000 religious leaders meeting from all over the world to discuss religious unity and the possibility of harmonizing the religions of the world so that we will have unity and solve all the problems of hunger and war.
Now I need to make it very clear that nobody was suggesting that Hindus should no longer be Hindus, or Christians should no longer be Christians, or Buddhists should no longer be Buddhists. Nobody suggested that. But there were three very important presuppositions in the Parliament of World Religions. The first presupposition was that no one religion should claim that it holds truth because if we say that it holds truth, then, of course, the problem of compromise becomes very difficult. But if we simply say we all have various religions and traditions, then you have flexibility because nobody claims that traditions have any kind of absolute value. Some of the greatest applause was reserved for when the idea that there might be one way to God was ridiculed.
There was a second presupposition that was operating, and that, of course, is obvious, namely that no one religion is superior to another. As a matter of fact, there were seminars held on how to get over the idea of superiority because it is superiority that stands in the way of unity. All religions must be studied and understood for their diversity and for their richness without any thought that one might have more truth than the other.
And of course, the third presupposition is very evident, namely that proselytizing is a dirty word. You just don’t go out to get converts because that is based on the assumption that you think that your religion actually has something that other religions don’t have. And mind you, there was proselytizing going on. For example, the witches had a hospitality suite with lots of food where they invited people to come and to eat, and then to learn about witchcraft, and to learn about all of the deep things of their religion.
The various eastern religions were handing out leaflets and advertising and giving out information, and there was a lot of proselytizing going on, but strictly speaking, nobody was supposed to be converting anybody to anything else because, after all, all the religions of the world are equal.
In fact, one evening a man illustrated it this way. He said, “I want you to think of a wheel.” And he said, “Let us suppose that the outer rim of this wheel represents the various doctrines that people hold to.” And then he said, “All the spokes are the individual religions.” He said, “You can have as many spokes as you want, but when you begin to leave the rim, at the point of the rim you look at other people’s rims (other people’s doctrine) and you say to yourself, ‘How could anyone ever believe that?’” But then he said, “As you begin to leave those doctrines and you move toward the middle you find out that all the religions of the world eventually lead to the same place – the hub,” which he defined as the clear blue of sky.
You know, we are living in a day of tolerance, aren’t we? Now, of course, if you mean by tolerance the fact that we should have respect for other people and other religions, and that we should live peaceably, all of us are in favor of tolerance. But there is another kind of tolerance that is found in society today, and that is the new icon of tolerance where even the most absurd contradictory ideas all are looked at as if they are so special and so unique and so rich even though (if I may humbly say it) they may be just so stupid. And so that’s a new kind of tolerance where people are actually saying things like this, of all things. We met people who said, “You know, I’m a Christian Buddhist.” Now if you understood what Christianity is and if you understood what Buddhism is, you know that that’s an absurdity. It’s like saying, “You know, we went hunting one day and we came across a four-sided triangle.” It’s absurd, but that’s the kind of talking you have today in a world where there is tolerance for tolerance. But if you say that you have found some truth, suddenly there is a lot of intolerance.
A friend of mine and I went from booth to booth where all of the displays were of all the occultists, the theosophists, the witches and the eastern religions. And we asked all of them to tell us what they essentially believed. This led to some very interesting discussions as you might imagine. And one of the things that elicited a lot of hostility was the idea that Christianity may have some truth and maybe some truth even that cannot be blended with anything else.
Now let me ask you a question. How did America get like that? How is it possible on a Phil Donohue Show for somebody to say, “Well, you know, I’m into Buddhism, and you’re into Christianity, and we all have to be into what works for us.” How could that have happened? What I’d like to do in the next few moments is to explain to you a mega- shift, so I want you to listen carefully so that you understand what is happening.
