Baptism/Amazing Grace: A Conversation Over Lunch, Part 6

Romans 2

But what about Romans 2? Doesn’t Paul say something there about the fate of those who never heard the gospel?

He does. The discussion actually begins in chapter 1 –

(Rom 1:19-21 ESV) 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  20 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.  21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

(Rom 2:1-5 ESV)  Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.  2 We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things.  3 Do you suppose, O man–you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself–that you will escape the judgment of God?  4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?  5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

Everyone judges. We learn to do it at a very young age, in fact. And we all condemn our brother for conduct that we are guilty of ourselves. We’re all guilty by our own, internal standards.

We all get angry when someone lies to us, and we all lie. We all get furious at rudeness, and we are all rude. We all hate it when a man stares too long at our wives, and we all stare too long at other men’s wives.

And Paul says that we thereby condemn ourselves. In fact, the “moral law within” reveals a portion of God’s will to us, even without the benefit of the Scriptures. We don’t know all of God’s will this way (we are broken creatures), but we know enough to damn ourselves.

If Paul’s discussion ended here, there’d be little controversy. He plainly damns all those who’ve never heard God’s word in chapters 1 and 2, and then later confirms that conclusion in chapter 3 (as we’ll get to). But the following paragraph gives many hope that Paul created an exception —

(Rom 2:6-10 ESV) 6 He will render to each one according to his works:  7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;  8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.  9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek,  10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.

This passage has provoked considerable speculation. After all, Paul will soon declare that Christians are saved by faith and not works.

Therefore, many conclude that Paul is not discussing Christians but those outside the church, and promising salvation to good people outside the kingdom of heaven.

But this result does not hold up to close scrutiny. As N. T Wright explains in The New Interpreter’s Bible : Acts – First Corinthians [broken into smaller paragraphs for web viewing],

Throughout this section so far Paul has been saying things that cry out for further explanation, which he will provide as the letter moves forward. He is at this point sketching a scene, not filling in the details. …

Paul’s view, to anticipate the later argument, is that those who are in Christ, who are indwelt by the Spirit, do in fact “do the law,” even though, in the case of Gentiles, they have never heard it.

The law, in Paul’s view, pointed to the fullness of life and obedience to God which comes about in the Messiah; those who attain that fullness of life and obedience to God are therefore “doing the Torah” in the senses that, to Paul, really matter.

He is well aware that this is paradoxical, but well aware also that to say anything else would be to imply, which he never does, either that the Torah was a bad thing, now happily left behind, or that Gentile Christians are second-class citizens in the kingdom of the Messiah. He will have it both ways; they are not under the Torah, but at the same time they are essentially doing what Torah really wanted.

Wright clinches the argument –

(Rom 2:14-16 ESV)  14 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.  15 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  16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

Does the righteous pagans have the law written on their hearts? No, Paul is referring to Jeremiah —

(Jer 31:31-33 ESV) 31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah,  32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD.  33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

No, Paul is referring to Jeremiah 31’s prophecy of the new covenant, quoted in Hebrews 8. Therefore, the Gentiles Paul is referring to are those who’ve received the Spirit — as Paul will explain in more detail later, especially in Romans 8.

This seems hardly obvious. Many have read this passage differently …

True, but then why were the Jews damned? Why didn’t all good Jews go to heaven? Why did Peter command all the Jews within earshot  — “everyone of you” — to repent and be baptized in Acts 2:38 if a good Jew would be saved without Jesus?

Why did Paul suffer beatings and starvation and repeatedly come close to death to preach the gospel to good people who were already saved?

Why does Paul say,

(Rom 9:1-3 ESV) I am speaking the truth in Christ–I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit — 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.

Why be in agony for the Jews? Well, because —

(Rom 11:20, 23 ESV)  20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. … 23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.

They are damned because they didn’t believe in Jesus.

(Rom 15:15-16 ESV) 15 But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God  16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

Paul preached to the Gentiles that some would be “acceptable, sanctified.” Obviously, but for the preaching of the word, they would not have been.

