The very nature of the great commission anticipates the spread of salvation as a work of sovereign grace borne with very little understanding. Redemption would come to people ignorant of the vast majority of God’s revelation through the simple word of the gospel. As the church began to spread her wings and thereby spread Christ’s word, she came upon people who had never heard of the one true living God (Acts 17:23). The Gentiles were not educated in the Scriptures like Israel. They were vastly ignorant of God-centered theology. Their understand of God’s holiness, of sin, of repentance, of faith, and of the person and work of Christ and the nature of justification were at best dimly lit and grossly incomplete. Without reading a word of Scripture, they heard things like, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9), and God “commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31), and the Spirit of God moved upon their hearts to bring about a miracle called regeneration. True faith does not mean full knowledge and understanding. All true faith is by God’s grace and therefore can be granted in God’s grace through very little light.
One of the most astounding examples of this comes from our Lord Himself:
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:39-43).
It is clear from this testimony that the criminal on the cross expressed the simplest of faith in Christ with likely very little understanding of the divine transaction that was then making his salvation possible. By the simplest acknowledgement of his own sin and need for forgiveness and by the simplest expression of faith in Christ, through very little doctrinal light, the grace of God granted this man the assurance of forgiveness and eternal life.
This was certainly true of people in the dark ages, and even in our day in places where the light of the gospel is very dim and clouded by corruption.
But the great commission does not allow us to be comfortable with a dimly lit gospel. Inherent in Christ’s commission is the necessity of teaching (Matthew 28:20). While salvation is by grace alone through a sovereign work of God in the human heart—possible through the gospel even very dimly light, He calls us to strive for clarity and brilliance of its truth as we minister to people. The epistles are divinely inspired examples of the necessity of the church to take pains at laboring for clarity and fullness of understanding concerning the gospel and our obedience Christ.
So on the one hand, we who know and love Christ must strive to guard the deposit of truth entrusted to the church (1 Timothy 3:15; 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:14) by ever sharpening our understanding and application of the gospel. The gospel must be guarded with the utmost caution for its purity and preservation without admixture. There is absolutely no room for the slightest compromise in our stewardship of the gospel message (Galatians 1:6-9). And on the other hand, we must not confuse the difference between what a church teaches and what a person in that church might come to believe by God’s sovereign grace through His word.
We who are so privileged to know the gospel with biblical clarity and brilliance are more accountable. We too, as Christ’s church, are charged with the responsibility to steward the truth of the gospel with zeal. To credit God with the power and ability to grant salvation through very dimly lit light should never make us comfortable with less light. There is no safety in ignorance. There is no safety in darkness. The light—the truth—must be championed and guarded. This is the truth-bearer’s responsibility. And truth is not guarded by ignorance, but a knowing appreciation for it. Truth is guarded by valuing it. We must value the truth of God’s word with increasing resolve.
Confusion abounds. We must resolve to bear the light of the gospel with increased zeal for its clarity and brilliance, while at the same time humble ourselves with increased patience and grace with people.
This post was a followup to our Bible Q&A night question, “Can a Roman Catholic be Saved? You can listen to the message here.