My Neighbour Wants to Know About People Who Haven’t Heard About Jesus Romans 2:1-12; 10:12-15
5/29/2019 1:12:46 AM
May 26, 2019
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: Romans 2:2-12; 10:12-15
CS Lewis was one of the sharpest Christian minds of the 20th Century. In his allegorical series, “The Chronicles of Narnia,” Lewis explored a number of Christian concepts as they would apply both in our world and in the fictional world of Narnia. At the end of the whole series, in the book The Last Battle, Lewis depicts a scene between a Calormene soldier named Emeth and Alsan, the figure of Christ in the books. His whole life, the foreigner Emeth had been told to serve the dark god Tash and that Aslan was to be hated. Upon meeting Aslan, Emeth was terrified, but counted himself blessed to have looked upon the face of the lion. Aslan tells him, though, that all the time he had been pursuing good in the name of evil Tash, he had actually been pursuing good in Aslan’s name because there is no good in Tash’s character or heart.
You see, Emeth had been diligent in good works, he had pursued glory and honour. He had done so thinking he was pursuing the hidden good in Tash, but in fact he had been pursuing Aslan without knowing it. So he was judged based on his pursuit of good as his conscience told him.
In this passage, Lewis is dealing with the thorny question of what happens to people who never hear about Jesus? Or, perhaps they’ve heard of him distantly, but been given completely wrong information about him and have not had the opportunity to learn the truth?
Our question today is, “What about unreached people groups who do not know about God? How is it fair that they have no chance to know God? Are they all unsaved? I’m going to nuance this question a bit. I’m going to interpret what I think the person “may” have been asking, which is what about people who do not know about Jesus? This question can apply to a variety of groups of people. As phrased, we immediately think of nations or cultures that have not heard the gospel. But this also includes people who lived before Jesus came to earth! It also applies to people who die as infants, in utero, or as children.
The Bible never specifically talks about what happens to unreached people groups. This means we need to piece together what the Bible says in some other places to come to a conclusion about what is most likely the case. That’s what we’re going to do today. Our two passages today come from Romans. The first, taken from chapter 2, needs some context. In Chapter 1, Paul has discussed how fallen the world is- how the Gentile world has rejected God. But in Chapter 2, Paul cautions pious Jews from being judgmental about the world because Jews are also guilty of sin, even though they have God’s Law from Moses! Let’s read together.
Please turn with me first to Romans 2:2-12 and then Romans 10:12-15.
Really, when we talk about salvation, we’re talking about how God will judge us at the end this present Age. That is, when Jesus returns, and we are all resurrected and we stand before the throne of judgment, how will God evaluate us and our standing with him? That determines if we spend eternity with God or in Hell.
Paul is warning his readers not to take their salvation for granted because they are “good people” or because they are Jews who observe the Law of Moses. Paul’s main point is against any idea that God shows favoritism towards the Jews. After Ch 1, it would be easy for a morally good Jewish person to think, “Yeah, they’re so bad!” But Paul points out that if you know enough about good and evil to judge another person (something we talked about a few weeks back!) then you know enough about good and evil to know your own heart is fallen! Paul’s readers may think, “Those people are so bad because of what they do!” but in their own hearts they commit sin and that’s just as bad. Jesus commented on this – it’s not just what we do, but the heart from which our actions flow!
God will judge fairly based on a person’s actions, which flow from their heart. Remember, the heart in the ancient world was not just the feelings- it was the centre of a person’s whole character and personality. It
included their feelings, but much more as well- their thoughts, desires, will, goals and imagination!
Those people, in v. 7, who are diligent in doing good for the sake of glory, honour and immortality will receive eternal life from God. Conversely, those whose lifestyle continues to be in rebellion against God, they will find God’s wrath and anger. V. 10b and 11 emphasize Paul’s point that God doesn’t show favoritism, he’s not going to go “easier” on Jews.
