Message in a Bottle

Every so often “the man on the island” gently stirs the waters about the necessity of evangelism in light of God’s sovereignty.  He sends out a message in a bottle that reads, “What must I do to be saved?”  Hopefully someone sends a message back to him saying, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved!”

The church has long debated his question.  The bottle can easily wander adrift in a philosophical eddy south of the Equator.  Perhaps an e-mail would better suffice, assuming this tropical loner has a wireless connection.  It is a vitally important question because it gets at the heart of how God makes a Christian, whether he be stuck in the South Pacific or next door in Memphis.

We must first wrench ourselves from ephemeral theology.  There is no such parentless man in a vacuum, the Truman Show nothwithstanding.  And the question is just as well asked about my next door neighbor.  One need not need be born on a remote island to live in a world void of Jesus’ name.  Therefore, we benefit more by asking, “Does my neighbor have to hear about Jesus to be saved?”  Or, “Do I need to share Jesus with my daughter for her to be saved?” Or, “Do we need to invest millions of dollars in the remotest regions of Africa to spread the gospel?”  Basically, does anyone need to hear about Jesus to be saved by God, from God, to God?  The answer biblically, historically and practically is a resounding “Yes!”  The gospel must be preached, understood, believed and confessed for a lifetime if anyone is to be saved.

The answer for the man on the island is the same for the man living between three churches in Mississippi.  Why?

1. The Bible teaches no man is born morally neutral before God.  The man on the island, my neighbor, the tribal chief, the Eskimo and my daughter all stand convicted in Adam’s sin and, therefore, condemned criminals in God’s court (Rom 1.18-32; 5.12-ff.; Eph 2.1-3; Col 2.13).  We may all be born cute but no one is born eternally innocent.

2. The only remedy for redemption from Adam’s sin is faith the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 2.38ff.; 4.12; 1 Tim 2.5-6). My neighbor, the tribal chief, my daughter and the man on the island must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ in order to be rescued from God’s wrath.  The Bible simply does not offer any other alternative.  If they do not believe in Jesus they will remain under God’s wrath into which they were born (Jn 3.18).

3. God’s sovereign means by which he sovereignly saves those he’s sovereignly chosen is the preaching of the gospel through the church.  Why else would Jesus send out witnesses (Mt 28.18-20; Jn 17.18; 20.21; Acts 1.8)?  Why else would the Holy Spirit inspire gospel writings (Jn 20.31)?  Why equip the church with apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastors (Eph 4.11-12)?  If the apostolic witness is really irrelevant in light of God’s sovereignty then Jesus created an unnecessary community.  Why have a Bible at all if we do not need to hear God’s redemptive plan?

Worse yet, Jesus may have died an unnecessary death!  If God ordained no means to save sinners then why send Jesus in the first place?  Why not just choose them and then save them?

We start pulling one soteriological thread and redemption’s tightly-woven sweater unravels, leaving us naked hyper-Calvinists (and that is not a pretty sight by anyone’s standard).

Jesus’ compared himself to a shepherd calling his sheep by name (Jn 10.3).  This makes little sense if the sheep to not need to hear the shepherd’s voice.  How would God’s sheep hear their Shepherd’s voice and respond (Jn 10.27)?  Well, Jesus seemed to think that those sheep in other folds (Jn 10.16) would be called/gathered through the apostolic witness (Jn 17.20)!  That’s what he prayed for!

Further, Paul clearly taught the necessity of gospel proclamation in Romans 10.13-21.  Those who call on the Lord will be saved.  Yet, the faith to call on the Lord comes by hearing the word of the Lord.  The hearing of the word that leads to faith in the Lord would come through the proclamation of that word by those sent by God to proclaim it.  This doesn’t mean one must hear the word in a certain way or at a certain time, but it must be heard (or read, or somehow presented).

You see, Christian faith has content.  One cannot believe in “believing” to be saved or be saved by simply feeling saved.  One cannot even believe in someone called “God.”  One must believe the one, true God as revealed in Jesus, and trust His objective work on the cross.  Creation instructs us enough to condemn us (Rom 1.18ff.; 10.18ff.) but only the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ instructs us sufficiently unto salvation (2 Tim 4.14-15).  Whatever we can sense about God through long walks on the beach, we do not intuit what the gospel teaches them.  God must supply it through special revelatory means, namely proclamation.

Scripture teaches that God supplies our daily needs (not to say that there are no Christians enduring famine).  Yet, we do not sit at our breakfast table each morning with our mouths open trusting God to sovereignly rain Cheerios from heaven into our mouths.  By the way, he did that already and that people did not please him (1 Cor 10.1-6)!  God ordains means in order to sovereignly provide for us.  So, he provides jobs and skills that we employ by his strength.  In so doing, we serve as his providential means to provide for others’ needs and earn enough provide for our families.  In the meantime, he has sovereignly ordained a farmer who planted some grain seed on which God sent rain.  What a brilliant God!

4. If ignorance of Jesus provides as much confidence toward salvation as knowledge of him then the church is greatly misappropriating her efforts and resources.  In fact, the church would serve the gospel better by silence.  In a couple of generations no one will have heard about Jesus and the church could spend more money on gyms and water slides, while the masses go to heaven out of ignorance.

Yet, God has created a worldwide community called the church who is on a global mission.  Is this just busy work that God gives us to do before death?  Of course not!  It is his sovereignly ordained means to effectively call those he’s sovereignly chosen unto salvation.  So, the man on the island and the tribal chief need to hear the gospel for the same reason my neighbor and daughter do.  If they don’t hear about Jesus they will not believe. If they do not believe in Jesus they will not be saved.

Now, does anyone have a cork I could borrow?  We need to get a tract in the Gulf while the east winds are still blowing.

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