When it comes to fate of those who die apart from hearing the Gospel, according to some theologues, there is some ambiguity in the Scriptures that arises from a philosophical problem. That supposed problem essentially is this: “If men are saved only through the preaching of the Gospel, and some men have died apart from hearing the Gospel, their fate then is uncertain for they cannot be held accountable for that which they have not heard.” And such a statement is not found merely among those who would call themselves liberal in the faith, but I have personally heard it from the mouths of those who call themselves conservative, Bible-believing evangelicals.
The problem with such a belief is clear when seen in light of the salvific exclusivity claimed of faith in Christ by the Scriptures, but its root is a much deeper issue, namely a fundamental misunderstanding of the Gospel itself.
The root can be detected from the aforementioned statement in the phrase, “[Men] cannot be held accountable for that which they have not heard.” The key word in the phrase is “accountable.” “Men cannot be held accountable to the Gospel which they have not heard.” The problem with such a notion that men are accountable to the Gospel is that the Gospel is not a law to which one is accountable. The Gospel is not a new law that replaces an old law, but it is the remedy to transgressions against the unchanging law of God. To say that men are not accountable to God because they have not heard the Gospel is to say that men are not accountable to the law of God, whether revealed in Scripture or written upon the heart, but men are only accountable to the new law of the Gospel.
This point cannot be missed, for in declaring such, men have made that which is grace into works. For rather than the Gospel being the unmerited grace of God bestowed upon men by the Holy Spirit through the work of Christ, it is a new and singular commandment, “Accept Jesus as your personal Savior, and thus make yourself right with God.” It says that if you obey this one commandment you will live, but if you disobey it you will perish. And thus when the matter of the unevangelized is considered, their fate is uncertain for they have not heard the one law of the Gospel and, “Where there is no law there is no transgression” (Rm. 4:15).
However, the problem is there is a law, and it matters not whether one is Jew or a Gentile, or whether he has heard the law from the Scriptures or not. For the apostle Paul writes, “All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” (Rm. 2:12). And what the apostle is saying is not that there are some who are totally ignorant of the law and some who are not, but he is saying that all men, whether they possess the Scriptures or not, are accountable to God for transgressing the law. He explains it this way:
For when Gentiles who do not have the law [i.e. the Scriptures] by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves even though they do not have the law. 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 on that day, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus (Rm. 2:14-16).
In other words, God has written upon the hearts of all men enough of the law so that they are accountable to him when they transgress it. The evidence of this can be seen in such universal laws against murder, stealing, lying, adultery, etc. that are found even among people who have never heard the name of Yahweh or received the Scriptures. These people groups know a portion of the law, and all of them have transgressed that law and have been declared guilty by their own consciences.
For this reason, the apostle writes later:
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. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin (Rm. 3:19, 20).
All this is to say that the Day of Judgment will be a very quiet day. For all men will come before God the Judge, all of their wicked deeds will be laid before them, and they will be silent because they have no excuse. For they knew the law, be it from the Scriptures or otherwise, and they deliberately transgressed it. The Gospel does not enter into it. Men who have not heard the name of Jesus Christ will not be condemned for not believing in him, but they will be condemned for willfully breaking the law of God that they knew. This is not to say that those who have heard the name of Christ will not be judged for rejecting him along with their other evil deeds, but it is to say that men who have not heard the name of Christ have transgressed the law of God enough to damn themselves.
Therefore, the greatest problem in the world is not that the unevangelized world has not heard the “new law” of the Gospel, but it is unrighteousness. For this reason, the apostle begins his discourse, writing:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be know about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 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 (Rm. 1-18-20).
And thus, after the apostle declares that all men will be silent before God and accountable to him for their willful lawlessness, he presents the Gospel. He writes:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through the faith of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are [made righteous] by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rm. 3:21-24).