V12- really helps us with our question today, “All who sin apart from the law will perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.” God will judge people’s actions, flowing from their hearts, in light of how much their hearts knew. This involves our consciences! Our conscience knows what is right and what is wrong at least to a degree. If we consistently ignore our conscience, hardening it, stifling it, that will display itself in our actions and God will judge us accordingly. Conversely, even if we’ve never heard of Jesus, if we keep our conscience soft, if we listen to it and turn away from what grieves our conscience, or make amends and seek forgiveness when we violate our conscience, then that shows up in our lifestyle and God judges accordingly.
Now this actually means we are in a tough spot. In Romans 3, Paul says that we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God! Jews and Gentiles, Christians and non, we have all sinned, we have all rebelled against God and deserve harsh judgement. If you’re honest with yourself, you really don’t want God to judge you by your actions flowing from your heart! We can never live up to God’s standards of holiness! That’s the ongoing story of Israel in the OT- they have the Law of Moses, they have the outward actions God is looking for to demonstrate holiness, and they can never live up to them! Even the Pharisees, who came closest, did it out of selfish motives. Even the “good” people did things out of hearts filled with selfishness. The problem of sin is not just a problem of actions, but a problem of the heart- the source of our actions!
Praise God that through Jesus we can be given new hearts! This is the wonderful good news of Jesus that has earth shattering consequences! Salvation is not about saying the right words, about uttering a “magic formula” such as “Jesus enter into my heart,” or “Jesus forgive my sins.” Salvation is about surrendering to Jesus in repentance, turning the trajectory of our life and our heart to him. When we consistently live a life of repentance, consistently adjusting our life trajectory to Jesus, the Spirit works in our character, works in our heart, to renew it and make it like Jesus. This shows up in our lifestyle and God judges us accordingly! Furthermore, through repentance in Jesus, God expunges our sin from us. Our sin is removed and our heart renewed!
Calling on Jesus leads to salvation. Romans 10- v. 12 highlights again that God doesn’t show favoritism between Jew and Gentile, even though Jews have the Law. V 13 says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” In context, Jews or Gentiles who call on Jesus will be saved. For our purposes, though, it shows the power of Jesus. Calling on Jesus, repenting, turning towards him, surrendering to him, putting our faith in him to expunge our sin and transform our heart, is always effective, no matter how badly you’ve rebelled against God! Wow! That is awesome!
Calling on Jesus is much more effective than relying on being judged by our actions. This is the power of the good news about Jesus! This is why it’s such good news! Salvation is no longer up to us! (Not that it ever was, but we feel that way!) We can find forgiveness through a power outside ourselves and much greater than ourselves. That comes through calling on Jesus- but we must believe in Jesus to call on him (notice they’re not identical!), we must have heard in order to believe, and someone has to tell us if we are to hear! These verse form the foundation of the missionary movement in Christianity. This is why we are to share Jesus with people- so they can believe, call on him and be saved!
There are some who have not heard the name Jesus who will be saved through Jesus. This is the tricky part. But, when you think about it, it’s obvious at least some of these people exist. Look back to the OT! Noah lived before Abraham and God’s promise to Abraham. Noah never heard of Jesus, but he was a righteous man, in a right relationship with God. Noah will be saved on the Day of Judgment. But he will be saved through Jesus. The blood Jesus shed on the cross will pay for Noah’s sins even though Noah never heard of Jesus! Similarly, the OT priest Melchizadek, a contemporary of Abraham who was a priest of God was righteous (See Hebrews in the NT) and will be saved- his sins having been forgiven through Jesus.
All who are saved are saved through Jesus. Regardless of whether or not the person lived and died before
Jesus, if they knew about the Messiah God promised, or if they lived as Christians, all who are saved are saved through Jesus. There are some special circumstances through which God applies the Atonement Jesus brought to people who don’t know about Jesus personally. Why is this significant? Because it means nobody is saved through their own “goodness” but rather they are saved through Christ and Christ’s Atonement is applied to them based on God’s judgement of their actions flowing from their hearts. There is no salvation outside of Jesus, even if the saved person hasn’t heard of Jesus.
Forming an Answer
So what are we to do with all this? How do we start to formulate an answer to the question about people who haven’t heard of Jesus? Clarify “heard of Jesus” vs “heard of God” because most cultures believe in either a god or gods. In Rom 1 Paul says that nature itself declares God’s character. So nobody can say they haven’t heard of “God.” They can say that they haven’t heard of the God of the Bible, especially as revealed in Jesus.
