The Authority of Scripture: No. 4 - The Heathen

 •  14 min. read  •  grade level: 9
James Boyd
No. 4 — The Heathen
The question of the heathen, who have never been favored with the message of the grace of God, will naturally arise in the mind of the reader. That they will never have to give account to God for the way in which they have treated a gospel which they have never heard goes without saying. It is a principle of Scripture that where little has been given, little shall be required; but to whom much has been given, from him much shall be demanded (Luke 12:4848But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more. (Luke 12:48)). The heathen can only have to give account for the way in which they have treated whatever light they may have had given them of God. The difficulty which arises in the minds of men in connection with their accountability to God has its origin in the fact, that in the heart of each lurks the latent desire to at all costs justify himself. It is natural to him as a sinner, and is a great proof of his fallen condition.
Surely the Creator has a right to do as He pleases in and with His own creation. If man has not answered the purpose for which he was created, God must please Himself as to how He shall deal with him. He may condemn him without giving him any opportunity of salvation, as He has done with fallen angels; or He may act toward him in the way of grace, as He does to men generally; or He may save him by His sovereign mercy, as He does the elect; and who can call His ways in question? He made man, to begin with, and His rights over him are supreme. He can kill and make alive, and He does so without consulting His creature. The whole universe is completely in His power, and it must be so, for it is the work of His hands. The fallen sinner may rebel against His decrees, and attempt to grasp the authority which can be His only, but whether as an object of mercy or of wrath he must learn that the fear of the Lord is the thing for him to cultivate, for this is true wisdom.
It is important to get right ideas of God. I do not mean only in His grace, which must be learned in the gospel, but as a Creator. “Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest Thou? or Thy work, He hath no hands?” (Isa. 45:99Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands? (Isaiah 45:9)). I have not yet come to consider what God makes, or what He does with what He makes; I am only seeking to show, that if you allow the idea of a Creator at all (and a man must be mad who does not), you must allow that He has a right to do just as He pleases; to make what He pleases, and to do that which He pleases with the thing that He has made. No one ever yet gave God this His rightful place but Christ, who, having taken the place of man, maintained that place consistently, to the glory of God, from the manger to the cross. He held Himself here at the disposal of God, and though He did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth, yet He became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. That it was the will of God was a sufficient explanation of every circumstance in which He found Himself.
I have dwelt long upon this principle, because of its importance in our consideration of God’s ways with men in His dealings with the world. That no man has been, or could be, clothed with unlimited authority, and be so free from outside influences that he could carry out the desires of his heart I suppose no one will question. Many considerations conspire together to prevent the greatest despot from working out the conceptions of his evil mind. There is the fear of degrading himself in the eyes of others, or of how the thing may recoil upon his own head. There are always outside influences at work which prevent men having their own way completely. Were it not so, a man with unlimited power would destroy the whole human race, and end all by the destruction of himself.
But God cannot be brought under any influence whatever. And yet man’s thought of God does not rise higher than himself: “Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself” (Psa. 1:21). Naturally we think of God as an evil being, and fear to have to do with Him. Being evil ourselves we cannot take in the thought of a Being supremely good: we think of Him as niggardly in the dispensing of His benefits, and vindictive in the execution of His judgment. The god of man’s conception is a demon, an evil and cruel being, endowed with the same kind of passions as himself, and influenced, in all his ways with men, by selfish considerations. To come to know Him in Jesus is to be brought out of darkness into marvelous light.
Another thing I would say before referring to the light Scripture gives us as to the heathen. Nothing can be perfectly known by the creature. This is so self-evident that I need do no more than mention the fact. The creation itself is beyond us. I know that it exists. I see it, feel it, am part of it. I see the relation which certain things bear to others. The sun, moon, and stars appeal to my senses as the handiwork of an all-wise, almighty, and supreme Being, and from them I drop down to the consideration of a globule of water or a grain of sand. But what do I know of these things? What are they made of? I may be told water is a compound of hydrogen and oxygen. But what are these gases? I may know a great deal about created things, how they will behave under certain conditions, the uses I may be able to put them to; but what they are in themselves I know not. The Creator does, but the creature cannot know what the creature is. We know all that is necessary for us to know, or perhaps I should rather say, we are capable of knowing all that God deems good for us to know. May we be content with this.