First of all, I want you to notice that this shift involves God-centeredness to man-centeredness. Some of us have had the privilege of being in Weimar in Deutschland, in Germany, and we’ve been in the house of Goethe, the great enlightenment scholar. And there he had artifacts from Greece and from Rome and from the various countries of the world - from Japan and China. This is now, of course, during the seventeenth century, and he had these artifacts there, not because he was interested in art (though he was, but that’s not the point). He was making a theological point, namely that even non-Christian cultures have a lot of art, and have a lot of high degree in civilization. Therefore, Christianity should not be thought of as special or unique, but all the religions of the world must be understood for their richness because they are essentially on the same par. And so you have during the period of enlightenment a shift taking place.
Since all the different religions of the world are now equal, it is no longer important for us to be interested in the glory of God because it is now about the happiness of man and his own potential. And so you have the shift taking place from God-centeredness to man-centeredness.
There’s another aspect of the shift, and that is objectivity to relativism. Relativism says that there is no objective truth. There is no standard by which anything may be judged morally or in the realm of religion, and therefore the best that we can do is to accept the shifting sands of the times. Now there’s a reason for that, and there’s a reason why shift number one leads to shift number two. And that is that if we have no word from God from outside the universe, if it is true that God has not given us some kind of revelation to help us, then we are like ants on the canvas of a Rembrandt painting. We see the roughness beneath us. We see the change of color, but we cannot make sense of it all.
Now the human mind is very brilliant when you stop to think of it. We have put men on the moon. We make pocket calculators. All of these gadgets involve a lot of knowledge and a lot of wisdom, but when it comes to religion and morality we don’t have the building blocks. We don’t see the whole picture. And if God has not spoken, why indeed, all that we can do is grope around, and we have to be relativists because then it is true that no one opinion is really better than any other opinion. And I think that you will agree with me that in America today we have made a tremendous shift, a shift from the idea that everybody has a right to his own opinion, which we would agree to, to the absurd idea that every opinion is equally right. And that’s to where we have come.
There’s a third shift, and that is from objectivity to pragmatism. That word pragmatism means an emphasis on whether or not something works. William James wrote a book on pragmatism in which he said that the religions of the world couldn’t yet be evaluated. All of the evidence isn’t in because he says, “The best religion is the one that works the best and we have to withhold judgment because we have not yet had enough time to know which one works the best (which one gives you the biggest bang for your buck).” He spoke of it as the cash value of a religious belief. And so we are in a milieu today. We are into a context where everybody is into self-help programs. Everybody is saying, “How does it work?” or “How does it work for me?” And Christianity has to compete with this.
Let me ask you something very candidly. Does Christianity work? It depends on what you mean. Ask the Nader family this morning whether or not Christianity works. It didn’t heal Barb from her fight with cancer. It doesn’t seem to work. Ask some of the martyrs who died for their faith. They were thrown to the lions, and they cried to God for deliverance and there was no deliverance, and the beasts came and ripped them to shreds. And there were others who were drowned. And there were those who were killed with the sword, and there was no deliverance.
Does Christianity work? My dear friend, we have to ask the question, “Does it work for what, for how long, and for what ultimate purpose?” Now, of course, if you are talking about eternity, if you’re talking about rectifying our broken relationship with God, why indeed then Christianity does work. If you look at it from the standpoint of eternity, it works very well because we believe that Jesus has the credentials to take those who believe in Him directly to heaven at death. Whether they go by cancer or by wild beast, it works very well. Can’t you understand modern man who is into it and saying, “Well, I want to know whether or not it works right now, and I want to see how it works?” So that’s the context in which we find ourselves in America. Superficial observations regarding ‘working!’
Fourth, there’s the move from reason to feeling. Obviously this is also a necessary shift, given the ones that preceded it. You know, the Puritans and the Bible would certainly emphasize the mind of man and the unity of the mind and the heart so that we are thinking beings and so that we hold certain truths very dear to us. But that’s not where we are today in our culture. People are willing to embrace all sorts of absurd ideas because we have been told, “Don’t think. Feel.” It’s just like in the Garden of Eden where Satan said to the woman, “You may eat of the fruit of the tree,” and then the Bible says that when she saw that it was good for food and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, then she took of the fruit of the tree because it looked so good and it felt so good. You see the great problem with civilization today is that people don’t see sin as a problem. The big problem is sadness. You’re not supposed to be sad. You’re supposed to be happy, and if not, find something that works until you become happy.
