Romans 1:20 and the tribes in Africa

“What about the tribe in Africa that’s never heard of Jesus?” I’ve had a handful of people ask me questions like this and I know a lot of people who have been asked similar questions. “Does a tribe in an isolated part of the world that’s never heard of Jesus go to hell for not accepting Him as their savior? That hardly sounds like a loving God!”

In short, people are only held accountable for what they know. The Bible says in Romans 1:19-20 that creation alone proclaims that it has a Maker. This is called God’s “general revelation.” Indeed, it is hard to look at the stars or a mountain landscape and not feel a sense of grandeur and realize that you are a very, very small speck. Psalm 19:1-6 says that the stars declare and proclaim God’s work; there is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. In other words, to some degree all creation reveals that there is a God and it has done so in all places, languages, and times in history.

Paul goes on in Romans 2:14-15 to say that when people who do not have God’s Law meet the requirements of that Law, they are showing that in their heart they know that things are supposed to be a certain way and they are trying to meet those requirements. C.S. Lewis calls this “oughtness” in Mere Christianity. This act alone demonstrates a conviction to do “the right thing” even though people fall short.

Although these African tribes may not know the specific requirements of God through head knowledge and even though they may have never heard the name Jesus, the “Law,” or a feeling of how they ought to behave, is written on their hearts. They know the difference between right and wrong. Thus when these hypothetical tribesmen violate their own understanding of what is right, they condemn themselves. Conversely, when they do what they know to be right, their own conscienes defend them. Their clean conscienses save them or their guilty consciences condemn them.

Some people ask this question out of genuine concern, and some ask this question as an excuse to reject God. Again, from Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says, “if you are worried about the people outside, the most unreasonable thig you can do is to remain outside yourself.” His statement makes a lot of sense to me. If I were worried about people getting exposed to acid rain, would it make any sense for me to stay outside in the acid rain because others were unable to go inside? Of course not!

To the non-Christian I would just ask one thing. If, as we stated to start this discussion, you’re only held accountable for what you know, then the only question that remains is this: What will you do with the knowledge you have; will you accept or squander the gift that’s been freely offered to you?

To the Christian I say: What’s keeping you from making sure that everyone knows about the freedom that’s been offered to them?

“Come as you are” 1 Corinthians 1:26

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.

Think about what this passage means for just a second. It doesn’t really need to be contextualized for me to make my point, but I’ll go ahead and briefly do so. Paul is writing to the Christians in the city of Corinth (which is a city that was known for many sinful things including its temple with a thousand prostitutes). Paul is really still making introductions and is just starting his letter. He’s reminding the Corinthian church who they were before they became Christians, which likely includes prostitutes, pimps, and customers. (Another great place where Paul discusses pre-Christian living is Ephesians 2:1-4 where he is again writing to Christians.) Paul is reminding the Corinthians that, essentially, they didn’t earn anything. Salvation was not given to them because of intelligence, rank, status, or as a birthright. In other words, they weren’t saved because they were “good enough.”

My point is this, Jesus invites us to Him as we are, not as we should be. He allows us to come to him dirty, not clean; sinful, not righteous because He is the only one who can make us clean and righteous. There are no “dress codes” for us to approach Christ. There are no prerequisites. There is no application process. There are no try-outs. Instead, He came to us and cleansed us. There really are no standards placed upon us for us to become Christians.

In fact, accepting Christ is quite the opposite: it’s admitting that you’ve made a mess of yourself and need help. To accept the grace Christ offers us, we must admit that we’re not good enough and that we need Him to redeem us. Only then, when we give him all our ugly problems, will He set us free.

That’s the beauty of this one, easy-to-glance-over, passage: you don’t have to be a religous super-star to be loved by God. You don’t have to be super-smart. You don’t have to be a high-ranking official. You don’t have to be of noble birth. You just have to accept Jesus.