It’s one of the biggest arguments most of us hear when someone who’s resisting the call of the Holy Spirit is looking for excuses to continue fighting.
“Christ can’t be the only way to Heaven, because people who have never heard the Gospel would never have a chance to go to Heaven!”
On the surface, you can see their point. It’s precisely why the last words out of Jesus Christ’s Lips when He Ascended forty days after the Resurrection were, “Go therefore and make disciples of ALL nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20) It’s why one of the principle themes of the book of Acts is the switch from sharing Christ with the Jewish people to sharing the Gospel with the entire world. It’s why the missionary work is of such crucial importance – many theologians believe that the only reason Christ hasn’t returned yet is that we haven’t reached all those nooks and crannies to share His Love yet.
According to the apostle Paul, this argument is without merit. Here in the very first chapter of his letter to the Romans, where he lays out the greatest argument for the Christian faith in Scripture, he begins with the refutation of that very point. Following the greeting and introduction, in one of the first paragraphs of his dissertation, comes Romans 1:18-20, which could hardly be clearer –
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 known 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.
Yet Paul told us in Romans 2 that even without the external signs of God’s handiwork, those people living apart from the literal Gospel STILL have no excuse. Join me in Romans 2:12-15 from the NLT:
(v. 12) When the Gentiles sin, they will be destroyed, even though they never had God’s written Law. And the Jews, who DO have God’s Law, will be judged by that Law when they fail to obey it.
(v. 13) For merely listening to the Law doesn’t make us right with God. It is obeying the Law that makes us right in His sight.
(v. 14) Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written Law, show that they know His Law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it.
(v. 15) They demonstrate that God’s Law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right.
Verse 12a is exactly the complaint raised in the title of the post and on the lips of those feigning intellectual disputes when (in most cases) they simply refuse to allow the Holy Spirit to interfere with their sinful choices.
But the second half of that same verse lays out the fallacy in that thinking: the Law is not there to give believers a target to achieve. It’s there to prove to us that we CANNOT obey God’s requirements. The people who have not heard the Law are not deprived of their chance for Heaven because of that; in fact, NOBODY should go to Heaven, whether they know the Law or not.
But there’s more to it than that. Just because the formal gospel hadn’t been presented to them doesn’t exonerate the sinful or the non-believer.
Verse 14 lays out the reason: God’s presence is undeniable. Even those with no Scriptural knowledge have an innate sense of right and wrong: the least religious tribes in the world know not to murder, that stealing is wrong, that there are reasons to be nice to strangers even though there’s no concrete motivation to do so otherwise. Do they know the Name of the God Who created them? Not necessarily, nor do they know of the propitiational sacrifice made by Christ. But God will judge them on the basis of what they DID know, and as He said in Jeremiah 31:33-34,…
“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. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord.
Every human being has God’s Law written on their hearts, whether they’re Christian or not, whether they have ever heard the Gospel or not. And as Romans 2:15 points out, even the darkest heart has twinges of guilt when it violates “common law”, the covenant God placed on him and everyone else on the planet. Their conscience will not excuse their behavior, no matter what they think about the God of the Universe.
When someone objects to Christianity on this basis, they may have a serious doubt – or they may be using it as an excuse themselves. Certainly, they’ve heard the Gospel, or they wouldn’t have the knowledge to bring that question up. So the question isn’t even relevant as far as their devotion to Christ is concerned; it’s being used as a shield to ward off the advances of the Holy Spirit. Remember: only the Spirit can lead a person to Christ, so if they are successful in warding off salvation, it’s no mark against you. That’s His issue, not yours.
Our job is to spread the Gospel, to provide the doubters with fewer and fewer opportunities to shield themselves from Christ. The more we can saturate society with His Word, the closer we get to that day when Jesus splits the sky and brings us home.