How Shall They Hear?
June 2, 2006
This passage brings us face to face with a very important question, one that we face in a variety of ways. The question is, What is the church’s responsibility to those who have never heard the gospel? Sometimes it is phrased this way: “What happens to those who never heard about Jesus?” And that question stirs up lots of late-night debate, especially when we are dealing with non-Christians. That question has become sharply focused in the 21st-century due to the clash of civilizations, especially the confrontation between Christianity and Islam. It is considered rude and intolerant to suggest that there is only one way to heaven, and that we should send missionaries to those who already have their own religion. In the minds of many, this smacks of imperialism, elitism, and narrow-minded bigotry.
Why do we do what we do? Why care about the people in other lands who don’t know Jesus? Why do we spend millions each year sending missionaries to distant lands?
Stuart Briscoe offers this answer. Talking about the lost of the world, he says, “The unreached populations of the world are a scandal to the name of Christ and his church.” The problem is not that we are here and they are there. The problem is that after 2000 years, so many people still have never heard the gospel message. The scandal is that 2000 years after he left, 100,000 people around the world will die today, most of whom will have never heard a clear presentation of the gospel. This is a true tragedy, and it is also a scandal and a rebuke to the Christian church.
Why do we spend so much money, so much time and so much effort on world missions when we could spend it on ourselves? I am going to give you six answers to that question from Romans 10:14-21. In this passage Paul explains the universal offer of the gospel in light of Israel’s unbelief. Although this is not a missionary passage per se, it contains the theology that underlies the Great Commission. We see God’s concern for the nations, his willingness to save all who believe, his desire to see the Good News go to every nation, and his patient grief and persistent love for those who reject his offer of salvation.
With that in mind, we consider the question of the church’s concern for the people of the world. Why do we care, why do we give, why do we preach, why do we send, why do we go to the ends of the earth? As you consider these six answers, I pray that your heart will be stirred by God’s love, man’s need and our responsibility.
So why we care about those who have never heard about Jesus?
1. Because God Made Salvation Universally Available (vv. 12-13).
It wouldn’t make sense to spend money on Africans if Africans couldn’t be saved. Why invest in missionary outreach to India if Indians couldn’t be saved? It would be ludicrous to send the best and the brightest to Morocco or Thailand or Hungary if the people in those countries couldn’t be saved. It doesn’t make sense. Paul is perfectly clear on this point. “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile. The same Lord is Lord of all, and richly blesses all who call on him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (vv. 12-13).
The text contains no limitations and no exceptions. It doesn’t say, “White, middle-class Americans may call upon the name of the Lord and be saved.” It doesn’t say, “Suburbanites may call upon the name of the Lord and be saved.” It doesn’t say, “People raised in evangelical homes may call upon the name of the Lord and be saved.” When Paul says “everyone,” he means all without exception. Anyone, anywhere can be saved any time.
Cameron Townsend was a missionary in Guatemala trying to share the gospel with a tribe that had never heard the gospel. They spoke a little Spanish, but they had their own language, their own dialect. Not one word of the Bible had ever been translated into their language. One day Cameron Townsend gave an Indian a Spanish Bible. But that man, who could not read English, looked at Cameron Townsend and asked him a question that changed his life forever. “If your God is so great,” he asked, “why can’t he speak my language?” From that question came a dream, and from that dream came a vision, and from that vision came the greatest missionary translation organization in the history of the Christian church. From that question came the Wycliffe Bible Translators—because our God is great and he speaks every language.
I am thinking as I write these words of a young couple of my acquaintance who serve with another missionary organization in a land far from America. They are so far away that it takes three or four days and about nine plane flights just to reach their part of the world. And you still have to ride a bus up into the mountains, and from there you have to walk into the forest to find them. This young couple felt the call of God to reach an unreached tribe with the Good News of Jesus. At the time they were accepted, they had just been married, and she was the youngest wife in the history of that particular mission agency to be sent to the field. Because of the sensitivity of their work and because of the religious and political situation, I cannot mention their names or the country where they serve. But each month we get an email update. They found “their” tribe by backpacking into the jungle, and they settled there at the invitation of the elders of that tribe. To call their living conditions primitive would be to understate the case. For the last several years, they have been living among the people, learning their language, and slowly figuring out how to reduce it to writing. Every few months they take a language proficiency exam from the Wycliffe Bible Translators. I think they just passed their fourth checkpoint several months ago. It’s not hard for them to learn new words because at sunrise, the local people come to their home and simply watch them all day long. Fascinated by the first white people they have seen, they stand and watch and laugh and talk with the young couple.
