We are considering a post by Al Maxey and another post by Leroy Garrett arguing that, for those who’ve never heard the gospel, their salvation will be determined based on their response to what they know of God from other sources.
Both Al and Leroy Garrett rely heavily on Paul’s arguments in Rom 1 and 2. And so we begin there.
Paul states the theme of Romans —
(Rom 1:16-17) I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
The gospel saves, but it only saves those who believe in Jesus.
(Rom 1:18-20) The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
Verses 19-20 teach that God reveals himself through his Creation. God’s self-revelation through the Creation is the first “book” of revelation that Leroy refers to in his post. Many other passages teach the same thing. Paul concludes that God’s revelation through his Creation leaves men “without excuse.”
(Rom 2:1-3) You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. 2 Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. 3 So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?
If we judge others for lying to us, and then lie ourselves, we’ve condemned ourselves because we demonstrate that we know lying is wrong and yet we lie. Our consciences — our moral nature — thus is the second “book” of God’s revelation that Leroy refers to in his post.
Paul argues that we all have “no excuse” because we are guilty of the very same sins we condemn in others. Thus, the first and second “books” of God’s revelation leave everyone with no excuse for their sin.
Paul’s point in both passages is that these “books” serve to damn us all because even those without the benefit of the scriptures fail to live up to what these books teach. This result allows Paul to conclude —
(Rom 3:22-24) This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
Paul teaches that “all have sinned” — who could disagree? And he teaches “all … fall short of the glory of God.” Not only do those without the scriptures sin, they fail to merit salvation. All of them.
We need to return to a passage I skipped —
(Rom 2:8-13) But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11 For God does not show favoritism. 12 All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.
Paul states the standard by which we’ll all be judged. If we obey “the law” — regardless of the “book” in which it is revealed — we’ll receive glory (v. 10). If not, not. (Many readers will be bothered by Paul’s emphasis on individual merit here. Paul wrote it. I’ll offer an explanation below once we cover the present point.)
Notice Paul’s use of “glory” here and in 3:23. Here he promises glory to those who obey. In 3:23 he declares that “all” fall short of glory. In other words, no one meets the standard of Rom 2:8-13 on his own merit. It’s a difficult conclusion, but how else could we keep chapter 3 consistent with chapter 2?
(Rom 2:14-16) (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15 since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) 16 This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.
Paul applies the same point to Gentiles who don’t have the scriptures. Sometimes their consciences accuse them. Sometimes their consciences defend them. But we shouldn’t imagine that there will be Gentiles who stand justified by their consciences. Paul has already said,
(Rom 2:1) You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.
And Paul concludes,
(Rom 3:23) for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God
Paul is certainly not teaching that there will be Gentiles who will be saved outside the gospel.
But might Paul be teaching that Jesus will justify the righteous unbeliever who has never heard the gospel? No —
(Rom 3:22) This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.
You see, the essence of Paul’s teaching on grace is that faith is the only adequate solution to our inability to obey as we should.
(Rom 4:14-15) For if those who live by law [regardless of the “book” through which the law is revealed] are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, 15 because law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.
No one conforms his life even to his own conscience, and no one lives up to the glory of God revealed in his Creation. Therefore, all those without faith in Jesus are lost — even though they are only accountable for so much of God’s law as they know. They know enough to damn themselves.
Note carefully that Paul says the way for there to be no transgression is for there to be no law — but he’s already shown in chapters 1 and 2 that everyone knows some of God’s law!
This is why Paul declares,
(Rom 10:14-15) How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Paul concludes that salvation by faith dictates the sending of missionaries. “How can they hear without someone preaching to them?” Indeed.
You see, the law (as revealed through any of the three books) serves only to damn. Even those who’ve never heard the gospel have heard enough of the law of God to stand damned. Therefore, it’s imperative that they hear the only message that brings salvation — the gospel.