This week I have been re-reading the book of Romans during my devotional time. This entire letter is a wellspring of life-transforming theological truth. This time through I noticed something that I hadn’t before. Paul directly addresses the question, what about those who have never heard the Gospel? Romans 10 begins,
Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Rom. 10:1–4).
Paul tells us his desire is that these people be saved. But who are these people? Well, he says these are people with a zeal for God. They are devoted. They have passion. But Paul says this zeal isn’t enough, because it is not according to knowledge. In other words, they are sincere, but they are sincerely wrong. Their zeal for God needs to be based on truth.
Paul calls these people ignorant. However, this isn’t merely childish name-calling. Paul is saying these people lack some important information about salvation. Specifically, they do not know the righteousness of God that comes through Jesus Christ.
These people have never heard of Jesus’ redeeming work. They don’t know that they must put their faith in Jesus to be saved. So what is Paul’s solution? He doesn’t argue that these people are really “anonymous Christians”—saved by Christ without even knowing it. He doesn’t argue that God counts their ignorant zeal for God as meritorious for salvation. No, Paul’s answer is to replace their soul-condemning ignorance with the life-saving information. He explains how to be saved:
[I]f you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9–13)
According to Paul, salvation comes by believing in Jesus Christ. In light of what Paul has just said, he asks a heartfelt question to the Christians in Rome: what about those who have never heard this good news?
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Rom. 10:14–15)
How can people call on Jesus if they have not believed? The answer is, they can’t. How are people going to believe in Jesus if they have never heard to him? The answer is, they can’t. How are they going to hear the good news if no one tells it to them? The answer is, they won’t.
Paul’s line of thinking is clear and straightforward. If no one is sent to these people, then there will be no one to preach the good news. If no one preaches to these people, then they will not hear the good news. If these people do not hear the good news, then they cannot believe. And if they do not believe, then they cannot be saved.
In sum, Paul tells us that the people who have never heard the Gospel need to hear the Gospel in order to be saved. There is no other means of salvation. By the way, this is consistent with Peter’s testimony. He says, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
As an apologist, it is fascinating to me how Paul responds. He doesn’t launch into a discussion of God’s fairness or justice at this point. He doesn’t talk about middle knowledge. He doesn’t try to defend God’s actions or character. Rather, in the context of talking about people who have not heard the Gospel, Paul’s solution is to get them the Gospel.