I have been considering a full time life in missions in a third world country and had some questions I thought you could answer related to what I think may seem contradictory or unjust in the Bible. I have had some experience with “gospel friends” or people I try to teach Christ to currently. Some are from different countries which traditionally have never heard of Christ. Many are actually very-open minded to Jesus. Their conversions can be rather quick and with much devotion and gratefulness for knowing the one true God.This leads me to wonder why God did not show Himself (or give a “fair” chance) to willing people that were alive and died before the gospel reached them such as the precolombian Native Americans or closed off communities in South America, rural parts of India, and the Middle East etc. even now. One effect this growing idea has had on me is a feeling of God’s grace on me that I was in an environment to know Him. But the other effect it has on me is doubt that a loving and just God would let children grow up and die without a chance to know Him. Were they all meant to be doomed? Were they never willing to know Him so God just never appeared? Or, will they be judged differently? Having a relationship with Christ is very precious and I just don’t understand why some would never have the chance.
Also some quick questions on the verses as I decide on what “working” for His kingdom means: 4Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. 5However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.” (romans 4) 14What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? ( james 2). I have read Martin Luther decided James was an inferior book to the pauline books because of this verse as it seemed contradictory. But I have also heard one harmonization as saying that the former is a form of righteousness through faith in God’s eyes and James 2 is about being a testimony to others (given that it talks about feeding the hungry.) What is your take? Is that harmonization a weak argument? What is the definition of “work” ? was it the just the sacrificial system and charity? Is it okay to “work” or spread the Gospel,, feed the poor, obey the 10 commandments etc. or is it only a matter of faith in the eyes of GOd that we are justified?
On the first question, God, in his wisdom, has chosen to use human beings to spread the gospel. We can question his decision to use human instruments to spread the news of salvation, but in any case, it is clear that this is what he has done. Because he loves us, God has given us free will. He does not force people to believe in him, and he does not force us to share the gospel. God could drop notes out of the sky, or he could put miraculous text messages into our inbox, but he does not do this. He could have left unmistakeable proof or he could raise dead Christians to life multiple times to prove that Christianity is true, but this would violate free will. I believe that it is good that God gives us free will, and I do not criticize God for his nature in this area. God gives us free will because he loves. Like Paul said, God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4). This is his will, but because of the freedom he gives us, he does not force people to be saved. One of the reasons we are asked to pray that God’s will be done (Matthew 6:10) is that God’s will is not always done. Why not? Because God gives us free will. So, if you are concerned about the fact that many do not know about Jesus, this is a good reason for you to be highly committed to sharing the gospel with as many as you can, and to support those who make the sacrifice to do mission work, spreading the gospel to places where Jesus is less well known.
Will God take into account on Judgement Day that some had not heard the message of Jesus? Will he hold more accountable those who had more opportunity to hear the truth and to respond to it? I assume so, because this is what justice demands, and God is just. My personal response to this is to simply have faith that God is totally loving and totally just and to leave him as the judge, not me. Some have used Romans 2:12-16 as evidence that those who never heard of Jesus can be saved “by obeying their consciences.” I believe that this is possible, but also know that I, personally have totally violated my conscience many times, in rather horrible ways. I certainly would not want to face God on Judgement Day based on my own righteousness!
On the second question, I do not think that this harmonization is a particularly good one. The question in James is whether we can be saved apart from works. The answer, according to James (and therefore according to God) is no! “Such faith cannot save him.” This is not a hard passage to interpret, and it does not require a theologian to understand. It is true that Luther saw a contradiction between salvation by grace and James 2:14-26. This does not prove that the Bible is inconsistent. Instead it proves that Martin Luther was mistaken in his theology.
Let me put in very simple terms my response to this very deep question. There are two truths about salvation and works found in the Bible. The first is “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:10-11). We are saved by the grace of God. No work of man can result in salvation. The second truth is the one you refer to in James 2:14-26. Faith which is without works is, apparently, not the kind of faith which leads to salvation. I like to ask myself which is the more essential truth; Ephesians 2:10-11 or James 2:14-26? I believe that the answer is very clear. The more essential truth is Ephesians 2:10-11. If we start with James 2:14-26 and use this to interpret Ephesians 2:10-11, we reach a confusing conclusion. However, if we start with Ephesians 2:10-11, and use it to interpret James 2, we arrive at a consistent and deep understanding of biblical salvation. The “deep” truth is that no one will ever be saved by living a sufficiently good life. We are absolutely, 100% reliant on the grace of God. Without the death of Jesus, we were completely without hope and with no way to have a right relationship with God. To this extent Martin Luther was correct. This helps me to understand James 2:14-26. We already know that we are not saved by works. That has already been established (Ephesians 2:10-11). We are saved by grace, through faith (Romans 3:21-25). The grace of God comes to those who put their faith in God. The question is, what kind of faith? James makes it clear that any kind of “faith” which is not accompanied by deeds is not the kind of faith which required for salvation. A purely intellectual faith is not a saving faith. It is not that we are saved by our works. That is already established. However, if we believe we have faith sufficient for salvation, but if that faith is not accompanied by any of the deeds which one can assume will accompany salvation, then we can be assured that this kind of faith will not result in salvation. For his own reasons, Martin Luther was clearly uncomfortable with this concept. In fact, he called James a “book of straw.” I believe that Luther made a big mistake on James. We should always remember that Ephesians 2:10-11 is the key concept, but James 2:14-26 can help us to understand Ephesians 2:10-11.