God's Plans For The Unreached

Main Verses

First of all, we must notice that the Old Testament mostly speaks about people hardening their own hearts. Hardening is regularly blamed on the people themselves. For example, Zedekiah hardened his heart and would not turn to the LORD (2 Chronicles 36:13; compare Proverbs 28:14; Ezekiel 3:4–9). In fact, most hardening passages are about God’s warnings to men and women not to harden themselves. Why do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did? (1 Samuel 6:6). Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts (Psalm 95:7–8). Second, we must remember that most Bible passages about hard hearts refer to God’s chosen Israelites. Even when Bible passages speak about God actively causing hearts to harden, most refer to God hardening His own people, not those unreached by the truth. Many passages describe hardening as a JUNGMENT on His own people for their constant rebellion (for example, Isaiah 6:9–13). Paul taught that God had hardened Israel temporarily in order to show mercy to the Gentiles (Romans 11:22–31).

Third, we must notice that there are Old Testament passages which describe God reaching out to those He threatened with judgment, rather than simply hardening them. For example, although God threatened to destroy the city of Nineveh, in His mercy He sent Jonah to give the inhabitants another chance to repent (Jonah 4:2). Indeed, so many of the Ninevites turned from their evil ways that they were spared for many, many years (Jonah 3:10). This fits very well with Jeremiah’s later teaching: if God has announced that a nation will be destroyed, but that nation repents of its evil, God will relent and not carry out His judgment (Jeremiah 18:5–10).

However, we must admit that some hardening passages do teach that God hardened the hearts of the unreached. God is even described as hardening entire nations in order to destroy them (Deuteronomy 2:30–31). This was especially true for the idolatrous nations in the land of Canaan. After the sin of the Canaanites had reached its full measure (Genesis 15:16), the LORD himself . . . hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy (Joshua 11:20). What does this mean? Some Christians believe that this hardening of the Canaanites for judgment occurred only after a long time of opportunity for REPENTANCE and turning to God. Others believe God never gave the Canaanites the chance to repent, but only gave them more time to make their idolatry and sin completely clear to themselves and the nations around them.

Finally, the Old Testament also speaks about God hardening the hearts of individuals. The most well known was Pharaoh of EGYPT at the time of the Exodus. Pharaoh’s story shows several of the points discussed above. First, although God predicted beforehand that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart, the history in Exodus shows that Pharaoh actually hardened his own heart several times (Exodus 5:2; 8:15,32) before it finally records that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart after the sixth plague1 (9:12). Even after that, Pharaoh hardened his own heart several more times (Exodus 9:17,34) before God is described as hardening him again (10:20,27). Second, God hardened Pharaoh in order to bring mighty acts of judgment on Egypt as a nation (Exodus 7:3–4; 10:1–2). God told Pharaoh He had spared Egypt from total destruction, adding, “I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exodus 9:15–16).

Paul quoted this verse in the New Testament, while teaching about the hard hearts of his fellow Jews (Romans 9:17). Throughout the chapter, Paul’s meaning becomes much clearer if we examine the Old Testament passages he used. Notice that Paul pointed to the same narrowing of God’s election which we saw above—first to Abraham’s second son Isaac, not Ishmael (9:6–9), and then to Isaac’s second son Jacob, not Esau (9:10–13). Neither of these divine choices concerned the individual’s salvation, but referred to the nation of Israel, His chosen people, as a group. Even the prediction that the older will serve the younger (Genesis 25:23) was never fulfilled by Esau himself, but only by his descendants, called Edomites, hundreds of years later (2 Samuel 8:14). Paul’s quotation, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (from Malachi 1:2–3 at the very end of the Old Testament) was God’s condemnation of Esau’s descendants, because the Edomites had betrayed their Israelite kinsmen many times in the past (Numbers 20:14–21; Ezekiel 25:12; Amos 1:6–12; Obadiah 8–10). Even so, most scholars believe the word “hate” here does not mean emotional malice. The sentence means that God turned away from the Edomites to protect and care for the Israelites (compare Luke 14:26).

