[We are] not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. (Romans 1:16)

Friday, July 15, 2011

What about the Unevangelized? Part 5

by Matthew

It is such a long time since I posted here. I thought it might be an idea to finish off the series I began back in 2009.

To summarise where we got to, in the first part we concluded that it is logical to expect that God has made some provision for those who have not heard the offer of eternal life by human means. We followed this by considering different views offered by evangelicals regarding the likelihood of the salvation of some of the unevangelized. The view Universal Premortem Opportunism was explained and identified as the view this blogger would defend.

Universal Premortem Opportunism holds that God has offered the opportunity to all persons to accept or reject the offer of eternal life. In the event of a person never encountering a human evangelist, she would receive sufficient revelation before her death to enable her to believe. In part 3 we looked at a number of possible Scriptural arguments for this position.

In part 4 we addressed the verse Romans 10:14, which is often used to assert that nobody can be saved without encountering an human preacher or evangelist. It was argued to the contrary, that Paul was making a rhetorical point to establish that Israel's condemnation was just.

This post will address the big objection that a lot of evangelicals will have to the theory of Universal Opportunism. This is that it takes away the motivation for evangelism? Surely the need to save sinners from a lost eternity is the chief motive for evangelism. If there is a possibility that God will save sinners independently of our gospel missions, are not our efforts redundant?

We have all heard a missionary speaker come to our churches and give a stark motivational talk. He speaks of the spiritual darkness of the land in which he ministers, he speaks of the ignorance of the natives of that land. He warns of how men and women are dying in that country and others daily and are going to an eternity of darkness and torment.

Such talks have motivated many blessed brothers and sisters to answer the call of Christ to go out into the world and labour for Him. I do not want to in any way diminish the value of having an healthy concern for those who are in spiritual darkness and having a consciousness of the reality of condemnation for those who do not believe. Nevertheless, I do not see anything exactly resembling this kind of motivational talk in the New Testament. We have Ezekiel 3:18-19, but this was a warning about God's temporal judgment on Israel and they were a people who already had the law. Nowhere does Paul, Peter, or John warn their readers about the millions who are perishing daily and motivate them on that basis. Romans 10:14 has been used that way, but as I argued in part 4, this is a misreading of Paul's argument.

I do worry that this style of motivational talk can be unhealthy. It can come across as emotional blackmail and lead to a negative view of missionaries. It could also lead to unhelpful guilt in those who are not on the mission field but who give generously and contribute to the work of Christ in many valuable ways. It may also prevent rational and wise contemplation over what kind of work Christians take up.

I think many will agree with me that too many Christians have an unbalanced view of conversion and evangelism. In a lot of American churches, they talk a lot about 'soul-winning' (without much awareness of the diversity of the way the word 'soul' is used in Scripture), but not very much about making disciples. There is a tendency to think of salvation as simply being saved from eternal condemnation, and not entrance into a whole new sphere of life. God's purpose is not simply to save people from the Lake of Fire, but to gather together a people who will live in a way that is conformed to the pattern of divinized humanity in Christ. Salvation is not just about plucking sinners from the fire, but about shaping and transforming lives and building communities devoted to Christ. I believe God can give eternal life to the unevangelised before it's too late, but He cannot make them into faithful and devoted disciples without our getting involved.

If it is true that only those who have encountered a human missionary have any hope of eternal life, then it might be seen that making disciples is a waste. Why should a missionary spend time discipling his converts and planting churches? Would it not be more sensible to travel to the next village and save them from a lost eternity? The emphasis of missionary work on simply rescuing 'souls' might actually lead to an unbalanced approach to missiology.

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  • Nice work, Matthew.

    I appreciated the way you carefully appraised the Scriptures and didn't over-interpret them to add extra heft to your view of Universal Premortem Opportunism.

    While I'm still a Restrictivist, I was encouraged by your Part 3 which showed that God does use powerful non-human means (dreams and visions, etc.) to light fires under people who God has softened toward Him. As an adult convert, I felt led, not dramatically, but internally and externally in a way that was deeply humbling to the point of being vaguely threatening.

    Perhaps I'm a Universal Opportunistic Restrictivist. I believe that Jesus draws all men to Him. He uses non-human as well as human means in drawing them. But that the Gospel's promise of eternal life and the call to follow despite the high cost comes through human means. I agree that Romans 10 is not conclusive given its specific context but I see it as shedding light by which I conclude that God uses the church to spread the Gospel. And the human means of preaching the Gospel although not always dramatic is at His direction--and sometimes is quite dramatic, as in the Cornelious example.

    I also think he uses terrible poverty, famine and natural disaster to bring children into his eternal Kingdom. But that perhaps is to the shame of the church.

    Thank you for the series, very much. Very helpful.

    By Blogger J Sawyer, at Friday, July 15, 2011 10:15:00 AM  

  • Hey Matt, it would be helpful if you went into this article of yours and put hyperlinks of all the rest of your articles at the beginning.

    I have often been loathe to hear the incessand fleshly guilt trips springing forth from well intentioned yet misguided advocates of missions. That doesn't mean I speak against praching missions, no. But the tactics and methods used are far from helpful.

    You make a great point concerning the emphasis of soul-winning over making disciples.

    It is interesting that I was re-reading some of these articles just yesterday and you posted this last one.

    To end, I admit that I must study this consideration much more carefully, for it has implications for alot of other corollary church thinking.

    In the meantime, I suggest we all pray the Lord of the hjarvest to send out more laborers into His work (Mt 9:38) which appears to be for the benefit of discipleship and not merely soul winning!

    Thanks for the thought provoking articles, Matt.

    I hope to see more articles here soon!


    By Blogger Antonio, at Friday, July 15, 2011 2:24:00 PM  

  • Jodie, thanks a lot.

    I do think that the human means is normative, but we do have to deal with the reality that a vast number of people in human history have not had access to preaching. If we allow that God does use supernatural means to draw people, it is not going to far to suppose that this provides a means of salvation for the unevangelized.

    Every Blessing in Christ


    By Blogger Matthew Celestis, at Saturday, July 16, 2011 2:37:00 AM  

  • Antonio, thanks a lot.

    I am thinking about writing some book reviews at some point. Probably not next week, because I am on holiday at my old folks' place.

    By Blogger Matthew Celestis, at Saturday, July 16, 2011 2:51:00 AM  

  • I do think you make a good point.

    The idea that God draws using supernatural means is something we tend to and I tend to downplay when considering this whole issue. Knowing that God is already at work in everyone we talk to gives a good basis for evangelizing more frequently.

    I don't think the extra step you're taking is without warrant.

    By Blogger J Sawyer, at Saturday, July 16, 2011 1:28:00 PM  

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