Here is the sad part of the story. The people of this particular tribe are dying at an alarming rate. Sometimes they die from disease, sometimes because of a feud that leads to a fight that leads to death. The young couple wrote in a recent email about how burdened they are for their tribe. They are dying without Christ. So there is urgency about their work. They must learn the language, reduce it to writing, learn to speak fluently, teach the people to read and write, and along the way, they must at all costs share the gospel before everyone dies without Christ.
I haven’t yet given the real punch line. You won’t read about this young couple in any magazine or newspaper—though you should. In this great big world, with its 6.4 billion people, they are just two people serving the Lord in a remote jungle somewhere in the “regions beyond.” They have truly gone and buried themselves in the “uttermost parts” of the earth. When I asked how many people are in this tribe, the answer came back, “A few hundred. Maybe five hundred.” No one really knows. My young friends have invested their lives for the sake of five hundred forgotten people quite literally hidden from our view who live in something not far from Stone Age conditions. And this young man and his even younger bride, well trained in the United States, have gladly (joyfully, I would say) gone to the ends of the earth and found “their” tribe. They can’t wait for the day when they can finally tell them about Jesus.
Why do they do it? They go because God always intended for the Good News to come to “their” tribe someday. Now at last, that day is not far off.
2. Because No One Can Be Saved Without the Preaching of the Gospel (v. 14).
“How then shall they call upon the one they have not believed in? How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without someone preaching to them?” (v. 14) Paul lays out the progression very clearly:
First comes the preaching.
Then the hearing.
Then the believing.
Then the calling.
In order for the people of the world to call upon the name of the Lord, someone must peach the gospel to them. God has ordained that no one can be saved without the preaching of the gospel. Don’t limit the word “preaching” to what your pastor does on Sunday morning. Preaching the gospel is broad. It is sharing Jesus with the people you meet during the week. It is what you do over a cup of coffee when you share Christ with a friend. It is what you do when you answer questions about the Da Vinci Code. It’s what you do when you talk to somebody on the phone or write a letter to a loved one and share the gospel. It is what Wood Kroll and Chuck Swindoll and David Jeremiah and Ravi Zacharias do on the radio. It is what Billy Graham has been doing for over sixty years. Just a few weeks ago, Billy spoke at a large rally in New Orleans. Though he looked very feeble and his voice was weak, he told the citizens of that hurricane-ravaged city that God loved them and Christ died for them. And with what little strength he had, he called them to trust Christ as Savior.
What makes Billy Graham keep going even though he’s over 85 years old and in poor health? Sometimes he has to sit in order to preach, but the power is still there, the Holy Spirit is still on him. People say, “Billy, why don’t you retire?” If anyone has earned the right to retire, it’s Billy Graham. I’m not going to criticize him. “Why don’t you just put a little hook on the line or chase that white ball down the fairway for a while? Everybody else is doing it.” I heard him say to Larry King, “I can’t find in the Bible where anybody retired.” At the church in Oak Park we had a missionary who graduated from Moody Bible Institute in 1926. During his last year at MBI, he lived in an apartment in the balcony of our old church building. Fred Stettler went out as a missionary, preaching the gospel until his death in 1993. He spent 67 years on the mission field. What is it with these people? What makes them tick? They understand that God has ordained that nobody can be saved without the preaching of the gospel, so they will preach it until they are taken home to heaven.
