The Bible is filled with many wonderful things, but of all found there, nothing compares to the gospel message of Jesus Christ. Yet, when I teach about this salvation plan explained in Acts 2:38 necessitates repentance, baptism in Jesus’ name, and the infilling of the Holy Ghost, I am often asked if that applies to the hypothetical man. To better understand what I mean, here is an example how this question is typically asked: “if a jungle tribesman dies without ever hearing the message of salvation, is he saved or lost”? Before answering this I ask for the name of this man. As many times as I’ve been asked about this fella, you’d think he had a household name. Yet, to date, no one knows who he is. Of course, getting his name is not my true goal. Instead, my purpose is to reveal that their hypothetical man represents a struggle they have with Jesus’ gospel. This conflict is summed up in the following two questions:
- How can God fault a man or a woman for not obeying a gospel they never heard?
- How is God a God of love if He condemns those who disobey Him?
Hypothetical questions can be answered with hypothetical answers. However, these real concerns require a real response. Therefore, I will answer each of the two questions in this study.
(Note: any UPPERCASE wording in Scripture is added by me for emphasis)
Question 1: How can God fault a man or a woman for not obeying a gospel they never heard?
In our “Politically Correct” (PC) society, claims of exclusiveness are often frowned upon. For instance, few accept the idea there is “a truth” that is above all truths, unless, of course, that truth is “the truth” they believe. Instead, what we hear are words like inclusiveness, sensitivity, diversity, tolerance, and pro-this and anti-that. This “PC”sentiment has bled into many churches to where the grace-filled message of Jesus being the “only way” to be saved is now viewed as judgmental, bigoted, and intolerant. To claim to be in Jesus Christ’s church, a person would have to be a follower of His teachings. Therefore, let’s see what Jesus said about this exclusiveness:
John 8:24 I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.”
John 14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
According to these verses, and others, a person can only receive salvation through Jesus Christ (see Matthew 1:21; Luke 24:46-49; Acts 2:1-40, Acts 4:12). Thus, a Church teaching this same salvation message would not be judgmental, bigoted, or intolerant since they are only quoting what Jesus and His Apostles said. No man or woman has the authority to make the gateway to God’s kingdom any “straighter or narrower” than Jesus taught it (see Matthew 7:14). Similarly, no man or woman—regardless of disagreement or indifference—has the right to make the way to hell any “wider or broader” than Jesus taught it either (see Matthew 7:13). So, the question of whether our hypothetical man can be saved without knowing what the Bible says really boils down to seldom asked questions such as:
- Does this hypothetical man want to know God?
- Would our hypothetical man respond favorably to the gospel if it was presented?
- Though Jesus made a way for everyone to obtain eternal life, does our hypothetical man even care about the condition of his soul?
I am familiar with a case that will help address the first part of this study. A man I know never went to church for any reason (funerals, weddings, nothing) his entire life. To protect his privacy, I will call him Tony. So, Tony knew Christianity existed, but knew next to nothing about its doctrines. When this story happened, he was on a college football scholarship and played well enough he was being looked at by pro scouts. One evening while walking around campus, Tony looked to the sky and had the same thought countless other people had since the beginning of time—this thought was that those stars must have come from somewhere. This led him to talk to the unknown creator of those stars. (Unknown to him, this is called prayer.) He then began asking this creator about needs in his personal life. To his amazement, Tony began receiving answers to these talks. After some time, he realized he had not thanked this creator for responding to him. In his dorm that night he began thanking this creator, and as he did, he felt a power rush over him like nothing he experienced before. It was then that my friend began talking in a language he did not understand. (What Tony did not know is that he had received the infilling of God’s Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues.) This new experience went on for a long time that night. When he awoke the next morning, he felt different, so much so that he said he lost the “killer instinct” needed to continue playing football. Tony knew something life-changing had taken place, he just did not know what it was. So, he asked this still nameless creator to help him understand. That day, for the first time in his life, he was invited to church. This wasn’t one or two people inviting him to different churches, but instead, several people around campus inviting him to the same church. He did visit that church. There they taught him the New Covenant message of salvation found in Acts 2:38. He had already received the baptism of the Holy Ghost in his dorm, so Tony was baptized in Jesus’ name. He then gave up his football scholarship and eventually answered God’s call to pastor.
Tony’s experience is not uncommon. Such occurrences are found in the Bible. Abraham’s story is an example. While living in Ur, his family worshipped idols of false gods that man fashioned from wood, stone, and metal (see Genesis 11:27-28, Genesis 31:3, Genesis 31:19; Joshua 24:2). Thus, Abraham grew up not knowing the Lord God. The Bible says, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). Thus, Abraham’s desire to know a god not made by man led him to experience the One true God (see Genesis 12:1; Acts 7:2-4).
