“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch
like me.” “Therefore He is able to save completely those who come to
God through Him, Because He always lives to intercede for them.” (Hebrews 7:25) The
greatest news in the world is that Jesus came to save sinners (Luke 19:10)-sinners
like you and me.
The thieves who were crucified with Jesus were probably
violent, ruthless bandits or insurrectionists (λῃστής). One
recognized his guilt (Luke 23:39-43),
confessed his sins to Jesus and asked for mercy when he begged, “Remember me in
Your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42). Although Jesus was
struggling with His suffering, writhing in His pain, shedding His blood and
dealing with His death He promised the thief, “Today you will be with Me in
paradise.” (Luke 23:43).
Grace, how sweet and incredible it is! Imagine
how it must have felt to have that assurance of salvation while hanging on the
cross knowing that once physical life ended eternal life would begin in
paradise with the Son of God. Sweet mercy and amazing grace as this thief
felt a sense of confidence, security, and peace he had never felt
You can have the same confidence, the same peace, and the
same security as the thief as if Jesus had personally said to you, “Today you
will be with me in paradise.” John said that these things have been
written: “so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 John 5:13) “And
the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in
His Son.” (1 John 5:11) Today
you can be just as saved-to the same degree-as the thief on the
cross. But, how can this be accomplished?
You must obey the words of Christ. “My sheep hear
my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal
life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My
hand.” (John 10:27-28) We must follow Jesus to
receive eternal life. We can feel secure of our salvation by keeping
His commands. “By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says
he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He
walked.” (1 John 2:5-6) God’s
grace saves us, and we come to know His saving grace through faithful obedience
to His word; “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not
obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” (John 3:36)
Nowhere does God say you must be perfect, nor does He expect
it; He asks that you give Him your best. The point is that you
cannot purposely sin and have any hope of salvation. That’s exactly
what Paul argued in Romans 6:1-2;
“What shall we say then? Shall we keep on sinning so that God can
keep on showing us more and more grace and forgiveness? May it never
be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” God
wants us to give Him our best by giving Him our hearts. (Mark 12:30)
But, what about the thief on the cross? Some ask,
“Why can’t I be saved like the thief on the cross?” The simple
answer is, “Because you can’t. You can’t be saved like the thief
just like you can’t be saved like Moses, Elijah and Moses-they all lived under
a different law than we do today.
While Jesus was alive He saved and forgave sins because He
has all authority (Mark 2:10). However, when Jesus
died and ascended into heaven, His last will and testament became the way He
offers salvation to mankind (Hebrews 9:13-17). And
how Jesus today has decided to forgive sins is through obedience, beginning
with repentance and baptism (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21).
You can’t be saved like the thief on the cross because he
lived under a different law. Jesus’ law was not yet in effect (Col. 2:14). If
you want to be saved like the thief on the cross, you will be rebelling against
Jesus’ last will and testament, and you will end up damned like the other thief.
“What will happen to those who have never heard the gospel nor had an opportunity to obey it?” Is ignorance an excuse? Usually the one posing theses questions is asking about those ignorant of the gospel and will reference someone in the jungles of South America or the Dark Continent (Africa). They seem to think there are some tribesman who will never be able to hear the gospel proclamation because of politics or being so far back into the jungle.
It is pointed out these have no modern conveniences with which to hear
the gospel (Romans 10:15). They seemingly forget the statement of Paul
in Colossians 1:23, “if indeed you continue in the faith firmly
established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the
gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven…” But let us leave that thought for the moment.
What the one asking the question is really trying to ascertain is whether or not ignorance is an excuse. Keep in mind that ignorance, as defined by Webster is not necessarily the lack of ability to know but the lack of knowledge, education, or awareness.
Actually there are three classes of people who are ignorant. Some people are ignorant of various ideas and concepts having never been taught. Others are ignorant because they have never taken the time to learn or are unwilling to take the time to learn. Neither of these first two categories of people are ignorant because of inabilities. The third class of people are those who are ignorant because of inabilities. These fit into the same realm as innocent children—safe in the arms of Jesus. Those who we are concerned with in this article are those who fit into one of the first two categories, but the bottom line is “Is ignorance an excuse?”
Those Who Know Not God
Because the Bible provides “to us everything pertaining to life and godliness…” (2 Peter 1:3), we can expect to find a Bible answer to this question. One passage that bears on this thought is 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8 where Paul wrote, “it is only right…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.”
Surely, all realize those who are ignorant of the gospel message do not know God. Therefore, those who are ignorant of the gospel message are those who Christ will take vengeance against. Remember Colossians 1:23? At one time everyone has the opportunity to hear. Because someone rejected that opportunity in the past does not excuse someone today.
When Paul entered into the city of Athens, he passed by an altar with
the inscription, “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD” (Acts 17:23). In his address to the
Athenians on Mars’ Hill, he said that “having overlooked the times of
ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should
repent” (Acts 17:30). Because Paul said “all people,” this admonition
excludes no one and because he said “everywhere,” it matters not where
they might live.
