Religious Faces in the Crowd: The Sage and the Savior

Religious Faces in the Crowd: The Sage and the Savior

Among the world’s great religious leaders, two became far-reaching moral instructors of humanity. Confucius (the Sage) laid down the ethical foundation for much of Asian civilization. Jesus of Nazareth (the Savior) taught moral lessons that distinctly shaped the ethical nature of Western civilization. Yet while both became great moral teachers, the identity, mission, and message of these two influential men stand in powerful contrast.

The Chinese Sage

Born in China as Kung Fu-tzu (551-479 B.C.), this philosopher became known in the West by his Latinized name “Confucius.” Unlike other famous Chinese teachers whose lives are mixed with legend (such as Taoism’s Lao-tzu), Confucius’ life and teachings have been reliably documented by historians. This historical imprint is due to his significant influence on Chinese history and culture.

Though disadvantaged, Confucius received a robust liberal education that prepared him well for the civil service he entered at an early age. He eventually rose to the powerful position of minister of justice in the Chinese government. Later in life he left government and became an itinerant teacher with a significant following. Described as a one-man university, Master Kung (as he was called) is said to have provided instruction in such fields as history, poetry, government, propriety, music, philosophy, and divination. Confucius’ collection of influential teachings was later compiled into a book called the Analects.

Confucius’ central teaching focused upon developing a system of ethics that would produce a morally superior human being (the “magnanimous man”). In light of China’s troubling cycle of anarchy and warfare he strove for an efficient and benevolent form of government that would lead to a morally ideal state. He attempted to define a system of conduct that could be applied to all aspects of society. While his efforts failed to create a Chinese utopia, his ideas nevertheless became so influential that a couple of centuries after his death Confucianism had become the official imperial philosophy of China.1 World religions scholar Huston Smith has called Confucius “the most important figure in China’s history.”2

Confucian Moral Ideals:

  • Jen: Human-heartedness, benevolence, concern for humanity
  • Chun Tzu: “Magnanimous man,” superior person, humanity-at-its-best
  • Li: Good form, propriety, ceremony, decorum, correct order
  • Te: Integrity, moral influence, power of the good example
  • Wen: “The art of peace,” aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual influences


Confucianism is often viewed as more of a moral philosophy of life than as a traditional religion. For example, Confucius didn’t explicitly advocate the worship of God or gods, nor did he speculate about death and the afterlife. Confucianism has no priesthood, no divine revelation, and does not advocate such common Eastern practices as asceticism and monasticism. While some have suggested that Confucius was an atheist or agnostic, it is more likely that he did believe in the supernatural but simply viewed religious beliefs and rituals as secondary in importance to the need for social reform and order.3

The Sage and the Savior

The title “Sage” is granted to those who are revered for their wisdom and good judgment. Confucius stands as China’s greatest philosopher and religious teacher. The title “Savior” is a New Testament designation given to Jesus Christ (Luke 2:11) because his atoning death on the cross saved sinners from God’s just wrath (1 John 4:10).

Five Ways the Sage and the Savior Differ

  • Nature: Though the Sage was a great teacher and master communicator, he was merely a human being who lived and died. The Savior, on the other hand, revealed himself to be God in human flesh and conquered death by his historical bodily resurrection.
  • Character: While the Sage believed in the basic moral goodness of human beings and in the perfectibility of human nature, he failed to achieve those lofty goals in his own life as he wrestled with moral weaknesses and a failed marriage. Conversely, the Savior lived a sinless life and was thus qualified to offer his life as a perfect sacrifice for sin.
  • Mission: The Sage’s mission was to forge a universal system of ethics and to help build an ideal Chinese state. The Savior’s mission was to rescue sinners by providing a substitutionary sacrifice for sin.
  • Role: The Sage himself isn’t essential to the essence of Confucian philosophy or religion except for providing the original ethical instruction. On the other hand, historic Christianity is all about Jesus Christ’s saving life, death, and resurrection.
  • Focus: The Sage was reserved in introducing people to God and to a spiritual life. In stark contrast the Savior revealed himself as Immanuel—“God with us”––whose self-sacrificing love initiated salvation.

Confucianism offers a noble ethical system that shares much in common with that of historic Christianity. However, this reputable Chinese moral philosophy offers no ultimate solution to humankind’s grave problem of moral depravity. That hope is uniquely found in Christianity, which offers its own Sage who is also––more importantly––a divine-human Savior.

Orientation Comparison:

Chinese Popular Religion Historic Christianity
  • Moral philosophies (Confucianism, Taoism) Ethical focus, way of life, atheological
  • Theistic, redemptive: Focus on God as Creator and Savior
  • Non-revelatory: No supernatural unveiling
  • Revelatory: Divine unveiling, propositional disclosure (Scripture)
  • Syncretistic: Sharing and assimilating different religious beliefs
  • Traditional: Distinct truths
  • Tolerant: Allowance of different beliefs and practices
  • Uncompromising: Truth is narrow, discriminating
  • Pluralistic: Acceptance of many religious perspectives
  • Exclusivistic: One ultimate religious perspective
  1. Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998), 292–93.
  2. Huston Smith, The Illustrated World’s Religions (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 119.
  3. Lewis M. Hopfe and Mark R. Woodward, Religions of the World, 7th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: 1998), 198.