Do you know what we as delegates were told at the Parliament of World Religions? Here you have an audience of five thousand people, and somebody stands up and says, “Now we want you to hang onto your chairs. Hang onto your chairs with such tenseness and with such tightness that you think that if you let go you’re going to go right through the roof. So hang on. And also hang on to your most cherished belief just that way. Hang on now, folks. Hang on! Now let go. Let go! Ha, ha, you didn’t go through the roof, did you? And do you know what? You can give up your most cherished belief and you won’t go through the roof either. Just give it up!” And so we live in a day and age in which people say, “We’re not interested in the outer rim. All that we are interested in is the inner circle, and we wonder whether or not it feels good.”
So obviously there’s a fifth shift, and that is we have moved now from convictions to opinions. That’s where we are. Everybody has an opinion. Nobody has any convictions. There was a recent poll that showed that very few Americans would ever die for anything anymore. In the history of the church there have always been those who have been willing to die for their faith because they actually thought that they had found something so valuable that they were willing to give their life for it. People today say, “I’m not going to give my life for my religion. I’m not going to give my life for my country. I can’t find anything worth dying for anymore.” And so that’s where we are. We are a nation largely without convictions. We have billions of opinions but we don’t feel anything in terms of our intellectual beliefs very deeply. Ernest Renan, who left Christianity said, “We are living on the perfume of an empty vase.” My dear friend, today, unless America fills that vase, we are in deep trouble.
So now I have explained why it is that people can say, “Well, you know, I’m going to bring my own god to church,” like somebody at the Parliament of World Religions suggested. They said, “Everybody should bring his own god. You take a little pinch of yoga, you add a little bit of Karma (western Karma – not eastern because that’s too depressing), and then you sprinkle it with all kinds of verses of Scripture from the lips of Jesus. You stir it and it’s a religion just for you. It’s a personalized faith and “I’m into this, and you’re into that, and we all have to do what is just right for me.” And that’s where we are.
Well, as many of you know, this is the first in the series of eight messages entitled Christ Among Other gods. Let me give you two objectives that I hope to accomplish. First of all, I want to show you why the credentials of Jesus Christ are so overwhelming that in His presence all other teachers fade into oblivion. Indeed someday all the other teachers of the world will bow down and confess Him to be Lord to the glory of God the Father. (applause) That’s what I want to show.
And then second, what I would like to instill in you is a desire not to be ashamed of the Gospel. You see, sometime you are eating lunch with somebody and they bring up an objection to Christianity, and you say to yourself, “I’m just so scared. I don’t know what he’s going to say. What if he tells me he’s into Buddhism, and I’m into Christianity, and we all have to be into what’s right for us? What am I going to say?” Well, I want to help you. I don’t mean to say now that all of you are going to run out with your little arguments and convert the world because there is something obnoxious about Christians who are self-righteous who think they have an answer for everything. But what I would like to be able to do is to give you such a sense of confidence as to why you have believed in Jesus, and give you the ability to answer the reason for the hope that is within you with meekness and fear so that when these kinds of questions are asked, you will not become tongue-tied (as one man told me he did). Can you imagine this? A man was sitting in a barber chair, and the barber said to him, “Well, what do you believe about God and religion?” And the guy said, “I just became tongue-tied and I couldn’t say a thing for Jesus.” My dear friends, when God opens the door we had better walk through it.
Well, now what I’d like to ask you to do is to take your Bibles (because Jesus had a different view of truth than we’ve been talking about) and turn to John 8 where Jesus makes some astounding statements regarding truth. We pick it up at verse 31: “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”
Four very explosive observations about truth!
First of all, truth is universal. You see Jesus not only spoke the truth but He said that He was the truth. Therefore, it would have been absolutely absurd for Him to say, “I am the truth, but I am only the truth for the western part of the world.” Like we were told at the Parliament of World Religions, Christianity is the Western religion, but Pantheism is the religion of the East, so Jesus, you see, is just good for half the world. That’s foolishness.
