...continued from yesterday
Grudem does not consider the Bible necessary 1) for a person to believe God exists or 2) to have a moral conscience. He simply doesn't believe this level of knowledge is sufficient to save a person. By contrast, Hebrews 11:6 came to mind: "Without faith it is impossible to please him, for the one who comes to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who diligently seek him." Can a person who, to the best of their understanding, loves God and loves neighbor be saved through Christ, despite not knowing about him?
I personally, coming from the Wesleyan-pietist tradition, find it hard to see God consigning to hell those who never had a chance, those who do not have the privilege of having the Bible or its message. It is an extension, on the one hand, of the fact that I don't believe in deterministic predestination. On the other hand, it is an extension of my belief in prevenient grace, that God gives some light to everyone in the world. Christianity otherwise seems incoherent.
So my sympathies here are the logical conclusion of my own Christian tradition's core values, although my own tradition has not necessarily been consistent on the topic. It is a hope based on big principles in Scripture like the fact that God looks on the heart and wants everyone to be saved. In other words, it comes from an understanding of God's fundamental nature as love. If God consigns the vast majority of humanity to hell for an ignorance that is no fault of their own, it is hard to imagine how he can be considered loving in any normal sense of the word. Similarly, if God consigns people to heaven primarily on the basis of cognitive knowledge, he seems rather shallow.
That is not to say that there are not difficulties with this position. What then am I to do with Romans 10 and the evangelistic enterprise of the early church--or of my own church? It at least helps to realize that words like "gospel" and "evangelism" have been skewed somewhat in their meaning. Once again we see partially why those in Grudem's circles have been scrambling in the face of books like Scot McKnight's King Jesus Gospel and to fight N. T. Wright's version of the new perspective on Paul. It's easy for them simply to decry those like Wesleyan-Arminians with a different theology. It's another to find some of their own supposed biblical foundations pulled out from under them.
The gospel in Paul is the good news that Jesus has been enthroned king (Rom. 1:1-3) after God raised him victoriously from the dead (1 Cor. 15:1-4). The gospel in the Gospels has a slightly different focus but it is compatible. The gospel in the Gospels is the good news that God's kingdom is returning to the earth (Mark 1:14-15), with the resultant good news for the oppressed (Luke 4:18). Surely the good news includes the whole story, including Jesus' death and the implications in salvation, but the focus is on the reign of God and Christ.
When the early Christians preached the good news (euangelion), they were primarily preaching the lordship of Jesus and the kingdom of God. True, Jesus' atoning death was part of that message (1 Cor. 2:2). If God's reign is soon coming to the earth and if my sin stands in the way, then Christ's death for my sins is a major concern, and Christ's death is part of the good news.
There is a connection between the rise of modern evangelism and dispensationalism. In the late 1800s many Christians became convinced that Christ was about to return. At the same time, 2000 years of intervening history was ignored and they saw themselves as the early church of Acts. Pentecostalism recovered speaking in tongues, as in Acts. While the early church saw the mission to get the good news to the ends of the earth as already accomplished (Col. 1:23), the world had gotten bigger and the reset button was hit on the idea that Christ would return after everyone had heard. Thus the rise of modern missions.
In the early church, the setting was similar but slightly different. They also, including Paul, thought the Lord would return to earth very soon. They were preparing the way for this Day of salvation and wrath by preparing everyone for the Lordship of Jesus. They were following the ideal course. Certainly it's good to be ready for the king's arrival, to have your house in order before he arrives. It thus makes absolute sense to spread the good news of Christ's kingship and the good news of potential salvation.
I won't pretend that this broader understanding of evangelism resolves all the tensions with Romans 10. I'll only point out that the tensions are with other Scriptural principles, not least that God is love and wants everyone to be saved. Paul gives the most normal path in Romans 10, the one built off the fundamental metaphor of the messenger who brings good news from afar that a new king has been enthroned. In this metaphor there is a messenger (like Paul) who brings the good news that Jesus is king.
Is there another option he uses before the messenger arrives? The path of the patriarchs? The path of Job? The path of the Old Testament heroes of faith? The path of the child or mentally challenged person who does not understand? I sure hope so. It's hard to see how Christianity's fundamental claims about God's nature don't disintegrate otherwise.
I end with a final note on the idea of conscience. I do not think that Romans 2:14-15 is about some universal conscience we all have. Like N. T. Wright and others, I believe the Gentiles in this passage who have the "Law written on their hearts" are Gentile believers who have received the Holy Spirit (cf. Hebrews 10:14-18). Good thing too, because cultural anthropology has observed that there is very little in the way of a universal conscience around the world.
Most parents protect their children. Most cultures think it wrong to randomly kill someone in your own group. That's about it and there are some "deviant" cultures even on these. The idea of there being a specific moral law built within us doesn't seem to pan out very well in reality. It's a Christian tradition that I'm not sure has much biblical support.
The conscience in the New Testament is one's awareness of sin (Hebrews 10:2-3), which depends on one's understanding and thus one's training. A Jew should be aware of what sin is because they have been taught revelation in the Scriptures. However, a person's "sin knower" can also malfunction (Tit 1:15).