A hunger to know God was also MY EXPERIENCE. I hit rock bottom in my early 20s. In desperation, I asked God to prove Himself to me. A few days later I was invited to an apostolic church for the first time in my life. During my first visit, I heard a sermon that characterized an important event in my life. That was the first message I heard in an apostolic church. It was also the first message the preacher speaking that night ever received in a dream. The next service I repented of my sins and was baptized in Jesus’ name. A few days later I received the gift of the Holy Ghost with the evidence of speaking in tongues. All this came from my plea to know God.
We cannot limit what Jesus can do. After all, by Him, all things were created, and He is the one who maintains complete authority in heaven and on the earth (see Genesis 1:1; Matthew 28:18). From this power, He can heal mankind’s infirmities and forgive their sins (see Psalms 103:2-3). It is the Church’s job to share Jesus’ gospel with others (see Mark 16:15). Earlier I explained how God saw the desire my friend Tony and I had a real connection with Him. God responded by sending someone to share with us the salvation message in Acts 2:38. If God can respond to our desire to know Him, why can’t He do the same for the lost tribesmen of this world—regardless where they are found? Before you answer, remember that the Bible does boast that “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). So, the real question isn’t “how can God fault a man or a woman for not obeying a gospel they never heard,” but rather, how can a man or woman go their entire life without experiencing an insatiable desire to experience God?
Question 2: How is God a God of love if He condemns those who disobey Him?
First, pardon me if this seems disrespectful, but I believe questions like this are rooted in humanistic thought. The reason for this is it places prime importance on human interests and human values while ignoring the fact that God is…well…He’s God. It would be good at this time to recall that the serpent’s promise to Eve was that if she ate the Fruit, she would be her own god and would decide for herself what is good and evil (see Genesis 3:5). In other words, Eve was promised after she ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, she could do what she wanted and believe what she wanted without any consequence. At its very core, this promise was the exaltation of the human over the divine, which is humanism.
Before going further, we need to determine what is meant by “God’s love.” There are four different Greek words defined as “love” in our Bible. These are agape, phileo, storge, and eros. I would love to explain the differences between these words, but that is not the purpose of this study. Instead, I want to focus on the love God says He has as a Father for his children. No parent that genuinely loves their child would allow them to do everything they wished. Thus, a “good parent” will establish clear boundaries whereby their child can be kept from harm as well as find the opportunity to properly mature. These verses compare God’s love with the rules (commands) that a parent establishes to show their child what is and what is not acceptable.
Proverbs 3:11-12 My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline or be weary of his reproof,  for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.
Proverbs 13:24 Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.
Hebrews 12:5-11 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him.  For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”  It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?  If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.  Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live?  For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.  For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
These verses describe boundaries in which a child is safely confined by their father. And like a loving father to his child, God has established boundaries He expects His children to live within. Those who faithfully stay within these boundaries also find safety and opportunity to grow. The difference is, within God’s boundaries His children find safety from evil, and opportunity to spiritually grow into Christlikeness. Those who misunderstand God’s boundaries will either see them legalistically like a fortress that separates them from the impure sinners of the world. Or they will see them humanistically like a prison that restrains them from acting and believing as they wish.
Notice what the apostle Paul said about God’s commands in these next verses:
1 Timothy 1:3-12 As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine,  nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.  THE AIM OF OUR CHARGE IS LOVE that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.  Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion,  desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.  Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully,  understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers,  the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine,  in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.  I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service,
Did you notice he said, “The aim of our charge is ‘love’ that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (vs. 5). That means the goal of doctrine—at least doctrine inspired by God—is love. Paul further solidified this when he wrote:
Romans 13:8-10 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; THEREFORE LOVE IS THE FULFILLING OF THE LAW.
The entire focus of the Bible is on God’s plan for mankind, which was always to be implemented through Jesus Christ. This plan was in the mind the God before anything was created. The Bible correctly says “God loves us” because it also says “God ‘is’ love.” So, if you’re looking in a dictionary for the definition of love, it would be correct if it spoke of God. Thus, Jesus was God’s plan for mankind, and this plan was conceived and achieved all because of God’s love.
Several verses describe the degree of a believer’s obedience to God’s word as being the litmus test for their love of God. We see this in verses such as Joshua 22:5; Mark 12:30-31; John 13:34, John 14:31, John 15:12-14; Romans 13:9; 2 Corinthians 8:8; 1 John 3:23, 1 John 4:21; 2 John 1:5-6. God does not call men and women to obey Him because He enjoys being their Celestial authority—although, He is. No, God uses His commands to communicate the love He has for His people, and when a person faithfully keeps these commands, they show their trust and commitment back to Him. This is how a person is “saved by grace.” Only those who actively respond to God’s grace receive God’s grace. Grace is not static—it’s dynamic. Look at how Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionary defines biblical grace (uppercases added by me):
GRACE χάρις (G5485) graciousness (as gratifying), of MANNER or ACT (abstract or concrete; literal, figurative or spiritual; especially the divine influence upon the heart, and ITS REFLECTION IN THE LIFE; including gratitude): – acceptable, benefit, favour, gift, grace (-ious), joy liberality, pleasure, thank (-s, -worthy).
