Rev. VanOverloop is pastor of Bethel Protestant Reformed Church in Elk Grove Village, Illinois.
What do we say to those who give no evidence of being saved?
There is no pat answer. It is not as simple as reciting four spiritual laws.
There are certain truths which must be presented, although there is not just one way to present them. Of course, every unbeliever needs to know the Savior. The knowledge of Christ is the essential truth they must be taught. However, in order to know and enjoy the only comfort of belonging to the Savior, which enables one to live and die happily, it is necessary that they be first taught how great their sins and miseries are (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 1). The first Scriptural truth which must be presented (in one way or another) is the truth of the unrighteousness and depravity of man.
The Holy Spirit inspired the apostle Paul to declare the truth of man’s great need for a Savior, in the first two chapters of his epistle to the church in Rome. The apostle addressed himself to those who were unrighteous in three different situations. In this article we will consider the inspired writer’s approach to these three kinds of unbelievers.
Paul seeks to show the saints in Rome that what the unrighteous in all three situations have in common is the wrath of God, whether it is immediately evident or will be evident in the day when “God shall judge the secrets of men” and will “render to every man according to his deeds” (Rom. 2:16, 6). The wrath of God is upon them because of their sins and miseries. They are unrighteous.
The first group of unrighteous are described by Paul in1:18-32. They are without the Bible and the knowledge of Jesus Christ. They have “prospered” in their sin, committing the worst kinds of sins. And, to make it worse, they take great pleasure in their gross sins.
In this first group of unbelievers are those in the “backward” countries of the world. The gospel never reached their country or village. They died in their sins, never having seen a Bible or having heard of Jesus, the Savior.
Also in this first group of unrighteous are those in “civilized” countries who have given themselves over to the worst kinds of sins: homosexuality and “filled with all unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:26-31). These supposedly civilized people not only willingly commit every kind of sin, but take pleasure in those who commit such sins with them. What makes this delight in sin so terrible is the fact that they know “the judgment of God that they which commit such things are worthy of death” (Rom. 1:32). They know no shame.
Although these unbelievers may not have a Bible and may not know of Jesus the Savior, they are not without the knowledge of God. God makes sure that all men, even those in countries where the gospel has not yet been preached, know that He is. God Himself showed it to them (Rom. 1:19). These unbelievers know of God from the realm of creation, but that knowledge is also manifest “in them” (vs. 19). The deity and power of God are “clearly seen, being understood” (vs. 21). This knowledge that God exists is always accompanied by the knowledge that God must be glorified. However, these unrighteous sinners, increasing their guilt, hold down the truth (vs. 18), and change the truth of God into a lie (vs. 25).
The missionary and evangelism committee which want to speak to this kind of sinner must be aware of what the Bible says of them. That which is to be told them is something which they are constantly denying to themselves. Their problem is not that they do not know God, but rather that they refuse to glorify and to thank God.
The missionary and witnessing Christian are going to point out that the sinner stands in danger of the judgment of God. They should show that God’s wrath is already “revealed. . .against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (vs. 18).
How is this wrath of God manifested? What does this wrath of God do?
In His wrath God delivers men unto sin. The natural law of consequence operates on sin, so that sin intensifies as, in the wrath of God, it is punished with more sin. The path of unbelief is sin, then wrath, then more sin, then more wrath, still more sin, and still more wrath, etc. The result is that man reaps for himself a correspondingly greater toll of divine vengeance.
The power that pulls man down is the unchangeable operation of the wrath of God. Romans 1 teaches clearly that sin’s seemingly unchecked growth is, in reality, God’s judicial abandonment of man unto sin. God’s wrath corresponds to the organic growth of sin. God brings man as low as possible, in order that man might see the consequences of his sin. Man falls below the beast, making a calf his god. And man does things sexually that an animal would never do.
The Reformed missionary and the Reformed believer are not left silent in the face of gross sin. Nor does such gross sin mean that all evangelistic effort on our part is futile. While the wrath of God is revealed from heaven upon such societies corporately, there may be individuals within who are the elect of God. Do not forget that God sent Jonah to Nineveh. God can have His own even in societies which are characterized by the manifestation of the wrath of God in this present time.
Wickedness is great but not greater than the power of God’s grace to rescue. The gospel of Christ is the power of God unto salvation! It is the power that lifts individuals up and out of harm’s way.
The unrighteous sinners in the second case are those who appear to be free from the wrath of God in this life (Rom. 2:1-16). This is what they believe to be true. In fact, they look upon the unrighteous sinners in the “first case and see a marked difference between themselves and those who are obviously the objects of divine wrath already in this lifetime.
