It is my opinion that what Calvinists, Arminians, Universalists and virtually all other believers in Christ have some beliefs in common beyond a simple faith in Jesus as the Son of God — whether they want to admit it or not. And some of those beliefs aren’t necessarily good.
First, most of us believers have in common a kind of absolutist definition of the word “all” wherever it is used in scripture with regard to people — that it always means “everyone who has ever lived from the beginning of time through and including everyone who is still alive at the end of time.”
I can’t say that I buy into that. If I say “Singing at church Sunday was awesome,” and you ask me “Why?” and I reply “Because everyone sang,” you don’t assume that I meant “everyone who has ever lived through everyone who ever will.” When Genesis 6:5 says everyone was perpetually evil all the time, did that include Noah? His family?
Second, I think most believers share in an absolutist definition of “wickedness” in Romans which includes any sin, any number of sins, the nature of anyone who is not perfect and sinless. In other words, imperfection = wickedness. All sin is the same. Anyone who sins is damned.
I can’t say that I buy into that, either. Paul defines what he means by wickedness early on in Romans, and it’s pretty heinous. It’s not just slipping once in your life and saying “oh crap” instead of “oh doo-doo.”
Go ahead and read Romans 1:18-32. I’ll wait.
Now I ask you: Is that talking about people whose minds wander a bit during communion or who clap while singing praise to God in church or who let fly an epithet in an unguarded moment once in a while?
Or is it talking about sin, seriously depraved, self-seeking, God-denying, hateful, greedy, lascivious, murderous sin? Is that the way everyone is who sins? Or is that what a little sin leads to, and why it cannot be tolerated, and why it cannot be a part of God’s assembled saints? Is the wrath of God being revealed from heaven against people who aren’t perfect — or people who suppress the truth by their wickedness? Does Jesus’ statement in Luke 12:47-48 have any relevance here? (I don’t know for certain if He was speaking of eternal judgment there, but He certainly seems to support the principle that there are some sins that are worse than others.)
Third, most believers don’t believe what Paul says in places like Romans 2:6-11 (and many other scriptures) unless they get to add their own qualifications to what’s said. For them, “doing good” must include obeying God the way they define it. Otherwise, it’s not good enough. Even those of us who understand that our works don’t and can’t save us.
In the epistle to the Romans, it takes some discernment to figure out where Paul really is talking about everyone and about universal (not Universalist!) principles … and where he is talking just about people who have had some exposure to the notion of God … and where he is talking about people who grew up knowing all there was to know about God. And it’s important! Because the things said about one group of people may not apply to another group of people.
It takes some discernment to plot out where he begins talking to Jews only … and where, much later on in the epistle, he addresses Gentiles only … and where, still later on, he’s talking to everyone again. Not as much, but some. Plus, he’s writing — obviously! — to people that have heard a gospel and have heard that Paul has a gospel and accusations against both Paul and his gospel. And that’s important to know, too. Because the things said to one group of people may not apply to another group of people. Right?
It takes some discernment to figure out whether Paul means that imperfection is the same as wickedness … if someone can actually be good and do good without hearing the name of God, having intuited His existence and goodness from what has been made, yet without having descended into the wickedness of idolatry and worship of self … if someone can actually be good and do good having heard and understood the will of God but having willfully rejected it in order pursue whatever gratifies self, at whatever cost to others and to God.
I’m not going to pretend that I have it all sorted out and there is a simple color-coded systemological map that you can overlay the epistle with and have it all neatly figured out. But I’m smart enough to pick up on the fact that Romans is not a one-size-fits-all letter with the same thing to say in every verse to and about everyone in Rome, or just every believer in Rome. Or to every Jew and Gentile who has encountered it since it was written.
The can’t-wait-to-get-to-it message of Romans — after that quick overview of global morality and immorality in chapter one — is “Stop judging each other! You have no right to! You’re doing the same wrong things that you’re judging others for doing when you judge them — you’re sinning!”
Yes, I’m especially sensitive to this theme after studying Greg Boyd’s Repenting of Religion for several months with my LIFE group. Boyd’s examination of Bonhoeffer and scripture is pretty convicting about the original sin — judging God to be untrustworthy — and expressing virtually all other sins as failures of human judgment. That’s pretty much borne out in Romans, especially as chapter two begins:
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? ~ Romans 2:1-4
This is the kind of judgment that comes from self-righteousness … the inability to see the plank in one’s own eye while trying to pluck the splinter from another’s. It’s the kind of judgment that a Pharisee or teacher of the law uses to justify crucifying an inconvenient prophet from Nazareth.