After this, Paul pointed to Pharaoh as an example of both God’s hardening (to punish Egypt) and His mercy (by not totally destroying them). Pharaoh’s story is more about God’s desire to punish the nation of Egypt than it is about judgment of Pharaoh as an individual. But even so, it is hard to understand Paul’s statement that a loving God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden (Romans 9:18). Christians have struggled for a long time to explain this. Two different views have been suggested.

Some Christians believe that Pharaoh was never free to agree with Moses, because God had already decided to punish Egypt. They point to God’s plan to harden Pharaoh’s heart before the plagues had begun (Exodus 4:21). In Romans 9:21, Paul went on to say that a potter has the right to make the clay into whatever vessel he wants, some for noble purposes and some for common use. Therefore, these believers teach that God never wanted Pharaoh to let the Israelites go until Egypt had been punished. They believe that Pharaoh had always been prepared for destruction (Romans 9:22), and that God was the one who prepared him for it.

Other Christians believe a second view. They teach that at the beginning Pharaoh was free to choose whether or not to agree to Moses’ request. But after Pharaoh hardened his own heart several times, God confirmed Pharaoh in his hardness in order to punish Egypt. These Christians believe that God’s plan to harden Pharaoh’s heart in the end did not force Pharaoh to refuse Moses the first few times he did so. They believe that God would never command Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, and then prevent Pharaoh from obeying. Paul’s example of the potter is taken from the Old Testament, especially Isaiah 29:16 and Jeremiah 18:1–10. Yet God had told Jeremiah that if a nation or kingdom repents, He would relent and not carry out His announced judgment. Elsewhere, Paul applied Jeremiah’s teaching to individuals (2 Timothy 2:20–21). Therefore, the hardening of individuals may not be permanent (Romans 11:22–25). Finally, Paul never wrote who actually prepared the vessels of wrath for destruction (Romans 9:22). It may have been God, or it may have been the persons themselves. These believers teach that those who are under God’s wrath have hardened their own hearts long before God further hardens them—a two-stage process described by Paul: they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and . . . be condemned (2 Thessalonians 2:10–12).

But how hard is a hardened heart? Even Pharaoh was not permanently hardened, since he eventually let the Israelites leave. After they had left, Pharaoh changed back to his former hardness toward the Israelites, and again God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to destroy the Egyptian army (Exodus 14:5,8). Most Christians believe that hearts remain “soft” as long as God is drawing them to Himself (John 6:44; Acts 16:14). According to this teaching, the Holy Spirit eventually stops calling the hard of heart.2 Hardened men and women can no longer hear His voice, nor do they want to hear it. The sin against the HOLY SPIRIT may only be unforgivable because the sinner is no longer able to repent (Mark 3:28–29).

God’s Call to the Unreached

Whatever we may think about Pharaoh’s hard heart and Egypt’s judgment, several questions remain. During Old Testament times, did God truly desire salvation for the people of other nations, especially for those who had never heard the truth? Today also, there are many who have never heard about Jesus Christ. Can God call the unreached to Himself? These are difficult questions.

We must remember that some of the ancestors of Jesus were originally unbelievers—that is, they were not originally part of God’s chosen people and did not follow the God of Israel. For example, Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute in Jericho before the Israelites conquered and destroyed the inhabitants. She and her family were spared because she had hidden Israel’s spies from the king of Jericho (Joshua 6:25). She did this because she believed in the God of Israel (Joshua 2:9–11; Hebrews 11:31). Rahab became the mother (or ancestor) of the very Boaz who later married Ruth, another non-Israelite. Ruth was a Moabite whose Israelite husband had died. She dedicated herself to her mother-in-law’s God, the God of Israel (Ruth 1:16–17), and became an ancestor of King David (Matthew 1:5). God called both of these women out of their past religion to believe and trust in the God of Israel. Many other non-Israelites trusted in the true God. For example, Naaman from the land of Aram believed the word of God given through the prophet Elisha and was healed from leprosy. When he returned to his own land, he promised to worship only the God of Israel for the rest of his life (2 Kings 5:15–19). Rahab, Ruth and Naaman were blessed to hear about the true God. But was there any hope for those living far away from Israel? Is there hope for those of today who have never heard about Jesus?

