With, Against, Without …. a supposal

Hard questions don’t always have answers. I was asked a hard question the other day, and my initial answer was essentially, “Who knows?” Then, on second thoughts, I made a suggestion for my friend to think about. Here is the question and my thoughts.

The question was about people who have died and yet had never met a Christian, or read the Bible or heard about Jesus in some ordinary way — are they necessarily lost?

For me, the question needs a context.

Firstly, it seems to imply that somehow God’s providence is unfair — unfair that people who have never heard of Jesus should be condemned. This thinking seems to ignore the reality spelled out in Psalms 14 and 53, and Romans 2 and 3 (as well as other places in the Bible) that there are no good guys on this planet. Jesus came to people who are justly condemned for sin. If God were to leave us in that condition, who are we to complain? We’d have no just complaint, anyway.

Another thing that this question seems not to have considered is what the Bible says about the attitude of sinful people to the message of Jesus. We, as sinners, are by nature opposed to good news. Without the extraordinary gift of ‘new birth’, or regeneration, no one can be a fan of Jesus or his message. ‘He came to his own [people], but they did not receive him’ (John 1). For anyone to become a Christian, a powerful and gracious (unlooked-for, unearned, undeserved) work of the Holy Spirit is needed (John 3). In short, everyone’s position is impossibly bad until God acts in mercy and love. We know, because of what the Bible says, that God does act in that way. Jesus does bring people back to God; he does give repentance to his people; he does restore them as dearly love children of God.

A last point, for context, is something that the Bible makes very clear:– no one is saved without faith in Jesus Christ.

So my tentative answer to the question is like this: God is free to work regarding his salvation with means, against means, or without means.

What do I mean? I refer to an old term, ‘means of salvation’. These are things that God ordinarily uses to bring the message of Jesus Christ to people. A ‘means of salvation’ might be someone who tells another about Jesus, or the Bible itself, which holds all we need to know about the good news of Jesus. Prayer also is a means of salvation, as is going to church and hearing the gospel there.

God may work ‘with means’. The Holy Spirit can and does use ‘means’ to inform people of Jesus and to bring some to faith by giving them new birth. The Philippian gaoler in Acts 16 is an example of this. Paul tells the man and his family about Jesus, and he believes with his whole household. This is the ordinary way that people come to faith and are saved. Telling others about Jesus is the responsibility of the church and individual Christians. We have good news, and we must not keep it to ourselves.

God may work ‘against means’. For reasons of his own, the Spirit may, and in some cases does, choose not to bring people to faith despite all the means available to them. Judas is a case in point. He had heard the message from the best of messengers, Jesus himself. He saw all the amazing things Jesus did, and yet he would not believe Jesus or trust him. The Bible says that God shows mercy to whom he wills, and some he hardens by simply leaving them to their own sinful ways and desires.

God may and does work ‘without means’. In the first two ways in which God uses means, we might see the effect in some way. We tell someone about Jesus, and they come to faith or they don’t, and they make their inner response to the Holy Spirit plain to us in one way or another. But when God works without means, we are not observers. We cannot know about particular cases. But the Bible does indicate that, at times, for his own glory, God does bring people to faith ‘without means’.

Abram (later Abraham) is a clear example of God working ‘without means’. We are told that he was a worshipper of false gods in Ur, but then the God of Glory appeared (made himself known) to Abram. There were no mission societies in Ur, no copies of the Bible, no prayer groups or tracts. God himself acted in kingly love. He brought Abram to faith in the Christ to come; to trust the message that a child of his own would bless the world. It was revealed to Abram that Jesus would come, ‘Abraham saw my day,’ said Jesus, ‘and was glad.’ All this happened to Abraham without ordinary means.

This shows that there is real hope for those outside of the reach of ‘ordinary means’. God may and does bring people to faith in Jesus Christ, even when we cannot communicate the message to them — even when we cannot see any response to the message. It is no harder for God to do this than to bring to faith a person who has heard all the preaching and has read the Bible from cover to cover. You see, by his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus Christ has saved his people from their sins no matter who they are or what their situation might be. The Holy Spirit will most certainly bring each of them to faith in Jesus at His own time.

When does God work ‘without means’? Whenever he likes. For whom does he do this? For whomever he wills. Can we know about particular cases (outside of the examples given in his word)?  No.

The fact that God does work without means is for our comfort in times when hard questions come to us. This truth is not to allow the church or Christians avoid responsibility. We must use all the means that God has given to us for making Jesus known.  He will bring the results according to his own will.

“Be Strong” — what might that mean?

There are a number of occasions in the Bible where a person or group of people find themselves confronted with the words, ‘Be strong!’

Now there is at least two ways that these word might be understood.

The first is as an exhortation that is something like, ‘Toughen up, kid!’

The second way is a use something like the words that Jesus used when he spoke to the weak and maimed of his day, ‘Be healed!’ He spoke, and they were healed.

I suggest that in both cases these words, as they occur in the Bible, mean something like, ‘You have no strength and have no way of getting it yourself, but here is the strength you need.’ This is a message for Christians.

For example, in Chapter 10 of the book of Daniel, the prophet-administrator was in a bad way. He had been receiving visions that troubld him greatly. An impressive person came to speak with Daniel as he stood by the river Tigris. Daniel spoke as a person who was near death, as one without any strength. The impressive person said this to him:

“O man greatly beloved, fear not! Peace to you; be strong, yes, be strong!” Daniel 10:19a

As I said before, someone might take these words as an exhortation to toughen up. But Daniel’s reply suggests otherwise. That verse continues like this:

“So when he spoke to me, I was strengthened, and said, Let my Lord speak, for you have strengthened me.” Daniel 10:19b

This is an instance of strengthening that has a similar character to the physical and spiritual healings that the Lord Jesus performed. Daniel didn’t say to the impressive person, ‘Your exhortation has spurred me on’, but rather he reports that at the words of the impressive person, Daniel was given strength that he did not have a moment before. ‘You,’ he said, ‘have strengthened me.’ just as a leper could say of Jesus, ‘He has healed me.’

