Romans 4:15 and The Lost
Donald P. Ames
One of the hardest problems, or so it seems, for many people to grasp is that those who have not heard and obeyed the gospel are lost. They are not lost because no one bothered to preach the gospel to them, but because they have sinned (Rom. 3:23; 6:23)! This was the very reason Christ came into the world (John 3:16); if we could have been saved in our ignorance, there would have been no need for Him to, have died on the cross. If we could have been saved in our ignorance, then the last thing on earth we should want to do is to preach the gospel to people, because in so doing we remove that ignorance and thus condemn all who do not obey. But, the gospel was not given to condemn, but to save (Rom. 1:16). And this is precisely what is accomplished when the gospel is preached to a world that is lost and dying in sin.
Certainly the Bible abundantly teaches that man is accountable to the law of Christ. Paul declared in Acts 17:30 that "God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent." Now, if man was not subject to the law of Christ today, then of what should they repent? Does not repentance imply that you have done that which is wrong? This truth being established, we note that Peter demanded in Acts 2:38 that those present "Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ of the forgiveness of your sins . . . ." He did not say, "For the sin of not obeying the gospel," but rather "for the forgiveness of your sins." Thus, they had to have done things that violated the law of Christ-they had to be subject to it already. In 1 Cor. 6:9-11 Paul affirmed that the Christians in Corinth had formerly been guilty of the sins of fornication, idolatry, adultery, effeminate, homosexuals, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers and swindlers. To have formerly been guilty of these things clearly demonstrates they were subject to more of a law than having just not obeyed the gospel. Paul also referred to himself as "formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor" (1 Tim. 1:13). Certainly he realized he was guilty of more than just a disbelief of the gospel.
Ezekiel 3:18 clearly demonstrates that ignorance of the law of God does not excuse the man who is guilty of violating it. "When I say to the wicked, `You shall surely die'; and you do not warn him or speak out to warn the wicked from his wicked way that he may live, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand." Paul endorsed this principle in Acts 20:26-27, and indeed this is the very reason we need so desperately to feel the urgency to carry the gospel to the world that they might be saved (Mark 16:15-16). We need to remember that the only way to God is through Christ (John 14:6), the only way to be reconciled to God is through Christ (2 Cor. 5:18), and the only way to obtain the forgiveness of our sins (thus to be found acceptable in God's sight) is by the blood of Christ (Rev. 1:5). Thus to cling to a hope that we can be saved in ignorance is to repudiate the teachings of the word of God (2 Thess. 1:8).
But in view of these teachings, some still persist in returning to Rom. 4:15 and contending that those who have never heard the gospel (and sometimes those who have not yet obeyed the gospel also) are not subject to the law of Christ. To so contend is to deny the plain teachings we have already looked at! This is parallel to the Baptist argument that since Rom. 5:1 says we are "justified by faith," then baptism is not essential. Such just does not follow. You can not align one scripture in direct contradiction to other plain passages and be "handling aright the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15).
No one can properly apply Rom. 4:15 unless it is kept in the context of what Rom. 4 is discussing. Paul was not affirming here that God had ever excused anyone from being under a law to Him. Even in the Old Testament, the Gentiles were under the moral law while the Jews were under the law of Moses. Chapters 1-3 clearly show that both had rejected God's laws and thus "all have sinned." Rather, he is pointing out that the law of Moses had been given to the Jews, and even though they were unfaithful to it, it did not apply to any other. Abraham did not violate it, because it was not given to him. The Gentiles did not violate it, because it was not given to them. In the same way, salvation today is not by means of the law nor are we condemned if we do not keep the law of Moses today, because it was not given to Christians either (cf. Gal. 3). Instead, we are saved by faith-that faith which comes by hearing the word of truth (Rom. 10:17), rendering obedience to it (Rom. 6:17), and no longer permitting sin to reign in our mortal bodies (Rom. 6:12-13).
Since God commands "all men" (Acts 17:30) to repent, and since the grace of God has appeared "to all men" (Tit. 2:11) teaching them God's way, and we are to preach the saving gospel to "all the nations" (Matt. 28:19) that they might be redeemed from their "sins" (Acts 2:38; 22:16), let us not avoid that awesome responsibility by seeking refuge in the false theory that the ignorant and untaught will still be saved in spite of their sins. Instead, let us be armed with this knowledge and realize the urgency of the hour upon us! It may well be true that "they had it once" (Col. 1:23) and rejected it, but that is no excuse for those dying in ignorance today (Ezek. 3:18)-nor for us to withhold it from them. We are not assisting or helping those who are lost in sin by giving them false comfort in "that was before you obeyed the gospel," or "but you did not know any better then." Sin is still sin, and those practicing such will be lost! Let us boldly apply the saving gospel of Christ to all such that men might be saved before it is too late (Col. 3:25).
Truth Magazine XXI: 21, p. 322