So far, in this epistle addressed to “all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people,” there has been no change of address. He’s talking to everyone, about all of them to whom he’s writing. They’ve all been guilty of this kind of judgment. Jews. Gentiles. Everyone. And yet they are people whose “faith is being reported all over the world” (Romans 1:8). He continues:
But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.~ Romans 2:5-11
So there are people who have persisted in doing good … as well as those who have been self-seeking and follow evil. The standard of judgment is the same for Jew and Gentile.
When it says “God does not show favoritism,” does it say that He just going to save everyone because He doesn’t play favorites? No.
When it says “God does not show favoritism,” does it say that He will just condemn everyone who hasn’t heard because they have rejected truth they’ve never heard even though they might (or might not!) have persisted in doing good? No.
It says He doesn’t play favorites in saving Jews over Gentiles. That’s pretty much the point of the whole epistle, and why there should be no racial judgment taking place between the two groups!
All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. ~ Romans 2:12-16
So it is possible for people who have not heard the law to still do things required by the law that are written on their hearts. We know from this epistle that keeping works of the law does not save. But the Gentiles described in this passage would have been described in scripture as “God-fearing” before the crucifixion and resurrection. Would they have been saved before those events, yet damned after?
Can we read that passage and still believe it is not possible for someone who has not heard of Jesus to live good lives, lives repentant of living for self, lives that express belief in love for others (and God is love)? That they cannot have belief in a good creator God who has put in their hearts a moral compass and a yearning for more than this life? Can we absolutely state that God cannot or will not impute the saving blood of Christ to those whom He wills, those who please Him by lives that give Him glory whether they have ever heard His name or not?
Paul understands that it’s impossible to believe on a name that one has not heard:
As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? ~ Romans 10:11-14
Does he — in this epistle or any other scripture — ever say that it is impossible for them to receive God’s salvation? Does any writer of scripture?
Scripture says we are not under law, but under grace (Romans 6:14-15) and saved by faith, not works (Romans 3:27-28; 9:32; Galatians 2:16; 5:4; John 5:24). It also says all will be judged (not saved, but judged) by their works (Matthew 25; Revelation 20:12) and words (James 3:1, Matthew 12:37) — and in the way that we have judged others (Matthew 7:1-2; Luke 6:37).
The only exceptions I have been able to find to those being judged are those who do not judge and do not condemn and who forgive others and those who hear and believe :
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” ~ Luke 6:37
“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” ~ John 5:24
Are we ready to make a judgment that only one or the other of these is required? Just one and not the other? Both?
Have we as believers done one but not the other?
And aren’t we judging those who haven’t heard when we interpret scripture to say that God cannot, will not, and/or does not save them at His own discretion — when scripture does not say so? That they don’t rate an individual judgment like those who have heard and are just categorically out-of-luck? Damned automatically by chance of birth?
Don’t get me wrong: the gospel is still — and has been since Jesus lived it — the way God wants for His power to save to be shared with all; with everyone, everywhere, in every era.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” ~ Romans 1:16-17
Those who hear and believe; who will repent and conform their lives to Christ have a promise of salvation and advantage that those who heard do not have. At the same time, I feel completely inadequate — and forbidden — to judge the life of someone else who has not had that advantage and say that their faith is inadequate because they don’t know the Name.
And I think it extremely presumptuous to say that God does not have the power, the right, the sovereignty, the love that covers sins, the grace that triumphs over judgment, to show mercy to whom He will show mercy and compassion to whom He will have compassion … to say that He is somehow contractually obligated by the way most believers have historically interpreted Romans and other scriptures to categorically condemn everyone who has not heard, understood and accepted the gospel of His Son Jesus, the Christ.
We don’t believe that’s necessarily true of categories within it like babies and small children, mentally challenged people, or those among His people who lived before the Word took human form in Jesus.
We tend to believe — want to believe — that God can impute the grace bought by His Son’s blood to those exceptions, though we have no scriptural basis for that belief.
What does it say about us that we somehow want to believe that He cannot or will not save good people who have diligently sought Him but never had the opportunity to hear His name or His story?
I believe that is our double standard, not His.
I believe it’s our error that this kind of final judgment is ours to make, before the Day when He decides.
Not that He will save all whoever lived. There are those who are mortal who have chosen to defy, oppose and blaspheme all that is good and all that is of God, just as surely as there were those who were celestial beings who so chose. Their reward is just. My pity for them has no salvific power. My conviction that God’s heart also breaks for each one cannot redeem them. They must choose and they have chosen. What they have chosen will not prevent me from loving and trying to reach as many of them as I encounter.
Because the promise always beats the possibility of a relationship with God.
I believe God created this world and us to offer us choice and then to respect our choices.
We can choose good or evil, righteousness or sin, God or Satan, salvation or damnation … love or judgment.
I am doing my best to choose to love and not to judge …
… for the reasons outlined above.