Message in a Bottle

Around our church “the man on the island” has gently stirred the oceanic waters regarding the necessity of evangelism in light of God’s sovereignty. Every so often he sends out a message in a bottle that reads, “What must I do to be saved?” It has apparently reached our shores in central Texas.

Ad nauseam has the church debated the man’s question. Hopefully someone has sent a message back to Sting saying, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved!” It seems that bottle remains adrift in a philosophical eddy south of the Equator. Perhaps an e-mail would better suffice, assuming this tropical loner has a wireless connection. At any rate, I offer the following comments as help at least for our folks and perhaps others. A blog is terribly insufficient for this, but it’s never stopped me before!

First things first. There is no such parentless man, and the question is just as well asked about my next door neighbor. One doesn’t need to be on a remote island to live in a 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?” And, the answer biblically, historically and practically is a resounding “Yes!” The gospel must be understood for one to be saved.

1. The Bible teaches that no man is born morally neutral before God. The man on the island, my neighbor, the tribe’s chief 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).

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; etc., etc., etc.). That is: 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 elected is the preaching of the gospel. Why else would Jesus send out witnesses (Mt 28.18-20; Jn 17.18; 20.21; Acts 1.8)? Why would the Holy Spirit inspire gospel writings (Jn 20.31)? If the apostolic witness is really irrelevant in light of God’s sovereignty, then Jesus created an unnecessary community. Why equip the church with apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastors (Eph 4.11-12)? In fact, he may have died an unnecessary death! If God ordains no means to save his elect then why send Jesus in the first place? In fact, why have the Bible at all if we do not need to hear of God’s redemptive plan? You pull 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. 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 necesarily has content. One cannot believe in “believing” to be 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). We do not intuit what the gospel teaches. God must supply it through special revelatory means.

I love John Owen’s analogy. Scripture teaches that God supplies our daily sustenance (this is obviously 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 sovereingly rain Grape-Nuts from heaven into our mouths. He 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 grew the grain for your Grape-Nuts. 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.

Yet, God has given his people the mandate to spend themselves on worldwide 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 they will not believe. If they do not believe they will not be saved.

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

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