Commentary - Session 9. What About People Who've Never Heard About Jesus?
Compiled by John R. Wible from combined sources with some original writing
The Point: All people are without excuse for their sin.
Introduction: Is it fair that someone would die and not go to heaven simply because they‘ve never heard about
Jesus and, therefore, never had the opportunity to receive Him? That is a tough question, but it becomes more than
a purely academic one for the person asking it. The person who asks that question obviously has heard of Jesus
Christ and must consider another question: what am I going to do with Jesus?
This lesson is going to involve a look at history, chemistry, physics, linguistics, and theology. Buckle your
seatbelts and strap on your helmet.
The Passage: Romans 1:16 through 25
The Setting: The Book of Romans is Paul‘s orderly explanation of the gospel. Romans could be described as a
treatise on the doctrine of salvation. He began by showing that all of us are in need of this salvation because we
are all sinners. None of us is without excuse, for even the world around us points us to God.
The Layout of the Letter to the Romans is both a very complicated and a very carefully constructed letter.
It falls into four definite divisions.
(1) Chapters 1–8 deal with the problem of righteousness
(2) Chapters 9–11 deal with the problem of the Jews, the chosen people.
(3) Chapters 12–15 deal with practical questions of life and living.
(4) Chapter 16 is a letter of introduction for Phoebe, and a list of final personal greetings .1
Two Views of Paul‘s Letter Because of that, two great scholars have applied two very illuminating
adjectives to Romans, ―testamentary‖ and ‗prophylactic.‘ William Sanday called Romans ‗testamentary‘. It
is as if Paul was writing his theological last will and testament, as if into Romans he was distilling the very
essence of his faith and belief. Rome was the greatest city in the world, the capital of the greatest empire the
world had ever seen. Paul had never been there, and he did not know if he ever would get there. But, in
writing to such a church in such a city, it was fitting that he should set down the very centre and core of his
Barclay, William (2010-11-05). The Letter to the Romans (New Daily Study Bible) (pp. 5-6). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle
Romans has been referred to by another scholar as a ‗prophylactic‘. A prophylactic is something that guards
against infection. Paul had seen too often what harm and trouble could be caused by wrong ideas, twisted
notions and misguided conceptions of Christian faith and belief. He therefore wished to send to the church in
the city that was the centre of the world a letter that would so build up the structure of their faith that, if
infections should ever come to them, they might have in the true word of Christian doctrine a powerful and
When he actually wrote the Letter to the Romans, the date was sometime in the year AD 58, and he was in
Corinth. He was just about to bring to its completion a scheme that was very dear to his heart. The church at
Jerusalem was the parent church of them all, but it was poor, and Paul had organized a collection throughout
the younger churches for it. When Paul wrote Romans, he was just about to set out with that gift for the
Jerusalem church. ‗At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem in a ministry to the saints.‘
Romans 1:16 through 17, The Theme.
The theme is summarized in these two verses as the revelation of a righteousness of God. ―The righteous will live
by faith‖ is as some have suggested a summary of Pauline theology as a whole.
The negative manner is a sober reflection of the reality that the gospel is something of which Christians will, while
still in the world, continually be tempted to be ashamed (see Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26; 2 Tim 1:8).
The gospel is the almighty power of God directed toward the salvation of men and women. Paul‘s understanding
of the gospel made him not yield to the temptation to be ashamed of the gospel but live to proclaim it.
For Paul, eternal issues were at stake. Those whose minds were blinded and failed to believe and obey the gospel
were perishing (2 Cor 4:3). They would ultimately fall under the divine wrath (2 Thess 1:9). Everyone who
believes, whether Jew or Gentile, the gospel effectively becomes the power of God for salvation.
This gospel reveals ―a righteousness of God." (1:17). Righteousness denotes the right standing God gives to
believers. Believers are righteous (justified) through faith and by faith but never on account of faith. Faith is not
itself our righteousness, rather it is the outstretched empty hand that receives righteousness by receiving Christ.
Paul‘s concept of righteousness or justification is a complete and total work of God; we can do nothing to earn it.
Romans 1:18 through 32, The Human Condition and God’s Wrath Revealed.
Before Paul set forth his message of righteousness by faith (3:21 through 8:31), he showed the need for it. The
human race stands condemned, helpless, and hopeless apart from God.
Even though God had given sufficient revelation of his existence and power in the world through creation, men
and women had nevertheless become idolatrous and polytheistic with resulting moral degradations. Paul claimed
that God gave them up to their dishonorable lusts (1:24), passions (1:26), conduct (1:28), and all kinds of evil. The
refusal to acknowledge and glorify God results in a downward path: worthless thinking, moral insensitivity, and
Romans 1:18 through 25.
18 For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of
people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth,
19 since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to
20 For His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly
seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what He has made. As a
result, people are without excuse.
21 For though they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or show gratitude. Instead,
their thinking became nonsense, and their senseless minds were darkened.
22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools
23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, birds,
four through footed animals, and reptiles.
24 Therefore God delivered them over in the cravings of their hearts to sexual impurity, so
that their bodies were degraded among themselves.
25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served something created
instead of the Creator, who is praised forever. Amen.
KEY WORDS: Delivered them over (v. 24)—Comes from an expression that would have been used in a
courtroom setting, describing a judge‘s order to carry out the sentence imposed on a person who had been
found guilty of a crime.
The missions rally left Cheryl with a troubling question about people groups yet to hear the good news of
Christ. Would those unreached people groups go to heaven if they died before they had an opportunity to
hear the gospel? The question put Cheryl in a dilemma. On one hand, she believed the Lord promised
heaven only to people who received Him. But on the other hand, she wondered how He could keep people
from heaven if they never had the chance to hear about Jesus.
Knowing the Bible would have the right answer to her question, she began to study the Scriptures, and
found the answer in Romans 1:16 through 25. And so will we.
In Romans 1, Paul gave a clear and convincing explanation regarding the need for all people to be
saved. He focused on an assertion that no one could dispute. He asserted that creation itself pointed all
people everywhere to the reality of God‘s existence. Because He made Himself known in His world,
everyone had the same opportunity to acknowledge Him. Nobody could ever complain that he or she
never had the chance to know about Him.
In this portion of Paul‘s explanation, he brought up God‘s wrath. He didn‘t use the expression to
suggest God lost His temper and threw an angry fit because lost people did bad things that made Him
mad. On the contrary, he portrayed God‘s wrath as something much different from a tantrum. Paul wanted
his readers to keep in mind that God considered sin to be repugnant and repulsive. His wrath, therefore,
served as His reasoned and understandable response to sin.
As Paul would go on to explain, God revealed from heaven His wrath to people who decided to reject
Him, giving themselves to rebellious acts of godlessness and unrighteousness. When they rebelled against
God by rejecting His authority over their lives, they embraced a lifestyle under the control of sin. Under
sin‘s control, they allowed wickedness to reign in their relationships with others.
In order for people to make such a foolish decision, they would have to ignore the unquestionable truth
about God‘s existence and His presence in the world. If they had embraced the truth about Him, they
would have taken an important step toward a life that would glorify Him. But, they didn‘t have any
intention of taking hold of the truth. Instead of embracing it, they turned their backs on it. In order for
them to dismiss it, they had to suppress the truth, smothering the clear message about God‘s existence
under the noise made by their sinful lifestyles and stifling it with their unwillingness to be right with God.
They turned a deaf ear and a blind eye to the truth that could be known about God in creation. All around
them, God had placed plenty of evidence to confirm that He created the world in which they lived.
Everything they encountered pointed to His existence. Through His creation, He made sure people would
be able to know about Him if they paid attention to what was going on around them. But they refused to
Paul‘s message about coming to know God by observing His world continues to ring true today. Some
of the most persuasive evidence for the reality of God‘s presence among us can be seen in His creation.
Granted, nobody can see God because He‘s invisible. Even so, the world He created speaks volumes about
who He is and what He can do. When we see for ourselves what He has created, acknowledging Him
makes perfect sense because His creation declares He exists. People can ignore the clear evidence if they
prefer. However, such a misguided choice would be absolutely foolish, because it sets the stage for God‘s
wrath against them.
As we reflect on Paul‘s explanation, we find ourselves understanding and agreeing with his assertion.
We affirm with him that all are without excuse for rejecting God and embracing a lifestyle of sin.
Everything God has done in creation blasts the clear and powerful message about Him to everyone
everywhere. The only way people can ignore the message is to throw blankets of rejection over the loud
speakers of creation as they try to smother the proclamation of His presence in His world.
Once people muffle the truth about God in His creation, they begin to listen to their own voices and to
follow their own advice. As they speak to themselves, they constantly tell an abundance of lies. By lying
to themselves and others, they convince each other that they do not have to glorify God with what they say
or do. They don‘t conceive they would ever be in a position in which they would need to express gratitude
to Him. They deceive themselves into thinking they are responsible for the good that happens to them.
Therefore, they see no one to thank but themselves. By rejecting the truth about God and placing their
faith in their own lies about who He is and who they are, they delude themselves into believing utter
The more they talk themselves into ignoring the reality of God‘s work, the deeper they plunge into
spiritual darkness. They spend their time claiming to be walking in the light of their own understanding.
Yet, they actually stumble in the darkness into which they have wandered. Along the way, they assure
themselves that they have done something wise by listening to their own nonsense about how to deal with
God, life, death, and eternity. Of course, the way of God‘s wisdom requires them to confess their
foolishness. But instead of making such a life through changing confession, they would rather stumble in
the darkness of their own notions. While they convince themselves they are dancing in the moonlight of
their own wisdom, in reality they are stumbling in the spiritual darkness of fools.
Paul pointed out one of the most glaring displays of their foolishness. God created all people to worship
and serve Him alone. That‘s the only way anyone can experience fulfillment in life. Singular devotion to
the immortal God who created heaven and earth is the only path to a life enriched by true joy and spiritual
contentment. People who reject God generally exhibit their foolishness by exchanging a life through
giving walk with Him for a life of misplaced devotion to lifeless images that render nothing but spiritual
and eternal death. Paul grimaced at the thought of people bowing to hand through made idols that
resembled various forms of mortal creatures. Even worse, his heart broke over the way countless
individuals would bend their knees in devotion to the Roman emperor, who had come to view himself as a
divine being worthy of worship. Equally sad, many people had come to believe the emperor deserved to
be treated like a deity. Paul affirmed that glory belonged to God alone. It would never accompany any
other object of worship.
The consequence of such a foolish exchange became evident soon enough. People chose to worship the
creatures instead of the Creator. In response, the Lord delivered them over to walk their chosen path. He
let them go so they would arrive at the destination their path of rejection would take them. Turning them
loose, He allowed them to give in to the cravings of their hearts that emanated from their selfish souls. In
other words, He would allow them to go where their sinful hearts desired. Of course, the path they took
would lead them to indulge in sexual impurity. Before long, they would disgrace their bodies in
unrestrained and shameful immorality. The human bodies God created to experience fulfillment in Him
would turn into nothing more than tools to be used in the uninhibited pursuit of godless lust. Such
disgusting behavior became their sentence when God let them go.
As Paul continued to write, he mentioned another exchange people would make when they rejected the
truth about the existence of God. They would readily trade in the truth of God for a lie about His
existence. The truth about God screamed at them from His creation. Had they listened to the message, they
would have turned to the Creator with an eagerness to know Him better so they could serve Him more.
But they didn‘t show any interest in responding to the truth about Him. Instead, they determined they
would ignore the evidence in creation about His existence and tell themselves He didn‘t exist. While they
rejected Him as their Creator worthy of their full devotion, they decided to worship and serve something
that He had created. Their foolish decision left them with a useless idol that would be here one day and
gone the next. Only the Lord God who created them is worthy of their worship and praise forever.
Romans 1:16 through 17
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is God’s power for salvation to everyone
who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek.
17 For in it God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The
righteous will live by faith.
Knowing the truth about God by observing His presence in creation paves the way for all people to turn to
Him. However, merely acknowledging Him in creation won‘t give them the truth they need to know in
order to experience new life in Christ. Ultimately, they need to know the gospel of Jesus Christ in order to
receive His gift of salvation.
People who reject God even though they see Him in creation will have to face His judgment on their
foolish choice. His wrath will come against them because they turn themselves over to a lifestyle
dominated by sin. However, people who acknowledge God because they see Him in the world He created
have taken a step toward salvation (Heb. 11:6). However, they still need to know the gospel. They
desperately need to hear the good news so they can respond to it by giving themselves to Jesus Christ.
Paul expressed his absolute confidence in the good news of Christ. He had no doubts about the
difference the gospel makes in people‘s lives. That‘s why he shared it with everyone he came in contact
with as he traveled on his missionary journeys. He didn‘t mince words when he declared that he was not
ashamed of the gospel he proclaimed. The gospel had changed Paul‘s life forever. After he gave his life to
Christ, he devoted his life to the gospel, the good news that Jesus lived, died, and rose from the grave so
people could be saved. Everywhere Paul went, he pointed to the gift of salvation that only Jesus Christ,
God‘s Son, could provide. As he preached the good news, he urged everyone he encountered to receive
Christ‘s gift of salvation for themselves. By receiving Christ through repentance and faith, they could
enjoy a personal relationship with God that would glorify Him and give them eternal and abundant life.
Paul declared the powerful message of the gospel without embarrassment. It had never brought him shame
in the past, and he was absolutely certain it would not embarrass or disappoint him in the future.
Notice the reason we can be just as confident as Paul is in the gospel of Christ. It is God‘s power. In
other words, the good news of salvation through Christ is not a static and lifeless collection of stories
about a first through century Galilean preacher from Nazareth named Jesus. Quite the opposite, it is a
dynamic, life through giving proclamation of the living Christ who is able to save people so they can have
eternal life in a relationship with Him.
God‘s power in the gospel can move people who hear it to take it seriously. Sometimes we think about
God‘s power in terms of a stick of dynamite that explodes in an abandoned building in order to demolish
it. While we are correct to think of God‘s power in that way, we also do well to consider it in terms of an
engine than can move a car down a street toward a destination. God exerts His power to move people
toward salvation when they hear the good news of Christ for themselves. Because of God‘s power at work,
hearing the gospel can lead to believing in Christ.
Everyone who believes the message of the gospel will be saved as he or she turns to Christ, repenting
of his or her sin and placing his or her complete trust in Him. When they receive Christ, they begin a
fulfilling walk with Him. That‘s when their attention turns to living out the gospel as they grow toward
spiritual maturity so they can glorify Him.
Paul said the gospel went first to the Jew. Generations earlier, in the days of the Old Testament, the
Lord had set apart the nation of Israel to be His people. From the nation of Israel would come the Messiah,
God‘s Chosen One, who would bring salvation. When Jesus came, He reached out to the nation of Israel
first so they could acknowledge Him as the Messiah. Following Jesus‘ pattern, Paul always went to the
Jews first when he made his way to a city to preach the gospel. The place of the nation of Israel in God‘s
redemptive plan made such a strategy most reasonable.
But Jesus didn‘t stop with the Jewish people. He reached out to everyone. And like Jesus, Paul
preached the gospel also to the Greek. In other words, he proclaimed the good news of Christ to Gentiles.
The good news of Christ was intended for everyone. For that reason, Paul never closed the door of
salvation to anyone. He wanted to proclaim the gospel of Christ to Jews and Gentiles alike.
Paul insisted that the gospel would make an eternal difference in the lives of people who received
Christ. At the very moment they welcomed Christ into their lives, they would be made right with God.
That‘s what Paul had in mind when he mentioned God‘s righteousness (v. 17). He affirmed that God is
altogether righteous. He is perfectly upright in His character, and His actions always reflect His
righteousness. According to the gospel, a person who received Christ is considered righteous in God‘s
The gospel declares we can be made righteous in God‘s eyes by placing our complete trust in Christ.
Think about being righteous as being upright. When a coffee cup has been tipped over, it has to be set
upright in order to be useful again. However, it cannot set itself upright. Similarly, our sin has made us
unrighteous in God‘s eyes, and we cannot be upright on our own. But God sets us upright in His eyes
when we receive Christ by simple, childlike faith. As we walk with Him, we learn that our faith in Him
enables us to grow from spiritual infancy to maturity. In fact, life in Christ is a walk from faith to faith. In
other words, it‘s a journey of faith in the Lord from beginning to end.
Is it fair that people go to hell even though they have not heard about Jesus?
This is a difficult question. The Baptist Faith and Message does not address the question squarely. However,
it says at III. Man:
Man is the special creation of God, made in His own image. He created them male and female as the
crowning work of His creation. The gift of gender is thus part of the goodness of God's creation. In
the beginning man was innocent of sin and was endowed by his Creator with freedom of choice. By
his free choice man sinned against God and brought sin into the human race. Through the temptation
of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his
posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin.
Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under
condemnation. Only the grace of God can bring man into His holy fellowship and enable man to
fulfill the creative purpose of God.
To the Calvinist3, it is a moot point because though he believes in the total depravity of man, that is to say
that ―in Adam‘s fall, we sinned all,‖ he also believes in unconditional election and irresistible grace, meaning
that in eternity past, God elected those whom He will sovereignly save and His ―sartorial‖ or saving grace is
imputed to them whether they like it or not and thus, they are eternally saved.
To those who hold Armenian beliefs,4 every accountable person deserves to be lost and no accountable
person deserves to be saved. They would hold that on this point Scripture is transparently clear: "All ...are
under the power of sin...that...the whole world may be held accountable to God" (Romans. 3:9, 19). "[A]ll
have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23).
God requires absolute obedience, and not one of us has presented it. The mystery is not that some are finally
lost but that any are finally saved. Every person finally lost will receive justice, whereas every person finally
saved will receive mercy grounded only in its giver (Romans 1:18-20, 32; 2:5; 3:4-8).
Writing for Christianity Today,5 Edward Fudge succinctly states:
While Armenians and Calvinists disagree on a number of theological points, on this they agree.
Every careful Calvinist insists that God deserves no blame for the fate of the lost. Every careful
Arminian affirms that God deserves all glory for the salvation of the redeemed.
Every person finally lost will have knowingly rejected God's goodness. Scripture speaks of some
who perish "for lack of knowledge" or "by believing a lie" (Hosea 4:6; 2 Thessalonians. 2:8-10) This
"knowledge" is relational as well as cognitive; it is not only intellectual but also moral and spiritual.
Whoever rejects this "knowledge" does so by conscious choice and inevitably courts condemnation
(John 3:19). Yet, because God is so just, and because Jesus' saving work is so extensive and so
powerful, the apostle Paul confidently affirms that only those who consciously reject God's light will
finally be lost (Romans 5:13-14, 18-21).
Presbyterians, Kirk of Scotland & ETC.
Puritans, Methodists, early Baptists and other denomination holding to Reformation theology. It should be noted that while
Baptists’ roots are in Reformed Armenianism, many Baptists are “Five-Point Calvinists.” Many others, like me, are “somewhere in
the middle.” Doctrinally, Southern Baptists, according the Baptist Faith and Message depart from Armenianism on the point of
“falling from Grace” vs. “perseverance of the saints,” IE, “once saved, always saved.”
Fudge, Edward, “What Calvinism And Arminianism Have In Common,” Christianity Today, April 27, 1992.
Not all who are finally lost will have rejected the gospel, [at least not in this life.]6 But even those
will have consciously rejected knowledge of God in some form, whether in nature (Acts 14:17; Rom
1:19-25), conscience (Rom 2:15-16), or divine revelation (John 5:45-47). God's judgment of
condemnation will be manifestly just in every case (Rom. 2:5-12).
The Universalists hold the most extreme belief, saying that in the end, all will be saved because of God‘s
love and mercy.7
To view the question logically, first, it could be that those who have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ
will go to hell. Second, it could be that those who have never heard of Jesus Christ and the gospel will be
judged in a different way or by a different standard than those who have heard of Jesus.
The Bible does not tell us specifically about what happens to those who have never heard, but it does say
that Jesus is the only way to salvation. ―And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name
under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.‖ Acts 4:12.
If it is possible that someone who has not heard the gospel can be saved, it must be through Jesus Christ and
him alone. ―Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by
me.‖ John 14:6.
Nevertheless, it could not be that a person who has not heard of Jesus can make it to heaven based upon
being good since that would violate the scriptural teaching that no one is good. ―[A]s it is written, 8
There is none righteous, not even one;
11 There is none who understands,
There is none who seeks for God;
12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless;
There is none who does good,
There is not even one.‖ Romans 3:10-12.
If all people who have never heard of the gospel of Jesus Christ end up in hell, then that would be right
because God can never do anything that is not righteous imperfection. On the other hand, if any of them end
up in heaven, then it could be the right thing to do for the same reason.
But, if righteousness before God can be achieved through being good, or sincere, or by following various
laws, then Jesus died needlessly: "I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the
Law, then Christ died needlessly," Galatians 2:21.
I must confess that I do not know what this phrase means.
See the exposition of Barclay’s Universalism, infra.
Psalm 14:1 through 3 and 53:1 through 3.
Because the Scripture does not specifically address this issue, may I submit that we cannot make an absolute
statement concerning it. However, since the Bible does state that salvation is only through Jesus and that a
person must receive Christ, logically we conclude that those who have not heard the gospel are lost. This is
all the more reason to preach the gospel to everyone. "[F]or Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord
will be saved. 14 How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they
believe in Him whom they have not heard?" Romans 10:13-4.
May I submit another question, ―for what purpose was man created?‖
It is surprising from my reading to find that the Bible does not answer this question this question directly.
That being the case, it is helpful to look to well-known and generally accepted statements of Christian
theology, which are supported by Scripture. For example, the Westminster Confession states, ―What is the
chief end of man? Man‘s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.‖ The Westminster Confession
cites the following as supporting Scriptures: Psalm 86:9; Isaiah 60:21; Romans 11:36; 1 Corinthians 6:20,
10:31; Revelation 4:11; Psalm 16:5-11; Psalm 144:15; Isaiah 12:2; Luke 2:10; Philippians 4:4; Revelation
I would agree with the Confession here, and would add the following. See Genesis 1:27, ―So God created
man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.‖ God glorifies
Himself and if we are created in that image, we must also be created for that self-same purpose.
Ecclesiastes 12:13 tells us, ―The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his
commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.‖ If this is the ―whole duty of man,‖ then it must be said
that this is one reason for which He created us.
Exodus 20:4,5 holds, ―. . . You shall not bow down to them or serve them [graven images], for I the Lord
your God am a jealous God.‖ God is jealous for His own glory and will not share it. This I supported by 2
Ephesians 2:10 provides, ―For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God
prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.‖ What better work is there than to glorify God?
To argue, as some do, see Barclay, infra., that is would not be fair or just for God to consign to Hell those
who have not had the opportunity to believe, is to remove the emphasis from God and place it squarely on
man. If you are one of such persons, from the human perspective, it does not seem ―fair‖ for God to do this
to you. Strange as it sounds, I submit that such is a selfish point of view, the same point of view that Lucifer
took when he decided that he would be God. It is pride.
Man is the creature, not the Creator.
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Still further, I believe that God desires a relationship with man so also that He may be glorified. 1 Peter 6:57, ―humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you,
casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.‖
It can be argued that God desires fellowship with man to allow Him to demonstrate all of His perfect
attributes to an audience that can appreciate them. See Isaiah 43:7, ―everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made‖ and Ephesians 3:9,10,‖ And to bring to light for
everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the
church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly
See also Titus 2:14, ―Who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a
people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.‖ Even if God created man for the primary
purpose of having fellowship with Him, a point with which I would disagree, still, the heart of the purpose is
the glory of God, leading us back to His sovereignty balanced by His justice.
One can are, as Barclay does that God is a God of love. If He loves man, He will not consign him to Hell.
That is true as far as it goes, but not totally so. First, God‘s love and mercy are balanced by His justice. In
fact, C.S. Lewis points out that without God‘s justice, there is no meaning to His love and mercy.
Secondly, God did not consign people to Hell – anyone. This is for two reasons. Hell was created not for
man but for the Devil and His angels. C.S. Lewis again states that if a person dies and ends up in Hell, he is
not ―punished,‖ in the since that our Western mind conceives Hellish punish principally through the works of
John Milton, the ―sinner‖ has not offended God, he has merely ―missed the mark,‖ the definition of ―sin.‖
His arrival in Hell is in fact giving him what he has always desired, a place without God where he ceases any
longer to be a person. Again, I have paraphrased C.S. Lewis.
God does not ―send‖ people to Hell. We, being born with a sin nature are already destined for Hell without
divine intervention. It is only through that intervention that we, rather are admitted into God‘s presence
wherever that is.
The bad news is that all people are condemned already from birth and can blame no one but himself or
herself; But, the amazing good news is that Jesus is the solution. He is what I call the Flesh and blood
embodiment (Immanuel) of the ―Propitiation Principle.‖ ―Christ in us, the hope of Glory.‖ Colossians
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Barclay’s Contrary Perspective.
Barclay argues differently. 9At the end of his life, he became a Universalist and wrote that it was his belief
that God‘s love and mercy would over-power His justice and He would bring all people who ever lived or
will live to be with Him. Though I respect Barclay to a great extent and though it would be complete folly to
compare my scholarship with his, I must respectfully beg to disagree with this view. I nevertheless set out
here his view for your comparison.
I am a convinced universalist. I believe that in the end all men will be gathered into the love of God.
In the early days Origen was the great name connected with universalism. I would believe with
Origen that universalism is no easy thing. Origen believed that after death there were many who
would need prolonged instruction, the sternest discipline, even the severest punishment before they
were fit for the presence of God. Origen did not eliminate hell; he believed that some people would
have to go to heaven via hell. He believed that even at the end of the day there would be some on
whom the scars remained. He did not believe in eternal punishment, but he did see the possibility of
eternal penalty. And so the choice is whether we accept God's offer and invitation willingly, or take
the long and terrible way round through ages of purification.
Gregory of Nyssa offered three reasons why he believed in universalism. First, he believed in it
because of the character of God. "Being good, God entertains pity for fallen man; being wise, he is
not ignorant of the means for his recovery." Second, he believed in it because of the nature of evil.
Evil must in the end be moved out of existence, "so that the absolutely non-existent should cease to
be at all." Evil is essentially negative and doomed to non-existence. Third, he believed in it because
of the purpose of punishment.
The purpose of punishment is always remedial. Its aim is "to get the good separated from the evil and
to attract it into the communion of blessedness." Punishment will hurt, but it is like the fire which
separates the alloy from the gold; it is like the surgery which removes the diseased thing; it is like the
cautery which burns out that which cannot be removed any other way.
But I want to set down not the arguments of others but the thoughts which have persuaded me
personally of universal salvation.
First, there is the fact that there are things in the New Testament which more than justify this belief.
Jesus said: "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (John 12:32). Paul
writes to the Romans: "God has consigned all men to disobedience that he may have mercy on all"
(Rom. 11:32). He writes to the Corinthians: "As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made
alive" (1 Cor. 15:22); and he looks to the final total triumph when God will be everything to
everyone (1 Cor. 15:28).
William Barclay: A Spiritual Autobiography, pg 65-67, William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1977.
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In the First Letter to Timothy we read of God "who desires all men to be saved and to come to the
knowledge of the truth," and of Christ Jesus "who gave himself as a ransom for all" (1 Tim 2:4-6).
The New Testament itself is not in the least afraid of the word all.
Second, one of the key passages is Matthew 25:46 where it is said that the rejected go away to
eternal punishment, and the righteous to eternal life. The Greek word for punishment is kolasis,
which was not originally an ethical word at all. It originally meant the pruning of trees to make them
grow better. I think it is true to say that in all Greek secular literature kolasis is never used of
anything but remedial punishment. The word for eternal is aionios. It means more than everlasting,
for Plato - who may have invented the word - plainly says that a thing may be everlasting and still
not be aionios. The simplest way to out it is that aionios cannot be used properly of anyone but God;
it is the word uniquely, as Plato saw it, of God.
Eternal punishment is then literally that kind of remedial punishment which it befits God to give and
which only God can give.
Third, I believe that it is impossible to set limits to the grace of God. I believe that not only in this
world, but in any other world there may be, the grace of God is still effective, still operative, still at
work. I do not believe that the operation of the grace of God is limited to this world. I believe that the
grace of God is as wide as the universe.
Fourth, I believe implicitly in the ultimate and complete triumph of God, the time when all things
will be subject to him, and when God will be everything to everyone (1 Cor. 15:24-28). For me this
has certain consequences. If one man remains outside the love of God at the end of time, it means
that that one man has defeated the love of God - and that is impossible. Further, there is only one
way in which we can think of the triumph of God. If God was no more than a King or Judge, then it
would be possible to speak of his triumph, if his enemies were agonizing in hell or were totally and
completely obliterated and wiped out. But God is not only King and Judge, God is Father - he is
indeed Father more than anything else. No father could be happy while there were members of his
family for ever in agony. No father would count it a triumph to obliterate the disobedient members of
The only triumph a father can know is to have all his family back home. The only victory love can
enjoy is the day when its offer of love is answered by the return of love. The only possible final
triumph is a universe loved by and in love with God.
Undauntedly, I press on with my own ideas even after having quoted Barclay.
God, the Father, the Great Alchemist‖
Since the Middle ages and before, learned men studied a pseudo-science called ―alchemy.‖ It was their ―Holy
Grail‖ to find the solution to the problem of turning lead into gold. They concluded that to do it, they had to
find the ―philosopher‘s stone,‖ that magical substance that would allow the ―transmutation‖ or changing in
substance. They never succeeded. Modern chemistry and physics can tell you why.
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Lead has an atomic number of 82. That means there are 82 protons in one atom of lead. Gold has 79.
Changing the element requires changing the atomic (proton) number. In this case, removing 3 protons. The
number of protons cannot be altered by any chemical means because chemistry does not reach the sub-atomic
level of atoms.
That is where physics comes in. Physics may be used to add or remove protons and thereby ―transmute‖ or
change one element into another. Lead can actually be forced to give up 3 protons, but because lead is a stable
element, unlike the unstable elements, generally those we think of as ―radioactive,‖ like Francium, the most
unstable element, forcing and element, in this case, lead, to release three protons requires a vast input of
energy, such that the cost of transmuting it greatly surpasses the value of the resulting gold.
All this scientific mumbo-jumbo is to say that in the day:
Alchemy was done without an understanding of the structure of atoms.
Nobody had the so-called "philosopher's stone" that worked, and magic doesn't work
You cannot change lead to gold by chemical means because lead is a stable element. It is not
going to lose three protons out of its nucleus to become gold in any useful period or for a
What has this got to do with Pauline theology? We will see. Here is the argument.
1. God is holy. ―Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.‖ Leviticus 11:44,45; 19:2; 21:8;
1 Peter 1:15, 16.
2. To come before God and be with Him eternally, we must be holy—because without holiness on
earth, We could never be prepared and fit for heaven. "There shall never enter into it [Heaven]
anything that defiles, neither whatever works abomination, or makes a lie" (Rev. 21:27).
3. Since we are not, by nature, holy, we cannot by our own nature and the deeds of our nature,
reach a holy God. Therein lies the cosmic dilemma. ―For all have sinned and fall short of the
glory of God.‖ Romans 3:23. ―Whoever does not [do] righteousness is not of God." Romans 8:14;
1 John 3:10). "Without holiness, no man shall see the Lord!" (Heb. 12:14.)
4. Only God can resolve the dilemma and God, the Father, made a way to bridge this dilemma, the
“Propitiation Principle.” foreshadowed in the Old Testament with ritual animal sacrifice. It is the
shedding of blood whereby that which is unclean, though remaining unclean, can be viewed by God
as clean or holy. ―22 . . . without shedding of blood is no remission. 23 It was therefore necessary that
the patterns of things in the heavens should be purified with these; but the heavenly things themselves
with better sacrifices than these.‖ Hebrews 9:22b,23. Propitiation translates from the Greek
hilasterion, meaning, "the gift which procures propitiation." It comes via the Latin word, propitiat,
meaning ―made favorable.‖ The propitiation’s goal is ―to regain favor," in this case, our regaining
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favor with God, the Father. 2 ―And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for
the sins of the whole world.‖ 1 John 2:2.
5. Because Jesus and the Father are One, Jesus is the living embodiment of the “Propitiation
Principle,” the better sacrifice, in fact, the only sacrifice that is acceptable, and the only way to
reach God. ―I and my Father are One.‖ John 10:30.‖ ―7 If ye had known me, ye should have known
my Father also: and from henceforth you know him, and have seen him.‖ John 14:7. “15 And for this
cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the
transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of
eternal inheritance.” Hebrews 9:15. 6 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son,
that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. 17 For God sent not his
Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.18
He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because
he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.‖ John 3:16 through 18. 6 Jesus said
unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life. . .‖ John 14:6a.
6. The application of the “Propitiation Principle” operates only because, by definition, propitiation
is a gift. ―For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our
Lord.‖ Romans 3:23. ―For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift
of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.‖ Ephesians 2:8,9.
7. Propitiation is available to all who bet their life on Jesus, but only to those who are willing to
make that bet. “. . . no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.‖ John 14:6b. ―And they said, Believe
on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved. . .‖ Acts 16:31a. Of Abraham, Paul states,‖
He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to
God; 21 And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. 22 And
therefore it [saving grace] was imputed to him for righteousness.
Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him; 24 But for us also, to whom it
shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead.; 25 Who was
delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification. Romans 4:20-25.
Because of the incredible power of God in the gospel, we spend our lives wisely when we make the
gospel a priority. The world God created discloses Him to everyone so all people everywhere can know
that God exists. The good news of Christ can show them how to be right with Him and to walk with Him
by faith. We make the good news a priority when we share it, pray for people to hear it, and participate in
mission efforts that promote it.
Live It Out
How do we respond to people who have never heard about Jesus? The best answer is that God will deal
with them based on what they do with the revelation of who God is and what Jesus Christ has done. The
Bible offers no hope of salvation apart from faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.
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Most importantly, answer these questions:
1. What is my response to the love, grace, and salvation offered to me through Jesus?
2. What am I doing to see that others discover the truth about Jesus?
Consider one of these applications this week:
Evaluate your attitude toward those who may have never heard about Jesus. How often do you think
about them? Are you concerned? What does your level of concern say about your relationship with
Go beyond being concerned about a lost person you know. Pray about the next step God wants you to
take in order for that person to hear and respond to the gospel. Set a goal to take this step before you
finish studying this unit.
Consider going on a short through term mission trip offered by your church, even if you have never done
so, and especially if you feel some discomfort about going. Give your hesitation to the Lord, and trust
Him to work through you.
ADDITIONAL BACKGROUND READING:
The Meaning of Salvation, by Michael Martin, professor of biblical interpretation, Golden Gate Baptist
Theological Seminary, Mill Valley, CA.
