A popular perspective among some evangelicals is that proclaiming morality to unsaved people is a waste of time. As the argument runs, even believers cannot keep God’s requirements except with the help of the Holy Spirit. Since unbelievers do not have the Spirit, they cannot be expected to fulfill God’s moral law. Indeed, to the extent that unsaved people are moral, they tend to trust their morality rather than God’s grace. Consequently, emphasizing morality is useless or even damaging. The important thing is to give them the gospel.
This argument seems plausible until one begins to test it, but it does not hold up under scrutiny. One of the ways in which it collapses is by overlooking God’s own proclamation of morality to unsaved people. God holds the unsaved accountable, not merely for their rejection of Him, but also for their refusal to obey His moral law.
This accountability becomes evident in God’s treatment of Gentile nations and kings. Before the church was constituted by Holy Spirit baptism, Israel was the only people of God. As the people of God, the nation enjoyed special blessings. Israel had the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the written law, the ritual of tabernacle and temple, the promises, the patriarchs, and the promise of the Messiah (Rom. 9:13). Most importantly, Israel was entrusted with the oracles of God (Rom. 3:1). In other words, Israel received special revelation.
Gentile nations did not enjoy these advantages. On the contrary, the Gentiles had no promise of a Messiah. They were excluded from the commonwealth of Israel—in other words, they had no standing as peoples of God. They were aliens from the covenants of promise. They had no expectation and they were without God in the world (Eph. 2:12).
Nevertheless, God clearly held Gentile nations and their rulers accountable, not only for their rejection of Him in their worship, but for the rejection of His moral law in their practice. God was perfectly willing to visit judgment upon Gentile peoples and kings because of their moral debauchery.
One clear example is the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah. God told Abraham that He was about to judge these cities because “the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and their sin is very grievous” (Gen. 18:20). In the sequel, the men of Sodom showed themselves not only to be sexually degenerate, but also contemptuous of the enduring obligations of hospitality (Gen. 19:1-11). It makes an interesting exercise to see how many of the items in Paul’s description of the lowest level of depravity (Rom. 1:28-32) can be identified in the behavior of the men of Sodom. Ezekiel also lists the sins of Sodom, though it is not perfectly clear that he is speaking of the literal city. At any rate, the sins he mentions are arrogance, carelessness during prosperity, and a refusal to help the poor and needy (Ezek. 16:48-50).
God also judged the nations who were in the land before Israel possessed it. In the Sinai code, God forbade several abominable behaviors, then stated that these behaviors were the reason He cast out the nations who were in the land before Israel. According to God, the very land had been defiled by their iniquity, and the land was vomiting out its inhabitants. Consequently, an Israelite who committed one of these acts became guilty of a capital crime (Lev. 18:24-30). The clear implication is that the Gentile nations should have known better than to do these things.
Amos opens his prophecy with a denunciation of several Gentile nations. Most of them are indicted for their treatment of Judah, but Moab is singled out for its demonstration of contempt toward another nation. According to Amos, Moab “burned the bones of the king of Edom into lime” (Amos 2:1). Consequently God stated that He intended to set fire to Moab. God held Gentile nations morally accountable for their treatment of other Gentile nations—and He still does.
Who can forget Jonah’s mission to Nineveh? God’s command was to “cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me” (Jon. 1:2). The nature of this wickedness is left unspecified, but clearly God meant to hold this Gentile nation accountable for its acts. When Jonah obeyed, his message was purely one of denunciation. He offered no invitation to repentance or ray of hope. Yet the king of Nineveh somehow speculated that God might be merciful, and he adopted suitable instruments of repentance. To Jonah’s discomfiture, God showed mercy to the Gentile city.
A final example of God’s concern for the morality of Gentile nations and rulers can be seen in John the Baptist’s confrontation of Herod the tetrarch. Everyone remembers that John denounced Herod for taking his brother’s wife. What few recall, however, is that this was not the only ground upon which John confronted Herod. The text of Scripture says that Herod was reproved by John “for Herodias his brother Philip’s wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done” (Luke 3:19). The next verse adds that shutting John up in prison was an additional evil.
The conclusion is inescapable. God is concerned with Gentile morality. He is interested in the morality of the nations and He is interested in the morality of their rulers. He holds people accountable for the evil that they do, and He responds when they repent of that evil.
God wants unbelievers to come under conviction for their sins. He wants the secrets of their hearts to be disclosed (1 Cor. 14:25), though He does not presently use prophetic revelation to expose them. He judges them, not only for their rejection of the gospel, but also for their transgression of the line between right and wrong, virtue and vice. God holds people accountable for their actions whether they are believers or not. In the past, He has even sent prophets to administer reprimands. In the present, He commands His saints to “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Eph. 5:11). The proclamation of moral standards and the rebuke of immorality have always been part of God’s plan, and they are part of God’s purpose for church saints now.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Ye Nations of the Earth Rejoice
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)
Ye nations of the earth rejoice
Before the Lord, your sovereign King;
Serve him with cheerful heart and voice,
With all your tongues his glory sing.
The Lord is God; ’tis he alone
Doth life, and breath, and being give;
We are his work, and not our own,
The sheep that on his pastures live.
Enter his gates with songs of joy,
With praises to his courts repair,
And make it your divine employ
To pay your thanks and honors there.
The Lord is good, the Lord is kind;
Great is his grace, his mercy sure;
And the whole race of man shall find
His truth from age to age endure.