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?
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.