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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at / Published Life BPC 8 am service, 2002-12-08

Text: Romans 1:21-24; 2:14-16

I. The Universal Scope of the Gospel

In order for us to fully appreciate the difficulty of answering this question please allow me first to give you some background behind it. When the Lord Jesus gave the Great Commission to His disciples, He told them 'Go ye therefore and teach all nations' (Matthew 28:19) The word for 'nations' here is ethnos, and that would include every tribe, language, and ethnic group, regardless of whatever philosophy of life or religion they already have. In fact when in the Great Comission that is found in Mark 16:15 which Jesus gave His disciples on a different occasion, He said, 'Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.' The gospel is to meant be heard by every creature (referring to man, of course). There is therefore no doubt that the Gospel has a universal scope of application. All men are lost; all men need to be saved; therefore all men must hear the Gospel, or else they will not be saved.

However, from the time that Christ gave this commission to His disciples onward, not all men have heard the Gospel. According to the history of missions, the Gospel went forth from Jerusalem, to Samaria, and through Paul's missionary journeys, it went into Asia Minor, Greece and Rome. From Rome it went to the rest of Europe, and from there it proceeded unto the uttermost parts of the earth. All this has taken hundreds of years to accomplish, and the work is still going on today. In fact the task of missions is still considered an unfinished task. The world today has about 6.2 billion people and it is estimated that about one fifth of that is still beyond reach of the present proclamation of the gospel. This means that about 1.2 billion people in the world today have never heard the gospel even once! Unless missionaries are sent to bring the Gospel to them now, these 1.2 billion people may die without hearing the Gospel at all. Besides that, in all the time that it has taken the Gospel to reach the rest of the world, many people have already died before the Gospel ever reached their part of the world. That includes our forefathers who worshipped idols in their homelands in India, China and other parts of Asia. They all died in their sin and heathen darkness, without ever knowing the only way of salvation in Jesus Christ. They are not like us here who have been so wonderfully blest to have had the Gospel brought to us, and some of us before we were saved have even heard the Gospel message not just once but many times, and there was ample opportunity for us to turn to Christ and be saved.

Now, these people who are entirely out of reach of the Gospel are different from unbelievers who live within reach of the Gospel. The ones who live within reach of the Gospel have probably heard the Gospel in some form or other - through a Christian friend or relative, or a gospel tract, or a Gospel rally they were invited to attend. But when they heard the message of salvation, the message did not take root in their heart and bear any fruit of salvation in their lives. And so they reject Christ and die without salvation from their sins. It is not difficult for anyone to see that their condemnation from God is just and righteous, since they had all turned away from the salvation that had been freely offered to them. 

II. The Ones Who Never Hear The Gospel

But our topic this morning concerns a different group of people, namely those who never had salvation in Christ offered to them because the Gospel message never reached them, and because of this they die without Christ. What will become of them? Would it be just for God to give them the same condemnation that was given to those who heard but rejected the Gospel message? Can they plead ignorance in order to escape God's condemnation? The answer from the Scriptures is 'No they cannot.' Their end will be just the same as those who have rejected the Gospel. Since their names are not written in the Book of Life they will not have eternal life, but rather eternal death. In the message that we had here some weeks ago we saw what that means - it means spending unending time in painful torments in the awful fires of Hell!

Now here is the point of difficulty in answering the question: 'What about those people who have never heard the Gospel?' Is it fair for these souls to share the same fate as those who heard the Gospel and rejected it? Now, because of the difficulty that this question presents, there are some who try to use their own human wisdom to provide an answer. They teach that if God is just and fair, the heathen who die without ever hearing the gospel can still be saved on the basis of how they respond to whatever they know of God from nature. This was the kind of thinking that became popular in the early decades of the 20th century - the thinking that there was something good in every human religion that Christians should learn from and accept. And this eventually led to the Ecumenical movement, which openly states that adherents of pagan religions may be saved without ever hearing the Gospel of Christ. They have even attempted to use the Word of God to justify this teaching. One passage of Scripture that has been used is Acts 10:34-35 'Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.' And so they say that according to this verse, as long as a person has some basic concept of God, and tries to do good works to please God, God will accept him. He may be a Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or Animist - so long as he is trying his level best to live up to his own religion, he will be saved.