He not only said that God loved the world, i.e. the whole world, but He said, “If I be lifted up I will draw all men to Me.” You know, it’s interesting that Pilate put that sign above Jesus. In those days when you were crucified, the reason you were crucified (your crime) was written on top of the cross. And it said, The King of the Jews. And the Scripture says that Pilate put it in Hebrew, the language of religion. He put it in Greek, which is the language of culture, and then he put it in Latin, which is the language of government, so that all the different people that were there at the city of Jerusalem could walk by and they could read, The King of the Jews.
Now they wanted Pilate to change it and to say He said He was King of the Jews, but Pilate said, “What I have written I have written,” and he let that sign stay up at the top of the cross. But even here, though Pilate didn’t know it, he was emphasizing the universality of Jesus, that if Jesus is the truth, He is the truth for everybody. And if He is not the truth for everybody, then He is not the truth for me either.
You say, “Well Pastor Lutzer, let’s suppose I’m having lunch with somebody and they say, ‘You’re into Jesus and I’m into Buddhism,’ what do I say?” What you do is you look at them very lovingly and you say, “You know, you are entitled to your own opinion, but I want you to know today that you are not entitled to your own truth. Your own opinion – yeah! Opinions are a dime a dozen, but you’re not entitled to your own truth because if you have found some truth, that truth is universal. And that truth applies to me and that truth applies to you.”
In the realm of mathematics and science we understand that truth is trans-cultural, and in the realm of religion, Jesus came as a trans-cultural Savior for the world, and not for just a part of it. You say, “Well, what if he says, ‘I’m into transcendental meditation and it works?’” What you need to say is this: “There’s a distinction between the question of whether something is true and whether or not it works.” Did you know that falsehoods sometimes work? Lies sometimes do work, you know, like the little schoolboy who said that a lie is an abomination unto the Lord, but a very present help in time of trouble.” Lies sometimes work. So, you see, even though you have found something that works that does not mean that you have to give up the quest for truth. You still have to say, “It works,” but ask, “Is it true?” Truth is always universal.
Secondly, truth is always consistent. Oh, I get so weary of people who say, “Well, you know, these western laws of logic don’t apply to the east.” I don’t have time, this morning, to show you why statements like that are utterly nonsensical. Truth is consistent with itself. You can’t believe a contradiction. I know that Alice in Wonderland believed as many as six before breakfast, but that was in Wonderland. You can’t believe contradictions in the city of Chicago or anywhere else. In fact, God is incapable of contradiction. Not even God can take two and two and make it equal to five.
You see, there were people even at the Parliament who said, “Well, you know, Christianity is true.” There were those who wanted to say, “Christianity is true.” Now Christianity says that there is one God, and that God said, “Thou shall have no other gods before me.” Over here you have Hinduism with its 300,000 gods. Do you mean to tell me that it’s true too, and all that we need to do it to shed the way in which we think and stop being logical and believe both of those? It’s absurdity.
Somebody has well said that if all the religions of the world were true, the universe would be a cosmic madhouse. As a matter of fact, I was thinking about this the other day, and it dawned on me that if all the religions of the world are true, they are all false because they all contradict one another. Truth is always consistent.
You say, “But Pastor, what if I am sitting across the table from a person and he says this: ‘You know, I look at the different religions of the world like the spokes of a wheel. You can have as many spokes as you want, but what you need to do is you need to leave the outer rim (that’s the doctrinal part) because at that level when you look across at somebody else’s religion you say, “How could anybody possibly believe that?” But what you do is you move toward the center, and as you do you discover that indeed you all end up at the same place.’”