The strength and resources came from outside of Daniel, not from within. The strength came as a gift of God’s power and love.

In the New Testament, in Ephesians 6, we have very similar words. Paul writes to these Christians and says to them, ‘Be strong’. It is an exhortation, but he doesn’t mean for them to toughen up. The words that immediately follow are: ‘[Be strong] in the Lord and the power of his might’.

Paul is saying, in effect, here is the strength you need; it is the Lord Jesus Christ. His word, His faith, His spirit, His righteousness, His life, death and resurrection on your behalf (the gospel of peace). This is the strength you need. The Christian’s strength is Jesus, the one who long ago completed everything necessary to bring us to God, and the one who sent the Holy Spirit to bring us to new birth. He saved us. His strength achived this. Here is the strength that the weak Christian needs, and He is the only strength that we need.

So, know your strength. This must mean. ‘Know and continually be reminded of who Jesus is and what he has done for you.’

Dead in Adam, alive in Christ — Romans 5

The apostle Paul had previously written in this letter about the gospel – the good news – that comes to people who had rebelled against their creator, and of the ugliness and universality of human sin and death (chap 1). He has also written of the absolute failure of all people to keep God’s law, whether Jew or Gentile (chap 2 and 3), and of God’s free mercy that comes to people by means of faith – by trusting the promise of God regarding His Son, Jesus Christ; what he has done in the place of sinners for sinners (Chap 4).

This Jesus, Paul tells us, lived, died and rose again to reconcile to God (justifying) those who trust Christ (Chap 5a). Paul now goes on to show how this work had to be done by Christ and none other. It is a recap with a twist.

To begin with, we need to know that sin is not a just a feeling of guilt; it is a reality. Sin is, as John tells us, a transgression or breaking of God’s law. From sin comes death as the judicial punishment for breaking God’s law. This death is not just a separation of soul from body, but it is ultimately a great separation from our God, the creator and sustainer of everything. So death must be seen as spiritual as well as physical. Again, death is as universal as sin. All have sinned, so all will die. Death is what sin deserves.

In this section of Romans 5, sin is not referring to our personal wrong doings. Rather, it refers to that one sin of Adam, the first man, and its consequences. By this one sin of Adam, he and all of us were made subject to death, both physical and spiritual death.

Adam sinned against a law that existed before the law of Moses. He was told that “of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die.” Adam rebelled against this law, and his sin was imputed [regarded as belonging] to all his children. The condemnation of Adam’s sin passed from parent to child. Adam acted as our representative. In the matter of this law of Genesis 2 it was Adam alone who would keep it or not. As he failed, so we failed in him. Our behaviour ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is irrelevant in as far as the imputation of Adam’s sin is concerned. All people are under the same condemnation, since we are all regarded by God as guilty of Adam’s law breaking.

Our natural tendency to do wrong (disobey God) is a symptom of this reality. We personally agree with Adam. By birth we are IN ADAM. We are followers of him. The first man, Adam, represented us all. His success would have been ours too. His failure is surely ours as well.

Paul gives us the hint as to where this is going. Adam was the representative of all people. Christ, the one who was promised (Gen 3:15) is the second Adam who also represents His people. The principle of one acting for many is a Bible idea. For example, the story of David and Goliath in the Old Testament. If David wins the fight, Israel wins. If David had lost, Israel would have lost.

Adam and Jesus Christ, the second Adam, are the same, but different. The first Adam sinned.  Death, which is the necessary judgement upon sin, came upon all people without distinction because their father and ‘head’, Adam, sinned. The second Adam, Jesus Christ, lived his good life as a replacement for the bad lives of his people, and he died the death that his people deserve to die. The life that his people receive by faith comes because of Christ’s substitute life and death. It comes by grace, the unmerited, unlooked-for, unexpected mercy from the God we had all offended.

This mercy comes to us by Grace through Faith; to all who trust Jesus Christ. As surely as the first is true (that is, death came to all by Adam’s sin), so all the more sure and true is the eternal life that comes by the gift of the righteous one, Jesus Christ. Just as Christ is risen, never to die again, so too are his people brought to everlasting life by the new birth. By this new birth, people become Christians and followers of Jesus.

This passage must be read in the light of previous chapters of Romans. We are all under sin – Adam’s and our own — so no one can plead their own righteousness or goodness. The Law of Moses (written on our hearts but ignored) came not as a fix-it for sinners. It is not a do-it-yourself instruction book that sinners can use to make themselves right with God.  The law, for an un-reconciled person, comes to convince us of our sinful condition and to show the absolute necessity of the work of Jesus in our place. We must come to him by faith if we are to be at peace with God.

Now, a righteousness apart from the Law of Moses is revealed in Jesus Christ. Just as the doing of Adam brought everyone into a state of sin and death, so the doing of Jesus Christ brings his people from death into a state of life and righteousness. Just as the sin of Adam was imputed to us and we became sinners as a result of Adam’s sin, so to, as a result of Christ’s good life and replacement death, we are declared to be good on the basis of Christ’s doing, not our own. We didn’t do anything to become sinners, but simply followed our head, Adam, who bought sin and death to us. In the same way, Christians didn’t do anything to become the children of God. Their head, Jesus Christ brought his righteousness and redemption to his people, and gave it to them for free. Just to say, Romans Chapter 6 takes up the theme that “imputation leads to imitation”. The law that once condemned in Adam, becomes a our friend in Christ.