And so, you’re saying, that it contradicts the “available light” theory to preach the gospel to Jews and Gentiles, because the result of preaching might lead some to reject the message and so be damned, whereas if the message had never been preached, good people would be saved?

Yes.

But isn’t there more to salvation than going to heaven? Doesn’t the chance to learn about Jesus, to be in relationship with him and to participate in the Spirit mean that there is merit in preaching even to those already saved by their ignorance?

That sounds good, but if your children were ignorant of Jesus but good enough to be saved without Jesus, would you want some preacher school graduate to come preach to them — badly? Wouldn’t you prefer that they remain in their ignorance — and saved — rather than be confronted with the very difficult choice to believe in Jesus or be damned? Would you gamble their souls on a missionary’s sermon? Then why gamble someone else’s soul?

The argument doesn’t hold up.

That doesn’t make it wrong …

It’s pretty good indication of error when the whole story of Acts and of Paul’s life make no sense at all when viewed in light of “available light.”

At a deeper level, though, we see know that no one is saved by his own merits.

(Rom 3:9-23 ESV)  9 What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin,  10 as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one;  11 no one understands; no one seeks for God.  12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

13 “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.”

“The venom of asps is under their lips.”

14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”

15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;  16 in their paths are ruin and misery,  17 and the way of peace they have not known.”

18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.  20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it — 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:  23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God …

Why on earth would Paul write this, plainly contradicting chapter 2 just one page earlier? No, Paul taught the same theology in chapter 2 and in chapter 3. “By works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” even those who do some of the works by nature. Even good pagans.

You see, either we can earn salvation or we don’t. It makes no sense to preach one Sunday that we are saved by grace because we cannot possibly earn salvation and to then preach the next Sunday that people entirely unfamiliar with the Scriptures live such holy lives that they earn salvation.

Or to teach that pagans unaware of the gospel can receive salvation without faith in Jesus but Jews cannot. And plainly Jews must believe in Jesus to be saved, or else Acts 2:40 makes no sense at all —

(Act 2:40 ESV)  40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.”

Not to mention —

(Act 2:47b ESV)  And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Obviously, the Jews had to be saved from God’s wrath against sin — even though I’m sure many who were in Jerusalem on pilgrimage to worship God were good people, more righteous in terms of morality than any pagan.

No, we can’t make a grace system fair. It’s not. It’s much more than fair, but only for those among who’ve been chosen.

 

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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14 Responses to Baptism/Amazing Grace: A Conversation Over Lunch, Part 6

  1. Price says:

    Going to have to mull this one over… If I understand you correctly, a Jew who was living as best he could under the covenant he was aware of was condemned to hell by a new covenant that he had not heard of… Seems odd. No radio, TV, newspaper, internet, etc., and living thousands of miles away… died without knowing that the Messiah had come…thrown in hell… hard to imagine.

    Not so sure about the Romans 2:14 passage either…It says that the Gentiles don’t have the law…How could it be that the law God written on their hearts is the new covenant for believers if indeed the scripture says they do not have it…They are judged by their conscience, not the law… It says that “nature” is the cause of their action or inaction.. It says they are a law unto themselves…what new covenant is that ? It seems that they will be eventually judged as to their inner heart by Jesus Himself… That doesn’t sound like a believer’s acceptance of faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior..

    If after sending an angel to Cornelius, recognizing him for his prayer and giving, if Cornelius had been mugged and killed before he got to Peter, he would have been thrown in hell by the same God that had called him? If we attach a “pattern” to God, let it be Grace…

  2. Grizz says:

    Price brings up a few points which your approach does not answer, Jay. It seems this is always the case when men try to rely on their own reasoning to re-interpret (i.e., rationalize) their preferences to make them seem to be the preferences of our God.

    That you might consider people who know nothing of Jesus to be ‘saved’, if that is what you do, is troublesome at best and smacks of speculative theology very foreign to the inspired scriptures.