But first, a few foundational points from which we can draw some conclusions. The message of Scripture is that it is far better to hear of Jesus and repent than to “risk” not hearing and being judged on your conscience. Yes, there will be some who are saved through Jesus based on their conscience, but the broad mass of humanity does not live by their conscience! We are all tainted by sin. Our hearts are fallen. When God judges our actions that come from a fallen heart, we are in trouble!
Nobody who is saved from sin deserves to be saved. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God! [Rom 3:23] Nobody deserves salvation, nobody deserves Heaven, nobody deserves eternal life in close intimacy with God. Nobody is “good enough” for God to say, “Yes, you deserve salvation.” In every case, including those who are saved without hearing Jesus’ name, are saved because God examines them and chooses to apply Jesus’ atonement to them. Never does God examine them and say that on their own merits they deserve salvation!
Nobody who goes to Hell goes there unfairly. We are all rebels against God. We all have at least minimum of a conscience that tells us something we desire is wrong. Our conscience may be hardened, misinformed, uneducated but we still have an innate sense of right and wrong on some level. And we all stray against it!
When God lays out our lives for all to see, and every sinful action but also thought is revealed, nobody will say, “See, I’m so good I deserve to escape Hell!” All who are saved, are saved because of the work Jesus did on the cross! The real question we are struggling with today is under what circumstances does God apply Christ’s atonement to people? We know he applies it to those who call on Jesus in repentance. But who else?
God’s salvation is based on his grace. His judgment is based on our sin. So condemnation is fair. Salvation is not fair! Salvation is grace- undeserved favour. It is a gift from God, free to us but costly to him! Having been shown generosity by God, we have a burden to share God’s generosity with others, telling them about Jesus so they can believe too.
So what are we to do with all this? How do we answer a neighbour who asks us about unreached people groups? What if we know a child who died before hearing about Jesus? Where do we begin to formulate an answer?
It’s always important when answering a deep question to ask where the questioner is coming from! What is their stance on the question, or what are their thoughts behind the question?
Why is the person asking the question? One the one hand, a person could be asking, “What about all the unreached people? What are we going to do to reach them?” or they could be asking, “What about all the unreached people? It would be unfair of God to condemn them!” What is the heart behind the question? What is the motive in asking?
Furthermore, what does the questioner think about the nature of people? On a foundational level, do they believe most people are fundamentally good? Do they think most people deserve paradise? These are important questions, the answers to which shape their approach to our question today!
Let me be clear- nobody in the West can say, “I didn’t have opportunity to hear!” So this question is really a philosophical one unless talking about children.
Nobody can appeal to the fate of unreached people as a way to challenge God’s goodness or fairness.
We have all sinned. We have all rejected the revelation of God we have received, at least to some extent. That
revelation may be from nature, or from the Bible. We have all fallen short of the revelation we have received.
God will judge us based on our response to the revelation we have received and that judgment will be fair! Nobody is condemned unfairly! So this goes back to the question of what the person asking believes about the nature of people. Are people fundamentally good? Or are we all sinful, tainted, contaminated in some way by sin?
Faith in God’s goodness gives us hope for at least some people who’ve never heard of Jesus. Not faith in people’s goodness, but in God’s!
In our text, Paul even says to the judgmental person “Do you show contempt for the riches of God’s kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing [they] lead you toward repentance? God’s goal is repentance in people, so he is kind, tolerant and patient with them in this lifetime. That same kindness and patience will be further evidence against them if they harden their hearts against God! But it doesn’t undermine his goodness and kindness.
Given that our consciences testify against us, it is far better to call on Jesus for salvation. This means we, ourselves, must live lives of repentance- regularly, consistently turning to God in Jesus Christ. It means that if we are truly concerned with the well-being of others, in particular their spiritual well-being, then we must bring them the good news of Jesus so they can call on him! And we must help to send others, further afield, to tell even more people about Jesus so they can call on him and believe.
God delays judgment, he is patient and kind, in order to lead us to repentance. Don’t take that for granted, for yourself or for others. Share the good news of Jesus! Amen.
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