A gracEmail reader who is weighing the claims of Christ writes: “I cannot hold in scorn humans whom I know to be decent and caring, simply because they have a different belief about salvation. Is my Jewish friend a sinner because he practices his religion? He certainly does many of the very things we ascribe to Jesus as being virtuous.”
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What Jesus did, objectively counted for all those who finally will be saved (John 6:37-39; Rom. 8:28-39). It does not count for those whom he did not represent — which turns out to be those who, in every situation and with whatever degree of knowledge of God or the Bible, consciously, intentionally and persistently refuse to repent of their sins and to submit their wills to God to live in creaturely trust and dependence on him (John 3:19-20). These people cannot complain about that, for they knowingly and personally reject God as their God (with what that should imply for a creature made by God and totally dependent on him) in their way of life (Acts 13:45-46; 2 Thes. 2:8-12).
The gospel is the good news, the happy report, of what Jesus did for sinners. It carries the invitation to believe it, to trust it, and to begin to live as God’s forgiven people (Mark 1:14-15; 2 Cor.6:1; Titus 2:11-14). Those who believe the gospel and respond in repentance and faith (a basic interior U-turn which involves recognizing God for who he is and giving him his rightful place in our lives) will evidence that in the course of time, progressively more fully with practice and experience, by God’s power, through a life of obedience to God and to Christ, of thankfulness, worship and service to others. This is the essence of what it means to become a Christian, and to grow as a Christian (Eph. 4:20–6:9).
Anyone who accepts the objective event which the gospel communicates, begins personally to enjoy subjectively the multitude of benefits which characterize fellowship with God through Christ. This is the beginning of what the Bible calls “eternal life,” which is not only life that goes on throughout eternity, but also life of a transcendent quality because it involves fellowship with the Creator who alone is inherently eternal (John 5:27-28; 17:1-3; 20:30-31).
I believe the Bible teaches that, at the End of this world, there will be people who were objectively covered by Jesus’ atonement who did not understand that now, and who therefore did not now subjectively enjoy its benefits in this life. That, I suspect, will include all sorts of people who now might be found among many world religions. It certainly includes faithful people, Jew and Gentile, who lived before Christ. But that is strictly God’s business, since only he sees the hearts of people and knows who is living reverently toward him with a heart disposed to acknowledging him as God (Acts 10:1-4, 34-35; 18:9-10; Heb. 11:39-40). Our assignment is to take to all the world the good news of eternal life now, and the certain hope, through Christ, of life forever in the Age to Come.