Thursday, March 23, 2017

John 3:16-21 - What about those who have not heard?

With Chief Mulbah Killinpowen and friends, May 2014
In 2014, I was at the City of Refuge orphanage in Belimu, Bong County, Liberia. During the course of the week, I met Town Chief Mulbah Killinpowen, the oldest living person in Bellemu, and the chief zoe of his area, wielding great spiritistic power over the people. He had lived all his life without hearing a clear witness to Christ until he saw the JESUS film in KpelleDuring the invitation to follow Christ, Chief Mulbah did something unprecedented for a tribal elder or a zoe.

He stood up, something elders never do, to honor the name of Jesus and came forward to make a commitment to Christ, encouraging the young people to follow Christ like he had. At the second showing of the JESUS Film, like the first, Chief Zoe Mulbah stood again and made a public commitment, like Zaccheus in the Bible, to restore to anyone any goat, sheep, or bull he had required from anyone for sacrifice to complete witchcraft rituals. Chief Mulbah is preparing for baptism. That is transformation. Transformation happens when people hear. They hear when people tell.

But wait a minute. What is the fate of those who never hear the good news of Jesus Christ? Can those who never hear the gospel, at least not from any human messenger, be saved? Can a sincere follower of another religion somehow be saved? These questions have been debated for years, and it is our turn to seek God over these things.

Key Truth: John wrote John 3:16-21 to teach believers that eternal life comes through belief in Jesus Christ.
Key Application: Today I want to show you what God’s Word says about eternal life and a relationship with Jesus.
Key Verse: John 3:18
Pray and Read:  John 3:16-21
Tip for the Trail: Because of sin, the default destination for every person is hell. There is one way into heaven – a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Contextual Notes:
The Apostle John, the son of Zebedee and Salome, wrote the Gospel of John to help people believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah (John 20:30-31). John focuses on Jesus’ deity, that He is God, and he shows us what it means to believe in Jesus. In John 3, Jesus has a late night meeting under cover of darkness with one of the great leaders of Israel, one of the 70 members of the Jewish ruling council called the Sanhedrin. His name is Nicodemus, and he has heard enough of Jesus’ teachings to want to know more. He is intrigued by this man from Galilee who doesn’t look like what most expect in a Messiah. He wanted to meet him, but he couldn’t do it publicly for fear of his reputation and position. Still, he had some questions he wanted Jesus to answer one-on-one. He needed the answers for his own satisfaction, for his own conscience, for his own peace over this rabbi from Galilee.
By the time we get to our passage, Jesus is concluding his answers for Nicodemus. And here we find profound truth that deals with many questions about eternity and eternal life. The question before us today is this: What about those who have never heard the Gospel? Will they go to heaven or will they go to hell?
Sermon Points:
1.   God’s Son came to save whoever believes in Him (John 3:16)
2.   God’s Son came not to condemn but to provide for the condemned (John 3:17-18)
3.   God’s Son came to bring light to a dark world (John 3:19-21)

