A couple of Scriptures in Romans suggest to me that we should not be thinking ‘only those who have received Jesus personally are saved, all others lost’, but rather we should be reversing that with ‘only those who have rejected Jesus are lost’. This has been the approach I have taken for many decades, using the (for me) helpful complementary statements of:
- all who receive Christ are saved
- all who reject Christ are lost.
This opens up a number of questions:
- the above statements do not seem to yield two water tight categories that we can neatly divide humanity into. What about those who have neither received nor rejected Christ?
- and what does it mean for a person to either receive or reject Jesus? Surely it means something different for those who have never heard about Jesus and those who have.
- and what does even hearing about Jesus mean? (More on that later.) If I present (even with all the facts intact) ‘my’ Jesus but he is really not the true Jesus has that person truly heard about Jesus?
For all those above questions I think it is not too wise to take the hard-line of only a few will be saved. I am not a Universalist, just too many ‘if’ Scriptures, such as Col. 1:23, where Paul states that we were reconciled through death ‘provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard.’
Faith does not seem to be simply a ‘I believe x, y and z’ but to involve that of a commitment, an allegiance to a person. By this I do not suggest there can never be any wavering but if that core allegiance disappears we are instructed to view such people as those outside the family of God. The whole approach is messy, but for those who have been truly exposed to the Presence of God much is required.
On the one hand I suggest that the Scriptures raise a high bar for those of us who acknowledge Jesus at a personal level. Our behaviour is anticipated to be marked, as a true exposure to the living God does more than give us a forensic verdict in the law court. There is a deep interaction that leaves us different after the encounter.
On the other hand I am optimistic about those who do not see themselves as within the family of God in the way that we are accustomed to think. A high standard for those who have truly encountered Jesus, and an incredible generosity to those who have not encountered him in a deep personal way. I don’t think it is easy to reconcile those two ‘hands’. So to my two Scriptures.
The first of the two Scriptures, Romans 4: 24
It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.
This Scripture is about Abraham who believed God’s promise that he would inherit the world (to focus on the Land as the promise is very sub-New Testament!!), and by implication that this would be for him and his descendants. His faith was so strong, in spite of all the hard facts he faced up to. Using Abraham as the example Paul says we too will be reckoned righteous by believing in him who raised Jesus from the dead. Although he is not addressing the issue of those who are not ‘believers’ his language is intriguing. He does not state that we who believe Jesus was raised form the dead, but believe in the God who raised him. Paul passionately believed and proclaimed that Jesus had been raised from the dead, the whole eschatological future depending on that event; but his language here is not about believing that event but is focused on the identity of the one who did that, the God who did this.
This opens up a window for me. At one level maybe we all have sub-faith, by which I mean faith (even strong faith/ believism) in a sub-Jesus-like-God is sub-faith. It is possible to be a Christian and have sub, very sub-faith. Who knows the final destiny of those who went out to conquer the world (and Jerusalem) for God through the many Crusades that took place, but I cannot see that their actions reflect faith in the Jesus-like God. We can judge their actions, though we cannot simply judge them. With their knowledge at that time, maybe we too would have responded in that way. Then moving on, those who do not have a ‘Christian’ faith might exhibit a faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Even for some of those who have been burnt by religion and its twin of control, who might even profess to be atheists, we might find out that they so believed in humanity that their belief was nothing less than also a belief in the God who so believed in humanity that he raised the human Jesus from the grave on behalf of humanity. A wild thought but one that I am more than open to. After all if presented with a God who controls, who enjoys punishing, the only faithful response would be that of ‘atheism’ to that God!
The second Scripture Romans 10: 11-17 (emphasis added)
The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” But not all have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.
- Jew and Greek alike have to call on the Lord.
- Isaiah connects obedience and faith (as does Paul in this letter). Faith is not simply a hand up in a meeting, but is a relational and therefore a transformational term.
- Then working back we have a) those sent b ) to proclaim, c) so that there can be a hearing, d) and from the hearing comes faith, e) and the faith produces a call for salvation.
Sent from heaven is the sense that Paul lived with, sent to represent heaven, to represent God, and with that sending came the responsibility to proclaim, and this is the important point, so that people could literally hear the voice of Jesus. Faith comes by hearing the word (rhema) of Christ (v. 17). I put in bold the NRSV translation which follows most others, and could be understood as the need to hear a set of facts (to hear ‘of’, in the sense of ‘about’ Jesus). As in a number of languages, Greek will use a different case with certain verbs when they are referring to a person in contrast to when the verb is used with respect to a thing. The verb ‘to hear’ is one of those verbs. To hear a sound (a thing) the case used is the normal objective case (I hear a sound), but if it is used of hearing a person the genitive (possessive) case is used (I hear a person – and a person’s voice is ever so personal). The genitive is translated ‘of / belonging to’ but it should not be translated that way when with the verb to hear. Hence my emphasis, that Paul is not suggesting faith comes by hearing about / of Jesus, but by hearing him speak, hearing his voice, and the later repetition with ‘faith comes… through the word of Christ’ underlines this.
This then is where I am headed. For faith to come people have to hear Jesus. Proclaiming facts might or might not enable people to hear Jesus. Proclaiming facts about Jesus, in a way that distorts who he is, or with an attitude that does not accord with Jesus, and it might even hinder the person hearing Jesus. They might reject the Jesus that was presented to them, they might reject the facts presented, they might never believe that Jesus was raised from the dead… but they might not have rejected Jesus. It always has be about a ‘who’ not a ‘what’, true for all of us, whatever stage of faith we are at.