Today’s Reading: Romans 1-3
Today’s Reflection: Romans 2:12-16
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. 13) For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14) For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15) They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16) on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
Early in 2011, pastor , author and speaker Rob Bell released Love Wins, a book that attempted to give a biblical and accurate picture of “Heaven, Hell and the fate of every human being that has ever lived”. In the book Bell makes a number of arguments including the idea that God had provided salvation even to those who haven’t explicitly accepted Jesus Christ as their savior and lord. As you can imagine, this was an extremely controversial stance, one that got Bell labeled as a heretic and a universalist (someone who believes everyone will be saved). As someone who did something many of Bell’s critics did not—I actually read the book—I can say without reservation that Bell does not preach universalism. But he does espouse the theory that God’s grace is much more expansive than we realize. And the bible agrees with him.
In Romans Chapter 2, Paul’s central topic is the judgment of God. Interestingly, in the passage we’re reflecting on today, Paul turns his attention to the fate of those who are never reached by the Gospel. In his writing he makes something very clear. For those who have not received God’s law the standard of judgment is different than for those who have. But there still is judgment, because God has made His existence and His ways plain to all people.
Romans 1:19-20 – 19) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20) For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
God has written His laws on the hearts of all men, and made His majesty clear throughout His creation. So for those who are unable to put all of the pieces together, or who never have the Gospel preached to them, yet obey what they know to be right by their consciences are judged righteous. As Bell wrote in Love Wins, those who feel convicted and compelled by aspects of Gospel revealed through their consciences and the world around them, who obey them and draw closer to what they recognize as truth, are treated by God as though they had accepted Jesus even if they never actually knew the Gospel. This is completely consistent with Paul’s writing here. So why is it so controversial? Well, in short, it lets God’s grace out of the box most churches try to keep it in.
Many churches teach not merely that Jesus is the only way to eternal life, but that their specific denomination’s version of the Gospel is the way. The only way. Some churches actually believe that their church membership rolls affect the book of life in heaven (Revelation 3:5), incorrectly interpreting the text that teaches ‘what is bound on earth is bound in heaven; what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven’ (Matthew 16:19). As a result they consider all of those who don’t follow their own particular brand of Christian doctrine to be lost (and in most cases, doomed to hell).
Really this is about denominational pride—churches believing they are able to judge who will make it to the kingdom of heaven and who will not, something the bible makes clear that no man, nor any human institution has any authority over. And the point of view expressed in Bell’s book threatens that perceived authority and overturns the validity of man’s judgment, opening the gates of heaven to many that churches would call unfit for the Kingdom. Isn’t this so very similar to how in Jesus time the Gospel of truth opened the doors of heaven to the unclean and undesirable of their society, and threatened the authority of the Pharisees, Scribes and Saducees?
Matthew 21:31b – Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.”