Romans 1:18-20

Romans 1:18-20

SERIES: The Book of Romans

 Are the Unreached Really Lost?

Introduction:  Suppose for a moment that you are the personnel director of the St. Louis Post Dispatch.  You need to hire some more reporters, so you go over to Washington University and begin to interview students who are scheduled to graduate in May from the School of Journalism.  One young man seems to be a particularly bright prospect.  He has an excellent academic record and handles himself very well during the interview.  You’re about to offer him a job when he says, “There is one thing I think I should tell you.  I can only report good news.  I will do an excellent job reporting acts of heroism, upswings in the economy, good weather, parades, and treaty ratifications.  But whenever I’m around tragedy or death or political corruption, I get terribly depressed.  I just don’t want to report bad news.”  

Chances are it would not take long for you to decide that the paper could do without such a reporter.  Of course, the rest of us might suggest that there are plenty of reporters who don’t seem to be able to report anything but bad news, so one on the other side might be a good balance.  But, on second thought, we would undoubtedly agree with your decision not to hire him.

Well, there are a lot of preachers today who preach only good news—messages on the love of God, Heaven, serving one another, peace, encouragement, and fulfillment.  Now it’s fun to preach good news.  Last week it was my privilege to preach some very good news, as we examined the subject of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  But as a minister of the Word, it is also my responsibility to preach the Bad News, and there is plenty of bad news beginning in Romans 1:18 and continuing through most of the third chapter.  In fact, we’re in for about five straight weeks of bad news about sin, and three of those weeks are coming during Advent!  I sort of feel bad about that, but not entirely.  The fact is, over the last ten years I’ve already preached every Christmas sermon I could possibly think of, so I decided this year that instead of doing an Advent series, we would have a Christmas message only on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.  Besides, I wonder if the enormity of God’s gift of His Son won’t actually stand out all the greater as we give attention first to the enormity of human sin.

While I’m going to be preaching bad news, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be boring or unprofitable or even depressing.  In fact, I think we ought to be as interested in the topic of sin as we are in a doctor’s diagnosis of a disease from which we may be suffering.  Few of us would say to a doctor, “Doc, treat me.  I don’t care what’s causing my symptoms—whether it’s chicken pox or cancer.  Just treat me.”  Well, neither should we say, “Let’s jump to the end of Romans 3 and see what God’s Remedy is for man’s problem.  It doesn’t matter what caused it—let’s just find the solution.”

There’s another reason why I think it’s very important that we spend time on the Bad News of Rom. 1-3.  And that is nearly all of us think of sin as being someone else’s problem rather than our own.  Oh, we will acknowledge theoretically that we are sinners, but in our hearts we are secretly saying that the guys God’s wrath really hangs over are the heathen, the Mafia, Communists, pornographers, the promiscuous, cultists, feminazis (just kidding!), etc., and since we don’t happen to belong to any of those groups, we don’t have too much to worry about.

Well, as a matter of fact, God’s wrath does hang over such people.  Paul begins here in 1:18 by showing that pagans are lost, whether civilized or not.  But beginning in chapter 2 he’s going to tell us that the good person is also lost if he hasn’t trusted Christ—even if he’s a white, Anglo-Saxon, middle-class, Republican member of the Christian Coalition!  And beginning in 2:17 he will tell us that the Jew—the devout, orthodox, law-abiding Jew who eats only Kosher food—is lost, too.  And then in the section beginning in 3:9 he will summarize in as forceful a way as language makes possible that “there is none righteous, not even one.”  The whole world is sinful and every man and woman on earth has fallen short of God’s glory and stands condemned because of willful sin.  Once we get those gruesome facts firmly planted in our minds, then and only then are we capable of understanding and fully appreciating the remedy God has provided for our sin problem.

Now with that general introduction to this portion of Romans, I want to turn your attention to just three verses in Romans 1 and to the question these verses deal with, namely, “Are the unreached (pagans, heathen) really lost?”  Our text for today is just verses 18-20, but I want to read several more verses for the context, verses 18-23.

“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, {19} since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. {20} 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.

{21} For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. {22} Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools {23} and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.”