As Paul begins the book of Romans, he deals with the sins of Jews and Gentiles. Concerning the Gentiles he wrote, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). In this passage Paul notes God manifested Himself in the things that He created. This same line of reasoning can and should be applied to all men. No man is without excuse because we can look inwardly and know that God exists. And we can look at the universe and know that God exists. Since we can know that God exists, we have a responsibility to Him to do His will.
One Way of Salvation
The Bible clearly teaches that there is only one way of salvation and that is through Jesus. In John 14:6, Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” Undeniably, Jesus is the only way to the Father. Since He is the only way, there can be no other way. He is not just the provider of the way, but is Himself the way. Nor is He just the proclaimer of the way for, again, He is the way—the one and only way. If ignorance is an excuse, then there would be two ways of salvation—ignorance and Jesus. Therefore, because Jesus is the only way, ignorance cannot be a way.
Further, Luke records in Acts 4:12, “there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” Again the emphasis is placed on Jesus as being the one and only way of salvation. Heaven’s door is open because of His atonement, because of His blood, and because of His sacrifice. Thus, “WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED” (Romans 10:13). If we for any reason do not call upon the name of the Lord, there is no salvation. Only in Him is redemption found. It cannot be found in ignorance for in Him only is there salvation.
In Christ, we are blessed with “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). Certainly, salvation is a spiritual blessing and it, too, is found in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 2:10). In some cases, ignorance may be bliss, but it is without doubt no spiritual blessing nor is ignorance of spiritual things found in Christ. In Christ, we have redemption, justification, sanctification, and salvation while in ignorance, there is only damnation and condemnation.
Sin Condemns, Not the Gospel
What causes a person to be lost is sin. Paul wrote, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Death is separation. Physical death is the separation of body and spirit (James 2:26), while spiritual death is separation from God. Notice what Isaiah wrote to Israel of old: “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear” (Isaiah 59:2). It is sin which separates man from God (not God’s sins but man’s sins). What causes a person to be separated from God is NOT his or her knowledge of the gospel. It is sin.
If a person has the ability to be saved because of ignorance, the gospel is not a gospel of salvation, it is a gospel of condemnation. If someone who is isolated from the rest of the world and never had the opportunity to hear the gospel can be saved because of his ignorance, then when the gospel is preached to him, it would bring condemnation rather than salvation if he did not respond to it favorably. It would not be “the glorious gospel” (1 Timothy 1:11), it would be the horrible gospel. Nor would not be “the gospel of peace” (Romans 10:15), it would be the gospel of conflict. Also, it would not be “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24), it would be the gospel of the brutality of God. There would be no “hope of the gospel” (Colossians 1:23), only despair.
This justification through ignorance would make the gospel of no power rather than “the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16). It would make the “Great Commission” of Jesus useless, unproductive, and vain. However, even the sacrifice of Jesus would be of no value if man could be saved through ignorance. It would be better for the world not to know than to know and to be condemned. If man could be saved in ignorance, we are doing no favors to anyone by teaching the gospel. We ought not name the name of Christ among the nations for it would be better to leave every person untaught.
To some, these things are hard. However, the hardness is not that they are unloving. Jesus Christ paid the price for every person and that price was His own precious blood. For “though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Because God “will have all men to be saved,” Christ Jesus “gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:4,6). “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). These are the most loving words to ever pierce the hearing of man. These things are hard because of the weight of responsibility placed upon every person.
To those who are ignorant of spiritual matters, it is your responsibility to know God and to obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 1:8). God would not have you to be ignorant but “to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4) and to purify your souls by obeying the truth (1 Peter 1:22).
To obey the truth, you must believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (John 8:24) and turn from your sins by repenting (Luke 13:3). You then must be “buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). When you are buried with Him by baptism, the Lord adds you to His church (Acts 2:47). If you are faithful in this new life even unto death, Jesus promises that He will give unto you “a crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).
Those who are the children of God are to publish and to herald His word to the four corners of the earth. If we really care about that isolated, ignorant and unenlightened tribesman, we would do everything in our power to send the gospel light to the far reaches of the world. We would not hold back the gospel, but proclaim it at every dawning of the morning and every dusk of the evening. And like the apostle Paul, we feel indebted to every man and compelled to preach the gospel (Romans 1:14-15). Because ignorance is no excuse, woe is unto us, if we preach not the gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:16).
The situations we face in life can usually be handled in several different ways. But, God saw to it that Israel, His Old Testament people, were drawn to an inescapable conclusion in Ecclesiastes 12:13. This is one Old Testament Commandment that is also applicable to those of us in New Testament times. Of course, all of God’s Directives to man must be “rightly divided” (2 Timothy 2:15). In that way they can be properly understood and followed.
But you may be asking: “Why is keeping the Commandments of God the whole duty of man?” Because man will be judged! And either sentenced to eternity in a place of condemnation or rewarded with eternity with God. When Jesus came to earth, He did not come to judge man (John 12:47). Jesus will become judge after His present reign over the kingdom for which He gave His life on Calvary’s cross. We also know that the kingdom exists now and is not some future entity which is to be expected.
