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what about those who never hear?

Last Sunday we had our fifth and final excursus in our sermon series through 1–2 Timothy. We had a more focused study on just one verse. Paul wrote he endured everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ (2 Timothy 2:10). Paul often used the word “elect” or “election”. He wrote frequently of God in Christ choosing some for salvation “before the foundation of the world”. He “predestined” the elect for adoption as sons of God. It is clear that Paul writes of a specific group of people. We saw in that sermon that Peter did as well, and both of these apostles got this idea from Jesus himself.

In the Gospel of John, chapter 10, Jesus spoke of being the Good Shepherd who knows each one of his sheep by name. They—his sheep who are known by name—hear his voice and follow him because they belong to him. He said he had other sheep in addition to his sheep from within the people of Israel. His purpose was to call them to himself as well, that all his sheep, Jew or Gentile, would be in one flock under one Shepherd.

This is the language Scripture uses repeatedly to describe salvation and God’s people. In John 10 Jesus told those trying to trap him in his words that the reason they do not believe is because they are not among his sheep (John 10:22–30). There are just two groups of people: those who are God’s sheep and those who are not. What distinguishes them is the response to the voice of God. Those who follow reveal they are his elect and were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world and those who refuse reveal they are not his elect.

This language may be challenging for some for it places the emphasis on God and his actions rather than on people and our actions. It is important to use the language Scripture uses. If you find using words like “elect” or “election” or “predestination” or even phrases like “chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world” to be difficult, you should ask yourself why that is. Jesus used this language. The apostles Peter and Paul used this language. If we cannot use the very words of Scripture, I suspect the problem is in us and not in the words of Scripture.

Sometimes saying what Scripture says is not the same as meaning what Scripture means. We saw this in Joshua, where the people of Israel are said to have “devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old” with the edge of the sword (Joshua 6:28). Scripture says they killed every man, woman, and child, and we rightly find this idea horrific, but as we saw when we went through Joshua, saying what Scripture says here is not the same as meaning what Scripture means. They were simply doing what God commanded in Deuteronomy 7:1–5 when he told them to devote the people “to complete destruction” and to “show no mercy to them” and finally, they were to not intermarry with them. This is an example of Ancient Near Eastern warfare rhetoric that speaks of victory in terms of absolute destruction. They did not slaughter women and children and relatively few men died. Only those who were kings and who persisted in fighting Israel were killed. As I’ve shared a number of times this rhetoric was similar to a coach urging his team “rip their hearts out” after a timeout. That’s how the Ancient Near East spoke of warfare.

When it comes to election, it is important to mean what Scripture means and to say what Scripture says. It is clear from Jesus’ own words that he had a specific group of people in mind—known only to him! All the Father has given him, he said in John 6, would come to him. Not a single one of them would be snatched out of his hand. Jesus will be successful in his mission of saving his people!

Whether it’s raised as a genuine question or raised as an objection to the clear language of Scripture, the question that frequently comes up is this: what about those who have never heard the gospel? For those who would raise this question as an objection to using the language of Scripture, of Paul enduring all things for the sake of the elect, that they may obtain salvation, the question doesn’t work as an objection at all. All it does is move the question: if God has not determined to save the elect, what happens to those who never hear the gospel? We have the same question; only the point of emphasis is moved. By holding to the language Scripture uses, an answer becomes clear:

“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

John 6:37–40 ESV

Scripture is clear: there is no salvation apart from Jesus, whether you embrace the language of Scripture by using words like “elect” or “predestination” or not. The question, then, is more of a practical question and can come from a perspective of love and compassion and genuine concern for the lost. As Paul himself said in Romans 10, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, but how are they to call on him in whom they have never heard?

Christians have been taking the gospel to the nations from the beginning. Countless men and women have given their lives for the sake of the elect—endured everything—including the loss of comfort and ease, all the way up to literally dying for the gospel. In the world today there are Christians in every single country on earth. Not every people group has heard the gospel, mind you. It is important that we embrace the call of Christ by supporting those men and women who will go into these people groups with the good news of the Lord Jesus.

