by Cecil Hook
SALVATION IN DIFFERENT AGES
This lesson will be different from those I taught for many years concerning “the three dispensations.” Those efforts covered some valid points but did not reach the most accurate and complete conclusions. In this study I shall not pretend to reach the ultimate truth, but I hope you will explore with me.
When sin came and death came through sin, God designed to save man from both sin and death. In different ages God has saved man using different but related means and requirements. We offer this simple diagram for illustration as we proceed with this brief study.
We begin with a line representing the races of humanity — the nations. Gentiles means nations, but since Gentiles is used usually in contrast to those who were of Israel, we will use the more general term nations in this discourse.
Along this line of the nations God has dealt with humanity in the entire course of history. In Old Testament history the nations had no offer of heaven or promise of personal salvation. There was no missionary, evangelical message with a plan of salvation or system of law. Intimations of immortality were dim.
Down through history God communicated with non-Israeli individuals such as Adam, Cain, Balaam, Belshazzar, Nebuchadnezzar, the Magi, and Cornelius. Messages were sent to Nineveh, Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Tyre, and Sidon.
Individuals of the nations worshipped God, such as Cain, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Melchizedek, Jethro, and Job and on down through the Magi and Cornelius. The role of women and children in religion is vague along this line of the nations.
This line of God’s dealing with the nations has continued from Adam until the present, and it will end only when Jesus returns.
At one point God called Abraham from among the nations to create a separate nation. He made an agreement with Abraham based upon both earthly and spiritual promises and He sealed the agreement, or covenant, by circumcision, a mark to distinguish them from the nations (Gen. 17:9-14).
After Abraham’s family multiplied and became Israel, God made an agreement with Israel based upon the Ten Commandments (Deut. 4:11-14). Then the Law of Moses was given to guide the personal lives and worship of the covenant people. This law was not given to save them; it could not save nor was it the covenant. It contained no plan of salvation, no missionary or evangelical message, nor any promise of heaven to the covenant people. Women and children had little part in it. This law was given only to the covenant people, not to the nations. Even though the law could bring sin and not salvation, ultimately Christ redeemed those who were under the law (Gal. 4:4-5). Thus their salvation was by grace instead of law. With the death of Jesus, that separated Israeli line ceased to exist. Since then there is no distinction as had been made by the covenant and the law. Now we are all in the original line of the nations of humanity.
This separation of the Israeli line from the line of the nations had not diminished God’s interest in all men or reduced the accountability of the individual in the nations. God expected righteousness of them, and he still requires righteousness of all men. But they had no revealed system of law or worship. How could they be counted as sinners since “sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4) and “where there is no law there is no transgression” (Rom. 4:15)?
They were obligated to the unwritten law. They had no code of law, but there are two ageless laws: love God and love man. People who never heard of Moses or Christ have always been required to have these two laws written on their hearts. In Romans 2:14-27 Paul speaks of the Gentiles (nations) being a law unto themselves with the law written on the heart. Paul laid a charge against the nations for their lack of loving response in saying that, though they knew God through nature, they did not glorify him or give thanks, and then he enumerates their sins against one another (Rom. 1:20-32). They should have discerned that “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Rom. 2:4). As it was with Nineveh, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). But not all individuals have been commanded yet for an individual is not commanded who has not heard the command; hence, he is still in “times of ignorance.”
A man of the nations was not a sinner because of not keeping the Law of Moses, but he was lost because of his violation of the law which should have been written on his heart. Likewise, an unevangelized person today is not lost because he is not baptized or does not eat the Lord’s Supper but because of his violation of love toward God and man. If he was not of the covenant people, he was not under the Law of Moses. If one is not in covenant relationship with God through Christ today, he is not under the directives given to the covenant people. He is a sinner because he has violated the unwritten law of love to God and man.
Aren’t all people under the covenant of Christ today? Wasn’t it ratified on the cross? A covenant relationship was made possible at the time of the atonement, but I was not living then in order to enter an agreement with God. I made my agreement with God in 1933, being separated to that line of God’s covenant people. Then Jesus’ directives given to regulate the covenant people became my guide. Previous to my sealing my covenant by baptism and his giving of the seal of the Spirit, I was not in the covenant of grace and was not judged or justified as a covenant person. I was not lost because I had failed to obey the gospel but because I was a sinner and could not save myself. A person does not drown because he refuses the offered life preserver but because he is in the water and cannot swim out.
Those who “obey not the gospel” (2 Thes. 1:7-9) are not lost because of violation of Jesus’ teachings but because they are sinners who reject the only means of salvation. The gospel is the good news. It is God’s invitation to enter a covenant relationship through Christ. One is not condemned by it but is saved by it. He who disbelieves the gospel will be damned (Mark 16:16) because he is already a sinner and he rejects the offered salvation. Neither the gospel nor the commands, exhortations, warnings, and teachings given to regulate the life of the disciple were the cause of my being a sinner in the first place. The nations and I were “strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God” (Eph. 2:12), but they and I became “members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6). That is equally true of all those who have become disciples.
Could a Gentile be saved before Christ came? No. Neither could a Jewish law keeper. However, it was of the nations that Paul wrote, “For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience and well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life … but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality” (Rom. 2:6,7,10,11). “So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” (Rom. 2:26). Although it is not stated positively in Romans 2 that Gentiles will be saved, it is strongly implied by Paul. How could they be saved since they had lived without promise? They could be saved by the same grace that saved the Jew who had no promise of salvation under the law. If God sent his son “to redeem those who were under the law” who kept it imperfectly, could we not expect the same grace toward those who had the law written on the heart but kept it imperfectly? And if that grace prevailed in the past, may we not expect it to prevail in the future? That is the only hope that any of us has.
No person will be saved apart from the atonement of Jesus Christ, yet the Jew who kept the law imperfectly and the Gentile who kept the law written on the heart imperfectly reaped the benefit of the atonement without having had personal knowledge or acceptance of Jesus or a personal relationship with him. The mercy of God could not have demanded that which was impossible of them. There is comfort in believing that God still does not demand the impossible.