It is interesting to me how frequently the question of the eternal destiny of those unreached by the Gospel comes up when I am witnessing to unbelievers.  “What about those who have never heard about Christ?”, I am asked.  But in addition, many believers also seem to have doubts about whether those born in the jungles of Brazil or the deserts of North Africa or the slums of Calcutta, and never exposed to the name of Jesus Christ, are actually lost and on their way to hell.

Nor is it difficult to see why such questions arise.  If no one can come to the Father except through Jesus Christ (as Jesus Himself claims in John 14:6) and yet some have no opportunity to even hearthe name of Jesus, how can God hold them responsible?  The problem is further complicated by a number of assumptions commonly made about the unreached, which are all, in my estimation, demonstrably false:

1.  They are noble savages, unsullied by the corruption of modern civilization, and the best thing we can do for them is to leave them in their pristine innocence.  This is essentially the reasoning of many anthropologists today, and it is being used to evict Wycliffe Bible Translators from their work among many of the primitive people groups of Central and South America, Indonesia, and Irian Jaya.

2.  They are worshiping God the best way they know how.

3.  They are genuine seekers after truth.

4.  They are not culpable for their moral practices because they are unaware of God’s commandments.

In other words, the unreached are often placed in the same spiritual category as those who have never reached the age of accountability, like infants or the severely mentally challenged.  The argument, then, is that since we don’t consign those who die in infancy to hell, neither should we consign those who have never heard the Gospel to hell.  Of course, we don’t have the right to consign anyone to hell (or to heaven, for that matter); the only legitimate question is, “What does God say?”  

Well, what God says in the passage before us this morning is that every one of these assumptions about the unreached pagan is categorically false.  They are not noble savages living in pristine innocence; they are not worshiping God to the best of their ability.  Instead of being genuine seekers after truth, verse 18 alleges that they actively suppress the truth.  And they are culpable for their moral practices because they are aware of God’s commandments.

The passage before us this morning indicates that God’s wrath toward the heathen is absolutely justified.  First, we will see that the wrath of God is divulged as a reality against all human sin.  Secondly, the wrath of God is deserved because the unreached know better than to violate God’s commandments.  Then, Lord willing, next Sunday we will see that the wrath of God is demanded in view of what the pagans do with their knowledge of God.  And finally, the wrath of God is demonstrated by the moral degeneration the pagans experience. 

The wrath of God is divulged as a reality against all human sin. 

Romans 1:18 reads, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men.”  The words that immediately jump out at us here are the words, “the wrath of God.”  Before we can go any further, we must stop and consider …

The fact of God’s wrath.  The modern church has generally studiously avoided the topic of the wrath of God.  We much prefer to speak of His love, His mercy, His grace, His forgiveness, and His longsuffering nature.  But the fact is that a study of the concordance will show that there are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury and wrath of God, than there are to His love and tenderness.  And that’s not true just in the Old Testament but also in the New.  The Bible presses home the point that just as God is good to those who trust Him, so He is terrible to those who do not.  Let me give you just a sampling.  In the Old Testament book of Nahum, I find these words:

         “The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;    

                  the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath.

         The Lord takes vengeance on his foes

                  and maintains his wrath against his enemies.

         The Lord is slow to anger and great in power;

                  The Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished.

         His way is in the whirlwind and the storm,

                  and clouds are the dust of His feet ….

         Who can withstand his indignation?

                           Who can endure his fierce anger?

         His wrath is poured out like fire;

                  the rocks are shattered before him.”  

The New Testament speaks similarly, as found beginning in Rom. 2:5: 

“But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.  God will give to each person according to what he has done.  To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.  But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.  There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil.”

Then in 2 Thes. 1:8 we read that the Lord Jesus, when He comes again, “will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.  They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.”

And there are scores of similar passages.  Furthermore, the Bible makes known the fact of God’s wrath not only through explicit promises of wrath to come, but also by means of accounts of various judgments which God has already brought upon the earth, from the confusion of the languages at Babel to the Great Flood of Noah, to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, to the captivity of Israel and Judah, to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. 

