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In light of some pieces I’ve offered on the “non-hearing” people who patiently pursue goodness, longing for the higher life (Romans 2:6-7, 12-14), a reader wonders about “those who obey not the gospel.” Click here. Paul speaks of the righteous judgement against those that know not God and those that “obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” See 2 Thessalonians 1:8 and compare 1 Peter 4:17-18.
I for one have no reason to doubt that those who do not obey the gospel will be finally lost.
But I don’t believe that those who have never heard the gospel are those who “obey not the gospel.” I think that description is of those who have been privileged to hear the good news and spurned it. And remember, the non-hearing people I’ve been talking about are not the decadent or uncaring; they are the kind of people Paul spoke of. They are people who patiently pursue goodness and are troubled in conscience when they do what is evil.
Look, imagine God saying to such people, “You are not sinless so you cannot stand before me as though you were. Like the decadents and the self-worshiping you are sinners even though you don’t have hearts like theirs. The truth I have brought to you [however we conclude he has done that, more on this later] you have acknowledged and have lived in the direction that that truth has called you. This patient pursuit of goodness is my work in you. I have committed myself to the entire human family to make provision for the forgiveness of sins and that provision will bring glory and immortality to you.”
The speech is imaginary, of course, but the truth it embodies is not. Now, such persons do not know the truth about “the provision” but if God came to them in the gospel and they spurned that message they would be numbered among those “that obey not the gospel.”
John 15:22 is pertinent here. Jesus said, “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin.” Again in 15:24, “If I had not done among them what no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin.”
How can that be true? They were sinners before Jesus came along! Here he’s speaking to his own people, those to whom he bore witness both by teaching and works. He doesn’t have the Incas or the Eskimos in mind. Nor does he deny that they had sinned before he came. He means that they had been given truth (new truth as well as old) that they had rejected and so sinned. But had they not heard and seen they would not have sinned in that way.
All I want from this text is the obvious truth that people don’t refuse to obey specific truths that they haven’t been given. Those that refuse to obey the gospel are those that have heard the gospel and refuse to obey it.