Jesus said to his disciples, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). We call this the “Great Commission”. Obviously Jesus expected this to be done and to have results. He went on to say, “Those who believe and are baptized shall be saved...” (Mark 16:16).
In this lesson, however, we are going to do a thought experiment. We are going to ask, what if the Great Commission were ignored? It hasn't been ignored, and Jesus didn't expect it to be. But hypothetically, if everybody ignored the Great Commission, would anybody be saved by God’s grace?
This is not a dumb question, nor is it impertinent. To ask this question, and to think about it, does not show disrespect for God’s grace. Rather it helps us to understand God’s grace.
So let us begin the thought experiment. Here's the first question:
Jesus was confident that his disciples would go and spread the gospel. He said, “You shall be witnesses to me... to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). And you and I are confident also —confident that the grace of God is behind this requirement.
In our thought experiment, we are not asking whether salvation comes by grace or by something else. We take it as a given that salvation is by grace. But we ask whether that grace requires anybody to do anything so that someone may be saved?
Clearly, the answer is yes, because people had to go and preach. This was just as necessary as Jesus having to die. “Thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins be preached in his name to all nations...” (Luke 24:46-47).
The preaching was “necessary”. Surely that means that God’s grace demanded preaching. If salvation were by the work of Jesus only, why did he say that the work of preaching was “necessary”?
So our thought experiment so far reveals that somebody (other than Jesus and the Holy Spirit) had to do something to support God’s grace. Somebody (in fact many somebodies) had to preach. That's how “The grace of God has appeared to all people” (Titus 2:11).
If not “through preaching” (Titus 1:2-3), how would God’s grace appear? Without preaching, by word of mouth or by written documents, God’s grace, and God’s will, would be inaudible, invisible, and unknown!
Paul put it very simply: “How shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14).
So our first question is resolved. If nobody answered the great commision to preach, the grace of God would be frustrated. This shows us that somebody (other than Jesus and the Holy Spirit) must work by God’s grace for that grace to take effect. In this case someone must preach to save people by grace.
Our thought experiment now poses a second question that follows on from the first:
People can preach till they are exausted, but what if nobody listens? Of course, some do listen, and listen intently. Others don't listen or pay any heed to the word. But in our thought experiment we ask what if nobody listened?
This isn't a silly question. It is instructive. A wife might think, “What if my husband didn't love me?” That doesn't mean she doubts or disrespects her husband’s love. She merely is thinking hypothetically of what her situation would be like without his love. That would cause her to appreciate his love all the more.
So in our thought experiment the question, “What if nobody listened?” helps us better understand how listening to the gospel fits into the wonderful grace of God.
People are “saved by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). How do they get that faith? “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing comes through [the preaching of] God’s word” (Romans 10:17).
In the parable of the sower and the seed (Luke 8:4-8) there was “good ground” where the seed of God’s word sprang up and yielded much fruit. Had there been no good ground, only trampled, rocky, or thorny ground, what would have happened to the seed?
Wherever we read of the success of God’s word, the message of his grace, people were saved by listening to the word. For example Paul said to the Ephesians, “You trusted in Christ after listening to the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation” (Ephesians 1:13).
Listening is not passive. Listening is doing something.
So our second question is answered. If nobody listened to the preaching, the grace of God would be frustrated. This shows us the same thing that our first question did. Somebody (other than Jesus and the Holy Spirit) must do something by God’s grace for that grace to take effect. In this case a person must listen to be saved by grace.
Our thought experiment now poses a third question that follows on from the second:
It's one thing to listen to the preaching, and quite another thing to believe and act upon what one hears. For example Peter, on the day of Pentecost preached to the people of Jerusalem. Some of them listened. Here's what happened next:
¶“37Now when they heard Peter’s words, they were cut to the heart. They asked Peter and the other apostles, 'Brothers, what shall we do?' 38Peter answered them, 'Repent and be immersed every one of you. [Do this] in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:37-38).
They understood that their hearing and believing had to be followed by doing something more. They asked what they should do. Peter told them two things to do. After they did those things they would receive the promised blessings of God’s grace.
Now we take it for granted that God’s grace granted them the opportunity to hear, believe, repent, and be immersed in Christ’s name. Grace was behind the preaching, the listening, the believing, and the obedience. They were saved by grace, not grace and something else. But grace required faith and obedience from them, so that by grace they might be saved.
We notice that in Christ’s commission to preach, salvation by grace was granted whoever “believes and is baptized” (Mark 16:16). We saw that Peter instructed, “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). So there are things that are necessary to be done for salvation by grace —such as faith, repentance, and baptism. There is no promise of grace to those who neglect or refuse the deeds commanded in the message of grace.
So our third question is answered. If nobody obeyed what God’s grace demanded, then grace would be frustrated. This shows us the same thing that our first and second questions did. Somebody (other than Jesus and the Holy Spirit) must do certain things by God’s grace for that grace to take effect. A person must believe God’s word and obey God’s commandments to be saved by his grace.
Note:— Not salvation by works. This thought experiment should not be labelled “salvation by works”. Rather, the experiment proves salvation by grace because everything that grace requires to be done is at the same time granted to be done. The opportunity to do anything leading to salvation is an opportunity provided by God’s grace and, as Paul said on this matter, “Where is boasting then? It is excluded!” (Romans 3:26).
Our thought experiment is complete. It revealed that salvation by grace requires an interaction between God and the people he wants to save. Grace is not hindered from making demands of people. Grace demands preaching and listening, followed by faith and obedience.