Without Excuse

Michael S. Horton
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
Mar/Apr 2006

You finally have that opportunity to explain the gospel to that co-worker who has been asking a few questions of late. She tells you that one of the things that keeps her from taking religion seriously is that each one claims absolute, final truth. Obviously, they can't all be right, since they contradict each other at key points. Can a Japanese Buddhist really be held accountable for accepting Christianity if Buddhism has been his only frame of reference? How then can we continue to say that Jesus is the only way? How can we say that God cannot be truly known, at least in a saving way, unless one has been exposed to the Christian Scriptures somehow? Religion all seems hopelessly naive and impossible. More than that, it seems to fuel the religious strife that drives intolerance around the world. As a result, your co-worker has simply adopted the cultural dogma of tolerance that assumes a pragmatic view of religion. Buddhism "works" for one person, Islam for another, and Christianity for still others. The belief that religion is therapy more than truth seems pervasive, in evangelicalism as everywhere else.

Besides accepting religious pluralism, many Christians themselves have come to wonder how one needs to know and believe in the Scriptures in order to be "saved." This can be a form of Protestant works-righteousness. First, it assumes that faith is merely knowledge and assent to true propositions (the position that the reformers challenged), and it treats this "faith" as if it were actually a work. Instead of wondering how much I have to do to be saved, we now ask how much we have to believe to be saved. However, salvation is not the result of our willing or running but of God's mercy (Rom. 9:16). While faith surely involves knowledge and assent to certain truths, it is, properly speaking, a resting in the God who announces free forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. And while faith is a human response, it is given freely as a gift, without which we would harden our hearts against God's promise. Once we recognize that we are saved by the quality of Christ and his righteousness rather than by our own faith and its inherent qualities, we look outside of ourselves and receive the gift that is delivered to us in the gospel.

Of course, to exercise saving faith, there must be an object-that is, someone to be trusted, a message to be heard and embraced. Such communication obviously involves knowledge and assent, but instead of requiring them, the gospel actually creates them. Isn't this familiar to us in our everyday relationships? After all, we do not ordinarily begin a friendship or romance by interviewing the person in an effort to learn enough to justify our trust. Rather, we start out with trust, expecting that confidence to be confirmed along the way as we get to know the person better. This is what the medieval theologians meant by "faith seeking understanding." In the modern era, since the Enlightenment, this order was reversed to "understanding seeking faith," telling us that we shouldn't believe anything without sufficient evidence. Begin with radical skepticism and doubt, and eventually you will arrive at absolute certainty about things that cannot be doubted. However, this has never actually worked in the history of science any more than in relationships.

The more God communicates his saving will toward us in Christ, the more confident we become in his trustworthiness. The gospel creates and grows our faith. This gospel has content. In fact, so rich in content is this promise that it can be understood by a child and yet stagger the mind of the greatest theologians. The point is that we are saved by Christ who comes to us in the form of the gospel, not by the degree of our theological acumen or assent to propositions. We are neither saved by knowledge and assent nor without knowledge and assent; we are saved by Christ, who gives us saving knowledge of himself and in doing so creates trust in our hearts so that we embrace what is promised

In the balance of this article, I would like to respond briefly to the two aforementioned examples. First, there is the challenge posed by your co-worker concerning religious pluralism and the claim that Jesus is the only way.

Paul's teaching in Romans is very democratic in an important sense: everyone (Jew and Gentile) is equally condemned and all who are in Christ (Jew and Gentile) are equally redeemed. To establish the second point (Rom. 3:21-11:36), the apostle defends the first (1:18-3:20).

Beginning with the Gentiles, Paul explains how God's judgment works. Even Gentiles have the moral law indelibly written on their conscience (2:15). Not only do they know the second table (duties to neighbors); they know the first table as well (duties to God). Therefore, God's wrath is not an arbitrary exercise of power against those who don't know any better. "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest to them, for God has shown it to them" (1:18-19).

