gospel response

I’ve always had a soft spot for soteriological Inclusivism, the theory of Christian ultimate salvation (sometimes expressed in different ways) that holds that some can or may be saved apart from an explicit congnitive act of conscious belief in Jesus.

Exclusivism insists on a personal response to the Gospel, but most forms of exclusivism make exception for those too young or perhaps lacking the (apparent) cognitive ability to make an (apparent) response to the Gospel.  These exceptions prompt Inclusivism’s concern for the fate particularly of “those who have never heard” the Gospel. But I wonder if the very notion of ‘those who have never heard the Gospel’ might be challenged by Scripture? Perhaps a Scriptural understanding of revelation, gospel, preaching, hearing and responding is different to at least some of our modern instincts? Perhaps some biblical language suggests that “the (G)gospel” has been preached to everyone; perhaps in a mode that escapes or transcends the modern mind?

It would be one thing to entertain such notions due to some discomfort or fear regarding communicating the gospel or having people not respond to it.  But it’s quite another thing if Scripture itself actually supports the notion. And whilst we don’t want to alter the Gospel to make it more palatable, we also don’t want to go beyond Scripture and ‘add’ requirements or barriers to God being able to work in ways we don’t understand.  Two relevant passages among others are: Romans 2:12-16 and 10:9-21; and another I recently encountered again is Hebrews 4:1-11.

In interpreting the texts, we have to keep the literary purposes of the authors in mind.  Both Romans and Hebrews are engaging with the early controversy around the attitudes of Jewish and Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians toward (among other things) the Jewish Law, common faith, and table fellowship. In Romans 2, the Jewish Christian readers have just had a surprising hard word given to them about their own failure to keep the Law, which has the result of putting them on even par with Gentiles.  Interestingly, the Gentles, even without having the Jewish Law, are nonetheless able to follow the ‘Law written on their hearts‘, which apparently not only accuses them when they live contrary to it (1:18-32), but also excuses them when they live according to it (2:14). This battlefield of hearing and obeying (or not!) seems to at times be public and visible, and other times private and ‘secret’ as Paul’s language suggests in 2:16 (‘God will judge men’s secrets…’).

Oh, sure, but some will say Paul is just getting the foundation of his
argument going in Romans; it’s only chapter 2! But, we have a similar tension in chapter 10, long after Paul has made his points about both the universality of Sin and the superabounding nature of Grace. Here is actually a favourite verse of
Exclusivists, where it is insisted that ‘faith comes by hearing’; when the Gospel of Christ preached and heard, believed and finally confessed (10:9-15). However, Paul does not finish there, but then goes on to contrast the unbelief of previous generations of Israel (long before Christ) with the Gentiles of old, who along with Israel apparently have indeed ‘heard’; the pertinent difference being that (‘all’) Israel did not accept the good news due to their disobedience, while the Gentiles were apparently ‘found’ by God who says ‘I revealed myself’ to them (10:16-21). The context of chapter 10, to state the obvious, is chapters 9 and 11, which all together form a rich tapestry of argumentation exploring the way that God remains faithful to the ‘old’ covenant with Israel, even when the church must have looked mostly Gentile at the time of writing. This is precisely the point the author of Hebrews makes in chapter 4; except only the negative criticism is made of Israel, for having ‘the gospel preached to them’ yet not combining that with ‘faith’.

The first key point in all of this is that the biblical authors here seem to be quite comfortable in describing ‘the gospel’ being known to people long before Christ; much like Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 will, in passing, assert that “the Rock that followed [Israel during the Exodus] was Christ.” The other point is that it seems those outside of God’s central and standard means of revelation (Law teaching in the Old; Gospel preaching in the New) have indeed had ‘the Gospel’ preached to them (Colossians 1:23); and their response, arguably in the New as well as the Old, is not always rejection. Indeed (clearly in the Old, and possibly in the New), when those on the ‘outside’ respond more obediently than those on the ‘inside’, the latter are humbled and (hopefully) brought to their knees again in renewed repentance; or (Paul hopes in Romans 9-11) ‘provoked to jealousy’ (and hopefully faith).