3. Because No One Can Preach Until Someone Is Sent (v. 15).
“How can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news” (v. 15). Paul here quotes from Isaiah 52:7, which is an Old Testament vision of a coming day of peace for Jerusalem, and ultimately for the whole world. The prophet speaks to a generation weary of war and frightened by the storm clouds gathering on the horizon. The people of Isaiah’s day heard of “wars and rumors of wars,” just as today we hear of more killing in Iraq and nuclear saber-rattling from Iran. Things haven’t changed all that much in the last three thousand years. We’ve become more adept at killing each other, and we can do it quicker and in greater numbers. But the dream of world peace seems as elusive as ever. Charles Spurgeon describes what the prophet saw:
The prophet sees persons coming down the mountain side; he looks at them, and perceives that they are not men of war; else the greaves upon their legs would be terrible to the peaceful inhabitants of the plain. Yet here they come, a great company from the mountain tops, descending into the valleys. Who are they? As he looks, he says, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!” They are coming bearing the white flag, servants of the great King with whom you have been at war. They hear the banner that speaks of peace with God.
In ancient times good news traveled by means of messengers who ran from one place to another. When an army marched off to war, no one knew for months how the battle had gone until the messenger came with the news. No one had a cell phone. You couldn’t turn on the TV and watch the battle in real time as we can today. They didn’t have the Internet that flashes news around the world instantly. Everything depended on the messenger arriving safely, with news from distant lands. But what if the battle had gone badly? That often happened, and the messenger was charged with telling the truth even though it plunged the nation into mourning. But oh, how happy the day when the messenger came running down the mountainside with good news on his lips.
How beautiful are the feet that bring good news. Last August Marlene and I met with Tim and Elsa McKee at their home in Oak Park. We met because our son Mark and Dave McKee were leaving soon to go to China to teach English. As we prayed over them, this verse came to mind, and I thanked God for their beautiful feet that would bring good news to a distant land. When I said that, I choked up and all four parents began to weep. The thought of our sons going in the name of Jesus to teach English and to share God’s love in China was more than we could bear. But we did not weep tears of sadness, but of joy and happiness. How beautiful are their feet to us, how beautiful they are to God, and how beautiful they are to those who hear the good news they bring.
4. Because Faith Only Comes by Hearing the Word of God (vv. 16-17).
Not all the Israelites accepted the good news. That’s the problem. Even the best missionaries have a lot more people say no than say yes. Why didn’t Israel accept the message of God’s Good News in Christ? Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” Even in his day, hundreds of years before Christ, the people largely rejected what he had to say. But he said it anyway, even when people didn’t want to hear it because faith comes by hearing, and hearing comes from the word of Christ.
How does saving faith come? It comes as we believe what God has said. How are people saved? By the gospel. Where do you hear the gospel? From the Word of God. This answers the question “What about the heathen?” They are lost unless somebody comes and preaches the gospel to them. What about the people who have never heard about Jesus? They are lost because saving faith comes only by hearing the word of Christ. Someone has to go and preach to them. If there were some other way, then we shouldn’t bother to send our missionaries. What about the “heathen” in China? They are lost. What about the “heathen” in Africa? They are lost. What about the “heathen” in Chicago and Memphis and Denver and Seattle and Charlotte and Jacksonville and Pittsburgh? They are really lost. In many ways, the “heathen” in America are much worse off because the gospel is so available in this land. Surely the judgment will be much greater for those who heard it and rejected it than for those who never heard the gospel at all.
5. Because God Always Intended the Gospel to Go to the Ends of the Earth (vv. 18-20).
“Did they not hear? Of course they did” (v. 18). Israel heard the message over and over and over again. That’s Paul’s whole point. The Gentiles who never heard the message now embrace it but the Jews continue to reject it. The prophets spoke God’s message and their voice was heard everywhere. God always intended to send the message beyond the borders of Israel. He always planned to include the nations in his message of salvation. Paul quotes Moses who spoke of a day when Israel would become envious because the Gentiles have heard the gospel. God said to the people of Israel, “OK, fine, if you don’t want my word, I’ll give it to somebody else.” That’s what God does. If you don’t want to listen, God will find somebody who will listen. If you don’t want to respond, there are lots of people who will run to take the offer of free grace.