Even in those groups, however, it is also important to recognize that God has not left himself without a witness. God has been revealing himself to humans from the very beginning. From the time he entered the garden and called out to Adam and Eve, knowing full well what they had done, to raising up Noah, to appearing to Abraham and making a covenant with him, to demonstrating to the Pharaoh and all Egypt that he is God and God alone, God has been actively revealing himself. Romans 1 is very instructive here.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Romans 1:18–23 ESV

Paul writes of “all ungodliness and unrighteousness”. The distinction here is between actions toward God and actions toward one another. Ungodliness refers to idolatry, the willful rejection of the one true God and the worship of idols. Unrighteousness refers to wickedness against fellow human beings. Paul says through their actions, humans “suppress the truth” that God has been revealing among them. What Paul is saying here is God himself is the first Missionary. Whether a person is living in a tiny apartment in Tokyo or in a hut somewhere in the Amazon jungle, God has shown to that person his “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature”. Paul says these have been “clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world”. God has been actively revealing himself to people throughout the entirety of human history.

This is not the same as hearing the gospel of Jesus. We must never become complacent, relying on God to speak for himself. God uses means. Just as strongly as Scripture declares God in Christ has chosen to save many from their sins, so it declares our responsibility to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, for people from every tribe and language and people and nation will worship Jesus.

God, in his sovereign providence, works in the world to draw men and women to himself. There are many stories of Muslims in countries closed to evangelistic work by Christians who have dreams in which the Lord tells them, for example, to “ask the man in the blue shirt at the coffee shop who orders a latte” who is appearing to him in the dream. That person then tells the Muslim about the gospel of Jesus and the Lord Jesus draws another of his elect to himself. These stories abound, and are a large part of the reason there are more Muslim converts to Christ in the last twenty years than in the previous 1,400!

We see a similar story in Acts 10. Cornelius was a Gentile who rejected the idols of the culture and prayed to the one true God, whom he did not really know. Similar to the Muslim who dreams of a man in a coffee shop, in a vision Cornelius is told of a man named Peter who is staying with a man named Simon, who happens to be a tanner, the very one who lives by the sea. This language is akin to “who is ordering a latte while wearing a blue shirt”.

What we see here is that in God’s sovereignty and in his providence, as men and women are being drawn to him, he is able to orchestrate events in such a way they are able to hear the gospel of Jesus and respond to the work of God in faith. Salvation is through faith. Without faith in Jesus there is no salvation. We must never forget how incredible our God is. He has people everywhere! In Acts 8 when the Ethiopian eunuch is in his chariot, minding his own business as he seeks the Lord, God sends Philip to him to explain the gospel.

The bottom line is this: the same God who orchestrated human history to bring it to the exact point necessary for a virgin to conceive and bring forth a child who was both God and Man, then God can ensure the gospel of Jesus is preached to every one of those whom the Father has given Jesus, that each one would trust in Jesus and be saved. We must remember God uses means! You and I must be ready with the gospel. Some of us must be prepared to go to the lost, whether they live in a mud hut in the Amazon or a tiny apartment in Tokyo. All of us must be prepared to give an answer for the hope that is within us.

What is really staggering to me is how many in our own city have never heard the gospel of Jesus explained to them. We live in a city filled with Christian schools, colleges, and seminaries. We have Christian radio stations and Christian churches. We have Christian doughnut shops, yet there are many who do not know why Jesus died on the cross.

What about those who have never heard the gospel? There are many in this world who have not, yet God himself reveals his nature to every single human on the planet. He may not reveal the details, but he reveals enough of himself that every single person is responsible for what he or she has either embraced or suppressed (see Romans 1:18–23!). Our responsibility is to work to make sure all do hear the gospel of Jesus. We must always be available to the Lord, that he might raise up those who proclaim the gospel to all who respond to the voice of the Good Shepherd calling them to faith and repentance.