But how has God shown it to them if they do not have the scriptures? Paul answers that the whole creation is a revelatory witness to God's existence and attributes: "For since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead… " (v. 20). As our old theologians used to say, "God is not known as he is in himself (that is, in his incomprehensible majesty), but by his works." We cannot see God's hidden essence, but his "invisible attributes are clearly seen" through the visible creation: causes are known by their effects. Even skeptics sometimes express wonder at the elegance and intricacy of the universe. Paul says that through this revelation they actually know that there is a God and that this God has certain characteristics. So when people say that they do not believe in God because they cannot see him, they might as well refuse to believe in atoms and electrons. Yes, someone might reply, but with a powerful enough microscope one can see atomic and subatomic particles-not so with God, however. Yet Paul has already announced in his opening sentence that Jesus Christ "was born of the seed of David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead" (1:3-4). Just as we trust the witnesses who see atoms and electrons, we trust those who saw God incarnate.

Even apart from this special revelation of the gospel, there is a genuine revelation of God in nature. Who can deny the wisdom behind the obvious design and order inherent in the cosmos, without which science could not even begin its investigations? It is obvious that all of this is the execution of a marvelous architect, and this communicates real knowledge of God to everyone, "even [of] his eternal power and Godhead." It is true that Paul does not mention the divine attributes that are explicitly manifested in the gospel. The Alps reflect the praises of God's majesty but do not proclaim God's mercy to sinners. They are "without excuse" precisely because of what they do with this revelation that they have been given: "although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened" (v. 21).

One of the erroneous assumptions not only of our co-worker but of many theologians today is that the basic problem that human beings have with God is a lack of information. If people only knew how much God loves them; if they only realized how great God was and worthy of worship, they would embrace him. This is the assumption behind what is called the "moral influence theory" of the atonement: namely, that the cross saves chiefly by showing us how much God loves us and this moving picture is all we need to be brought to repentance. But, as Anselm countered in his eleventh-century critique of this position, "You have not yet considered how great your sin is."

In this passage, Paul is saying that the problem is a lot deeper than a lack of information. It is what we do with any piece of information that challenges our autonomy. Here, says Paul, you have a classic example of people having sufficient information to compel them to acknowledge God's existence and power, yet instead of responding with gratitude and delight, they "became futile in their thoughts and their foolish hearts were darkened." They willfully distort the evidence, intentionally misrepresenting God as Satan did in the garden, transforming light into darkness, truth into falsehood. In other words, it is not an intellectual problem at its root but an ethical one. "Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man-and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things" (v. 23). In other words, it's not that they started from a position of ignorance, but that they became silly in a morally culpable sense. They willfully "exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen" (v. 25). So "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven" not against the ignorant, but "against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness" (v. 18).

Unrighteousness, not ignorance; suppression of the truth, not insufficient data, is the real human problem. Thus, the apostle can correlate their intellectual rebellion against God with their ethical rebellion against even the ordinances he inscribed in nature itself for sexual relations (vv. 26-27). Not content with denying the explicit revelation of God in nature, they will remove any trace of God in their thoughts. This is how far unbelief will go to eradicate the knowledge of God: not even reason, common sense, or the obvious characteristics of human anatomy will be recognized to the extent that it reveals God as the source. But lest the rest of us feel left out of the indictment, Paul adds to the list of the effects from refusing "to retain God in their knowledge" (v. 28) the following that strike pretty close to home:

… being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; fully of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are gossips, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful; who, knowing the righteousness judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them. (vv. 29-32)

At this point, Gentile hearers might have thought that this was just another Jewish screed against those who reject Judeo-Christian values. Not so fast, Paul says: "Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things" (2:1). Paul's description of the Gentiles covers the Jews as well, since they have done precisely the same things (v. 2). In the latter case the situation is even more vicious, because they have a fuller revelation of God in the law and also in the gospel. Thus, they not only despise the revelation of God's invisible attributes displayed in nature but they also "despise the riches of his goodness, forebearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance" (v. 4). Just as impenitent Gentiles harden their hearts against the revelation of God in nature, impenitent Jews turn a deaf ear to God's special revelation. "But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart," Paul writes, "you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who 'will render to each one according to his deeds'" (vv. 5-6).

