In “Salvation, Part 1” we established that our salvation is based solely upon Christ’s completed work on the cross and that we appropriate the person and work of Christ by the grace of God, through faith. This position echoes Paul’s statement in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
In “Salvation, Part 2” we explored three questions that arise from our thesis in Part I: 1) If we are saved by grace through faith, what role does works play in our salvation? 2) Can we be certain of our salvation? and 3) What about Purgatory?
Here, I would like to explore three more questions: 4) What do we conclude about children or others who do not have the capacity to make an informed decision about Christ? 5) What do we conclude about those who have never heard the gospel message or who do not understand it? and 6) What do we conclude about those who have other religious traditions?
Question #4-What about children?
This is an easy question to answer. In Psalm 127:3 we read that “children are a gift from the Lord, a blessing, the fruit of the womb,” and in 2 Samuel 12:23 we find David mourning the death of his infant child. Listen to his words: “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” David is fully confident that his child is among the redeemed, and that when he dies himself he will be with his child once again. In contrast, observe David’s reaction after his eldest son Absalom is killed in battle. In manhood Absalom rebelled against God and sinned grievously. When David receives word of Absalom’s death, the Bible records his appalling grief:
The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!”
(2 Samuel 18:33)
David does not know the destiny of Absalom’s soul. In his grief, he prays he could have died in Absalom’s place. David was sure of his infant child’s fate; he was not sure of Absalom’s.
Finally, in Mark 10:13-14 we have an enlightening scene of Jesus dealing with children:
People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he became angry and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
Jesus loves children. Although infected with sin as we all are, children are not able to make an informed decision about a Savior, so Jesus takes them as they are, granting them salvation himself.
As a young pastor, Dr. J. Vernon McGee and his wife, Ruth, lost their first child. Later in life he wrote:
Will our children be as we last saw them? I do not know nor can I prove it from Scripture (for Scripture is silent at this point), but I believe with all my heart that God will raise the little ones as such, and that the mother’s arms that have ached for them will have the opportunity of holding them. The father’s hand that never held the little hand will be given that privilege. I believe that the little ones will grow up in heaven in the care of their earthly parents—if they [the parents] are saved. One of the worst things of which I, as a father, can conceive, is of parents being in hell knowing that they cannot have their child—there are no children in hell. What an added joy this lends to heaven in looking forward to having your little one again! Though the Scriptures do not teach this explicitly, this does seem to be the sense. Remember that David expected to go to his child. And referring to children Christ said, “Of such is the kingdom of heaven.”
I agree completely with Dr. McGee on this issue.
Finally, we might ask, “At what age does one become personally responsible for his or her salvation?” In most Christian teaching, the traditional “age of reason” is seven, although in Jewish teaching, one isn’t responsible to God until twelve. In Numbers, those counted in the census are twenty and over, an age at which one is expected to make informed decisions about God and be responsible to him. According to Scripture, the age of personal responsibility corresponds to the age at which one becomes an adult.
Question #5-What about those who have never heard the Gospel or who don’t understand it?
There is a range of opinion across Christian denominations on this issue. Some say that Jesus’ words in John 14:6 are unambiguous: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” A restricted reading of this verse has led many to conclude that those born before Christ and those born since who have not heard the gospel are lost. It is always a danger, though, to read any verse of Scripture without consulting other parts of Scripture that deal with the same issue: the Bible is a conceptually unified, self-glossing text. To understand Scripture, we must read all it has to say on a topic against the background of the whole Bible. Concerning those who have never heard the gospel, the Bible has much to say.
Psalm 19 sets forth two approaches to knowing about God: through his creation and through his Word. Verses 1-6 spotlight creation:
The heavens proclaim the glory of God
and the firmament shows forth the work of his hands.
Day unto day takes up the story and
night unto night makes known the message.
No speech, no word, no voice is heard
yet their span extends through all the earth,
their words to the utmost bounds of the world.
There he has placed a tent for the sun;
it comes forth like a bridegroom coming from his tent,
rejoices like a champion to run its course.
At the end of the sky is the rising of the sun;
to the furthest end of the sky is its course.
There is nothing concealed from its burning heat.
God’s fingerprints are all over creation, from the design of the cosmos to the atomic structure of the elements. Anyone who looks seriously at creation must seriously consider a Creator. To do otherwise leads the poet in Psalm 14:1 to say, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” When Paul develops his great argument for justification by grace through faith in his epistle to the Romans, he disallows ignorance as an excuse for not responding to God in faith. Even those without the Scriptures have access to some knowledge of God, “for since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). For those born before Christ, responding to God in faith—given the limited information they have—is sufficient for their salvation. This is clear from the long record of Old Testament saints in Hebrews 11:1-40. It is for this reason that Paul says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3). We might also reference Enoch and Elijah being taken directly into heaven (Genesis 5:21-24; 2 Kings 2:1-11) and Moses and Elijah, sent from God and standing with Jesus at this transfiguration (Matthew 17:3-5).