Anyone who questions the fact of God’s wrath toward sin must simply discard the Scriptures as an accurate witness to the truth and, in addition, close his eyes to the facts of history.  But perhaps the reason many have challenged the fact of God’s wrath is that they don’t understand the meaning of it.

The meaning of God’s wrath.  God’s wrath and man’s wrath are two entirely different things.  Human anger is almost always capricious, self-indulgent, irritable, and morally inexcusable.  On occasion, however, we experience a more noble kind of wrath, which we call righteous indignation.  This is anger at the terrible injustice some people have to endure.  Barb Schnitzler shared with me this week her anger at the toll alcohol has taken on the family in which she grew up, culminating in the death of her 17-year-old nephew three weeks ago at the hand of a drunk driver. 

This concept of righteous indignation in humans gives us at least a hint about the meaning of “wrath” when speaking of God.  His wrath is His resolute action in punishing sin, and it is always a right and proper reaction to objective evil.  God is only angry when it would be wrong not to be angry.  Furthermore, His wrath always fits the crime; He will render to every person according to his deeds.

In Luke 12 Jesus expands upon this concept of appropriate wrath by means of a parable:  

“That slave who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows.  But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows.  From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”   

I gather from this that the pagan who has never seen a Bible, or heard the name of Jesus, will experience God’s wrath, but not to the same extent as one who has several Bibles in his home, could hear the Gospel every day of the year on TV or radio, and who has heard it preached often in church, but has still refused to surrender his life to Christ. 

The revelation of God’s wrath.  Our verse says that “the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven.”  The present tense here implies a constant disclosure, one going on all the time.  And the fact that it is revealed from heaven implies that it is a universal disclosure—that is, everyone observes it.  We’ll see in a few moments how that revelation gets to the unreached.

Having informed us that the wrath of God is divulged as a reality against all human sin, the Apostle secondly indicates that …

The wrath of God is deserved by the fact that the unreached know better than to violate God’s commandments.  

The entire Biblical view of the unreached pagan is predicated upon the fact that they are not ignorant but knowledgeable about the one true God.  The knowledge they have comes, not from the Scriptures, but from their conscience and from nature.  And that knowledge is sufficiently extensive as to render them without excuse.  

They have innate knowledge of God.  A famous 17th century philosopher, John Locke, set forth the interesting concept that humans are at birth a “tabula rasa,” a blank tablet or “white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas.”  All human ideas and beliefs, then, come from experience, culture, and environment.  A deduction from this view would be that a pagan who grew up in a society without Christian concepts or ideals would never be able to come to a knowledge of God on his own. 

But the Bible challenges the theory of the tabula rasa, the blank tablet.  It says that when a person is born his tablet is already written upon—or, if you please, his computer is already programmed with a belief in the true God, for “what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.”  Now this surely doesn’t mean that the totality of Biblical revelation concerning God is innately known, but enough is known to distinguish the one true God from all false gods.  

But not only is God’s existence innately known, but so is His basic moral law.  On the next page, in Rom. 2:15, we read that “the requirements of the law are written on their hearts.”  My view is that this passage is speaking of the Ten Commandments, telling us that everyone knows innately that it is wrong to worship idols, to lie, to steal, to commit adultery, etc.  

But, you ask, aren’t there cultures whose moral standards are quite contrary to the Ten Commandments?  Some of you have read the book Peace Child by Don Richardson, which tells about a tribe in Irian Jaya for whom treachery is a virtue and an art form.  Yes, but the Bible claims that such people have been tampered with.  Satan has seared their consciences.  In their heart of hearts they know (or at least they once knew) that such behavior is a violation of God’s basic law.  

Don Richardson has written another book, entitled Eternity in their Hearts, in which he demonstrates that even the most primitive societies on earth have a fairly well-developed concept of God.  As Plutarch wrote, “you may find cities without walls, or literature, or kings, or houses, or wealth, or money, without gymnasia or theaters.  But no one ever saw a city without temples and gods.”[i]  How else can this be explained other than by postulating an innate knowledge of God? But not only are the unreached born with innate knowledge of God;…

They also have empirical knowledge of God, i.e., knowledge from experience.  They see constant evidence of God’s existence in nature.  The last phrase of verse 17 adds, “God has made it plain to them.”  And what is the proof of that?  “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.”  Psalm 19 puts it another way:  

         “The heavens declare the glory of God; 

                  the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

         Day after day they pour forth speech; 

                  night after night they display knowledge. 