Had man remained in innocence he would not have needed a revelation from God. It was when he sinned this became necessary, and he gets it at once. He has never yet left any of His creatures without witness regarding Himself. Man being like a planet out of his orbit, nothing remains for him but destruction, unless he can be recovered and brought into right relationship with his Center. When man wheeled willfully out of his appointed course, His Creator at once intervened, and pointed the way back to righteousness, peace, and salvation. Abel took that way, and found it paved with the favor of Jehovah; Cain refused it, and became a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth. Cain had all the light that Abel had, but he was unfaithful to it; and the whole antediluvian world was not less favored, though with few exceptions the testimony of God was scorned.
There does not seem to have been any practice of idolatry until after the deluge. It may have been the tradition of the fallen angels which Satan took up, by which to ensnare men, and entice them into demon-worship. Anyhow, almost immediately after the flood mankind fell into idolatry, and idolatry is demon-worship (1 Cor. 10:2020But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils. (1 Corinthians 10:20)). The idol itself is nothing, but what is behind the idol, and which fills the heart and mind of the worshipper, is a demon. The gods of the heathen are evil beings, and the worship of demons became universal after the flood.
It was not any lack of testimony on the part of God, which brought about this state of things, but the hatred of God natural to the human heart. We have the downward career of the sons of Noah into the moral quagmire of corruption brought graphically before the vision of our souls in the first chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. They sinned against the light which they had from God, and they were, the apostle says, “without excuse.” They had all the light possessed by Abel, Enoch, and others, and these had found it sufficient to guide their footsteps back to the Source of life and happiness; and indeed they were still more favored, for they had seen by the intervention of God in the deluge how well He was able to deliver the godly, and judge the rebellious. Added to this they had the testimony of creation, the visible things bearing testimony to the invisible. The eternal power and divinity of the Creator comes to light in the works of His hands, leaving those who bow down to the idol without excuse.
This is just as true today as it was then. The heathen have the heavens declaring the glory of God, and the firmament showing His handiwork: day uttering speech unto day, and night unto night teaching knowledge. There is neither speech nor words, yet is their voice heard through all the earth, right to the extremity of the world (Psa. 19).
There are also evidences of His goodness in the fact that He gives sunshine, rain, and fruitful seasons, “filling our hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14). The object of it all is that men might feel after Him and find Him, for He is not far from any one of us (Acts 17). Man has gone far from God, and his great desire is always to increase the distance, but God has not gone far from man. The distance lies in alienation of heart and mind, and therefore man being a God-hating sinner, the distance to which he has gone is immeasurable; but God pursues him in the grace and love of His heart, ready to fall on his neck and cover him with kisses (Luke 15) the moment he, in the sorrow of his soul, turns round and begins to feel after his Creator, whom he has so heartlessly abandoned.
We are told by Paul (Acts 17) that the times of this ignorance God winked at (overlooked, or dealt with in no special way), but left man to the testimony of the visible things, against which he sinned grossly and provocatively, while wallowing in every abominable pollution that suggested itself to his corrupt and devil-deceived heart. He had sufficient testimony given him by God to light his way back to Him from whom he was gradually drifting farther and farther away; but to this he paid no regard, for the service of Satan was connected with a license for the flesh, which the idea of a holy and righteous God forbade. Because of this, the service of their fell destroyer was considered easy, his bondage was delightful, God was forgotten, and darkness reigned supreme.
It has been thus from the beginning. The testimony of God by Noah was despised, the law was trampled underfoot, the prophets were stoned, and those who foretold the coming of the Messiah were murdered. And has it been any better under the gospel dispensation? The Jews despised it, it went out to the heathen and there few believed it, and in Christendom, which is supposed to be the result of the preaching, comparatively few believe it with their hearts. Men seem more concerned about what is to be the fate of the heathen than they are about their own souls, or about the multitude around them, who, with the gospel ringing in their ears, go heedlessly down to a lost eternity.
The state of the heathen is brought forward by many to discredit the Scriptures. They foolishly imagine that because they have had no testimony of the grace of God presented to them, they cannot be held amenable to the judgment of God. But this conjecture arises from the erroneous idea that men shall be judged for the rejection of the gospel only. That men shall be judged for the rejection of the gospel is true regarding those to whom it has been preached, but all men are amenable to the judgment of God, whether they have heard the gospel or not.
We are told in 1 Thessalonians that the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with the angels of His might, taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. This will take place at His appearing, and is spoken of as the judgment of the living. It is “When He shall come.” Here we have two classes of people upon whom the judgment falls, namely, them that know not God, and them that obey not the gospel.
But in Romans 2:12-1612For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law; 13(For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. 14For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: 15Which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;) 16In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel. (Romans 2:12‑16) we have a very plain statement made by the apostle referring to this very question. He says, “As many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law; and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law.... in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ.” The Gentiles sinned “without law,” the law was never given to them. They shall be judged by the light given by creation, natural conscience, and the goodness of God manifested in His providence. They shall perish: they have been altogether unfaithful to the light vouchsafed to them. The Jews to whom the law was given shall be judged by it. Christians are not supposed to come into judgment. If they were truly that which they are by profession they would not come into judgment, for in Christ the believer is already justified from all things. Still because of the unfaithfulness of those favored with such abundant light, the time has already come when judgment must begin at the house of God (1 Pet. 4:1717For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17)).
Judgment will be according to privileges enjoyed. Therefore the soul who has heard the gospel and rejected it shall have the heaviest sentence; the Jew comes next in responsibility, as having the law, priding himself in the possession of it, and dishonoring the Lawgiver by the breaking of it. Last and least in responsibility come the heathen, who have had neither law nor gospel. He who knew his Master’s will, and did it not, shall be beaten with many stripes; but he who knew not, and yet did commit things worthy of punishment, shall be beaten with few stripes (Luke 12:47,4847And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. 48But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more. (Luke 12:47‑48)). The judgment of God will be according to truth against such as do evil: “To them who by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality (or incorruptibility), eternal life: but unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; but glory, honor, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile” (Rom. 2:7-107To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life: 8But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, 9Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; 10But glory, honor, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: (Romans 2:7‑10)).
That the Judge of all the earth will do right there ought to be no question in any mind; but whatever He does the wisdom of the creature is to submit himself to it. The creature cannot be the judge of his Creator. In the way in which the Creator has been pleased to declare Himself, in that way both reader and writer must come to know Him. I take the perfect account which He has given of Himself in the Word of truth; I contemplate Him in His love, grace, righteousness, holiness, power, wisdom, majesty and might, and my heart is filled with thanksgiving that I have found Him to be such as the gospel reveals Him, and such as my natural heart never for a moment thought Him to be.
I think of Him in His mercy on the one hand, and in His judgment and wrath on the other, and I am not terrified before Him, for I see nothing even in the lake of fire inconsistent with His holy love. He has come to light in Jesus: there His heart is revealed, but from those lips from which rivers of grace flowed forth, there came the testimony of a judgment which in its severity turns the most terrible utterances that ever burned upon prophetic lip into tides of mercy. His enemies had to say “Never man spake like this Man,” and surely no one ever did, for no one knew what He knew. When He spoke, the breathings of the heart of God were heard, but mingled with it all the tempests of eternal wrath broke upon the ear. He brought everything to light. The heart of God, the heart of man, the heart of heaven, and the heart of hell. All is in the light now, and men everywhere are seen to be without excuse, and all will find Him justified when He speaks, and clear when He judges (Psa. 51:44Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest. (Psalm 51:4)).