Verse 5 parallels 1:18. Whereas the Jews thought that "the wrath of God revealed from heaven" was something for others (the Gentile nations), Paul says here that the same wrath is being stored up for Jews as well. Why? Because they have the law? No, but because they no more keep the law that is inscribed on tablets than the Gentiles keep that same law written on the conscience. Their claim to be keepers of the law-with its superior, fuller, more amplified description of God's holy will actually entails a greater condemnation.

Those are not approved who tout godliness, righteousness, virtues, and values, and separate themselves as morally superior for having them. "[F]or not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified" (v. 13). Some think that Paul's point is that Jews are being hypocritical-in other words, their main problem is that they do not obey the law, the assumption being that if they did, they would be justified. However, while hypocrisy is certainly evidence of the problem, Paul's point is to bring to a screeching halt any confidence in anyone's own law-keeping. Only the doers of the law will be justified, and this means that nobody can be justified-at least by keeping the law. Paul is driving this deep human plight home in order to drive Gentile and Jew alike to this conclusion:

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. (3:19-22)

How does all of this relate then to our two big questions? With respect to our co-worker's assumptions, Paul's argument brings the entire human race before God's judgment, under his wrath. The Buddhist-or nominal Christian-is not in a position of neutrality, awaiting sufficient information to respond appropriately to God. Even apart from the gospel, God has revealed himself in nature and this revelation is distorted, disfigured, twisted, misrepresented, and finally rejected. That is what we do with all revelation of God, regardless of how much or how little, whether it is a revelation of God's glory or of God's grace. Unbelieving Gentiles will not be condemned on the basis of "what they have done with Jesus," as we often hear in evangelical circles, but on the basis of the law written on their conscience. Unbelieving Jews will be condemned on the basis of that same law written on tablets of stone. Everyone stands guilty at God's tribunal, "because what may be known of God is manifest" in God's works, "for God has shown it to them" (1:19).

Many Christians today say that on judgment day God will only hold people accountable for what they have heard. This is supposed to be good news, but according to Paul it is only bad news. A cheery view of human nature holds out hope that we can by nature respond positively to God in our own way, from within our own religious "faith tradition," and with our own resources. However, Paul is saying that God does not grade on a curve and that the human plight is deeper than we ever imagined. As he will later write, "There is none righteous, no not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God" (3:10-11). There is no hint here of the "anonymous Christian"-that is, the person who, apart from explicit faith in Christ, shows that he or she is nevertheless united to Christ by a positive response to revelation through good works. For Paul, such a person is not even a hypothetical possibility, since by nature we do the same thing with revelation every time we encounter it: suppress the truth in unrighteousness.

Paul's treatment here early in Romans also sheds light on the second question: How much does one have to know to be saved? As he will argue in chapter 10, faith does not climb up to God or well up from within but comes to us from the outside, by the preaching of the gospel. "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God," which messengers bring (10:17). The thing to do in this case is to reverse the spotlight, taking it off of ourselves and our faith and putting it back on Christ. We are not God and we do not have any list of propositions in scripture to which assent is required in order to qualify as saving faith. Although we have plenty of propositions about the person and work of Christ, these merely serve to give definition to the person in whom we place our trust. It is trust in Christ, not the number of true propositions we hold, that is the empty hand that receives the treasures of God's kingdom. We may hold doctrines that, if taken to their logical conclusion, would obscure or even deny the gospel, yet by a "felicitous inconsistency," as our older theologians expressed it, embrace Christ and all his benefits. Every believer is filled with conflicting beliefs, doubts, experiences, expectations, and convictions that would conquer and extinguish faith if it were not for God's persevering grace.

In a certain sense, ironic as it may seem, many at the extreme ends of "inclusivism" and "exclusivism" focus on information. Either the Buddhist is exonerated or the Arminian is condemned for lack of information. However, as we can infer from Paul's argument, both approaches reflect a type of works-righteousness. All people, including Christians, are condemned by the law, but the good news is that God has found a way to justify any and every guilty person by Jesus Christ, through faith in him. In fact, it may well be that the summary of Paul's main argument throughout this letter is to be found in chapter 11: "For God has committed them all to disobedience, that he might ave mercy on all" (v. 32).

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology