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Salvation and the Unevangelized

As Jesus explains to his disciples that their continued lives and ministries will be beset with challenges on account of the hatred of the world, he gives some reasoning for why the world hates him. In short, the world hates Christ because his word and works expose sin (John 15:22-24). Commenting on these verses, Carson writes, “Rejection of Jesus' words and works is thus the rejection of the clearest light, the fullest revelation; and therefore it incurs the most central, deep-stained guilt.”[1]

Now, it’s important to remember that this revelatory activity of Christ is not restricted to those who heard him during his public ministry. Wherever the gospel has gone forth, Christ has spoken, and those who have rejected him now have no excuse for sin.

All that said, one question may remain in our minds: “What about those who haven’t encountered the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ?” Before taking up that question, I fully acknowledge that it is not the kind of question that is ever really treated with an arm’s length evaluation. There is often much emotion wrapped up in asking and answering it. Moreover, I acknowledge that I can only scratch the surface of an answer in a reflection as short as this. Nevertheless, the question was raised in my own mind while reading this text, and the possibility that I’m not alone in asking it leads me to devote the remainder of this reflection to it.

First, we must appreciate that God himself is not neutral about this question. In general, the fact that he sent Jonah to Nineveh should help us appreciate a bit more his fundamental disposition. More specifically, through the prophet Ezekiel, the Lord says, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (Ezek 18:23 ESV). Commenting on this verse, Daniel Block writes, “By means of a rhetorical question, which anticipates an unequivocal negative response, Ezekiel spells out the basis for the exiles’ hope: Yahweh’s fundamental commitment is to human life, not to death. He finds no joy in anyone’s death, not even that of a wicked person.”[2]

Second, God’s non-neutrality still acknowledges moral distinctions between the righteous and the wicked. That is to say, God’s “fundamental commitment” to human life does not negate his equally fundamental commitment to holiness.

Third, the plain fact is that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. This universal sinfulness flows from humanity’s original corruption and blossoms into a variety of particular sins in the life of every mere man, woman, and child that has ever lived and ever will live. Experience tells us that there is something generally wrong with humanity when we read the newspaper or otherwise interact with the world. Revelation tells us that this ailment is sin and that it is universal.

Fourth, all are without excuse for their sin because God has revealed himself generally at all times to all people. Paul writes of this in Rom 1:19-20 (ESV): “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.” This general revelation of God has been either suppressed (v18) and/or substituted (v22), but God’s word tells us that it has been made sufficiently clear enough to leave everyone without excuse, even apart from an encounter with the gospel message.

Summarizing these thoughts, Daniel Strange writes, “The problem with the question of the unevangelised is that it is wrongly construed as being about ‘those who have never heard through no fault of their own,’ or those who are ‘invincibly ignorant.’ However the biblical worldview tells us that no-one is spiritually guiltless and that while there are degrees of light and of responsibility, everyone has spurned the light they have, whether this be the light of general revelation or special revelation. This is the universality of sin.”[3]

In the end, this is not meant to give anyone a pass on evangelism or missions but rather to spur you to preach the gospel and, equally important, pray for the Holy Spirit to work salvation through the word.

[1] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 526. [2] The Book of Ezekiel, NICOT (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2007), 583. [3] Daniel Strange, Possibility of Salvation among the Unevangelized: An Analysis of Inclusivism in Recent Evangelical Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2007), 282.

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