Good afternoon, Brother Hamilton:
I hope this message finds you well.
I am looking at your site for information about accountability for the Christian, and I am having trouble wording what I’m looking for to find resources. Maybe you can help.
I was at a small study with one of the wives of our elders and a new Christian. We were talking about drawing our strength from God in difficult times. At the end of the study, we were talking, and she made the statement that, to the best of her knowledge, and to correct her if she is wrong, that she believes that Christians will only be judged for what they know. She explained further that, at least for a New Testament Christian, we must always be growing and that as long as we are constantly studying and trying to learn then we have grace from God to cover over the things we do that are sins that we have yet to be taught are sins.
I told her I disagreed with her, but I wasn’t sure why I did. I told her that it sounded a lot like once saved always saved, but I’m not sure if I believe that because I have scripture to back it up. I know in the past I get defensive when it comes to things that are scriptural but appear denominational because some denominations teach truth on that matter. Ultimately, I want to teach and believe what the Bible says. I told her that if that is the case why would God tell us to study?
She said that not studying is a sin and since I know that, I must study. She said if someone chooses to ignore Scripture or rejects it, then that would be a sin, but if they’ve never known it then God’s grace would cover that and they wouldn’t be accountable. I said then if that’s the case why would we teach people more about the Bible if their knowledge of the sin makes them accountable to it. She quoted the Scripture about should we keep on sinning that grace should abound. She asked me if I believed I needed to know everything in the Bible and perfect to be saved and I don’t. She said we are constantly being perfected. She mentioned the age of accountability and a friend of her daughters that died at 17 in a car crash and didn’t know anything about the true Bible. She said she couldn’t say whether or not she was accountable at that age or not.
I said then when we talk about people that have never heard the word of God and we take trips to teach them, are we not doing them a disservice if their ignorance of God’s word keeps them in a saved state? It seemed like we were discussing two different topics: whether a New Testament Christian is held accountable for things they don’t know about God’s law and whether those who are untaught are held accountable. I told her I need to study more because it didn’t sit right with me. I'm not sure if I’m not being open-minded because of growing up outside the church and coming out of denominationalism and this is true. I want to only teach what the Bible teaches and speak where the Bible speaks. I remember a Bible class teacher telling me once that if you get pulled over for speeding because you are going 50 mph in a 40 mph, your lack of knowledge of the law doesn’t change the fact that you’ve broken the law. You are accountable for it. They applied that to God’s law. Just because I don’t know about it doesn’t mean I’m not accountable to it.
Could you offer some passages and insight?
Just last night in a Bible study of Jeremiah, we covered a passage that the teacher and I both agree would be devastating to people who follow the doctrines that were once popularized by Carl Ketcherside and keep popping up in the church. Ketcherside taught that people could not be held accountable for the things they did not know. Thus, a Baptist who was never properly taught about baptism would not be required to be baptized until he learned what the Bible taught on the subject. From this position, Ketcherside concluded that there were saved people in all denominations. He wasn't the only person to come up with this idea. It is popularly taught in the denominations:
“Since Christ is the Word of God and the Truth of God, he may be received even by those who have not heard of his manifestation in the flesh . . . We have, therefore, the hope that even among the heathen there may be some . . . who under the guidance of the Holy Spirit working through the truth of nature and conscience, have found the way to life and salvation.” [A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, (1909)].
“Even some two thousand years after the Great Commission, more people in the world have not heard the gospel than have heard it. The secret things do belong to God, but Christians and non-Christians alike cannot help wondering about the justice as well as the compassion of a God who assigns to eternal torment people who, for reasons beyond their control, never heard about fellowship with him through Jesus Christ . . . Our opinion is that scripture does not automatically assign the unevangelized to endless hell.” [Virgil Warren, What the Bible Says About Salvation, (1982)].
“Although the Scriptures never explicitly teach that someone who has never heard of Jesus can be saved, we do not believe that it infers this. We do believe that every person will have an opportunity to repent, and that God will not exclude anyone because he happened to be born at the wrong place and at the wrong time.” [Josh McDowell and Don Stewart, Answers to Tough Questions, (1993)].