Here’s what you say to that person, and you say it with a great deal of love and compassion in your heart, “You know, that is an interesting illustration, but it is profoundly misleading for two reasons. First of all, you are assuming that truth and error can do what the spokes of the wheel can do. Yeah, of course, the spokes of a wheel can be laid in such a way that they converge at the center, but truth and error never converge. If you were going to illustrate truth and error with the spokes of a wheel you’d have to put those spokes parallel. They would be like train tracks throughout all of eternity because truth never becomes error, and error never becomes truth from the beginning of time to the end of time. Just because spokes can be laid in that way doesn’t mean that truth and error can be. You can’t make two and two equal five simply because you’ve decided to lay truth out like the spokes of a wheel. But there is a second reason, and that is that you are assuming that the rim (the doctrine) is unimportant and somehow you have to leave that behind, and you have to get to the center of the “deep blue sky.” Well, I want you to know today that what you experience at that center is determined by what you believe at the rim. It’s incredibly important.
You know what one of the surprises was? As we engaged people in discussion (and unfortunately there were not a lot of Christians there - I knew of only five or six but I was with one with whom I had some good times interacting), and as we talked with people who were into transcendental meditation and into the New Age, I would say to them, “You know, I’m going to say something to you that is going to make you think I should be dusted off and put into a museum, but I’m going to say it anyway. Did you know that through those experiences of the center you actually encounter evil spirits - you encounter Satan?” Do you know what I thought they were going to say? I thought they were going to say, “Kick this guy out. He’s medieval. Who in the world believes in the devil today?” The surprise was that the half dozen or so people to whom I said that all agreed with me. That was the surprise. But some of them said, “You know, we’ve learned to distinguish Satan from evil spirits. We accept only those spirits that come to us that are dressed in light,” which of course the Apostle Paul anticipated when he said that Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.
Others of them said, “Well, that’s the whole point. That’s why when you get into this you need a guru. You need someone to guide you to develop your sensitivity so that you can distinguish the evil from the good.” Well, it’s not all sweetness and light there at the center of the hub, evidently. My dear friend, let us never forget that what we experience at the center is determined by what we believe at the rim because there is so much deception in the world today.
Truth is universal. Truth is consistent. And truth can be known. Did you notice the text? Jesus said, “You shall know the truth.” Elsewhere in the Gospel of John, Christ said, “If you want to know the will of God and are willing to do it, you will know of the doctrine, whether I am speaking of Myself, or whether I am speaking also of My Father.” Jesus said, “You’ll know that.” You see there’s a great willingness on our part outwardly to say that we want to know the truth, but when we begin to think of what the demands of that truth might involve, suddenly we are not so sure anymore whether or not we want to know the truth.
But there are some of you listening to this message on CD, some of you by radio, some of you by video, and I want to say to you very candidly today that if you don’t know Christ as Savior, would you please seek for truth as you read the New Testament, because He says truth can be known?
And finally, and most importantly, truth sets us free. You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free. Verse 36: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Now you say, “Well what kind of freedom is Jesus talking about?” There is such a thing as political bondage that people need freedom from. There is such a thing as marital bondage at times that people would like to have freedom from. There are different kinds of bondage that we would all like to be free of possibly, but Jesus is talking about a particular kind of bondage, namely, sin. It is the worst kind of bondage.
We get letters from people who are in prison who are freer in prison (because they have accepted Christ as Savior) than those who are out of prison but do not know Jesus. And here’s what Christ said. He said, “Everyone who practices sin (This is verse 34) is a slave to sin.” Now slaves don’t wake up in the morning and tell the master what to do, do they? Slaves get their orders. And there are, even now, some of you who are listening to me who are getting your orders every single day from this terrible taskmaster called sin. There is within you that ravenous wolf that seeks to sin, and no matter how much you feed it, it only becomes stronger until you are overwhelmed by it, and Jesus said that you are a slave and the master is stronger than you are. And that’s why He says that you need divine help. You need the Son to set you free. And then He says, “Not only will the Son set you free,” but He says, “There’s a kind of freedom that is the ‘indeed’ kind of freedom. You will be free indeed.”
There is a young man whose story illustrates the search for truth. His name is James Stevens. He was with us here in the congregation a couple of weeks ago. He was brought up in Montana, attended Sunday school and got turned off. And I found out at the Parliament, by the way, that many people get turned off somewhere along the line in Sunday school. You Sunday school teachers have a tremendous responsibility because many children get their interest in Christ - or their disinterest in Christ - based on their Sunday school experience.