The judgment is an inescapable conclusion if one reads and studies the Bible. We do not know when this will occur, except to the degree the Bible tells us. But in 1 Corinthians 15:24-26 we do know that Christ will “rule” and “reign” until the end.
This leads to another inescapable conclusion; that all will die. Hebrews 9:27 makes this clear that death precedes judgment. From these passages, one must conclude all will have died (or been changed) when the judgment will occur (1 Corinthians 15:51).
From these Bible facts, we can conclude the time to make the needed changes in our lives is while we have full access of our faculties. One way of making the changes that are needed within us is to prioritize. Jesus told those hearing Him the “kingdom” (the church) and the righteousness of God would have to be first in their lives (Matthew 6:33). The “these things” of which the Lord spoke were the other necessities of life such as food, raiment, and shelter.
The Choice Is Ours
How do we prioritize our lives to ensure that we seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness first? Well, it must be through that which will judge us after this life is over(John 12:48). It is a choice all must make. We can receive His Word or we can reject it. As we read John 12:49-50, the verses that follow, we can surely “conclude” that God’s Word was what Jesus spoke. If we want the desired outcome at the judgment, we must put the Word of God first in our lives. It is an inescapable conclusion that only the Word of God, rightly divided and properly lived leads to the eternal life.
What is it that is keeping you from doing the things found in the Word of God? Why can we not see that God’s Word is that which directs us? The Psalmist wrote, “Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). It is an inescapable conclusion that if we walk the path of this life without the light of the gospel, we will reach a destination we do not wish to reach.
What must I do to he saved? How can I receive forgiveness (remission of sins)? What does God demand of me? This question, in one form or another, has been asked over and over since God put mankind on this earth. This is the very same question that many Jews on the day of Pentecost wanted answered. These are the very same people who, some forty days earlier had cried out for the torturous death of Jesus. So, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter spoke the words needed to pierce their hearts (Acts 2:22-36).
The people, instead of reacting to this accusation with anger, as some today, reacted with godly sorrow: “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). They were asking the question of universal interest to all. What shall we do? How do we gain atonement for our sins’? They wanted to know what was necessary to remove the stain of blood from our hands’?
But remission of sins comes by grace
What shall we do? Do; was it possible that there was something that they (or we) could do? People for ages have insisted quite strenuously that there is nothing we can do in order to have our sins forgiven. Their rational is, “If we must do something, salvation is not of grace – it is not the free gift of God.”
Is it possible that salvation can be of grace and that we still must do something to obtain it? An illustration used to make the point go something like this: Two men were sitting at the table talking. when one noticed the other had a very nice pen. Upon the man commenting about the nice pen, the owner of the pen held it out and said, “You may have it.” Here is a gift. This is an act of grace. The man did not pay for the pen. the other simply gave it to him.
But, if this man took the modern notion of grace he would have simply sat there and stared at the pen. Why? If the gift is of grace, there is nothing for him to do to obtain the gift. If he so much as reached out his hand to take the pen he has “worked” for it and the gift is not of grace. He, however, not burdened by this false notion of grace, would take the pen and thank the owner for his gracious offer. He did something.
Those on Pentecost understood remission of sins and salvation
And indeed, on the day of Pentecost there was something the crowd had to do. In fact, there were several things. First, they had to recognize (believe) that Jesus was indeed the Christ. Notice, something they had to do. They demonstrated this by their reaction to Peter’s sermon. Having believed, they felt they must do more. Peter, guided by the Holy Spirit, agreed. His directions were simple: “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 2:38).
They were commanded to repent; change their heart and ways. Also, they were commanded to be baptized. The result? The remission (blotting out) of their sins. As straight forward as this seems. many who would call themselves Christians claim forgiveness of sins is not contingent upon baptism. Their reasoning goes; baptism is a “work” and if remission requires you to do anything, it cannot be of grace. They fail to comprehend what was said in John 6:28-29 about belief.
If we say baptism paid the price for sin, the argument would have some merit. But the fact is, I know of no one who teaches that baptism earns forgiveness of sins. Simply being obedient to God earns us nothing. We are His and this is our duty (Luke 17:10). Every one I am acquainted with (regardless of religious affiliation) accepts the necessity of belief and repentance for forgiveness. But these are things one must do. So, also, must one be baptized.
When does remission of sins come?
One objection continually raised by some is; Acts 2:38 says “because of the remission of sins . . .” instead of “for the remission of sins ….” Their reasoning; A person is baptized because he is saved, not in order to be saved. Circular logic comes into play at this point. The proponents of this reasoning argue salvation happens when they believe (and repent), otherwise salvation is of works, not faith. Despite this claim, not one single respectable translation of the Bible contains this reading! For comparrison refer to the KJV, NKJV, ASV, NASB, MV, NCV, RSV, NRSV and any other acronyms that you can think of.
In fact, Peter’s words properly translated into English remain: “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 2:38). Three thousand people understood that day and were baptized (Acts 2:41). There is a similar passage when Ananias is instructing Saul (later known as the apostle Paul) as to what was necessary for the remission of sins in Acts 22:16. If you want remission of your sins, you will believe, repent, and be baptized.