The passing of Billy Graham reminds us of the urgent task of evangelism. In his lifetime he tirelessly circled the globe preaching the gospel to more than 200 million people. What about the millions more who never heard the gospel? What will happen to them?
The fate of the unevangelised has been an issue for both theologians and practitioners alike. So many have not heard the gospel since it was first propagated, not to mention those born before the time Christ commissioned his disciples to preach the gospel to the whole world.
The apostle Paul devoted his life to spreading the gospel, extending its reach from Jerusalem the Jewish capital to Rome the centre of the Roman Empire, all within his lifetime. Yet if we put the question of those who had not the opportunity to hear the gospel, he would probably answer that he had been so busy preaching the gospel he had not time to think about it! The closest Paul came to dealing with this issue is found in a principle he enunciated in Romans 2:12: “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.”
The principle underlies God’s fairness and justice. He would not judge us according to something we do not know or have. The Jews would be judged according to the Law of Moses, the Gentiles apart from the Law. Paul’s argument from the principle is to show that, whether with the Law or without it, both Jews and Gentiles are equally culpable and guilty: “We have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks are under sin… There is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God….” (Romans 3:9, 22-23). It becomes clear that Paul did not set out to answer our question. The sinfulness of humankind so consumed him that he gave himself entirely to the urgent task of evangelising the lost.
Our question cannot be answered without reference to the sovereignty of God. While we are called to evangelise, that is, proclaim the good news of salvation, we have no power to convert anyone, that is, bring about faith in anyone to believe in Jesus. The whole process, beginning with the initial response and culminating in the final commitment, belongs to God, as Romans 8:29-30 makes it clear: “For those God foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son… And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”
God initiates the process, executes the process, and completes the process. He foreknows (he knows beforehand), he predestinates (he pre-determines the destiny), he conforms us to the likeness of his Son (he renews our image), he justifies (he pronounces us not guilty), he glorifies (he ensures we take our place with him in glory).
As it has been rightly said, “Christians have been accused of converting others to the Christian faith. However, we know that we have no power or means to convert anyone. What we have is the responsibility to share the love of God. The work of salvation can only happen when God touches a person’s heart and brings about life transformation through the saving power of the Gospel. Conversion is in the hands of God, but sharing of our faith is our responsibility.”ⁱ
Knowing on one hand the justice of God and on the other the sovereignty of God, we have two choices. One is to try to arrive at a satisfactory answer to the fate of those who never heard the gospel. The other is to obey the call to share the gospel with the lost, leaving the question with other questions we will ask the Lord when we see him face to face. It looks like Billy Graham, like the apostle Paul, chose the latter.
Rev Dr David Wong spent two years studying the first two chapters of Romans under eminent scholar F F Bruce at University of Manchester. Forty years later he is still studying Romans exclaiming with Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33)
ⁱ Newsletter of Singapore Campus Crusade for Christ, May 2012, “In the Line of Fire: The Recent Publicity Flyer Incident” by Lam Kok Hiang, Country Leader.