Some Christians believe that God chooses only some individuals for salvation, and chooses the rest for damnation. For many are invited, but few are chosen3 (Matthew 22:14). They teach that only those to whom God sends both the word and the Spirit can be saved. If God plans to save some of the unreached of the world, these Christians believe that He will arrange for the chosen ones to hear about the true God through the written or preached word of God (Romans 10:14). Hearing the word with the ears is not enough. The Holy Spirit must also work inside, softening the heart so that it will repent and trust in God (1 Corinthians 2:14). God Himself must give repentance (Acts 5:31; 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25) and grant the gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8; Philippians 1:29). In addition, these Christians teach that those who are called by the Spirit cannot reject God’s call, since their hard hearts are softened and changed by the Spirit at the very moment He calls them. According to this first view, God never planned to save every individual, so He limits this internal call by the Holy Spirit only to those He has chosen for salvation. Those not chosen for salvation may hear the word preached to them (“external call only”), but without the Spirit’s work along with the word (“internal call also”) their heart will not be changed and they will not repent. Those who hold this view believe that God did not give either kind of call to the unreached peoples living during Old Testament times. Similarly, they believe that God has not called those living today who have never heard the name of Jesus (Acts 4:12). According to this first view, if God chooses to give an internal call by the Holy Spirit, He always arranges an external call by the word as well.

Other Christians hold a second view, almost the opposite of the first one. They agree that God calls many people through the word and Spirit together. But they point out that the Holy Spirit is fully able to give an “internal-only” call to people unreached by the external word of God. Further, they believe that God actually gives this “secret call” to everyone. God wants all men to be saved (1 Timothy 2:3–6; compare Romans 11:32) and everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Those holding this second view believe that everyone is able to reject any of these calls by God. Preaching may help persuade people to accept Jesus Christ (Spirit and word together), but God can draw hearts to Himself even if the external word is not available (Spirit only). God wants us to seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27–28). These Christians expect that just as most people end up rejecting the preached word, so most who have never heard about Jesus will also reject the Spirit’s secret call. However, some will follow the internal light they receive and trust in the God who spoke to them. Some of the sheep in Jesus’ parable of the judgment (Matthew 25:31–46) may not have heard about Jesus, but accepted a secret call by the Spirit and lived accordingly (see Matthew 8:11–12; John 10:16; Romans 2:12–16).

How can God give this secret call? The Bible makes it clear that everyone hears the speech and voice of God through created nature (Psalm 19:1–4; Romans 1:20). But these Christians believe God goes beyond natural revelation and gives a special revelation of Himself to each individual. God said, “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me” (Isaiah 65:1), and Paul applied these verses to the unreached (Romans 10:18–20). Some believers claim that through a dream or vision they received a secret call from God before they first heard the name of Jesus.4 True, individuals can only be saved through Jesus (Acts 4:12). But according to this view, people do not have to know His name to be saved by Him (1 Timothy 4:10). This view teaches that God not only wants every person to be saved, but He gives at least His internal call to every person in the world. Many receive an “external call also,” through the word, but many die unreached by any external call. According to this second view all the unreached receive at least one “internal-only” secret call by the Spirit, which God allows them to accept or reject.