Therefore, the Gospel comes in, not as a new law to be kept, but as the remedy for unrighteousness. All have transgressed the law of God and are therefore unrighteous before God, and the Gospel comes in offering the righteousness of Christ to those who believe in him. And lest this be misunderstood as a new law to be kept, the apostle calls this righteousness a “gift.” It is not earned by keeping a law of acceptance of Jesus Christ, but it is a gift of imputed righteousness given by God. Therefore, all boasting is excluded (cf. Rm. 3:27), for men do not make themselves righteous through keeping the law of the Gospel, but God makes men righteous by his grace.
The Gospel is not a New Law, So What?
To some, the distinction between the Gospel being seen as the new law of “Accept Jesus as your personal Savior,” and being the gift of righteousness to those who believe in Christ may seem a bit trite. What does it matter if the Gospel is seen as law or gift, so long as one believes in Jesus Christ and is saved?
Though the distinction between the two may seem small in its words, the effects of believing one or the other are quite profound. In fact, I believe that the Gospel as law problem is the very root of our doctrinal problems as American Evangelicals, and it is seen quite clearly in the way we preach the Gospel.
First, because we as whole view the Gospel as the law, “Accept Jesus as your personal Savior,” we as American Evangelicals place a majority of our emphasis in our churches on getting a person to accept Jesus Christ as his Savior. And as such, church discipline has been replaced by altar calls, discipleship has been replaced by conversion prayers, and fruits of righteousness have been replaced by spiritual birthdays. We, because we have witnessed someone pray a prayer, sign a card, or write a spiritual birthday in his Bible, rejoice when his has made his decision to accept Christ. But when that person later falls into sin and leaves the fellowship, instead of searching after him to keep him accountable to the Gospel he professed to believe, we content ourselves with the fact that he prayed the “prayer of salvation” back in 1992.
Secondly, which is a result of the first, the Gospel’s requirement of righteousness in this life is a foreign concept to the American church. Such phrases of Scripture as the apostle’s opening declaration of his reason for preaching the Gospel, viz. “To bring about the obedience of faith” (Rm. 1:5), and the declarations of Romans 6-8, “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if, by the Spirit, you put to death the deeds of the body you will live,” are incomprehensible to the American church. For the very moment that one declares that those who are saved are “slaves of obedience” (Rm. 6:17) and must fulfill the righteous requirement of the law (Rm. 8:4), he is labeled a Pharisee and a legalist. For the Gospel, instead of being viewed as that which transforms the entire life of a soul so as to conform him to the righteous image of Jesus Christ (cf. Rm. 8:29), it is viewed as a “get out of hell free” card so that one can live as he desires without fear of divine retribution. Thus, few “work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Ph. 2:12), but many live licentiously in the comfort of having fulfilled their contrived law of the Gospel.
Thirdly and quite obviously, we have made faith out to be a work of man rather than a work of God. It is for this reason that most in the American church despise the doctrines of Calvinism (or Scripture), because those doctrines rip away all boasting from men and places their faith rightly in the hands of him who created it (cf. Eph. 2:8). The American church prefers a Gospel that is a law, because a Gospel that is a law rests salvation upon human free will rather than upon God. To make the Gospel one of grace through faith that originates in God alone removes from men all reason for pride and boasting, and instead places the glory of salvation upon God alone. American Christians, however, are chiefly worshipers of self rather than worshipers of God, and they therefore despise any doctrine which takes glory away from themselves and gives it to Another.
Therefore, the belief that those who have not heard the Gospel will somehow escape judgment is not from Scriptural ambiguity or from a philosophical problem, but it is a symptom of a fundamental misunderstanding of the Gospel as law. For we in the American church have done precisely what other religions have done for millennia, namely conjured up law(s) that allow us to make ourselves right with God. The problem, however, is that the Gospel is not a secret law that we know and the world does not know, but it the Good News that God has given grace to men who transgressed his universal law through his righteous Son. Righteousness is a gift from God alone, and to make it anything else distorts Word of God and the salvation that he has provided.