Exposition:   Note well,
a.   There are two words that are not liked by polite society these days. Hell and submission. We don’t like the idea of submission because that means that someone else might tell us what to do – someone else is in charge. It actually means someone else is responsible. We don’t like hell because we chafe at that idea of punishment for doing whatever we want to do, so we make up all kinds of reasons why hell does not exist and submission is not necessary. Even within evangelical, Bible-believing culture, we have theses creeping doubts about the depth of human depravity (Aren’t people really down deep at their core, good?), the authority of Scripture (Look, humans wrote it down. There has to be some errors in there somewhere, right?[1]) Then there are doubts about the validity of other religions (There is truth in all of them, right? How can we say we have all the truth there is?) The fact is, though, that submission to the Lord Jesus Christ is a vital part of entering the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, and hell is the punishment if we choose not to. 
b.   Universalism:  Everyone goes to heaven . God is a God of love. In fact the Bible says God is love. His grace is so great that, His love is so great that God must save everyone. Even if a place like hell really exists, how could a loving God send people to everlasting punishment in hell?
c.   Why would anyone go to hell? How does God feel about lost people? Does God sadly allow some to reject him and choose condemnation? Or worse, does He choose some for hell? Or is God too loving to send anyone to hell? Or is He not powerful enough to save everyone? C.S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, considers hell and says that God has done everything all that is possible to save people. If they are condemned, it is their choice. “What are you asking God to do? To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh star, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has [already] done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.”[2] But there is more to it than that. There is an aspect of hell that is a measure of punishment. Part of the answer to why anyone goes to hell is that God in His justice sends people there as punishment. We have no qualms when a judge sentences a murderer to death, but we feel squeamish when the only Righteous Judge sentences anyone to hell. Perhaps we don’t feel that anyone truly deserves it, and that shows a defect in our understanding of the terribleness of sin.
d.   If the only thing God did was to offer salvation, He would be justified even if no one was saved. And the fact is that if that was all He did, no one would. The Scripture says He is active in working in a person’s soul, pursuing them and drawing them to Himself through conviction of sin, knowledge of His righteousness, and warnings of the coming wrath.
e.   What about children of miscarriage or abortion? What about young kids who die? What about those who do not have the mental capacity to affirm faith in Jesus Christ? This is a subject of a completely different sermon and not up for debate today, but based on 2 Sam. 12:23; Matt. 18:14, and God’s character revealed in Scripture, I believe there is ample warrant for God’s grace in those situations.
f.    APPLICATION: Universalism is not true. It violates God’s character and standards He has set in His Word. Scripture is clear that there is only one way to heaven and eternal life, and it is through Jesus Christ (John 14:6; Acts 4:12).
a.   Agnosticism:  There’s no way to know who goes to heaven. These people say that the Bible does not explicitly address the question of what happens to those who never hear the Good News. They say that the Holy Spirit may have deliberately not spoken about it and therefore Christians should not insist upon any particular position.
b.   APPLICATION: It is hard to understand how a person comes to this position considering the mountain of Biblical information provided in Scripture about going to heaven. Jesus even warned of hell more than spoke of heaven.
c.    Pluralism: There are many paths to heaven. Pluralists are mostly in liberal circles, not evangelical. They believe in multiple ways to God found within all the cultures and religions of the world. They say God doesn’t love some parts of the map more than others and all religions have great saints.
d.   ILLUSTRATION: I have a friend named Christian who was in a philosophy class at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC, where he was one of only two individuals in each class with a full ride scholarship. Christian had become a believer in Jesus Christ a few years before and had really grown in his faith. The professor was outlining for his class the glories of pluralism. He said every religion has things to admire, and no matter our religion, we are all following our own path up the mountain. Christian quietly raised his hand and asked one question, “Professor, it seems to me that you are beginning with a weak assumption. How can you be sure that every path leads up the mountain?”
e.   APPLICATION: The assumption of pluralism is contrary to the biblical teaching on human sin and depravity, at all have sinned and no one voluntarily seeks God (Rom 3:10-11). The Bible says the religions of other nations are idolatrous and cannot save (Psalm 96:5; 97:7) Cornelius responded to the light he had been given, and God sent him Peter to give him the full story (Acts 10:4; 11-13-14). The strength of pluralism, the belief that all paths lead to heaven, faces deep problems with the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the only one qualified as the Messiah historically, theologically, and even biologically. Jesus was not a pluralist either. He taught that it is a narrow way to heaven (Matt. 7:14) and of there being only one way to the Father (John 14:6).
