by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Monday, January 16, 2012 at 9:40am

QUESTION: If a person dies without hearing of Jesus or of grace, but still believes in his heart that all things in the heavens and on earth were created by God the Creator, will this person be saved? Do such people not have the law written on their hearts, as Romans 2:15 says, even though they are not able to hear about Christ?

ANSWER: Paul’s point in Romans 1:18-32 (and 2:14-15) is that even those who do not have special revelation (such as the gospel) DO have general revelation of God’s power and Lordship and of certain fundamental moral laws (1:20-21, 26-32; 2:15). Thus they are held accountable for how they respond to these laws. The problem, though, is that ALL have sinned against the laws they know through general revelation (Rom. 3:9-12, 23), and thus ALL are under God’s wrath (Rom. 1:18, 32). Knowledge of God’s law is a way getting into heaven only if one completely obeys it. When one violates whatever law he knows, he is now worthy only of condemnation (see Rom. 3:19-20).

For more on these points, see my commentary on Romans (one-volume edition, College Press, 2005), and my book, Set Free! What the Bible Says About Grace, ch. 8, “Why the Law System Cannot Save.” (Most of the following is taken from the latter source, pp. 152-154.)

Many Christians do not understand this Biblical teaching about the fate of “the heathen” (as they are often called), and speculate that God will surely find some way to save such folks anyway. Some say that a rudimentary knowledge of God’s grace, and thus an opportunity for faith and salvation, will surely be made available to all people in some way even if they never hear of Jesus. Others argue that “the heathen” will surely be saved just because they have never heard of Jesus; i.e., they will be saved because of their ignorance of grace. The sentiment is this: “Surely God will not condemn someone for not believing in Christ if that person never even heard of Christ.”

In response to all views that argue for the salvation status of some or all heathen apart from the knowledge of the gospel and a positive response to it, we can argue that their proponents need to pay closer attention to the specific teaching of Scripture on the issue. Paul’s whole point in Romans 1:18-32 is that the heathen are in a hopeless state as long as they have only general revelation. Other Scriptures show us that salvation comes only through faith in the Redeemer, Jesus Christ; and that knowledge of him comes only through special revelation. In the NT salvation and eternal life are always connected with knowing Jesus and believing in Jesus (e.g., John 3:16-18; John 17:3; Acts 16:31).

The risen Christ’s “great commission” to Paul (when he was still Saul of Tarsus) clearly shows us that the unevangelized of the world are in a state of lostness. He tells Paul that he is being sent to the Gentiles, “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts 26:18). Here it is declared or at least implied that the Gentiles have closed eyes (spiritual blindness), are in darkness (a symbol of falsehood), are under the dominion of Satan, do not have forgiveness of sins, have no inheritance in glory (heaven), and are not a part of the “set-apart” (sanctified) ones. The only thing that can set them apart is to have faith in Jesus.

In his letter to the Ephesians, who were converts from the Gentile or pagan world, Paul describes what their status was before they became Christians. “Remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:12-13). The words “no hope,” “without God,” and “far off” are clear and decisive. Later in Ephesians Paul declares that Gentiles live “in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart” (4:17-18). Their ignorance is willful, growing out of the hardness of their heart; and it causes them to be excluded from the life of God.

Paul addresses this issue in Romans 10, where he is explaining why so many Jews are lost. The only way to be saved, he says, is to confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead (10:9). After thus identifying Jesus as Lord, he quotes the dictum of Joel 2:32, “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (10:13). Then Paul tells us the only way anyone can know Jesus as Lord and thus believe on him and call upon his name, in order to be saved: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? . . . So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (10:14-17).

The conclusion is that “the heathen” will be saved by grace IF someone takes them the gospel of grace and they accept it. We have no Biblical reason to think they will be saved in any other way. The implication of all of these texts, especially Romans 1:18-32, for the necessity of missions is obvious. As long as the heathen remain heathen (without special revelation), they will be judged and condemned by their law code. Whether they are judged and saved by grace depends upon our obedience to the Great Commission and their acceptance of the gospel.

(Anyone who actually believes otherwise should be adamantly opposed to all missions work. As long as the heathen never hear of Christ [as the argument goes], they will be saved by default. But if we take the gospel to them and they reject it, they lose that salvation status. Usually a lot more pagans who hear the gospel reject it than accept it. Thus in the end a lot more people will be in hell because of missionary work than there would have been without it. I guess Jesus just did not understand this when he gave us the Great Commission! )

Here I will come back to the question cited above in defense of the automatic salvation of the heathen: “But how can God condemn someone for not believing in Jesus, if that person never even heard of Jesus?” The problem is that this question misses the whole point. It is based on a false assumption, namely, that not believing in Jesus is the reason for this condemnation. But this is not the case. The heathen are NOT condemned for “not believing in Jesus.” They are condemned rather for breaking God’s laws. I.e., they are not judged (either for salvation or condemnation) in relation to that of which they are ignorant, but only in relation to that of which they have knowledge.

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  1. I agree with this post which I found while looking in your writings for mention of Matthew 24.14, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come”. Would you mind sharing your interpretation of this verse? I am using the Spanish translation of your “The Faith Once for All” in a course I’m teaching at a Bible institute in Argentina (www.ibica.org). Thank you!

    • I am happy you find some of my work useful. And I am glad that my book The Faith Once for All is in the Spanish language now and that you are able to use it. You can connect Matt. 24:14 to Matt. 28:18-20, the Great Commission. It was God’s intention that the gospel of Christ’s kingdom (established through his death and resurrection) be preached to all nations, to make salvation available worldwide. The establishment of the kingdom, announced on Pentecost (Acts 2) is the beginning of what Revelation 20 calls the millennium. This is the period of Satan’s being bound, with the result being that he is not now able to “deceive the nations” (Rev. 20:3). He cannot deceive the nations (contrary to pre-Pentecost, see Acts 26:18) because the gospel of the kingdom is being preached to all nations, bringing people from all nations under Christ’s dominion rather than Satan’s. Thanks for asking. Jack Cottrell

  2. Carlos Donateme understand how Central American mayans could have been saved prior to the 1500’s and prior to hearing the Gospel from Roman Catholic missionaries? (I do understand that these so called RC missionaries didn’t present the Gospel from the Protestant or Evangelical point of view, or did they preach salvation by faith through grace?)

    • The implication of my essay, based on Paul’s teaching in Romans and elsewhere, is that Central American Mayans could not have been saved unless someone brought them the Biblical gospel, and they accepted it and obeyed it. Whether the message of Roman Catholic missionaries counted as “the Biblical gospel” is another question.

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