God, through Jeremiah, states that He is going to make an end of Judah because of her sins. "When they fast, I am not going to listen to their cry; and when they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I am not going to accept them. Rather I am going to make an end of them by the sword, famine and pestilence" (Jeremiah 14:12). But Jeremiah objects. He points out that these people had been told lies, so they did not know the truth. "But, 'Ah, Lord GOD!' I said, 'Look, the prophets are telling them, "You will not see the sword nor will you have famine, but I will give you lasting peace in this place."'" (Jeremiah 14:13). God then pronounces punishment for the lying prophets. "Then the LORD said to me, "The prophets are prophesying falsehood in My name. I have neither sent them nor commanded them nor spoken to them; they are prophesying to you a false vision, divination, futility and the deception of their own minds. Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the prophets who are prophesying in My name, although it was not I who sent them--yet they keep saying, 'There will be no sword or famine in this land' --by sword and famine those prophets shall meet their end!" (Jeremiah 14:14-15). But He doesn't stop there. God also has choice words for the people who heeded the false prophets. "The people also to whom they are prophesying will be thrown out into the streets of Jerusalem because of the famine and the sword; and there will be no one to bury them--neither them, nor their wives, nor their sons, nor their daughters--for I will pour out their own wickedness on them" (Jeremiah 14:16). Being taught wrong is no excuse when you can learn what is right.
"Now if a person sins and does any of the things which the LORD has commanded not to be done, though he was unaware, still he is guilty and shall bear his punishment. He is then to bring to the priest a ram without defect from the flock, according to your valuation, for a guilt offering. So the priest shall make atonement for him concerning his error in which he sinned unintentionally and did not know it, and it will be forgiven him" (Leviticus 5:17-18).
God also held people responsible for laws that they had never learned. Sins done in ignorance could be forgiven once a person learned the truth and met God's requirements for the forgiveness of his sins.
Jesus taught that ignorance might soften punishment, but it doesn't eliminate it. "And that slave who knew his master's will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more" (Luke 12:47-48).
Consider that when Jesus was crucified, he asked the Father, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). Peter confirmed that the Jews had acted in ignorance. "And now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, just as your rulers did also" (Acts 3:17). But they were still responsible for murdering the Lord of Glory. "'Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ--this Jesus whom you crucified.' Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Brethren, what shall we do?' Peter said to them, 'Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit'" (Acts 2:36-38). They had sins of which they had to repent in order to be saved.
Paul wanted his fellow Jews saved. "Brethren, my heart's desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God's righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God" (Romans 10:1-3). Their ignorance of the truth was leading them to certain death.
As you noted, Jesus gave the great commission, commanding that disciples were to be made of all nations. All nations were to be instructed in the teachings of Christ (Matthews 28:19-20). If people who never heard the gospel are necessarily saved, then introducing the gospel to them puts their souls in jeopardy. They might hear the gospel and reject it. Therefore, teaching the gospel would cause some people to be lost. Hearing the gospel and rejecting it could cause one to lose his hope of salvation (Hebrews 10:26). Even if the gospel is accepted and later rejected, they are lost (Hebrews 6:4-6). If they did respond to the gospel, then they were saved before hearing the gospel and they continue to be saved after hearing the gospel, then the gospel made no effect on their salvation! Clearly this is nonsense!
Why are people lost? Are they lost because of ignorance or because they have sinned against God? It should be clear that people are lost because of their sins. Those sins exist regardless of the knowledge of the person committing the sins. "For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified" (Romans 2:12-13). Notice that those who sin while under the law are judged by that law; yet, those who sin without the law also perish! Having or not having the law did not alter the outcome. It only altered the standards to which they were judged. Even without the law, people sin and the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).
The only way to be saved is through Jesus Christ (John 14:6). There is no other path available. "For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory" (II Timothy 2:10).
What happens to those who are outside of Christ? "For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power" (II Thessalonians 1:6-9). Ignorance does not save. Ignorance leads people to eternal ruin.
This is why Christians are motivated to spread the gospel. We understand the danger of not knowing. "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men" (II Corinthians 5:10-11).