Did the Ancient Gentiles Have the Hope of Salvation?
The Bible student is aware of the fact that the law of Moses was given to the nation of Israel. It was intended to regulate the Jews’ conduct and to provide a mode of forgiveness (through the Levitical sacrificial system) when they transgressed the law.
Where does this leave the Gentiles who lived before the coming of Christ? Were they excluded from Jehovah’s magnificent plan of human salvation? Why was so much attention given to the Jews over the Gentiles?
The primary theme of Old Testament history had to do with the Hebrew nation in view of their role in preparing the world for the coming of the Messiah (John 4:22). Nonetheless, Heaven’s interest in non-Hebrews is underscored many times in the body of Old Testament literature.
That the ancient Gentile world was religiously and morally culpable before the Creator is most obvious from the testimony of both Old and New Testaments. In literature of the Old Testament, the idolatry of the pagans is condemned repeatedly, and judgments from God were visited upon these peoples.
(1) Gentile idolatry is condemned as sin by the prophets of God (see Exodus 20:3-5; 32:35; Numbers 25:1-9; Deuteronomy 5:7-9; 6:4, etc.). The captivity of the southern kingdom of Judah was attributed directly to the worship of the false gods of the Gentiles (2 Kings 22:17). For an extensive array of information on this theme, see Helmbold 2003, 697-708.
(2) Gentile immorality was exposed and rebuked by the Old Testament writers. For example, in Amos 1:3 – 2:3, the prophet denounced Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, and Edom for their brutality toward their neighbors. The Ammonites “ripped open pregnant women” in their vicious conquests, etc. See also the extensive material presentation of judgments against the heathen nations contemporary with the prophet Jeremiah (chapters 46-51).
(3) In his epistle to the Christians in Rome, Paul describes the religious-moral conditions of the Roman world.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error (Romans 1:24-27, ESV).
From these facts, therefore, one may conclude: (1) Sin is a transgression of divine law (1 John 3:4); conversely, where there is no law, there is no sin (Romans 4:15). (2) But the Gentiles were indicted as sinners. (3) Consequently, they were amenable to a law, and they had violated that law. That their actions were designated as sin likewise implies that they were under divine law.
The Inward Law
The ancient Gentiles were not judged by the same rule as the Jews due to the fact that the Hebrews had a written revelation from God (the law of Moses, and eventually the completed body of the Old Testament Scriptures), while the other nations did not; the Gentiles, therefore, were evaluated by a more general standard than the Jews. Paul wrote:
[F]or when Gentiles that have not the law do by nature the things of the law, these, not having the law, are the law unto themselves; in that they show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness therewith, and their thoughts one with another accusing or else excusing them in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men, according to my gospel, by Jesus Christ (Romans 2:14-16).
From this text, as well as supplementary data, the following facts can be deduced:
(1) While the Gentiles did not have a written law (e.g., the law of Moses) certainly on occasions they had communications from Jehovah (cf. Genesis 3:9; 4:6; 6:13ff; 12:1ff, etc.), and divine traditions surely were echoed across the centuries.
(2) There is something “written within the heart,” i.e., in the human psyche, that “by nature” (physis) urges one to do what he perceives to be right and refrain from what he feels to be wrong. It has been defined as the “natural sense of what is right and wrong” (Thayer 1958, 661). This moral sense cannot minutely define right and wrong, but it can initiate some broad and strong inclinations.
This certainly is evidenced by the fact that Adam and Eve felt guilt after having eaten the forbidden fruit, even before confronted by God (Genesis 3:7-10). “Condemned by their own consciences, they were ashamed and afraid to meet their benefactor and friend—an inevitable consequence of sin” (Campbell 1958, 32).
“There is no witness so terrible—no accuser so powerful as conscience which dwells within us” (Sophocles). “Man’s conscience is the oracle of God” (Lord Byron).
(3) There is a fundamental fact of human history. Humanity was created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). This does not have reference to the physical features of humankind, for God is not physical (Matthew 16:17; John 4:24; Luke 24:39); rather, as noted above, it alludes to intangible qualities that were created resident in the spirit of the person. This aspect of human personality is what Paul called conscience. The English word derives from the Greek term, syneidesis, a compound term signifying “to know together.” It reflects a common knowledge that human beings share with one another of a sense of religious and moral culpability.
