What about the unreached? Part 2
Before I continue I need to emphasize that I am expressing my own views on the doctrine of salvation and do not represent any particular denomination or church. I freely admit that I could be mistaken and invite the reader to point out how and where I might be. But I do base them on Scripture, as well as natural theology by which we can know that God as the greatest conceivable being must be perfectly just. So no one is condemned to hell who does not deserve to be there.
How then do we uphold God’s justice while at the same time affirming the truth of verses like Romans 10:9 – “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”? Well, there are a few important things to note about this verse, and others like it:
1. If the context determines that individuals able to reason and make a willful choice to believe or not are the ones being referenced, it is reasonable to conclude that this truth is for them and not necessarily others not so able, like infants. Or if Jesus tells the Jews who witnessed his miracles and heard his teaching that, “unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins,” the context allows us to make a reasonable conclusion that his warning does not necessarily apply to those who have never witnessed nor heard.
2. The verse does not say if you do NOT confess and believe you will NOT be saved. We can utilize a very basic rule of logic here which guarantees that in the conditional statement “If P, then Q,” if P is true then Q is also true, but Q being true does not necessitate that P be true. In other words, if you confess and believe in Jesus as Lord you will be saved. But if it is true that you are saved, it does not necessarily follow, at least from this verse, that it is because you confessed and believed.
3. Again, context is key. In Chapter 10 (and in most of Romans) the apostle Paul is contrasting a works-righteousness system with the righteousness that is by faith, and identifies the former as futile. His primary message, as I read it, is that we are all in danger of being eternally separated from God because we all sin (and again, a qualification is warranted here because infants can’t sin) and no amount of personal righteousness assumed because of our works can save us. But God has provided a Redeemer in Jesus Christ who took the punishment in our place and when we submit to his lordship our faith is counted as righteousness and we are saved.
4. But “how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” Paul says in verse 14. Yet, four verses later he says, “But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for ‘Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.’” He is quoting Psalm 19 where the heavens, God’s creation, “speak” to all who would listen of the existence of God.
This last point is very instructive to my view of salvation…that God can be known from what he has made. Paul makes that very clear in the first chapter of Romans: “ For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” Then in Chapter 2 he teaches that God’s commands are apprehended instinctively, without knowledge of his expressed law: “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”
So the Amazonian tribesman looks up at the stars at night, takes in the magnificence of the river, the trees, the mountains when it is light, knows instinctively that neither he nor any man could have created and put them there, and concludes that there must be a maximally great being who did. And in awe and reverence he worships him. With that same spirit of submission he also recognizes his personal responsibility to obey the moral law his conscience informs him of, and when he fails to obey, the guilt he feels testifies to the existence of a moral lawgiver to whom he is accountable. So he does his best to act in accordance with the moral values and duties which are self-evident to him.
Now consider another native in the jungle, exposed to the same general revelation in creation and conscience as the first, but instead of choosing to acknowledge and submit to the God they testify to, rejects him and his moral law and lives as he pleases. I believe, from Scripture and natural theology, that God will apply the redemptive, salvific payment of Jesus’s death on the cross to the first tribesman, though he has never heard of him, and likely leave his neighbor to die in his willful rebellion and be lost.
I would apply similar reasoning to the problem of Old Testament folks before Jesus was born. I remember very early in my faith asking my Bible study leader about this very thing and being told that they knew of a coming Messiah and by putting their faith in this nameless Savior they too would be redeemed. I no longer believe that their faith needed to be in the one who was to come but rather in the one who was already there. God had revealed himself in specific and impressive ways and the Israelites were repeatedly being called on to believe, trust in, and obey him. In Isaiah 43:11 and elsewhere he, God the Father, identifies himself as their one and only savior: “I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior.” I know of no passage in the Old Testament exhorting the people to believe in a future savior, though he is certainly foretold. If Jesus and the Father are one and the same God, then at least before Jesus was born and revealed as God, it makes sense to me that humble, submissive faith in the one, true God who revealed himself to Israel is saving faith.
Not done yet. Hope you’ll stay with me.