         There is no speech or language 

                  where their voice is not heard.

         Their voice goes out into all the earth, 

                  their words to the ends of the world.” 

In other words, the Apostle and the Psalmist agree that God’s fingerprints are all over this universe.  Then why can’t Carl Sagan see them?  Or Stephen Gould, the well-known anthropologist at Harvard, or Bertrand Russell, the late atheistic philosopher?  Well, because blind people can’t see fingerprints.  And God has delivered a sentence of spiritual blindness upon those who, according to verse 21, “although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.”  

I like the way the poet Elizabeth Barret Browning wrote of God’s fingerprints and the phenomenon that many still do not acknowledge Him:

         “Earth’s crammed with heaven,

                  and every common bush aflame with God.

         But only those who see take off their shoes;

                  the rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.“[ii]

In 2 Cor. 4 Paul attributes this blindness to “the god of this age,” namely Satan, who “has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.”  It’s as though God gave them enough sight to see His fingerprints, but when they rebelliously refused to use their sight for His glory, He allowed Satan to blind them so they couldn’t see now even if they wanted to, which they don’t. 

So far we have seen that men have innate knowledge of God through their consciences and empirical knowledge of God through their experience and their five senses.  How long has such knowledge of God been available?

This knowledge has been available since creation.  This is clearly stated in verse 20, the point being that everyone who has ever lived has received this knowledge of God.  Even the literally blind, deaf and dumb have received it, according to Ps. 19:6, for they can feel the heat of the sun and even that is a revelation of God’s glory and creative power.  

But of what, specifically, does this innate knowledge consist?  

This knowledge includes the eternal power and divine nature of God.  (20) At the very least this tells us that to every human being is available the knowledge that there is an all-powerful Supreme Being whom he should seek with his whole heart.  The fact is, however, that the vast majority of the unreached, whether civilized or uncivilized, do not do so. 

Therefore, says Paul, the unreached are without excuse.  That’s exactly what the last phrase of verse 20 says.  You can rationalize their predicament all you want.  You can dream up hypothetical cases that impugn the justice and fairness of God.  You can appeal to the authority of dozens of so-called Christian theologians who offer contrary opinions, but God’s simple, straightforward answer is that they are without excuse, and therefore, they stand under sentence of eternal judgment.  

Now the reason for this terrible state of affairs is not that truth is so difficult to discover but that mankind has suppressed truth that is uncomfortably clear.  That’s what verse 18 claims.  The problem is not an unfortunate lack of information, but a deliberate rejection of the information given.  This God will not tolerate.

Several centuries ago Copernicus, the Polish astronomer, came to the conclusion that the earth was not the static center around which the universe revolved but, rather was a moving planet which itself revolved around the sun.  He was, however, strangely reluctant to publish his findings, no doubt because he knew what a battle he would have trying to convince his contemporaries that humans and their world are not the center of all existence.  Frankly, we have a similar battle today in the spiritual realm.  When we insist that the core of truth is in “God” rather than in “us,” we face all kinds of opposition.  This is truth that modern humanists will do almost anything to suppress.[iii]  

Now so far we have shown that the unreached deserve God’s wrath.  And next week we’re going to see how their response to the knowledge of God actually demands God’s wrath.  However, I don’t think we should close today without commenting very briefly upon a question many people have in response to this passage.  It goes like this: if the knowledge which the unreached have of God through conscience and nature is sufficient to condemn them, then is it also sufficient to save them? In other words, if a Bedouin in the Sahara responds to the revelation he receives in nature or conscience and starts worshiping the one true God, is he therefore saved and destined for heaven? 