Still other Christians believe a third view, in between the two views given above. They believe that God gives only one kind of call—an external and internal call at the same time, with word and Holy Spirit “always together.” Furthermore, they believe that God has allowed those called to resist this combined call. They deny that the Bible teaches two calls of any kind, whether those two calls are said to be by the word with or without the Spirit (the first view), or by the Spirit with or without the word (the second view). They teach that God always sends His Holy Spirit whenever His word is being read or preached. God said, “. . . my word . . . will not return to me empty, but will . . . achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). Those holding this third view believe that God would never send out His word without also giving the ability to respond to it. Otherwise, such a word would not only return empty, but go forth empty as well (without the Spirit). These Christians agree with the first view that the Spirit must soften the heart of those hearing the word, giving it the ability to repent. But they believe that the Spirit gives the ability to repent to everyone who hears the word. They do not believe there is a second kind of “external call only,” by the word without the Spirit. Nor do they believe that the Spirit’s call is irresistible. According to this view, when God held out His hands all day long to a disobedient and obstinate people (Isaiah 65:2; Romans 10:21), God truly called them through His Spirit. But each of them was free to refuse God’s call.

On the other hand, this third group agrees with the second group that God wants every person to be saved, but they do not believe that the Bible teaches a secret “internal-only” call by the Spirit without the word. Although such a secret call to everyone is a merciful idea, they do not believe it is clearly taught in Scripture. Rather, the Bible seems to teach that God’s call is limited by us—by our own mission efforts, or lack of them. Paul asked: And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? He answered that faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ (Romans 10:14,17). According to this view, God wants everyone to be saved. Therefore every time His word is preached, the Holy Spirit will truly call every one of the hearers (word and Spirit “always together”). But Jesus gave us the responsibility to preach the word. If His word is not preached, there is no call at all.

The Bible is not completely clear on this question. According to the first view, the word may be preached to many people (“external call only”), but unless the Spirit gives an “internal call also” they cannot be saved. If God chooses to save someone, He will arrange for that person to be reached by the word, but the Spirit will call only some of those who hear the word. According to the second view, God not only wants everyone to be saved, but even if the word is not preached to them, the Spirit gives everyone at least one “internal-only” secret call. Of course, many will receive an “external call also” by hearing the word. According to the third view, God only has one kind of call—the word and Spirit “always together.” God wants everyone to be saved, and therefore calls everyone when they hear the word, but the Spirit limits His call to those who are reached by the evangelism of the church. Each of these three views has support from many Christians. But if it is true that people who have never heard about Jesus cannot be saved, shouldn’t our mission efforts be much more active and urgent than ever?

A Final Word

If many are unreached by any call during life, is there any hope after death? Most Christians believe that death removes all chances to repent (Luke 16:19–31; Hebrews 9:27). However, the Bible teaches that those who have never heard the truth will not be punished as severely as those who heard the word and rejected it. Jesus said that the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows (Luke 12:48). And Paul taught that those who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law (Romans 2:12). Some Christians go further and suggest that those who have never truly heard the truth about Jesus during their lifetime may hear the Gospel after death and be given their first real chance to accept it and repent (see Matthew 25:31–46; 1 Peter 3:19; 4:5). But these few hints cannot reassure us that after death the unreached have much hope.

No matter what views we hold on all these questions, we should not condemn our fellow Christians for having different opinions from our own. All Christians agree that the Bible teaches at least one sure way to bring the unreached into God’s kingdom—reach them with the word of God. After all, God commands us to share the good news of Jesus Christ with those who have not heard it. Jesus told the church, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15). And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? (Romans 10:14–15). What is our response?

1 After some of the plagues, Exodus records that Pharaoh’s heart became hard (7:13,22; 8:19; 9:7), but the passive verb does not say who caused the hardening.

2 For further discussion on the sin that leads to death (1 John 5:16), see General Article: Can We Lose Our Salvation?, in The Applied New Testament Commentary.

3 For further discussion, see General Article: Salvation—God’s Choice or Man’s Choice?, in The Applied New Testament Commentary.

4 Later, these all did learn about Jesus. Even supporters of this view will only find out in heaven if anyone was truly saved by a secret call without hearing the word.

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