The Holy Spirit, through Paul, speaks immediately against the pride of these sinners and shows that they are just as inexcusable because they did the same things (2:1). It could be that this group of unbelievers do not violate the commands as obviously and as seriously, but they do violate them. Maybe they did not kill, but they hated. Maybe they did not commit any acts of homosexuality, but they did wrongly desire in their hearts. And “the judgment of God is against them which commit such things” (2:2).
The hypocritical attitude of these equally inexcusable sinners arose because of possibly two erroneous conceptions. First, they might have conceived that they would escape the judgment of God (2:3). Or, secondly, they might conclude that they are the objects of God’s goodness because they do not see themselves under the wrath of God; They identify the apparent absence of God’s wrathful judgments as God’s goodness. They concluded that they were better and that they did not have to fear God’s wrath at all.
Paul is used by God to alert these unrighteous sinners to several truths.
First, the presence of the many good things which God is pleased to give mankind carries a responsibility for the recipients, namely to repent (2:4). Just as these good things demand of them that they glorify and thank God (1:20), so they call the recipients to be converted.
Secondly, the apparent absence of God’s wrath does not add up to God’s love. God’s goodness is not equivalent to His love and grace.
Thirdly, their refusal to repent and to thank God is to be viewed properly as a “despising” of God’s goodness. They treat the many good things which God gives them as worthless. The ignoring of the responsibility which comes with the good things that God gives them is a despising of God’s goodness.
Fourthly, although God’s wrath may not be openly manifest upon them (as it is with the gross sinners described in chapter 1), such does not mean that they have escaped God’s wrath altogether.
Fifthly, their refusal to repent ‘and their despising of God’s goodness results in their actively treasuring up unto themselves wrath in the day of wrath (2:5). All the while .they thought they were free from God’s wrath, in reality they were treasuring up wrath against the judgment day. Not God, but man himself, is actually the one who is piling up divine wrath for himself.
The Reformed missionary and the Reformed believer have the calling to warn those who appear to be living quietly with the bounties of God’s goodness. They must be warned that if these good things do not lead them to a life of conversion, they are despising God’s good gifts and treasuring up for themselves divine wrath. Therefore, while it may appear that they are not the objects of God’s wrath, God in His forbearance is waiting to manifest His wrath in “the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (2:5).
In addition, our not being ashamed of the Gospel of Christ means that we have an answer. We witness of the righteousness of God in Christ, which is revealed in the gospel. This we must do unashamedly, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth.
The third group of unrighteous sinners to whom Paul gives warning are those Jews who thought that they were certainly going to escape the wrath of God because they were children of Abraham, because they were “called a Jew” (2:17). They felt protected from God’s wrath by their religion, by their circumcision, by their having been catechized in the law, by their ability to judge and reject all worldly philosophies, by their being teachers pf babes and guides of the blind.
To these unbelievers Paul comes with the instruction that in the judgment day they will not be able to use their religion as the ticket which gains them entrance into heaven. Their religion, circumcision, and instruction in the law are privileges; they are not the basis of personal righteousness before God. In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men no one will be able to use as a defense his religion or his doctrine or his denomination. If he cannot claim entrance into the kingdom of heaven on the basis of casting out devils in Jesus’ name (Matt. 7:21-23), then certainly his instruction in and knowledge of the law and his participation in the sacraments will also not gain for himself entrance into the kingdom.
Away with all our religion and piety as the basis of righteousness. Not one can or may use religion in order to stand before the living, holy God.
A real Jew and real circumcision are not outward, but inward. The only basis for anyone to stand before God with boldness in the judgment day is a circumcised heart – such a heart which lays hold only on the righteousness graciously earned by Jesus Christ and freely bestowed by the Holy Spirit.
There is nothing left in man (in us) of which to boast. We are nothing but poor, miserable sinners. I am nothing and my religion and piety are nothing. My righteousnesses are filthy rags.
If this be understood and acknowledged, then we have room, and the right place, for the gospel.
Then, in the day when God will judge the secrets of all men, we will claim emptiness (not our righteousness). Then we will plead God’s righteousness given in Christ.
Then God will speak: Your sins are forgiven. Then the impossible will happen: the unrighteous will be declared by God to be righteous.
The knowledge of this righteousness, which is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth, is what makes us unashamed of the gospel of Christ when we face any of these three kinds of unbelief. This is the message of the Reformed believer, evangelism committee, and missionary.