a.   ILLUSTRATION: Martin Luther, the man God used to begin the Reformation, said it was a mystery to him why God did not save everyone. He said that some things that have no explanation in the light of nature (like how God can be three in one, how God could come in the flesh, and how God could justify ungodly people and still be just) become clear in the light of Scripture. Still other things that still defy explanation might become clear in the light of glory (when we know fully in heaven). Luther hoped to understand why everyone was not saved in the light of glory. Until then he trusted the love and goodness of the Lord he knew from Scripture.
b.   Inclusivism: Those who follow what light they have go to heaven. This view has become very popular in the last several decades, even among evangelical believers. Inclusivists think this way: Christ alone is Savior, but salvation may be possible apart from hearing and responding to the gospel. God will make a way for people who have worshipped God as best they knew within their religious and cultural world. So the remote tribesman who did not have all of the light but could see from nature that there was a Creator worshipped that Creator the best he or she knew. That will be good enough for God on Judgement Day, because God is a just God.
c.    RESPONSE: There is very little in Scripture that encourages belief in inclusivism. In fact, Christ Himself said that the path of salvation is a narrow way found by few (Matt. 7:14).
d.   Evangelism: A personal relationship with Jesus is the only way to heaven. One must hear the Good News of Jesus and respond positively for salvation. This means that all those who never hear the gospel are lost, not because they never heard the gospel, but because they never responded to what they did hear. The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message added a line to their statement of faith to clarify the position of Southern Baptists: “There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.”
e.   ILLUSTRATION: Hudson Taylor was a pioneer missionary to the interior of China in the 19th century. Taylor had shared the Gospel with an old Chinese man, the man was convicted in heart and asked him, “And this happened how long ago?”  Taylor answered, “Over 1800 years.”  The Chinese man looked at him and said, “Why have you waited so long to come and tell us?”
f.    APPLICATION: This is why we do missions. Because we believe that apart from Christ’s salvation, there is no hope. Actually, for most of history the world has been lost. In the last 200 years especially, missions has had great victories in overcoming lostness. The proportion of those who have never heard is far smaller today than it has ever been. Out of 24,000 people groups around the world, 14,000 of them have embraced the Gospel with strong national leaders committed to evangelizing their people. In A.D. 100 there was one active believer in every 360 people on earth. By A.D. 1000 that had dropped to one in 270. By 1900, one in 21 people were active believers. Today, it is one in 9. Those who haven’t heard, the unreached peoples, are in about 10,000 groups representing roughly 2 billion of the 7 billion on earth.
g.   APPLICATION: What is needed to complete the task of the Great Commission?
                     i.        We need people to go. How many? If each of those 10,000 groups had a team of 8 missionaries, we would need 80,000 to go. Well over half of these will come from nations other than the US. The United States was until 1998 the largest missionary sending nation in the world. Today it ranks fourth behind Philippines, South Korea, and Brazil. There are 650m Great Commission Christians in the world, so assuming an average church size of 100 persons, we need one new missionary from every 81 churches to send an additional 40,000 missionaries.
                   ii.        We need churches and people to send them. At an average of $30,000 per missionary a year, the cost to send 80,000 new missionaries would be $2.4B. Worldwide, believers give $12B annually to missions, about 5.5% of all Christian giving, or $1850 per church. To raise the money for an additional 80,000 missionaries, would require $368 more per church per year or $3.68 more per person per year. The 80m born again believers in the US could pay the full amount by giving an extra $30 a year.
                  iii.        We need prayer. If we raise the funds and send the people who work hard but there is no prayer, very little will be accomplished. If each new missionary received an extra minute of prayer daily, that would be over 1300 hours of prayer a day for each one. A church of 50 praying members supplying 1 minute of prayer support for each member of a team of 8 missionaries will produce 6.67 hours of prayer a day for that team.
                  iv.        In A.D. 100, there were 12 unreached people groups for every congregation. By A.D. 1000, there was 5 unreached people groups for every church. By 1900 there were 20 churches for every people group. Today there are 650 churches for every unreached people.
                   v.        85% of the progress of the Great Commission since Pentecost in Acts 2 has happened since 1900. 85% of that progress has happened since 1980. 85% of that progress has happened since 2000. The Lord is speeding and expanding His work on this earth.
h.   In Matthew 24:14 - Jesus Himself promises that the Gospel will be proclaimed to every people before the end comes. In Revelation 7:9, the Apostle John says, “I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” All peoples will be present to worship God!
i.     APPLICATION: “We have a humanity that is too precious in the sight of God to neglect. We know a remedy for the ills of the world that is too wonderful to withhold. We have a Christ who is too glorious to hide. We have an adventure that is too thrilling to miss.”[3]

[1] Actually, if that is true, then we just affirmed the depth of human depravity.
[2] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 127-8.
[3] Rev. George P. Howard quoted in H.B. Garlock, Before We Kill and Eat You (Ventura: Regal, 2003), 15.