Claims of the Church
Since its beginning, based on New Testament texts, Christianity has made an exclusive claim: Jesus Christ is God’s only Son, sent to redeem the world. This claim has fueled, throughout history, innumerable mission endeavors aimed at proclaiming the Gospel message in order to "save" human beings who have not heard the story of salvation, who have often come to be called the "heathen" ("And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved" [Acts 4:12] and "But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed ... have never heard ... without someone to proclaim him...?" [Romans 10:14-15 ]).

In turn, these efforts have raised questions such as, "What about those who never heard, did not believe, weren’t reached, had no opportunity to hear the Gospel?" and "Will only Christians be saved?"

The traditional medieval response followed Pope Boniface VIII’s 1302 pronouncement, "There is no salvation outside the Church." Protestants were later to reject that claim and substitute an evangelical version of exclusiveness: "Apart from faith there is no salvation." Of course, this faith would come only from being baptized into the Christian faith upon hearing the claims of the preached Gospel. However, both Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants provided various "loophole" theologies. There were second chances for those of "invincible ignorance" (Roman Catholic), or those "not accountable," e.g. infants, mentally retarded, etc. (evangelical Protestantism). Others would assert that Jesus — the valid avenue for Christians — is only one of many ways that lead to the God of the universe, and that other religions possess equally valid paths to God.

Expanding our concept of Jesus the Christ
Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten asserts that all of these views are based on a defective understanding of the New Testament. He says that, though we can confess with St. Paul, "For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross" (Colossians 1:19-20), those who limit God’s redemption by exclusivity or loopholes, or who place Christ in a pantheon of world saviors, demonstrate that, "Their thinking about Christ is too small." Braaten acknowledges that, "In answer to John the Baptist’s question, 'Are you the one who is to come?' the Good News answer is 'yes, and we need not look for another.'" He writes, "Nothing is more certain in the New Testament than its intention to picture Jesus in an utterly exclusive way, making this claim the heart of the Gospel, itself." However, he casts the exclusivity of this claim in the way ELCA Lutherans approach all theological questions – by understanding God’s grace, God’s action in Christ.

Braaten says, "The Christian hope for salvation, whether for the believing few or the unbelieving many, is grounded in the person and meaning of Christ alone, not in the potential of the world’s religions to save, nor in the moral seriousness of humanists and people of good will, not even in the good works of pious Christians and church people.... There is a universalist thrust in the New Testament, particularly in Paul’s theology. How else can we read passages such as 'for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ' (1 Cor 15:22)?" (See also Colossians 1:15-20, Ephesians 1:9-10, 1 Corinthians 15:28.)

The universal scope of salvation in Christ
ELCA Lutherans will say with Braaten, "Salvation in the New Testament is what God has done to death in the resurrection of Jesus. Salvation is what God has in store for you and me and the whole world in spite of death, solely on account of the living risen Christ. ... The universal scope of salvation in Christ includes the destiny of our bodies together with the whole earth and the whole of creation. This cosmic hope is based on the promise of eternal life sealed by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Through raising Jesus from the dead, God put death to death, overcoming the deadliest enemy of life at loose in the world. This hope for the final salvation of humanity and the eternal universal restitution of all things in heaven and on earth ... is drawn from the unlimited promise of the Gospel and the magnitude of God’s grace made known to the world through Christ."

But what of faith? Isn’t faith necessary for salvation? ELCA Lutherans can say with Braaten, "To say we are saved by faith alone means we let God-in-Christ do all the saving that needs to be done, apart from any works we can perform.... If I confess that God has saved me, a lost and condemned sinner, whom else can he not save? Faith is precisely awareness that God’s accepting love reaches out to all sinners, even to me. Faith is the opening of heart and mind to the universal grace and goodness of God."

For ELCA Lutherans, Braaten’s words ring true: "The special quality of Jesus’ uniqueness is best grasped in terms of his universal meaning. This concrete person, Jesus of Nazareth, is unique because of his unequaled universal significance. The point of his uniqueness underlines his universality. If Jesus is the Lord and Savior, he is the universal Lord and Savior, not merely my personal Lord and Savior. Because Jesus is the unique and universal Savior, there is a large hope for salvation, not only for me and others with the proper credentials of believing and belonging to the church, but for all people whenever or wherever they might have lived and no matter how religious or irreligious they may have proved to be themselves. It is clearly God’s announced will that all people shall be saved and come to the knowledge of truth (1 Timothy 2:4)."

God’s grace and love made known to all in Jesus
The New Testament is full of warnings about substituting right words and doctrines as religious screens against the living word and will of God. Still, these warnings are not God’s last word. The final word is that God came to the world in Christ in order to redeem the world, and that nothing can come between God’s creation (which includes human beings) and God’s all-encompassing love. That is precisely how ELCA Lutherans understand Jesus' claim that, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). What God has done in Christ is done for all; God’s act in Christ is the way that all come to God. This Good News we are compelled to joyously share with all people: "God has acted in Christ, and you are the recipient of this loving act."

To those who often passionately argue that "while God offers grace and salvation to all, humans must accept it with deep repentance and a change of life," we caution against making salvation into a work that we accomplish by our response to God’s offer. Rather, in our telling the Good News, we pray that those who hear "will present" themselves "to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present their (bodies) to God as instruments of righteousness" (Romans 6:13).

Will, then, all people be saved in the end? We must say with Braaten, "We do not ... know the answer. (That) is stored up in the mystery of God’s own future. All (God) has let us know in advance is that he will judge the world according to the measure of his grace and love made known in Jesus Christ, which is ultimately greater than the fierceness of his wrath or the hideousness of our sin."

Quotations from Carl Braaten, The Universal Meaning of Jesus Christ, LCA Partners Magazine, December 1980 and June 1981.
Biblical quotations from the New Revised Standard Version