Summary: A sermon on what happens to the heathen, those who have never heard of the gospel of Jesus Christ? (Material adapted from Dr. Jack Cottrell's book, "Set Free")


For a while people have believed that our problems exist because we are too civilized. If we would just get back to nature, and throw away all of the modern conveniences, and the ideas found in the Christian religion, then we would be like the noble savages of old. A good example of this is the Native Americans, the Indians. If we were to go back in time and observe the life of the Indians before the appearance of the Europeans, before the influence of Christianity, I don’t think we would find them to be noble savages. In regard to the Aztecs, we would find a warlike people, who sacrificed their fellow savages to their gods. This doesn’t sound very noble to me.

Charles Dickens said of this idea: My position is, that if we have anything to learn from the Noble Savage, it is what to avoid. His virtues are a fable; his happiness is a delusion; his nobility, nonsense. We have no justification for being cruel to him; but he passes away before an immeasurably better and higher power [i.e., that of Christianity] than ever ran wild in any earthly woods, and the world will be all the better when this place knows him no more.


Next week Lord willing we will talk more about the two systems of salvation, or the two ways of relating to God. Talk about the Law System.

It is surprising that Paul begins his gospel presentation after his summary statements in Romans 1:16-17 with vs. 18. Starts very negatively. Talk more about this next week.

Tonight, since this group contains the Bible scholars, I want to think about possible exceptions to the two ways of salvation, Law or grace. The one that is brought up are the heathen. They are an exception, but are they really? When I say the heathen I am talking about those who know God through general revelation only, who have not been exposed to specially given revelation of any kind, whether it be law or gospel. This group of people have no access to Scriptures, no knowledge of Jesus Christ. They live in remote areas and have no contact with Christianity or with any Christians. When I say the heathen this is what I mean.

Read Romans 1:18-32

Thesis: What is God going to do with the heathen?

For instances:

Some theories on what happens to the heathen.

1. All of the heathen will be saved.

Many who adopted this theory also say that ultimately everyone will be saved.

As one writer put it, “Grace is in everyone and in everything.”

Along with this is a deemphasis upon missions. After all, if everyone is going to be saved, why suffer among the heathen if they also are going to be saved without the message of Christ. “Missionaries do not take Christ into the world, because Christ is already in the hearts of all people and in all the realities of the world. The missionaries task is to discern and recognize where Christ is already at work.”

2. Some heathen are under grace because God gives enough knowledge of grace through general revelation to lead the heathen to make a saving response to it.

Talk about general revelation vs. special revelation.

The Bible, special revelation, is the only way that anyone can know about the God of grace. From creation we see only his power, creativity, and bigness, Romans 1- His eternal power and divine nature. If we look at nature, we see some goodness but most of the time we see cruelty and brutality. The law of the jungle.

It is true that the heathen “know God” in a general sense, but simply knowing about God does not mean they have found the God of the Bible. Cannot apart from special revelation.

3. The good heathen will be saved, the wicked heathen will be condemned.

Over the next several weeks we are going to be talking about the two ways of salvation: law or grace. There are no other ways.

This idea that if we are good enough, then we will go to heaven, is not biblical.

This theory says that if the heathen have some obedience, some goodness in them, then God will surely save that person even if they have never heard of the Bible or Jesus.

This could be called the “Darth Vader” approach to salvation. In the 3 original “Star Wars” episodes, Vader was a wicked arch villain up to the very end, until one act of generosity and self sacrifice made up for his lifetime of villainy and qualified him for Jedi heaven.

4. The heathen will be saved because of their ignorance of Jesus Christ and grace. (Most popular)

Surely God will not condemn someone for not believing in Christ if never heard of Christ.

This idea is that ignorance is bliss. When someone has knowledge of Jesus Christ and the gospel, then they are accountable. When they don’t have the knowledge of Jesus Christ and the gospel, then they are not accountable and excused because of their ignorance.

Along with this is also a deemphasis upon missions. We don’t need to disturb the noble savages, they are fine as they are and God will pardon them because of their ignorance.

If we take the gospel to the heathen and they reject it, they lose this ignorant salvation status. Unfortunately a lot more heathen who hear the gospel reject it than accept it. Thus in the end a lot more people will be in hell because of missionary work than there would have been without it. I guess Jesus just did not understand this when he gave the Great Commission.

We should be upset that someone brought us the gospel because now we are accountable.

Under this theory, they use Acts 17:29-30 New American Standard- Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent.

We are not concerning ourselves with the heathen of yesterday under the OT, we are concerned with what happens to the heathen of today under the NT age. Times of ignorance

In the OT God was concerned with making a people for himself- the nation of Israel. This time of God making a people is over because through those people came the Messiah.

Now God is concerned about the Gentiles and the times of ignorance are over. In the times before the gospel God made few attempts to carry out an evangelistic campaign.

In this age of grace, through the preaching of the gospel, God is calling on all men to repent.

The implication here is that if the heathen do not know about Jesus Christ and his salvation, then they are on the road to hell. Therefore, the church should be taking the message to them.

If God excused them under the OT, will he not excuse them today? That is not what the verse is saying. In Ephesians 4:18 Paul declares that the Gentiles’ ignorance is the result of “the hardening of their heart.” God’s overlooking or passing by the times of the Gentiles’ ignorance is the same as God’s “giving them over” (used 3 times in Romans 1) to their impurity, degrading passions and depraved minds.

The implication is that in the “times of ignorance” men were condemned rather than excused, and God was not going to do anything about it at that time. But now through the missionary activity of the church God is giving to all the opportunity to be saved. Days of grace.

Some Scriptures that talk about the condition of the heathen.

1. Acts 26:17-18- This could be called Christ’s Great Commission to Paul.

The heathen have closed eyes (spiritual blindness)

Are in darkness (symbol of falsehood and sin)

Under the power of Satan

Do not have forgiveness of sin (that they may receive forgiveness of sins)

Have no place among those who are sanctified by faith. two things here:

No inheritance, no place

Not a part of the set apart, sanctified ones. Not a part of the church.

The only thing that can set them apart is to have faith in Jesus.

2. Ephesians 2:12-13

Separate from Christ

Excluded from citizenship (Our citizenship is in heaven- Philippians 3:20)

foreigners to the covenants of the promise

without hope

without God

3. Romans 1:20- without excuse

No one, not even the most remote Gentile, will be able to plead ignorance on judgment day.

Their godless and wicked behavior (vs. 18) is inexcusable in view of what they know about God (vs. 19-20), and God is justified in pouring out his wrath on them.

This has to do with their status under law. They do know God’s law; they have broken God’s law; they are under the penalty of that law. As long as they are under the law system, they have no hope.

4. Romans 10:9, 14-17

Jesus is Lord- cannot say that unless they know of Jesus.

Vs. 14-17- This is the only way anyone can believe on Jesus in order to be saved.

The heathen will be saved by grace if someone takes them the gospel of grace and they accept it. We have no biblical reason to think they will be saved by grace in any other way.

The implication of all of these verses for missions is obvious. As long as the heathen remain heathen, they will be judged and condemned by Law. Whether they are judged and saved by grace depends upon our obedience to the Great Commission and their acceptance of the gospel

The heathen are not condemned for not believing in Jesus. They are condemned rather for breaking God’s Law. They are not judged by things of which they are ignorant, they are judged only in relation to that of which they have knowledge.