    Romans 2 addresses this issue, certainly, but in a very different way than you present in my humble estimation. Paul speaks of the precarious condition of those who see a power at work in nature, in the origins of life, in the organic design of the universe who know not the Lord who made it. Whereas on the one hand they might have hope if their consciences never accuse them and their conduct unerringly conforms to their view of creation and the ethics of living in harmony with the force at work in creation, Paul also notes that any misstep that arises taking them out of unerring harmony with creation condemns them without any other remedy than that provided by a Jesus they never knew. In other words, Paul’s answer to the speculation about ‘those who never heard the gospel or the Law’ is that they, too, need to hear about Jesus. That is why it is of utmost import and urgency that we ALL, from the least to the greatest, work to spread the gospel – through the foolishness of preaching as Paul will term it in other passages. And this is not an assignment for professionals only but for every follower who would walk as Jesus did and so prove themselves true to the One whom they claim to follow.

    Clever approaches cannot even approach the wisdom and discernment of such a proclamation – on the order of that which Peter made – that there is only one name by which any person may be saved at all: the name of Jesus, the Christ. The apostles knew that ‘as you are going’ (Matthew 28) meant that they would leave behind the comforts of home for the promise of heavenly dwellings. No matter how much our couch-potato society would like to manipulate it otherwise, the command and commission has not changed and will not change. If we would be followers indeed, then we must get up and get going to make disciples.

    Blessings,

    Grizz

  3. No one is saved by exemplary works. People are saved only by the blood of Christ, and God may impute His mercy to whom He wills. If “available light” teaches that good people are saved by good works. But if our soteriology — whatever view we hold — writes off God’s sovereign mercy as if justice overpowers it rather than balances it, then it’s wrong, too.

  4. Sorry; meant to type: “If “available light” teaches that good people are saved by good works, it’s wrong.”

  5. laymond says:

    Keith, don’t you mean , you believe it to be wrong ?

  6. eric says:

    Okay here are some thoughts going on in my head. We don’t deserve existence much less eternity so I can see a just and merciful God giving some the life we know and choosing to give others eternity. I see that while understanding that according to scripture He desires that none should perish. I’m with him on that for sure. I can see where some individuals seem beyond reach totally unwilling to turn toward God regardless of the evidence or influence. Though I’ve seen some of these people surprise us and some even end up Paul like before its all over. All the same some never do make the change. So though I wish like God all would find their way I know some may not. I also remember a scripture saying all who seek will find. And all who listen to the truth will listen to me(Jesus). So maybe everyone like C.S. Lewis for instance who truly wants to know the truth will someday know it. And some want to know the truth but when they see it they turn and go back to there comfort zone. We who know Christ know that struggle.

  7. aBasnar says:

    To the point, Jay!

    What most overlook is the tension between jewish CHristians who demanded ciscumcision and observance ofthe Mosaic Law as a condition for salvation. this “debate” is going on all the way to chapter 11 – it’s one big discourse.

    Thank you
    Alexander

  8. aBasnar says:

    oops, missed half a sentence:
    between jewish Christians and Gentile Christians

  9. aBasnar says:

    Just in case you wonder, it starts right here:

    Rom 1:5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations,
    Rom 1:6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

    And it goes all the way to there:

    Rom 11:17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree,
    Rom 11:18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you.

    Rom 11:32 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.
    Rom 11:33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

    In fact, I did not see the place of Rom 2 in it either until Jay now pointed out the connection to Jer 31. It always disturbed me that something promised forthe New Covenant should be a reality in every natural pagan who tries to live according to his conscience. But Paul does not speak of any old heathen here, but of Gentile Christians. Another important piece of the puzzle fell into its proper place …

    And BTW: Now compare Paul and James:

    Rom 2:13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.

    Jas 1:22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
    Jas 1:23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror.

    Jas 2:22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works;
    Jas 2:23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”–and he was called a friend of God.
    Jas 2:24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

    And compare this to statement such as:

    No one is saved by exemplary works. People are saved only by the blood of Christ, and God may impute His mercy to whom He wills.