As one scholar noted: “According to Romans 2:14-15 conscience is innate and universal. It is not the product of environment, training, habit, race impression, or education, though it is influenced by all these factors” (Rehwinkel 1999, 136). The ancient Gentiles, therefore, were not judged by the same rule as the Jews, but they were not void of law and culpability. Elsewhere the matterhas been described in this way:
[T]he threefold workings of the law, in that the guidance of their heart predisposes them to know the right, the testimony of their conscience bears witness with their heart that the right is preferable, and lastly, after the deed is done, their thoughts or inward reasonings accuse or excuse them according as their act has been wrong or right. These well-known psychological phenomena, observable among the Gentiles, are proof conclusive that they are not without law, with its power and privilege of justification (McGarvey and Pendleton n.d., 313).
All rational human beings do have an intrinsic sense (a conscious awareness) that there is right and wrong. It is not perfectly defined in nature; that requires revelation. Nevertheless it is there, and it is universal. C. S. Lewis, one-time professor at Cambridge, wrote:
If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own (1960, 19; emphasis added).
Even more significant perhaps was the testimony of David Hume, the notoriously skeptical Scottish philosopher who was so militant against Christianity. In his volume, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (published in 1749), he stated:
It is universally acknowledged that there is a great uniformity among the actions of men, in all nations and ages, and that human nature remains still the same, in its principles and operations. The same motives always produce the same actions; the same events follow from the same causes. Ambition, avarice, self-love, vanity, friendship, generosity, public spirit; these passions, mixed in various degrees, and distributed through society, have been, from the beginning of the world, and still are, the source of all the actions and enterprises which have ever been observed among mankind. Would you know the sentiments, inclinations, and course of life of the Greeks and Romans? Study well the temper and actions of the French and English; you cannot be much mistaken in transferring to the former most of the observations which you have made with regard to the latter. Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature (1910, 37.VIII.I).
Incidentally, Hume conceded that there is no rational excuse for the worship of many gods.
Were men led into the apprehension of invisible intelligent power by contemplation of Nature, they could never possibly entertain any conception but of one single Being, who bestowed existence and order on this vast machine and adjusted all its parts to one regular system (quoted by Monser 1961, 494).
This speaks to the issue of the Gentile idolatry described in the context of Romans 1:20ff.
Professor Alan Johnson, a respected biblical scholar, tells of a missionary in northern Brazil who once observed a native enter his village. He was extremely nervous and fidgety, and his brow was covered with sweat. He seemed quite uneasy, even in the presence of his friends. Later, it was discovered that he had just killed a man from another tribe—although it was not considered wrong to kill a member of some other tribe, and he would not have been condemned by his peers. The man obviously was under the internal pressure of a guilty conscience (1976, 44; emphasis added).
The conscience is a part of the human package, and it demonstrates a moral chasm between men and women and other biological creatures of our planet (Genesis 1:26-27).
Evidence of Divine Concern for the Gentiles
Though the Old Testament story is mainly the story of the Hebrews’ role in God’s wonderful plan for human redemption, there are numerous glimpses in the sacred literature of the early history of divine interest in, and provisions for, Gentile salvation.
(1) The practice of offering sacrifices as atonement, typically foreshadowing the coming of Jesus, apparently was a human requirement from the very commencement of history. Abel, son of Adam and Eve, brought the “firstlings of his flock and the fat thereof” (Genesis 4:4). The offering must have been killed, otherwise he could not have presented the fat, which was the best part. Moreover, we are told that “righteous Abel” (so designated by Jesus [Matthew 23:35]) offered his sacrifice “by faith” (Hebrews 11:4), which, in the overall context of this chapter, clearly is an objective faith grounded in revelation, and not that which was subjectively whimsical.
When Noah departed from the ark after the waters of the flood subsided, he built an altar and offered sacrifices of every clean animal and bird, and Jehovah was pleased with his offering (Genesis 8:20-21). What compelled him to do such?
Melchizedek, whom Abraham encountered on his return from the rescue of his nephew, was designated by Moses as a “priest of God Most High” (Genesis 14:18). A priest is an appointed servant who officiates in the offering of sacrifices to atone for sin. The modernistic notion that Melchizedek was merely the “high god” priest of the Canaanites (e.g., Baal), worshipped in pre-Israelite Jerusalem, is absurd (Hicks 1962, 343). God would hardly have chosen a Baal-worshipper to be a type, prophetically previewing his Son (Hebrews 7:3). See also Leupold (1942, 463).
(2) The entire world population was one in kind prior to the call of Abraham. He was the first to be designated a Hebrew (Genesis 14:13). The Hebrews were not set apart as a distinct people until the giving of the law of Moses (Exodus 19:5-6; cf. Ephesians 2:14). It is wholly unrealistic not to recognize that God’s love for the Gentiles was a part of the ancient world.
(3) Gentiles were not required, but had the privilege of, joining the Hebrew family via the proselytization process (cf. Acts 2:10; 13:16). Additionally, there were many instructions in Moses’ law designed to benefit the “strangers” (Gentiles) who came among Israelite people (Leviticus 19:33ff).
(4) The Lord sent Jonah to the Gentiles of Nineveh (Jonah 3:1). Archer said that the theme of the book of Jonah “is that God’s mercy and compassion extend even to the heathen nations on condition of their repentance” (1964, 295). Jonah is sometimes called “the first apostle to the Gentiles.”
(5) Four Gentile women were woven into the genealogical fabric of the Messiah—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba—in both legal and biological senses (Matthew 1:5-6; Luke 3:31-32).
(6) In addition, the prophets clearly revealed Jehovah’s redemptive concern for the Gentiles, who were to be grafted into the New Testament church on an equal basis with the Jews (Genesis 17:4; 22:18; Psalms 2:8; Isaiah 42:1, 6; 49:6; cf. Romans 11:1ff; Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 2:11ff).
There always has been a way for honest people to be right with their Creator—if they seek after him and choose to please him (Acts 17:27ff). God so loved the entire world and gave his Son as a potential redeeming sacrifice for all who avail themselves of his gift (John 3:16). He is the loving benefactor to everyone who submits to his will in faithful obedience (1 Timothy 2:4; Hebrews 5:8-9; cf. 2 Peter 3:9).
Scripture references: John 4:22; Exodus 20:3-5, 32:35; Numbers 25:1-9; Deuteronomy 5:7-9, 6:4; 2 Kings 22:17; Amos 1:3-2:3; Romans 1:24-27; 1 John 3:4; Romans 4:15; Romans 2:14-16; Genesis 3:9, 4:6, 6:13; Genesis 3:7-10; Genesis 1:26-27; Matthew 16:17; John 4:24; Luke 24:39; Romans 2:14-15; Romans 1:20; Genesis 4:4; Matthew 23:35; Hebrews 11:4; Genesis 8:20-21; Genesis 14:18; Hebrews 7:3; Genesis 14:13; Exodus 19:5-6; Ephesians 2:14; Acts 2:10, 13:16; Leviticus 19:33; Jonah 3:1; Matthew 1:5-6; Luke 3:31-32; Genesis 17:4, 22:18; Psalm 2:8; Isaiah 42:1, 6, 49:6; Romans 11:1; Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 2:11; Acts 17:27; John 3:16; 1 Timothy 2:4; Hebrews 5:8-9; 1 Peter 3:9
- Archer, Gleason L., Jr. 1964. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Chicago, IL: Moody.
- Campbell, Alexander. 1958. Familiar Lectures on the Pentateuch. Rosemead, CA: Old Paths Book Club.
- Helmbold, Andrew M. 2003. Wycliffe Bible Dictionary. Charles Pfeiffer, Howard Vos, John Rea, eds. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
- Hicks, L. 1962. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. 3. G. A. Buttrick, ed. Nashvlle, TN: Abingdon.
- Hume, David. 1910. An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. Harvard Classics. Cambridge: MA: P. F. Collier & Son. (http://18th.eserver.org/hume-enquiry.html#8)
- Johnson, Alan. 1976. Romans – The Freedom Letter. Vol. 1. Chicago, IL: Moody.
- Leupold, H. C. 1942. Exposition of Genesis. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Lewis, C. S. 1960. Mere Christianity. New York, NY: Macmillian.
- McGarvey, J. W. and Phillip Y. Pendleton. n.d. Thessaloians, Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans – The Standard Bible Commentary. Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing.
- Monser, J. W. 1961. An Encyclopedia of the Evidences; or, Masterpieces of Many Minds. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Rehwinkel, Alfred M. 1999. Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology. Everett Harrison, G. W. Bromiley, Carl Henry, eds. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
- Thayer, J. H. 1958. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark.