By Jason Hiles, Louisiana College
As summer approaches the season for short term mission work also draws near. Many churches in Louisiana will be involved in carrying the gospel throughout the United States and the world.
In preparation for that great work, it is important to reflect on the indispensable nature of the gospel message and the character of the God who saves through Jesus Christ.
In order to properly grasp biblical salvation, one must first understand exactly what humans need to be saved from. This logic shapes discussion in the book of Romans.
After some introductory remarks, the argument of Romans 1-3 progresses from a general condemnation of humanity at large to a specific condemnation of those who have rejected God despite the advantage of possessing the Law of Moses.
As a result both Gentiles, who have access only to the revelation of nature, and Jews, who have access to God’s Word, find themselves under the wrath of God.
Therefore, in chapter 3 Paul concludes that “all, both Jews and Gentiles, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave . . . Their feet are swift to shed blood . . . There is no fear of God before their eyes.’” (Romans 3:9-18).
This blanket statement, coming on the heels of a carefully articulated summary of human sinfulness, dispels all myths of human neutrality, innocence, and proper disposition toward God.
Foe those who cherish thoughts of some noble pagan in an isolated region, living a righteous life on the basis of natural revelation, the initial chapters of Romans offer a strong dose of realism.
Romans does not portray those outside of Christ as genuine seekers yearning for the true God with righteous humility.
It claims that fallen people do not seek God and do not fear him. Their words are deceptive and their actions are violent.
Due to the deceitfulness of the human heart (Jeremiah 17:5) people are commonly optimistic about human potential apart from Christ. Against this error the inspired Word of God offers a realistic portrayal of the hopelessness that characterizes fallen human existence.
While the book of Romans declares that no hope of salvation exists for sinners apart from the gospel, it offers abundant hope in Christ. Yet, Paul insists that it is necessary to make a careful distinction between what sinners deserve and the salvation God offers as an undeserved gift of grace.
Paul writes, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), which means that according to strict justice no one can plausibly claim to be innocent or assert that God owes him something other than condemnation (Romans 3:19-20).
Hell, then, would be the final just response of a holy God to unholy rebels, if not for the grace of God in Christ.
By contrast with all that sinners deserve, the grace God offers in Christ should not be regarded simply as just or unjust.
While it is by no means unjust, grace must be understood as an undeserved gift (Romans 3:24) that belongs to a different category since those who enjoy God’s grace do not receive what they justly deserve.
In fact, they receive divine favor and reward that they do not deserve at all.
For this reason any suspicion that God acts unfairly toward those who live and die apart from knowledge of the gospel is misguided. That would imply that God owes everyone something; namely, an opportunity to be saved.
As the argument generally proceeds, since God owes all the chance to be saved, he would be unjust if only some have the opportunity. But the argument, if true, would turn salvation into something that God owes humans rather than a free gift offered on the basis of grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Thus if God chooses to save anyone at all we must marvel at His extraordinary goodness and mercy. God’s just character is in no way impugned.
Our responsibility as believers relates chiefly to making the gospel message available to those who have not heard of Christ, not to standing in judgment over God for how He governs the universe.
So God is just, but He is also a God of love.
Someone may ask, “How can a loving God condemn humans as traditional Christianity claims?” A biblical response to this question lies in the balance between two attributes of God’s nature: His love and His holiness.
The Bible portrays God as profoundly good, in part because he is merciful and abundant in steadfast love, but he is also holy and will not treat sin and guilt as if they are equal to righteousness and purity.
When the Lord passed before Moses at Sinai proclaiming his name and attributes, He claimed to be a God who forgives “iniquity and transgression and sin” but simultaneously one who “will by no means clear the guilty” (Exodus 34:7).
In the context of Exodus 34, both statements are offered in a declaration of God’s goodness, reminding that He is more desirable than false gods such as the golden calf (Exodus 32). It is not only God’s mercy that is desirable but also His holiness by which He condemns iniquity.
Without undermining justice, forgiveness for iniquity can only be granted on the basis of a sufficient atonement for sin (Romans 3:21-26). Christ made precisely that kind of sacrifice for sin on the cross, reconciling unholy men and women to a holy God.
God would not be good if His love resulted in the justification of the unjust apart from Christ’s propitiary sacrifice by which God’s righteous wrath was exhausted and the way to reconciliation opened.
This holistic understanding of the goodness of God surpasses sentimental conceptions of God’s love that fail to account for his holiness.
Far from being sentimental, the all-surpassing love of God that motivated Him to send his only Son into a wicked world of idolatrous rebels to secure salvation for all who will believe (John 3:16) strikes the careful thinker as a transcendent act rooted in the unconditional affection of God’s glorious nature.
However, this holistic conception also requires that Christ be understood as the exclusive means by which a sinner can be reconciled to a holy God.
The path to salvation, then, is narrow rather than wide and Jesus Christ is the singular point of access to that path.
A variety of alternative paths are available but the end of such paths is destruction, not goodness and mercy (Matthew 7:13-14).
Therefore, as opportunities to participate in mission work and to support missions arise, our thoughts must turn from concern about God’s goodness and justice to human responsibility.
God saves by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and faith comes through hearing the gospel message.
Jesus our Lord has commissioned us to deliver that precious message to those who desperately need to hear it. May God grant us grace sufficient for the task and may He extend mercy to those who do not yet know Jesus as Savior and Lord.
Jason Hiles PhD is the Associate Dean for Biblical and Theological Studies at the Caskey School of Divinity and is an assistant professor of Christian Studies at Louisiana College.