SALVATION—THE WORD is common both in the Bible and in the church. It is used so frequently that we
take for granted that its meaning is understood. We even use it when speaking to those who have no church
background. Yet, to those outside the church, often it is near meaningless religious jargon. To us in the
church it is so full of meaning that we struggle to define it concisely.
The biblical words for ―salvation‖ (soteria), ―savior‖ (soter), and ―to save‖ (sodzo) have a variety of
meanings. Frequently (especially in the Old Testament), they described deliverance from difficulty in an
ordinary, human sense. In other contexts, however, this ―deliverance‖ is decidedly a supernatural and/or
The root of the Old Testament terms for salvation means ―to be broad‖ or ―spacious.‖ The person in need of
deliverance is thought of as ―confined‖ or ―constrained.‖ Salvation, then, means being delivered from
confinement. The most notable Old Testament example of deliverance is the Exodus event. A people in a
state of confinement were liberated and moved to a Land of Promise. The image of the Exodus most likely
was prominent even in the mind of a first through century Jew who heard of God‘s salvation.‖
In the non - Jewish world of the first century there also was a great interest in ―salvation.‖ To the Gentiles it
generally meant protection from evil spirits or deliverance from this evil world. The message of Christ was
delivered at a time when many people already were asking, ―What must I do to be saved?‖ (Acts 16:30).
―Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved . . .‖ (Acts 16:31): The message of the Christian
missionaries was simple. Yet, it also brings to mind many other questions. Saved from what? How? Saved
to what end?
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From what do we need to be saved? Three overlapping categories may be observed in the New Testament.
Humanity needs to be saved from the world, spiritual evil, and the human condition.
The world in the sense of the created order is not evil. It was created by God. ―World‖ also is used,
however, as a way of referring to fallen humanity. As such it is a synonym of the typically Jewish phrase,
―this evil age.‖ Humanity exists in a world/age in rebellion against God. Salvation is in one sense the
rescue of an individual from a world that will not acknowledge God.
Salvation also is deliverance from the spiritual evil that dominates this age. Humanity is part of a domain
ruled by Satan. Like the Hebrews enslaved by the pharaoh and his army, we are incapable of rescuing
ourselves. The exalted Christ has conquered the spiritual evil that separates humanity from God. He freed
us that we may choose to serve God (Eph. 2:1 through 7; Col. 2:13 through 15).
Yet, people cannot blame their separation from God entirely on the nature of this age or on the power of
spiritual evil. It also is because of our willful rebellion that we are rightful recipients of divine wrath (Rom.
1:18 through 32; 5:1 through 11). We are responsible for our own sin. God‘s judgment against us is just.
Thus, we need to be delivered from God‘s judgment upon our sin.
How can such deliverance from the world, from spiritual forces of evil, and from the penalty for willful
rebellion be accomplished? Many in the first century claimed to know a way of salvation, Jews, Judaizers,
mystery cults, Gnostic teachers, and many more made such claims. Legalism, asceticism, secret knowledge,
and other avenues to God are declared by the writers of Scripture to be dead ends (see Gal. 1—4; Phil. 3;
Col. 1—2). The clear assertion of the New Testament is that salvation comes only as God‘s gracious gift on
the basis of the work of Jesus (Eph. 2:8 through 10).
This gracious gift is received by faith. The noun ―faith‖ (pistis) and its verb form ―believe‖ (pisteuo) may
mean simply to affirm that a certain statement or proposition is true. In the New Testament, however, faith
typically is directed not to a proposition, but to a person—Jesus Christ. More than simply ―believe,‖ it
means to trust oneself or commit oneself to Jesus as sole Lord and Savior. Believing truths about Jesus are
important, but simply affirming truths does not save anymore. It is committing oneself to Him as Lord that
is absolutely essential for salvation, according to the New Testament.
What is the result when a person receives by faith the gracious gift of salvation in Christ? The impact of the
gospel in the life of a believer is difficult to describe fully. It is a unique event with infinite implications.
Yet, it must be described in finite and familiar terms. Salvation, redemption, justification, reconciliation,
propitiation, adoption, sanctification, new creation, rebirth, and other terms describe parts of this
multifaceted transformation of life. The fullness of it almost is beyond expressing. The gist of it is that a
prodigal has walked back into the arms of a loving God (Luke 15:11 through 32; Eph. 2:11 through 22).
Salvation, in other words, is the establishing of a relationship between the believer and the living God.
Some of the terms descriptive of salvation relate mainly to the removal of the barrier between God and the
sinner (justification, redemption, reconciliation, propitiation). Others focus on the new relationship
established (adoption, new creation, rebirth, sanctification.)
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All of the terms (but especially the latter group) imply that salvation is more than a past event in the life of
the believer. Thus, Paul used the verb ―to save‖ of a past event (Rom. 8:24; Eph. 2:8), of a present, ongoing
experience (1 Cor. 15:2; Phil. 2:12), and of a future expectation toward that day when we shall know as we
are known (1 Cor. 13:12). As a present reality it challenges us to live reflecting the very character of God (1
Pet. 1:14 through 16).
The relationship established by salvation is not only with God. By virtue of our common salvation
Christians also are in relationship with one another (Phil. 2:1 through 4). This relationship is to be governed
by mutual respect (1 Cor. 12), Christian love (1 Cor. 13), and a common commitment to the edifying or
building up of the body of Christ spiritually and numerically (1 Cor. 14).
Salvation then is best understood as the establishing of a relationship. Turning to God the believer is
delivered by the power of God from the strange hold that the world, evil, and sin have on him/her. However,
deliverance is not just from something. It also is to something—to life in relationship with God.
This relationship should transform the individual ―being saved‖ as he/she grows to be more like Christ. It
also should bond fellow Christians together in spite of diversity (1 Cor. 12:4 through 31) and human failings
(Phil. 1:15 through 18). Ultimately, all believers shall be saved in that final day when we shall see fully
what we now know only in part.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ by J. Terry Young, professor of theology, New Orleans Baptist Theological
Seminary, New Orleans, LA.
ONE WORD SUMMARIZED the apostle Paul‘s entire concern in his ministry. That word: ―gospel.‖ It
succinctly stated the whole Christian message.
What is the gospel? What does the word mean? From where does it come? Our English word ―gospel‖
comes from the Anglo through Saxon word ―godspell,‖ ―God through story,‖ and means a story from or
about a god. The English word ―gospel‖ translates the Greek word euaggelion [you through ahn through
GEHL through ee through ahn] and means ―good news.‖ When properly understood, it is a dramatic word
signifying startling, unexpected news. It is much more than an announcement of pleasant information. It is
an announcement from God that should claim the attention of every person.
Understanding what Paul meant by the gospel is very important. Two extremes should be avoided in
defining the gospel: (1) losing a clear understanding of the gospel in unduly complex answers; (2) losing the
richness and fullness of the idea of the gospel in simplistic definitions.
The essential meaning of the gospel, in its original context, is that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God‘s
promises in the Old Testament. Thus to a Jew steeped in Old Testament tradition, looking for a Messiah
who would bring deliverance, the gospel had a particular significance as the fulfillment of the hopes of the
God was at least writing His covenant on the hearts of His people (Jer. 31:31 through 34), taking away their
sins (Isa. 53:4 through 6), pouring His Spirit into the hearts of His people for a more intimate relationship
with them in salvation (Joel 2:28 through 29). To those outside the tradition of messianic expectation, the
gospel came as startling good news that a God previously unknown to them had made a great sacrifice in
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order to bring salvation—eternal life—to people who were without hope. Thus Paul announced good news
to the Athenians who previously only has suspected there might be a God who was unknown to them (See
Acts 17:22 through 23.)
In a sense, the gospel includes the whole of the life and work of Jesus Christ. Mark began his Gospel
saying, ―The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God‖ (Mark 1:1, NIV).1 What follows
then is the whole story of Jesus‘ birth, life, teaching, death, and resurrection. In that same vein the complete
books written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are called Gospels. Everything Jesus said and did, from
His sinless living to His compassionate caring, from His teaching to His sacrificial death, and resurrection,
from His birth to His ascension to the Father, is part of the gospel.
The gospel may be viewed from two perspectives. In its broadest context it is God‘s way of asserting His
lordship in the world, setting straight the evil plight into which the world has fallen (see Mark 1:15).
In its sharpest focus, the gospel is the saving message God addressed to the world, the message of the
salvation rooted in Jesus‘ cross and resurrection. People who have alienated themselves from God by their
sins now can be brought into living fellowship with their Creator through God who reaches down to them in
However, the gospel is more than the fixed statement of God‘s willingness to forgive. It also is the good
news that God is personally, actively, working in the world to bring people to salvation (see Rom. 1:16
through 17; Heb. 4:12).
The gospel is not just ―a plan of salvation,‖ it is salvation breaking in upon sinful human life to change both
the individual and, through the saved individual, human society. The gospel is God‘s good news that new
life is now available to people who are dead in their sins. This good news is at the same time a summons to
people to turn from selfish, foolish, and evil things to the Creator through God who rules the universe, and
finally will bring all things under His control (see Acts 14:15). The ultimate result of the gospel will be the
full recognition of the glory and authority of both God the Father and Jesus Christ His Son (see Phil. 2:9
The gospel has three aspects. First is the historical event—that is, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
There is no good news apart from this crucially important segment of history. The gospel is not merely a
principle God revealed. The gospel is the good news of what Jesus actually said and did. Jesus began His
public life, according to Luke, proclaiming that His ministry was directed to people who were hurting and
pitifully trapped in hopelessness in a variety of ways (see Luke 4:16 through 21). The gospel is the good
news that in Jesus new life is breaking into the old order.
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus came into our world, identified Himself with sinners, and carried
their guilt to the cross: He was the guiltless dying for the guilty (see Matt. 3:13 through 15; 1 Pet. 2:24).
Jesus announced He was the source, or the way, of eternal life (see John 4:13 through 14; 14:6).
The salvation that comes to persons spiritually dead in their sins is described in a variety of ways. In John
3:1 through 8 it is likened to being born again (or from above) and being born of the Spirit of God. In
Matthew 3:11 salvation is called being baptized with the Holy Spirit. In 2 Corinthians 5:19 the good news is
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Jesus reconciled people to God. Whatever the figure employed, the good news is God has acted
dramatically through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to bring forgiveness of sin and new life to
those who are dead in their sins. The gospel is inextricably rooted in a historical event, the life of Jesus, and
this event is essential to the gospel.
A second aspect of the gospel is the general principle that God loves sinners and offers redemption to them.
God is virtually concerned for people, for all their problems and needs. While God is concerned for the total
person, for whatever affects a human life, God is supremely concerned for the spiritual need of people who
are guilty and lost in sin. The good news is God loves lost people with a redeeming, forgiving love.
Because of His love, God has taken the initiative in saving lost people, and it is now up to lost sinners to
accept the offer of God‘s forgiveness and salvation. The good news is anyone can repent and receive
salvation through responding to God in faith.
The gospel is the good news that God is even now actively at work seeking to bring lost people to salvation
through Jesus so they might become what God intended human life to be.
The third aspect of the gospel is the good news that one can have a life through changing experience of
salvation through a personal experience with Jesus Christ through faith in Him. In a sense the good news of
the gospel is good news to an individual only when that person turns from sin (repentance) and put genuine
faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord.
These three aspects of the good news of the gospel must be kept together in our understanding. The gospel
is a historical event—what God did through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It also is the principle
of God‘s forgiving love. Further, it is the life through transforming experience of the new birth, bringing the
personal presence of God‘s Spirit into the believer‘s life.
If we are true to the gospel, we must proclaim all three aspects of it, focusing especially on the historical
event of what Jesus did. The good news must be proclaimed in every possible way, through public
preaching, through Bible teaching, through one through on through one sharing, through Christian living,
through compassionate ministry, through deed as well as the spoken word.
The gospel must be the central focus of our ministry. Apart from the gospel, we really have no ministry to
The Wise and the Foolish, by Timothy Trammell, professor of religion and philosophy, Dallas Baptist
T HE GRECO - ROMAN world of the first Christian century was a period which was marked by intellectual
diversity. No one philosopher nor one philosophic movement dominated.
Paul wrote in Romans 1 of pagans who had convinced themselves that they possessed a splendid quality of
wisdom. However, the apostle stipulated in the same sentence (Rom. 1:22) that these ones actually had
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The Greek term emoranthesan literally means ―they had caused themselves to be just plain silly‖
The various philosophical movements developed over several centuries. Consequently, we must look briefly
at the roots of the major philosophies.
This article will cover the following philosophies:
the Alexandrian Jews, including Philo;
the Gnostic perversion of Christianity;
neo - pythagoreanism, which developed near the end of the first century AD;
5. Epicureanism, which began as a healthy approach, but by the first century AD had become diseased but
cynicism; a close relative of skepticism.
To analyze religious movements as such is not the purpose here. Yet, three of the above philosophies do
have a semi through religious orientation: the Alexandrian Jewish conjectures, Gnosticism, and neo pythagoreanism.
The influence of Greek speculation on the Jewish mind was most evident in cosmopolitan Alexandria. That
influence reached its apex in Philo (25 BC—AD 40). He believed that the same ideas were contained in
Greek philosophy as in Jewish Scriptures and tradition. Philo‘s position affirmed that Greek philosophers
had made extensive use of the Hebrew Scriptures, yet Philo often used allegory to interpret the Scriptures.
A prolific writer, many of Philo‘s works currently are available. In Philo‘s system, God was an absolutely
spiritual essence; in no sense was he incarnate (in the flesh). He considered passages that describe God in
human terms to be inferior. Such passages, he felt, were written for persons with only ordinary spiritual
awareness. God was personal, yet free, self through sufficient, and transcendent (beyond this world).
Philo‘s concept of man‘s nature reflected Greek thought. Man was a dualistic creature, a separate body and
soul. He considered the soul more important than the body. Yet, unlike much Greek philosophy, Philo
believed the body was a necessary part of man. Perhaps he was influenced by the Hebrew concept of man as
a unity. Apparently, Philo did not want to destroy or to supersede Jewish orthodoxy but sought to integrate it
with his philosophy.
