A frightened jailer who had just been rescued from suicide and execution, cried out, “What shall I do to be saved?” and was told, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” A successful young businessman asked, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” and was told, “Sell what you have, give it to the poor and follow Jesus.” A group of awe-struck Jews called out to a nondescript, uneducated bunch of street-preachers, “What must we do?” They were told, “Repent and be baptized.”
What did these answers have in common? They were all addressed to particular people in specific historical settings and were never intended to give a theological explanation of how all people in all circumstances are to be saved from sin. But there is a summary statement which is intended to give a more comprehensive, theological definition of saving faith: Romans 10:9; “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
First, one must confess Jesus as Lord. You must be willing to go public with your acknowledgment that you are no longer lord of your life, but that Jesus is Lord. Secondly, you must believe from the heart that God raised Jesus from the dead. In other words, the saving faith of Paul’s theology is not in some undefined deity or disembodied philosophical concept, it is in a person, an historical person, a person who through his power over death demonstrated publicly that he is the Savior. His resurrection validates all his claims and as history it is a verifiable fact, not a myth or philosophical abstraction. Thus, reliance on the Savior raised from the dead, and acknowledgement of his absolute authority is what Paul says is “trusting in him” (vs 11) or “calling on him” (vs 13).
That’s how a person gets saved. But how does he get lost? And who is lost? Paul doesn’t tell us in this passage, but he has already told us in chapter 3: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and chapter 6, “The wages of sin is death…” But, he says here, “whoever calls on the name of the Lord, will be saved.”
Are there no other ways to life? Are there not, as the Japanese say, “Many paths to the summit of Mount Fuji?”
It is no accident that Paul says, whoever calls on the name. In other words, not just any name will do. Peter said the same thing, “Neither is there salvation in any other…”(Acts 4:12). Increasing numbers of liberal evangelicals in our day are saying that people are saved only on the merits of Christ, as Peter and Paul said, but they are saved without knowing about him. They are saved when they are obedient to the light they do have. But Peter said, in the same way Paul says in this passage, “there is none other name under heaven, given among men whereby we must be saved.” Note that he didn’t say, no other person. When you name a name there is no ambiguity, no leeway for conjecture. Christ taught the same thing: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6). But now we are told people can have the life without going the way or knowing the truth. Jesus seemed to be saying something else: “No one comes to the Father except by me.” In this passage Paul says that saving “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (vs 17).
Some say a person must actively reject the gospel to be lost. But is it fair that people be condemned for not believing something they’ve never heard of? The answer: they aren’t lost for lack of knowledge they don’t have. Paul has told us in great detail in Romans 1 and 2 that people are condemned for rejecting the light they do have. And they all have two great lights. Creation and conscience. He hints at this again in this passage; verses 8 and 18.
If people respond to the light they have been given, God has a marvelous plan outlined here: he will get more light to them. Psalm 50:22,23: “Now consider this you who forget God lest I destroy you: to those who give thanks and seek to do right, GOD WILL SHOW HIS SALVATION.” Psalm 22:26, (LB) “All who seek the Lord shall find him.” Jesus taught the same thing. He often used the basic principle that those who have will be given more and those who have not will lose even what they have. On one occasion he applied this specifically to spiritual light – those who respond to light with obedience will be given more light, those who reject the light they have will lose even what they had. Paul speaks of this in Romans 1; “God gave them up”.
When new Christians in Japan asked about the final destination of their ancestors, I responded in the words of Abraham who was debating with God the same issue of righteous people being condemned along with the unrighteous, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25).
Does that mean that everyone who lacks knowledge is lost? The Scripture does not directly address this question. So I cannot affirm on the basis of Scripture that every person in every time and place who has not heard of Christ will be lost, but neither can I affirm from Scripture that anyone will be. In other words, since God did not choose to answer our question, we are shut up to speculation. And if we speculate, we are morally accountable for the result of that speculation should it prove to be wrong. On one position, based on the clear teaching of Scripture that all have sinned, and the result is death and that faith in Christ, indeed in the name of Jesus Christ from Nazareth, crucified and risen, is the only way of salvation, one interprets that to mean that all who do not call on that name are lost. The result of that teaching is to put world evangelization at the top of one’s priority, to obey the great commission, to find Paul’s teaching in this passage life-transforming. Not a bad result.
But consider the outcome of the other conjecture, that many if not most or even all who have not heard of Christ will be saved on his merits because God is loving and fair, a speculation based not on what Scripture anywhere teaches, but on one’s deductions from the revealed nature of God. Where is the urgency to point people to the way of life? If fact, would it not logically follow that more would be saved by being left in ignorance and thus not coming under judgment for rejecting light they never had? The nerve of the missionary mandate is cut. And in our day, that is exactly what has happened – more and more of God’s people do not believe that people must hear to be saved, as Paul outlines here so forcefully.
Do you believe that people without Christ are lost? Do you care? Does your life demonstrate that you believe and care?