When he went to college he knew that there was something that was missing inside, and he attended a Buddhist meeting, and a man there befriended him. And so James Stevens became a committed Buddhist. For 14 years he was zealously committed. He won 54 American college students into Buddhism – converted them to that religion. He said that when he first went into those Buddhist meetings it seemed as if the chanting was the angels in heaven singing sweetly, but as time began to wear on he discovered that the promises that were made weren’t working. You see they said that you could actually transform your consciousness through meditation and through praying to certain gods. And he said he looked into his heart and there was not only emptiness but there was all this sin, and it wasn’t going anywhere. It wasn’t getting any better. And whenever he asked for help and said, “What do I do now?” they kept saying, “Do more.” He was already following the eightfold path as best he could. And they said, “Go on a pilgrimage.” And he was tired. What do you do? That was step number one.
Step number two was when he met a Christian friend who said, “Do you know what you ought to do? You ought to read the New Testament.” He said, “Well, that’s the thing I let go of way back in Montana in that Sunday school classroom.” (You know it is amazing how many of those who have been turned off by Christianity in their youth have never given any reconsideration of the Bible as an adult.) But he began to read the New Testament and he read things he had never read before. He had been told that Jesus Christ was just simply a reincarnation, but AS he read the Bible he discovered that Christ was not a reincarnation. Christ has been raised from the dead.
And then he said he read verses like this: “He that comes to me shall never hunger,” and “He that believes on me shall never thirst.” And he began to read all these wonderful promises, and then, best of all, he came across some promises that he could be forgiven. That was not what he had discovered in the religion that he had bought into.
And now I am quoting his own words. “Convicted of my sin against a holy God, I laid my burden at the Savior’s feet and gave Him my life. That night my wife who had been a Buddhist for 16 years also believed.” What grace! What grace!
He said the thing that struck him about Jesus was that He was a personal God. He was a God who could speak. He was not just a force. He was a God who made promises, and then He had all those credentials with which He could back up those promises. What a difference! No longer trying to change his own heart through all of these transformation experiences, which work at various levels of futility! No longer that but suddenly God breaking into his soul from outside!
Remember Seneca’s words? He said, “Oh that the hand might come down from heaven and deliver me from my oppressing sins.” I can’t do it. They tell me to meditate but the thoughts are still with me. I am torn by lust and by greed and by anger and the lack of peace, and I had all these promises. I need help from somewhere else. And the New Testament says that a hand has come down from heaven to deliver us. “Come unto Me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden,” said Jesus, “and I will give you rest.”
Why is it that I am preaching this series of eight messages of which this is the first? It is to impress on your mind and mine that Napoleon was right when he said, “The difference between Jesus Christ and all the other men in the world is the difference of eternity.” Who else can speak words of eternal life and then back them up with a performance? “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” In the presence of the risen exalted Christ, all other gods fade into oblivion.
Let us pray.
Our Father, we want to thank You today that You’ve not left us alone, that You have been here. We think of the many who may be with us who have been searching for truth, wandering from church to church, from religion to religion, from group to group, thinking that there is more somewhere, but not knowing where to stop. We pray today that they may see that Jesus Christ’s view of truth is so different from that of the world, that He’s the Savior for everybody, and that He could speak truth because He is truth, and then said, “Look at Me. Test Me. Prove Me.” We pray that in this very confused age that You might make us great and powerful witnesses of His truth.
And now before I close this prayer, I want you to pray. Some of you have never received Christ as Savior. You are religious but there is within your heart all the emptiness that one could imagine. God put it there so that you might seek Him through Christ. Why don’t you tell Jesus, even where you are, “Lord Jesus, I believe on You at this very moment. I receive You as mine.” Tell Him that. And then let us all receive from His hand freedom, forgiveness and the help that He came to give.
Thank You, Lord Jesus. We worship You today. In Your wonderful name we pray, Amen.