From this, we see God’s grace is an action from God that receives a reciprocate action from its receiver. Thus, “grace” is not simply “unmerited favor,” but is instead an unmerited opportunity from God to allow a person to respond obediently to God’s will. This is why a believer’s love for God is not found in what they say about their commitment to Him, but instead is found in the action they take when asked to follow God’s will (see Matthew 15:8; 1 John 5:1-3; John 14:15). This same grace (opportunity) is what is presented in every biblical account where sinners are given the opportunity to receive the New Covenant’s salvation through repentance, baptism in Jesus’ name, and receiving the Holy Ghost (see Acts 2:38-41, Acts 8:12-17, Acts 9:17-18, Acts 22:16, Acts 10:44-48, Acts 16:30-33, Acts 18:8, Acts 19:1-6). In these verses, we can see some who obeyed God’s command and received salvation, and we see some who refused this same opportunity and were thus lost. Same grace offered to each—with different responses and different outcomes depending on the individual’s action. So, if a person responds negatively to the gospel, this is not because God rejecting that person, but rather it is that person rejecting God.
So, God instructing Adam not to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was a command based on love. After Adam and Eve disobeyed, God sending them away from the Tree of Life was love. God giving His Law (“Law” actually means “teachings”) to His children was an act of love. God sending His prophets to warn His people of impending judgment for their continual sinning was an act of love. God sending His people into exile to lead them to repentance for their sins was an act of God’s love. God’s only begotten Son dying for man’s sins—even while they were yet sinners—was an act of love. God forever destroying His Old Covenant to fully establish His New Covenant was an act of love. In all these examples, and in many more, we see God’s goal was to lead the people “not into temptation,” but to “deliver” them “from evil”, which is again—an act of love (see Matthew 6:13). From this we see the question isn’t, “How is God a God of love if He condemns those who disobey Him?” but rather we should ask, how can men and women choose to live a life of willful disobedience against such a loving God? And since a person’s obedience to God’s commands equates to their love of God, ask yourself this—what does their disobedience equate to?
A FINAL WORD
One of the most quoted Bible verses is John 3:16. There John writes:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
Thus, God’s love is shown through Jesus dying for our sins. The correct response to that sacrifice is “whoever believes in him.” Such belief is not just what you think, but also involves the action you take because of that thought. Those who take the correct action will “not perish but have eternal life.”
Earlier in John 3, Jesus told Nicodemus that a person must be “Born Again” of the “water” and of the “Spirit” to both “see” and “enter” God’s Kingdom (see John 3:3, John 3:5). This agrees with Peter’s message of the necessity to be baptized in Jesus’ name (“born of the water”) and to receive the Holy Ghost (“born of the Spirit”) to receive salvation (see Acts 2:38; John 3:5). Thus, Jesus came to make a way for men and women to be saved (Matthew 1:21, Matthew 18:11), and the men and women who obediently respond to this plan receive eternal life (Mark 16:16).
In my opinion, one of the worst doctrines affecting believers in Christ today is the claim that salvation comes by “receiving” a “personal savior.” Jesus did not tell Nicodemus that a person is “Born Again” when they “receive a personal savior.” Also, on the Day of Pentecost, Peter did not preach salvation comes from “receiving a personal savior.” As a matter of fact, nowhere in the Bible do we find anyone preaching salvation coming from “receiving a ‘personal’ savior.” This is easily proven by a simple word search for “personal” in the New Testament. What you find is there is not one passage that uses this term. With all the electronic Bible study programs available today, it is shocking this fact is not more widely known. A “personal savior” all to often is a savior that fits a person’s personal lifestyle. Yet the Bible tells us Christians are to die to their former ways (2 Corinthians 5:17; Romans 6:4-6). Like I said earlier, when I lived according to my ways, I was a miserable failure. Therefore, I didn’t need a savior that was comfortable with my lifestyle, but rather, I needed a savior that could transform me so I could be conformable to His. Such a Savior is what our hypothetical man needs too.
At the beginning of this study, I said hypothetical questions can be answered with hypothetical answers. Well, here goes my hypothetical response to the question of our hypothetical man: our hypothetical man’s heart reached out to his creator. God answered him in the depth of his jungle, just like God answers those at a college, or those whose life has hit bottom, or anyone else who hungers and thirsts for Him. Then God loved this hypothetical man so much that He sent a hypothetical preacher to teach him the Word of God. Afterward, the hypothetical man believed the gospel and repented of his sins, was baptized in Jesus’ name, and received the Holy Ghost. This is how our hypothetical man was saved. And, the fact is, this is also how actual men, women, and children have received their salvation since the time Peter first preached the gospel message in Acts 2:38…that is not a tale of fiction, but fact.
Copyright © 2017 TK Burk. All Rights Reserved.
For information on Jesus’ plan of salvation, see THIS STUDY.