Philo‘s emphasis on the Logos probably has linked him with Christian thought more than any of his ideas.
However, Philo conceived the Logos as an intermediary being, between God and man, through whom God
acts and expressed himself. On the other hand, John‘s Gospel pictures the Logos as eternal with God and
fully divine (1:1).
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The second religiously- related philosophy was Gnosticism. The term ―Gnosticism‖ comes from the Greek
word gnosis, which means knowledge. Gnostics defined gnosis as knowledge by participation. They tried
to make Christianity more acceptable to intellectuals. Gnostics claimed to have special knowledge about
God and the world that others did not possess: that the soul is a fragment of God himself. The majority of
Gnostics were Greek intellectuals. Actually, Gnosticism resulted from the syncretism (mixing together) of
many religious traditions of that time. It became strong enough to penetrate Greek philosophy, Judaism, and
even Philo‘s system.
Perhaps the most serious threat to Christianity as it moved into the second half of the first century AD, was
incipient (beginning) Gnosticism—which continued to grow geographically and in strength of influence.
Some scholars believe the New Testament refers to Gnosticism extensively. According to some scholars,
these references may be only isolated verses in various New Testament books (John 1:14), or entire books
may be designed to refute Gnosticism.
To the Gnostic, anything visible—including houses, human or animal bodies, trees, and rivers—was evil;
what was unseen was good. Gnosticism therefore came into direct conflict both with Judaism and with the
Christian doctrine of resurrection.
Gnosticism also rejected the premise that a good God could have any part in the creation of an evil world.
Consequently, they equated the evil god, who created an evil world, with the God of the Old Testament. As
they faced the New Testament, especially the incarnate Christ, their tendency was to picture Jesus of
Nazareth as merely a human being. The ―Christ Spirit‖ came upon him at his baptism and left him on the
cross. Therefore, the one who died at the hands of Roman soldiers was nothing more than a man; the ―Christ
Spirit‖ already had left him. How extensive these ideas were developed in first through century Gnosticism
is a matter of debate. The ideas were there, though, at least in infant form, and the New Testament writers
fought against them.
Neo- Pythagoreanism, the third religiously through oriented philosophy, was born during the first century
BC. However, it was related to the original fourth century BC. Pythagorean School by a reverence for
Pythagoras, interest in certain scientific pursuits, and religious colorings.1 The new School adopted the old
asceticism (strict self through denial to attain deeper spirituality) and adhered to the body through soul
However, neo-pythagoreanism was very far from simply reproducing the old school. It followed the current
trend toward eclecticism and borrowed extensively from the philosophies of Aristoth and the Stoics. Neopythagoreanism is of historical importance because of its close religious relationship—it promised rest in the
afterlife and eventual release from the recurring wheel of life through the use of magic words. Further, NeoPythagoreans emphasized ethical virtue in this life.
Stoicism, especially Roman stoicism, exerted a powerful influence on Christianity in the first two centuries
AD. The Stoics stressed that knowledge came through the senses, that the soul is the model of the basic
elements of the universe, that the world operates according to specific laws organized around the logos, and
that each person should seek to live virtuously.
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Epicurus, the founder of Epicureanism, was born about 341 BC on the island of Samos. As a young man, he
visited Athens, taught in a number of surrounding cities, and attracted enthusiastic audiences. He was so
astonished by the warm reception he received that he made Athens his home (306 BC). He established his
school in a garden. Though his admiring students worshiped him almost as a god, Epicurus remained
modest and friendly to all.
Pleasure was the key term in Epicurus‘ philosophy. The guideline in the search for pleasure was that a
person should forgo satisfying any desire that resulted in the loss of lasting pleasure. At this point Epicurus‘
philosophy was weak. Though Epicurus himself taught that loose living resulted in loss of pleasure, his
ideas permitted many of his followers to adopt the concept of ―anything goes.‖ By the first century AD the
philosophy had become degraded to the level of depravity and debauchery. Though Epicurus had advocated
repose—the quiet aspect of life—for all practical purposes the physical had won the allegiance of nearly all
of Epicurus‘ followers.
Skepticism and cynicism held so many identical facets that they may be treated as intellectual cousins. Of
the two, skepticism was a bit more flexible, was much stronger intellectually, and as a movement still was
searching for some measure of truth. Perhaps probability indicates the essence of skepticism more
accurately than any other term.
Skeptics opposed philosophic dogmatism, yet they did not fail to recognize the claims of practical life. The
stating of norms for behavior was a normal consequence.
Aenesidemus of Knossos (43 BC), who taught in Alexandria, gave ten arguments for the skeptical position.
The outstanding ones were:
1. Difference between types of living beings imply different—and so relative—―ideas‖ of the same object.
2. Differences between individual men imply the same.
3. The objects of perception are never presented in their purity, but a medium is always involved, such as
air. For example, a woman‘s dress looks different in sunlight from the way it looks in artificial light.
4. Differences in impression due to frequency or infrequency of perception exist. For example, one sees the
sun more often than a comet.
It should, however, be observed that the power of reason—although limited—is adequate to prevent error by
avoiding hasty judgment.
The Skeptics argued against the validity of Cause, but they did not anticipate difficult theories of knowledge
their concepts would confront. For example, Cause and effect cannot be simultaneous. Cause must be prior
to its effect, for otherwise, the tow could not be relative—and relativity is a prime concept of skepticism.
Therefore, they determined finally that, ―We can never indeed attain to certainty in science, but we can go on
seeking.‖ The blind leading the blind?!
The Cynic held a more rigid position—he did not really expect to find anything.
To meet both the spiritual and moral needs of the masses, a certain type of preacher developed—the Cynic.
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Usually itinerant, poor, and self through denying, these men were ready to proclaim their message to any
crowd they found. Often courageous men (as Musonius), they were willing to harangue a large group of
Roman soldiers. At risk of life, they spoke of the horrors of war and the blessings of peace. They
denounced impiety and demanded virtue. Their major problem was that essentially they had no foundation
for their declarations. Lucian, a famous orator (AD 125 through 192), criticized them for their bad manners,
their lack of culture, and their vulgarity and obscenity. Some of these ―philosophers‖ obviously revealed a
repulsive egotism—and without basis for it. Others burned themselves to death publicly to exemplify
contempt for death.
Yet some value can be found in their movement. The pagan fables about gods who appeared in human form
were attacked fiercely. They branded belief in divination and oracles as foolishness. The poor countryman
was cited as happier and the possessor of more freedom than the rich town dweller. The Cynics declared
that happiness was not found in buildings, beauty, wealth, of delicate living, but in temperance, justice, and
To the Cynic, God was part of a person from birth and universal among all men. However, they depended
on the design of the universe to reveal him. They thought of God as hidden from mankind, so man‘s task
was to imagine him by man‘s rational power.
One might surmise that the Cynic was often ready to see God revealed in Jesus Christ—and frequently that
This overview of philosophic thought of the first century AD reveals mankind groping in the darkness trying
to touch God. It is rather intriguing that the crude and foolish came face to face with him more readily than
did those wise in their own sight.
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