This is the third in a series of occasional posts from Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, where I have the privilege of serving with Michael O’Neal, a church planter/pastor/teacher from Tennessee, and missionary Scott Carter to teach Christian apologetics to fellow believers and assist local pastors in their discipleship and church-planting efforts.
Sept. 28, 11:32 p.m. — ConneXion Subang (university student ministry center), Subang Jaya
The question was inevitable. After two and a half hours of teaching on the uniqueness of Christ and addressing a series of challenging issues with university students who have gathered here for Bible study and prayer, a coed raised her hand and asked sincerely, “But what about those who have never heard of Jesus?” She and her fellow Christian students from countries in Africa and Asia are serious about effectively sharing their faith with their Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and atheist classmates, and for them this question is key.
But it’s not a question given to soundbite responses — or easily dismissed as an unbeliever’s barb. True believers wrestle with this question as well, and I doubt that any of us can fully plumb the depths of God’s mind on this issue — at least on this side of heaven. However, here are some important biblical truths to ponder:
- Christ is the only Savior (John 14:6; Acts 4:12).
- God loves all people and desires their salvation (John 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9).
- God is truly just and will judge all people justly (Job. 34:10-12; Ps. 9:8; 98:9; Jer. 11:20; Acts 17:31; Rom. 2:5-11).
- All people are aware of the existence of God (Rom. 1:18-23). They have failed to act responsibly on what God has already revealed to them, whether through the light of creation (Rom. 1), the light of conscience (Rom. 2), or the light of Christ (Rom. 3).
- All people are sinners and know it. God has written His law in their hearts and all people are aware that they have violated the law of God (Rom. 2:1-16). No one will be able to stand before God in judgment and claim that they never willfully did wrong.
- Men and women are not sentenced to hell based upon whether they heard of Jesus Christ. Rather, they are justly and fittingly condemned based upon the fact that they are sinners (Rom. 3:10, 23; 6:23).
- It appears that if people respond to the light they do have, God will send them the light of the gospel (the Ethiopian eunuch, for example, in Acts 8:26ff, and Cornelius in Acts 10:25ff). Because no one has been kept in the dark about God’s existence, we’re all accountable directly to Him (Luke 12:47-48).
- Evidently, God will judge people based on their response to the light He has given them as expressed in their deeds (Rom. 2:6), words (Matt. 12:36-37) and thoughts (Heb. 4:12). This does not mean people are saved by good works; rather it means their response to God in faith, or lack thereof, is evident in their thoughts, words and actions.
- It appears there will be stricter judgment for those who have rejected the gospel than for those who have never heard (John 3:36; 12:48). Jesus also told the Jewish leaders – who had greater degrees of knowledge of the Scriptures – they would receive “greater damnation,” and He pronounced many “woes” on them (Matt. 23).
- Christian evangelism is essential for three primary reasons: 1) God commands us to go and make disciples (Matt. 28:19-20); 2) the preaching of the gospel is the means by which people hear and are saved (Rom. 10:13-17); and 3) all people should share in the blessings of eternal life, not only in eternity, but now (John 10:10).
Some other considerations:
- People in Old Testament times were saved even though they didn’t know the name of Jesus (Heb. 11). Consider, for example, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Rahab and others, who are considered “heroes of the faith.”
- Christ’s substitutionary and sacrificial death on the cross works forward and backward in time to pay the sin debt for those who respond to the revelation God has given them. His death once and for all paid humanity’s sin debt.
Eleventh in a series of short answers to questions about the New Testament.
Consider Matt. 7:21-23: Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but [only] the one who does the will of My Father in heaven. On that day many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, drive out demons in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name?’ Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!’
Claiming to be a Christian doesn’t make one so. Doing good deeds – even miraculous deeds – in the name of Jesus does not secure salvation for anyone. Satan is capable of the supernatural, and his followers masquerade as “ministers of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:14-15). More than 2 billion people in the world today call themselves Christians, yet Jesus is clear that many self-professed Christians will stand before Him in judgment one day and be cast from His presence.
So what makes a Christian? Jesus says a Christian is one who does “the will of My Father in heaven.” What is His will? To believe on Jesus and not on human efforts (John 5:24; Rom. 4:4-5; Eph. 2:8-9). Salvation is only by God’s grace through faith in Jesus and His finished work on the cross.
Calling yourself a Christian — even attending church regularly — does not make you a Christian any more than living in a garage makes you a car.
In Matt. 7:23, is it true that Jesus “never” knew those who called themselves Christians but in fact were not? Of course He is aware of them; as the eternal Son of God, Jesus is all knowing. But the word “knew” in this context refers to a personal relationship.
That is what it means to be a Christian in a nutshell — to have a personal, everlasting, unbreakable relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus did all of the work necessary for sinful people to be restored to a right relationship with Him. To enter that relationship we must entrust our lives — our eternal destiny — to the One who loves us and gave Himself for us.