I would argue that the same reasoning holds for those living after Christ who have not heard or understood the gospel message. God will not hold a person accountable for something he or she does not know or understand. As Abraham says to God in Genesis 15:23-25: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked…Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” We might confidently assert that, yes, the Judge of all the earth will do what is right.
This is clearly the position of the Roman Catholic Church. In the Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium, the Council explicitly states:
Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation. Nor shall divine providence deny the assistance necessary for salvation to those who, without any fault of theirs, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, and who, not without grace, strive to lead a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is considered by the Church to be a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.
(Lumen Gentium, in Vatican Council II, Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. by Austin Flannery, O.P. (Northport, New York: Costello Publishing Co., 1975), vol. 1, pp. 367-368.)
This position does not apply to those who willfully and with full knowledge permanently reject Christ. Paul warns that some people, “although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thoughts became pointless and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:21-22). Such people—regardless of their good works, sincere efforts, or noble intentions—will spend eternity exactly as they wish, apart from God.
Question #6-What about those who have other religious traditions?
Here we should address the Jews first. God chose the Jews as his vehicle for the salvation of the entire human family, and in Exodus 4:22, he says definitively, “Israel is my firstborn son.” Any discussion about the Jews begins here. Further on in the Torah God says to Israel, “[I] will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6), and later in the prophets he says, “as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5). The Jews play a unique role in God’s relationship with the human family, and, in Romans, Paul analyzes that role in relation to salvation by grace through faith in Christ. He concludes:
I ask then: “Did God reject his people? God forbid! I am an Israelite myself, of the seed of Abraham of the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew…. I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved …for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.
(Romans 11:1-2, 25-26, 29)
If we turn to Revelation, the last book of the Bible, and the end of the story of salvation, we find Paul’s statement confirmed in John’s glorious vision of a vast multitude of people seated before the throne of God (7:4-17). In front of the multitude are those representing all of God’s faithful people from the nation Israel. Concerning the Jews, what we read in the Bible should bring us to our knees before God to beg his forgiveness. The Church’s treatment of the Jews over the past twenty centuries has been disgraceful and appalling. When God said in Genesis 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse,” he meant it.
The remaining religious traditions, to a large extent, overlap those we have already discussed. Lumen Gentium (p. 367) tells us that “the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Moslems: these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.” Nor is God remote from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, since he gives to all men “life and breath and all things” (cf. Acts 17:25-28), and since the Savior “wills all men to be saved” (cf. 1 Timothy 2:4). A person growing up in a culture and religious tradition that differs radically from Christianity may either not have the opportunity to hear the gospel message, or he may not understand it, given the training of his own tradition. The plan of salvation makes room for such people.
None of this means that we should not spread the gospel message of salvation by grace through faith in Christ. God has only one plan of salvation: “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). If a Jew or a Moslem or anyone else is saved, it is solely by virtue of Christ’s shed blood on the cross, not because of who they are or what they have done. It is our task as believers to preach and teach the gospel throughout the world, starting in our own families, schools and jobs. At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus gives us this commission:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
Each one of us is called to be an ambassador of Christ. Announcing the gospel is the fundamental mission of the Church: all else is secondary. Jesus gave us two unambiguous commandments before he left this world: 1) “love one another” (John 15:17) and 2) “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). How we do this depends upon our own talents, gifts and abilities, and upon the doors that God opens for us.
In my rumination on salvation, I have explored what happens from a biblical perspective when we die, both for a saved person and for one who is not saved. I have also considered many questions that arise from such a dichotomy. As we have seen, salvation is a radical repositioning of our relationship with God, which is enabled by the death, burial and resurrection of Christ; it is not something we earn through our good works. As Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” Salvation is the result of a choice that one makes in response to God’s grace; it results from an act of will: one can choose to accept Christ as Savior and place his or her trust in him, or one can walk away. It is as simple as that.
Here is the process in outline:
• Recognize the condition of sin. We are each infected with sin from the moment of our conception, and the infection is terminal. Sinful man cannot be at one with a holy God. As Paul says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). From birth we are justly condemned.
• Recognize the remedy for sin. John says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36). Paul puts it a different way: “We maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28).
• Take action. In the quiet of your own heart, have an intimate conversation with Christ. Confess your sins to him, and place your trust in him as your Lord and Savior. That’s all he asks. Once you have such a conversation with the Lord, you are adopted into the family of God as a son or daughter. Jesus promises us: “everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life” (John 6:40).
• Live out your salvation. Once in the family of God, you are expected to honor your Father, not disgrace him. As James says: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). We cannot live out our salvation alone: find a faith community of like-minded believers; avail yourself of the Sacraments; speak with God daily in prayer; and serve your brothers and sisters in Christ, using whatever talents, gifts and abilities God has given you.
• Be joyful in your salvation. Salvation is a gift from God, a cause for joy. Paul says that once saved, “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6). In such a life, one experiences “love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). A faith that brings with it a dour expression, a judgmental attitude, and an ill temper is a faith pointed in
the wrong direction.