    (and I am not picking on Keith here, because this is quite a common view – just that he summed it up)

    Alexander

  10. hank says:

    Romans 2 was referring to a unique time period when: 1) The law of Moses was still in effect 2) ALL OF THE gentiles were not under it, but were a law unto themselves – a law governed by their conscience. 3) Their were two folds of God’s sheep. 4) God was allowing “the nations” (the Gentiles) to walk in their own ways 5) God was overlooking the the times of ignorance (when the Gentiles did not have the same light which was available to the Jews). However, today — 1) Their is a new covenant/law under which ALL men are under. 2) there are no more 2 folds of God’s sheep but 1, which is the church, the body of ALL of the saved. 3) the times of ignorance are ended – all men willow ne judged by the same words.

  11. Norton says:

    Jay
    Good reasoning in the article. Not sure if I agree with Wright that the Gentiles who had the law written on their hearts were Gentile Christians though. I think Paul was saying the pagan Gentiles had enough “available light”, even if they didn’t have a written law, so that that had no excuse for their bad actions. Neither Jews nor Gentiles were consistent in living up to their available light so all were under condemnation. I, as you, don’t see any salvation according to “available light” taught in Romans.

  12. HistoryGuy says:

    Jay,
    I will have to examine the NC written on their heart part of your post, but for the most part I think you gave a great summary; all humanity is under sin an stand condemns. The reoccurring question seems to be about the theoretical “good guy” who longs for God yet is somehow over looked and slips through God’s gracios fingers into the fires of hell – Oh, my! First, we all need to remember that as sinners, God is just in sending us to hell. Second, and more important, we need to look to God who is able to save to the uttermost. I have cautiously worded my post so that I can ask, do you Jay, plan to address anything about these questions concerning “does God overlook anyone, or is he unable to save [even according to his revealed method – the gospel], etc?” Paul starts talking about this in Romans 8 [and many other places] so I did not want to get ahead of your post. Thoughts?

  13. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    HistoryGuy asked,

    do you Jay, plan to address anything about these questions concerning “does God overlook anyone, or is he unable to save [even according to his revealed method – the gospel], etc?” Paul starts talking about this in Romans 8 [and many other places] so I did not want to get ahead of your post. Thoughts?

    I’m not sure I follow your question, esp regarding Rom 8. Does God overlook anyone? If you mean does he forget to save someone he has intended to? Of course, not. But his desire is that everyone be saved — enough so to die for the world.

    (Joh 3:16 ESV) 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

    Is he unable to save anyone? Well, that’s rather like asking whether God can make a rock so big even he can’t pick it up. I’m not sure this is about the limits of God’s power so much as his decision to allow free will and its consequences. He could have denied free will, I’m sure. He chose not to for reasons that are holy.

    Rom 8:9-11 reveals that those with the Spirit are saved, and those without the Spirit are not. So I’m sure where you’re coming from.

    (Rom 8:33-35 ESV) 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died–more than that, who was raised–who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?

    In Paul’s vocabulary, the “elect” is Israel, as redefined in Jesus. Read Rom 11. The elect is a remnant of Israel together with the grafted in Gentiles — all defined by faith in Jesus.

    Thus, who is “us” in v. 35? “Us” is “God’s elect,” is Israel redefined, is those with faith in Jesus. This is a conclusion drawn from what precedes, buildilng toward chapters 9 – 11, not a re-writing of Rom 1 – 7.

    I do have a post coming on election and being God’s chosen people, built off, among other passages, Rom 11.

  14. HistoryGuy says:

    Jay,
    My thought was poorly worded. I was asking if you had any upcoming posts as a response to the many posts I have seen, which in essence are written from a perspective that God is somehow unable send and reveal his salvific gospel message (regardless of the dispensation) to people, and in so doing, folks that would have believed him are going to be utterly lost. That is not what I read in Scripture nor the God I believe in. I was espically thinking of Romans 8:29-30, which leads into a deeper discussion on election in Ch. 9-11. You gave me a good response and it seems you are going to cover God’s power and providence. My point was that some poor soul – who does or would have believed – will not slip through the cracks of Gods knowledge and mistakenly be in hell while God sits in agony saying, what can do? I am enjoying this series.

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