God has not yet run out of prospects for salvation. If one group won’t listen, he’ll send the gospel to another group. Look at verse 20. “Isaiah boldly says, ‘I was found by those who did not seek me. I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.’ “ If the chosen people won’t respond, he’ll find some other people who will respond. God’s plan has never been limited to a particular skin color or to one special nationality. He doesn’t play favorites. He is not a parochial God, and salvation is not limited to one nation. God has always intended for the gospel to go out in a river of blessing to the ends of the earth.
What is the river of God’s blessing? In this age, it is his plan to bless the nations of the world through his Son Jesus Christ. If you want to be blessed, jump in the river. Get in the river where God’s blessing is flowing, and it will carry you along to where you ought to be. We tend to think that God’s river of blessing flows to wherever we happen to be and then stops right here. No way! Where you are right now is just one port on the river of God’s blessing. For sixteen years I lived in Oak Park. Now I live in Tupelo, and the principle is the same. God’s river of blessing flows to Oak Park, through Oak Park, and out from Oak Park to the ends of the earth. And that same river flows to Tupelo, through Tupelo, and from Tupelo to the ends of the earth. And wherever you are right now, that same river flows to you and through you and from you to the ends of the earth.
6. Because God Still Loves the World in Spite of Its Sin (v. 21).
Pick up the newspaper or turn on the TV, and you read about murder, Internet pornography, drug abuse, broken homes, abandoned children, battered wives. There are so many terrible problems in the world. Sin, suffering, death everywhere. Verse 21 tells us that God still loves the world anyway. “But concerning Israel he says, ’All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.’” Most of us would say, “Lord, you should have given up a long time ago.” And God says, “Even though people turn away from me, my hands are still stretched out to them.”
A few weeks ago God burdened me to write two weblog entries on “Praying for Your Prodigal” (Click here for Part 1 and Part 2). I wrote those entries after hearing from a mother whose daughter is far from the Lord. She ended her note to me with these words: “What can I pray for on a daily basis so that she will come to Christ? At times I feel such sorrow, thinking she might go to hell.” My answer to her stirred up enormous response because most of us have friends and loved ones who today seem not only far from God but in many cases, they seem to be going away from God as fast as they can. Here is the heart of what I wrote to that mother:
If you have a prodigal daughter, pray like this: “Lord, open the eyes of her heart so that she can see Jesus.” That prayer is so simple and yet so profound. Apart from God’s grace, we all have the same problem. Our hearts are closed and we cannot see the truth. Only God can open the eyes of the heart. When God opens those eyes, she will see the truth and light from heaven will come flooding in. Do not focus on her going to hell. Focus your prayers on God and his power to change her heart. Ask our Father to do what only he can do—open the eyes of her heart so that she will come to know him.
When you pray for a loved one who seems hardened against the Lord, pray that the eyes of their heart might be opened so that the light of God can come flooding in. And if that seems hopeless, at least it puts the hopeless case at God’s doorstep, which is where it belongs. On Saturday night there was a “hopeless case” in the Garden Tomb. On Sunday morning the whole world changed. You never know what God will do, so keep on believing and keep on praying. God specializes in impossible situations, and he loves to prove that hopeless cases aren’t hopeless after all.
It all goes back to the character of God. When John Stott wrote about Romans 10:21, he spoke of the “patient grief” of God. He stretches out his arms and invites his people to return to him, but they continue to reject him. Even so we follow God in reaching out to those who reject the message, even those very close to us, our own flesh and blood, and with “patient grief” we wait and pray and hope.
We give and we pray and we send missionaries to the ends of the earth, and we keep on believing and we never give up even when people seem far from God because we know that in spite of the sin and disobedience we see all around us, God still loves the world. If you doubt that, look to the cross. Ponder the dying form of the Son of God. Jesus has paid the price for your sin, his bloody death paid the ransom for your soul, he has done it all, and he will freely forgive you. So we say to the world, “Fight no longer against God. Put down your weapons. Come to God through Jesus and be at peace with him.” This is the gospel we preach everywhere, all the time, in every nation. How beautiful are the feet of those who bring Good News of peace with God. Amen.