But this interpretation takes the passage out of context, because the words were actually spoken by the Apostle Peter in the house of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion. Cornelius was a God-fearing Gentile, but he still needed to hear the Gospel through Peter in order to be saved. What Peter meant in vv,34,35 is that God has chosen those who are His people, not from one nation alone - which is Israel - but that He has also chosen to save people from every Gentile nation. Now if Peter meant to say that God accepts these people even without their knowing Jesus Christ, what do you think he would have done? I believe he would have just congratulated Cornelius for having earned God's favour by being such a god-fearing Gentile, and then left the house in peace. But what he did after this shows that god-fearing Gentiles like Cornelius still need to be saved from their sins by trusting in Christ alone. He preached Christ to Cornelius and his household. In. v.36 he said 'The word which God sent unto the children of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ: (he is Lord of all)' This is a direct reference to the Gospel of Christ that alone can bring sinners into peace with God. What do you think would have happened if after hearing this Gospel message from Peter, Cornelius rejected Christ? He would not be saved, even though he had feared God. The important point is: There is absolutely no salvation for even the most pious and religious person in the world so long as he does not have Christ. There is absolutely no alternative way of salvation. Jesus Himself said this categorically in John 14:6 ' am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me.' The same truth is given in Acts 4:12 'Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.' That name is the name above all names - the name of Jesus Christ. And since there is no other name that can bring salvation but His name, we must then declare His name and His salvation to every nation, with a sense of utmost urgency, since millions of souls are perishing without Him. Outside Christ, there is not even the slightest possibility of salvation! And if there is even the least possibility of salvation without Christ, then missions will no longer be such an urgent matter for us any more. Why take all the trouble and expense to send missionaries to the far-flung mission fields of the world to reach the heathen, if they can be saved without Christ? Some may even suggest that the heathen would be much better off not hearing the gospel at all, and just left to continue to be happily ignorant of Christ, for then there would be no possibility of them rejecting Christ at all, and of ever being condemned for rejecting Him. Dearly beloved, this kind of thinking is utterly mistaken for one important reason: Whatever knowledge of God that the heathen have is insufficient to save them. It is only sufficient to judge them. God's Word in Romans 1:20 tells us plainly 'For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:' But instead of leading men to fear God and worship Him, this inadequate knowledge of God has only leads them deeper and deeper into sin and false worship, as stated in the next three verses 'Because that, when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.' Now, besides the knowledge of God in nature, God has also given all men a conscience that enables them to know the difference between right and wrong. Romans 2:14-15 refers to this God-given conscience by saying, 'For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)' The end result of being directed by one's conscience alone is still condemnation. This is because the sinful nature which every man inherits from Adam causes them to go against their own conscience. And at the Day of Judgment, the unsaved will be judged by the Great Judge of the Earth according to their works. And under His divine examination which looks not only at the outward act, but penetrates deep into the inward hidden motives and selfish thoughts, all the righteous deeds of the very best men on earth will be shown up to be nothing but filthy rags. And this is one thing we can be sure of: That the condemnation of those who have never heard the Gospel will be completely fair and just, because God is righteous in all His judgements (Dan 9:14; Deut 32:4; Gen 18:25). And so, when the unevangelised heathen are condemned to eternal death, they cannot say that they are being condemned just because God did not send them the Gospel. They are condemned for no other reason than their own sinfulness before a Holy God.

III. The Sovereignty of God Determines Who Are The Ones Who Hear and Believe the Gospel 

But someone may then say, 'Isn't God in some sense responsible for their condemnation? If He had only elected them to be saved, surely their sins would have been washed away by Christ, and they would not be condemned at all.' Can an unsaved person stand before God's Judgment seat one day and say to Him, 'God, You really have no right to send me to hell, because what I am now is entirely the result of your sovereign will, and you had not chosen me before the foundation of the world. It is therefore not my fault that I am not saved. So You have no right to make me suffer for it.' The answer to this perplexing question is a definite NO, no unsaved person can ever make put the blame for his unsaved condition on God. Why? Because it is their own sins that bring them into judgment. God merely permits them to receive the just judgment that is due to them for their sins.

Hence on the day of judgement, the unsaved who never heard the Gospel will righteously be condemned to eternal death in hell, because they are responsible for their own sins. The Bible is clear that every man will be held responsible for his own faults and sins.

Now, many people are bothered by another question - If God's election or choice at the beginning of time was the thing which decided who should hear the Gospel and be saved, then why did He not choose more to be saved? Why did He choose only the elect to hear the Gospel and be saved? This question, if not properly handled can lead to doubting God's goodness. The reasoning given is that if God is good, surely He would not bear to see any sinner missing out on salvation, dying in sin and suffering in hell. Surely He should have elected all and made sure that every single person who lives on earth has the opportunity to hear the Gospel and be saved. Since He did not elect all, but only some, that shows that His goodness is not infinite but limited.

But let us remember that God is also a holy God. According to His holiness, 'the soul that sinneth, it shall die' (Ezekiel 18:4,20). Hence by right, absolutely no sinner should be saved at all. Now if God should have chosen to save just one sinner alone - that would already have been most marvelous mercy. It is utterly undeserving. But lo and behold, He has chosen to save not just one, but a whole multitude of sinners. That multiplies His glorious grace many times more.

Let us just imagine that in a certain country there are 50 men who have been justly given the death sentence for heinous crimes they committed, and they are all waiting for the time of their execution on death row in prison. Now, it happens to be the king's birthday, and the king decides to show his goodness by granting amnesty and freedom to a few of these men. So he goes down to visit the death row. He looks at all fifty of them, and all of them are equally deserving of death. Then he selects 3 of them, to whom he says. 'Out of the goodness of my heart, I am removing the death sentence from you. You can walk out of this prison now, as free men.' The 3 men are understandably elated and they prostrate themselves before the king, thanking him profusely for sparing their lives.

But the rest of the prisoners become disappointed and angry at the king for not choosing them. They say to him, 'You cannot do that to us. You are not being fair to us!' And the king only says to them, 'If it is fairness that you want, then not even a single one of you would be released. What I have given to the three men I chose is not what they deserve, but what they do not deserve.' Dear friends, the same thing applies to our salvation. The fact that God chose to save only some does not mean that He is unfair to the rest. Elect or not elect, all men were sentenced to eternal death because of their sins.

But God's goodness is magnified in the fact that even before the foundation of the world, God had already chosen us to be in Christ. And this led to the outworking of His providence to bring us the gospel, and the inworking of His Holy Spirit in our hearts, to bring us into the saved status that we enjoy today. And we should now be most grateful to God for all this. And this should also make us humble. We have no one but God to thank, for our salvation. We cannot claim any credit for ourselves.

As for those who have never heard the Gospel and are condemned as a result of that - they have no one but themselves to blame for their unsaved condition, and so they have to bear full responsibility for themselves. I hope that this enables us to answer the question 'What About People Who Have Never Heard of the Gospel?' There is one other question that is sometimes asked as well, related to this one:

IV. What About Those Who Are Incapable of Hearing the Gospel? 

We are not talking anymore about those who are outside the reach of the Gospel, but of those who may be within reach of some kind of Gospel witness, but who are just unable to understand it. E.g. those who die in infancy or who are mentally deficient. How can infants dying in infancy believe in Christ? And how can those who are mentally deficient believe in the Gospel message when they cannot even understand simple words? Are they totally denied salvation merely because they lack the capacity to understand the Gospel?

It must be admitted that God's Word does not speak very much on this matter. But Jesus did say in Luke 18: 16 'Suffer little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.' And King David expressed confidence that he will see his deceased infant son in heaven one day, 2 Samuel 12:23 'I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.'

But beyond these few statements and some good and necessary inferences that we can make from Scripture, there is a definite limit upon what we may legitimately say on this matter. To say more than this is to venture into the unknown. There are some who speculate that all infants who die in infancy are automatically saved because it is claimed that they are all innocent and have no sin. But the Scriptures teach the sober truth that we are are already sinners not only from birth, but even from the moment of conception, even though no actual sins have been committed yet. David testified in Psalm 51:5 'Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.'

This sinful nature can be seen even in the behaviour of newborn babies - you can see how quickly they learn how to get their mummies and daddies to respond to their griping and crying. And so even one who is still in a state of infancy is a sinner in need of salvation, and if he dies, there is no automatic salvation for him. And so we must be careful not to speculate on this matter or else we may end up believing things that are not scriptural at all. We may even end up teaching a new method of salvation - by dying in infancy! This is why the only thing that the Westminster Confession ventures to say about this matter is that 'Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth. So also are all other elect persons, who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the word.' (WCOF Chapter X, para 3) 

All that is stated here is that by the same divine election that we have been saved, those who are incapable of hearing the Gospel can also be saved. It does not go on to speculate how this happens, or how many of such persons are elected to salvation, whether they include only the infants of Christian parents or also those of non-Christian parents. All those whom God elects are ultimately saved, and their salvation is wrought by God only through Jesus Christ alone.

But what is good for us to know out of all this, is that because according to the Scriptures, salvation is completely wrought by the sovereign work of God, God is still able save those who die in infancy and those who are mentally deficient. Their incapacity poses no barrier to God's work of salvation. That puts them on the same level as eveyrone else. And this gives us hope to comfort others and also ourselves if have loved ones in such a state - a child who dies in infancy or is born with some abnormality which makes him mentally handicapped. Let us do our best for them knowing that God can save them. Pray for them, communicate Christ to them as simply as we can, and leave the rest up to God.

And actually, we too before we were saved, were just like them and not very different from them. We too were incapable of responding to the Gospel of Christ. Jesus said, 'No man can come to Me, except the Father which hath sent Me draw him' If God had not worked in your heart, and drawn you to Christ, you would not be saved today!

Vision & Mission

 

To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

October 15 & 22 - The Cost of Discipleship

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. Matthew 16:25