Similar themes appear elsewhere.  The Gentile King Cyrus was called God’s ‘anointed one’, who was moved by the Spirit to let Israel go home. The pagan Preist Melchizidek was the agent (not the recipient!) of blessing for Abram. And Jesus set the tone for his ministry with a rousing critique at Nazareth, making clear that God’s action was not limited to Israelites.

So could it be that God is at all times, all ways and in all places preaching the Gospel, through both public and ‘secret’ channels (one thinks of the many accounts of Muslims having dreams and visions of Jesus)? Could it be, as inclusivism suggests, that some of these people can respond to such preaching with at least some form of faith?

a better word

Preparing for this Sunday’s sermon from Isaiah 35 on Joy, I’ve latched upon Hebrews 12:18-24 as an accompanying epistle text, and will spare my congregation (and burden you with!) this reflection :)

Much like 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 or Galatians 4:21-31, Hebrews 12:18-24 boldly contrasts the ‘old covenant’ with the ‘new covenant’.  Now, I’m somewhat weary of patterns of interpretation that too easily and too carelessly either sweep aside or mis-apply texts from the old testament/covenant.  The relationship between the ‘old’ covenant/testament and the ‘new’ must be characterised by both discontinuity and continuity; and our eagerness or disdain for this or that particular result too often determines which one of those two we hold to.

Having gotten that throat clearing out of the way, this passage is boldly stating the discontinuity between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant instituted by Christ.  Daringly and provocatively, yet without discarding or discounting the value and role of what had come before, the author describes the ‘old’ in the following ways:

  • undesirable.  The ‘word of God’ through the Mosaic Law were of a nature that “those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them”.  God’s word was so fiery, dark, gloomy and stormy they begged ‘No more!’.  There are a few passages that we can think of as especially ‘harsh’ to say the least.  But the best and strongest sense here, considering the ‘old’ as a whole is that of someone giving a very public and very exhaustive report of all of your deepest darkest failings, to the point where you beg them to stop because the truth hurts so much.
  • unbearable.  The word of God (despite the claim of Deuteronomy 30:11-14!!) ended up being too high of a moral bar, not because the Law failed, but because “they could not bear what was commanded”.  Stop God… please… I simply cannot take this.
  • unapproachable.  Animals stoned, sandals removed.  The Law, which nonetheless had the purpose of instructing in Life and Love, showed how full of death and indifference we are.  It is such a terrifying reality that like Moses we are “trembling with fear”.

By contrast, which couldn’t be any more strongly stated, the new covenant is gob-smackingly glorious and just plain ‘better’.

  • better joy.  The new and living covenant transcends earthly mountains and cities and is characterised by more joy than the image of ‘thousands upon thousands of angels’ can evoke.  Whatever gloomy realities of life, temptation, struggle and pain that still persist, infinite quantity and quality of joy is available for us – even if all we can dare is to peek.  Our guilt under the Law was depressingly accurate, whereas our freedom in Christ from precisely that guilt is shockingly liberating.
  • better transformation.  The Law was well able to declare guilty, but powerless to remove that guilt, at least permanently.  Jesus, however, is more (though not less!) than a Judge, but also the teacher, leader and giver of the Spirit, who helps actually transform and change people, making them ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’, one (sometimes tiny) step at a time.
  • better memory.  The blood of Abel – remembered each time an animal sacrifice was made in the temple – reminded people of their lingering sin.  The blood of Jesus – remembered each time the eucharistic Cup is shared – reminds people of his lasting forgiveness.

In addition to being a rather bold statement on the specific topic of covenant theology, this raises interesting questions about how we understand things like revelation and Scripture.  God apparently always planned to reveal himself in a way that was not sudden and fixed from the start, but rather through an unfolding series of events and encounters that would indeed have identifiable and obvious thematic consistency, but nonetheless also very real and at times troubling variation and development.

It was always going to be a spiraling, turning, twisting and evolving story, whose end goal (or ‘telos’) was always going to be the person and work of Christ.  As Hebrews begins, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers though the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.”