I would answer in the words of Jesus Himself, who said in John 14;6, “No man comes to the Father except through me.”  And Peter added in Acts 4:12, “Salvation is found in no one else but Jesus, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”  So, if all an unreached pagan knows of God is what he sees in nature and conscience, he is not automatically saved from the wrath of God.

However, I also believe that if an unreached person responds positively to the truth that he does have, God will give him sufficient further knowledge of Christ so that he can be saved.  In fact, we have at least two startling examples of God doing just that in the book of Acts.  One case is the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, an unreached person who responded to his knowledge of God by seeking further knowledge.  On a trip to Jerusalem he picked up a scroll from the OT and was reading the book of Isaiah.  God knew his heart was ripe and that he was seeking the truth, so God miraculously sent Philip, an early church Deacon, who preached Jesus to him.  The Ethiopian was saved and then baptized.

Another example occurs two chapters later in Acts 10 and concerns a noncommissioned officer in the Italian army, named Cornelius.  He wasn’t a typical pagan, but neither was he a Christian.  At some point in his life he seems to have responded positively to the God of nature, for the Scripture says, “He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.”  But he wasn’t saved.  He hadn’t been introduced to the risen Christ.  Once again God miraculously sent a messenger—this time Peter—to preach to him about Jesus, and Cornelius was saved, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and was baptized.  

Now my contention is this:  if God can miraculously bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to an Ethiopian eunuch and an Italian army officer, then he can also see to it that an aborigine in Australia, a Hottentot in Africa, or a Hindu in India hears the Gospel if that person responds positively to what knowledge he does have about God from nature and conscience.

Allow me to share a response Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse gave to the question, “Are the unreached really lost?”  He wrote,

         “If, if, if, if, if, if, if, if, if, if—ten if’s—if when we get to Heaven we should find there some of the Indians who lived in America before Columbus and who had never heard the gospel, if we should find there some of the Chinese for whom you have suddenly conceived such a strange concern, I shall only marvel at the grace of God, and shall say, ‘How wonderful is that grace! and how wonderful is the divine wisdom, that could combine to find a plan where such sinners could reach this holy place without desecrating it.  There is only one greater wonder, and that is that I find myself here in Heaven, for I know that if God had dealt with me on the basis of justice alone, I could never have been in these holy precincts.’  There is a chorus that is sometimes sung to the tune of ‘Blessed Assurance,’ which says,

                  Wonderful Savior!  Wonderful Friend!

                           Wonderful life that never shall end!

                  Wonderful place He has gone to prepare!

                           Wonder of wonders!  I shall be there!

And that is indeed the greatest wonder of all to those who truly know the Lord Jesus Christ, for therein lies all the mystery of divine, sovereign grace toward lost sinners….  

But I am forced to continue my answer and say, “If, on the other   hand—if, if, if, if, if, if, if, if, if, if—ten ifs’—if when we get to heaven we should find that the Indians before Columbus and the Chinese which you profess to be so concerned about are not there, I shall be forced to say, ‘Is God unrighteous for exercising His wrath toward sinners?  God forbid.’”[iv]

Our time is gone, but there’s one final point I must make.  All the heathen are not in Africa or South America or Irian Jaya.  Lots of them live in the U.S. ,and many are right here in St. Louis.  One might call them civilized pagans, but they are pagans nevertheless.  And the question is valid in regard to them, too—are the heathen really lost?  And the Bible’s answer is decidedly “yes.”  They are without excuse because not only have they received the revelation of God in nature and conscience, but many have also heard the Good News that Jesus died for them.  Yet they have failed to surrender their lives to His Lordship.  

If you’re in that category today, you are playing with fire, literally.  John 3:36 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.”  But you can avoid the wrath of God by believing in His Son today.  At the moment you do, you will have eternal life. 

DATE: December 4, 1994


The unreached


Innate knowledge

[i]  Stuart Briscoe, The Preacher’s Commentary, Romans, 41. 

[ii] Ray Stedman, Expository Studies in Romans 1-8, From Guilt to Glory, Vol. 1, 22

[iii] Briscoe, 40.  

[iv] Donald Grey Barnhouse, Romans, Vol. 1, Part 2, God’s Wrath, 68-69.