It is impossible to be ambivalent about Jesus. He said so Himself (Matt. 12:30). It should come as no surprise, then, to see that as Jesus traveled around preaching, teaching, and doing ministry, He had an immensely polarizing effect on those He encountered. Some responded in loving awe and others in seething hatred. And this would not have been true if Jesus had simply been what many modern thinkers assume He was—a good moral teacher. No, Jesus is not quite so safe as all that. Jesus Christ is a spiritual disruption of the space-time continuum.
Just as in the days of his earthly ministry, the truth claims of Christ and His church continue to both resonate and repel. Of course, it's the repulsion that many evangelicals today are concerned about. Some of them are concerned enough about it that they seek to soften some of the harder edges of the Christian faith to make it more appealing. And what we discover in adulterating the message of Jesus is that we may soften people's objections to Him, but we also temper their enthusiasm. The safe Jesus of modern evangelicalism is not offensive, but neither is He very compelling.
No, we must embrace the real Jesus—Jesus as He was and is, with all His cross-taking demands and soul-baring truths. And when we do so, we will discover that for all the animosity the real Jesus stirs up, there are also a good many affections for Him stirred up, as well. This is how Jesus Himself described this phenomenon:
So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly." Jesus answered them, "I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one." (John 10:24–30)
There is something fascinating here, something that plays out on the spiritual plane. Jesus is basically saying that the Jews' lack of devotion to Him is not due to a lack of data. He's told them the truth. But some have "the ears to hear" and others do not. There is no middle ground. You either belong to Him or you don't.
This is the first way in which the message of Christ's gospel is so compelling: you have to respond to it. And you will notice if you read a little further into the passage that after Jesus says, "I and the Father are one," they take up stones to kill Him.
When you draw a line in the sand, you're going to get a reaction, and not always a positive one. Some people are going to reject it, sometimes with hostility. But others will lean in. The thing people can't do with an exclusive Christianity is truly be ambivalent about it. The gospel forces the issue.
I think this may be what is contributing to the quiet revival in New England, which is now the least-churched region of the nation and is chock-full of people who claim to love inclusion and tolerance. Since 1970, the population of Boston has declined, but the number of churches in the city has almost doubled, and the number of people attending church has more than tripled in that same period.
Across New England, conservative churches are on a slow increase, while all others are in a continuing decline. You would think this should not be the case, given that the "safe Jesus" is found in the more liberal mainline and heterodox congregationalist churches. But the compelling Jesus, it turns out, is found in the evangelical communities.
How are evangelical churches with conservative theology preaching this old story bringing people to the faith in the hard soil of the Northeast? Well, it seems counterintuitive, but when you draw a line in the sand, you tend to move people.
But the gospel of Jesus is singularly compelling for another reason: it provides security. Unlike other religions or philosophies, Christianity doesn't offer certainty of human will or human intellect. It offers instead certainty of divine will and atonement. The security that Christianity's exclusive gospel offers is different from the security offered by other religions, which say, "If you can jump through these hoops, you can be saved."
That sort of religion sounds secure on the surface, but there are too many variables involved. Every other religion is a treadmill of hoop-jumping. You can never be sure you'll go far enough or get good enough at it to "make it." Christianity, however, because of what Christ has done, offers the security that says, "There's nothing you could do to make God love you less."
I remember sharing the gospel with a Muslim cab driver in Washington, D.C., and one thing the driver said really stuck with me. He was a nominal Muslim by his own admission; he was Islam's version of "spiritual, but not religious." I asked him what he believed about forgiveness, and he said there were things you could do that would be so bad that God couldn't forgive you. He said that was one of the problems with Islamic terrorism—Allah won't forgive that. It's too terrible. I appreciated that he got the gravity of sin. Murder is indeed a terrible, wrath-deserving sin—mass murder even more so. But I wanted him to also somehow grasp the great gravity of grace.
He could not imagine a God who would turn a blind eye to murder. But we don't have a God who turns a blind eye to murder. He punishes every murder; He punishes every sin. It's just that, for those who repent and believe in Jesus Christ, the punishment is borne by Christ on the cross.
This kind of exclusivity—saving grace is exclusive to Christianity and exclusive to those who trust in Christ—provides the best kind of security because it posits that refuge from God's wrath is only found in God Himself. And there is no place more secure than God Himself.