Upshot: God has blessed us with the gospel so that all peoples of the earth will be blessed through it.
What If I Was Born There?
89% of the 60 million inhabitants of Myanmar are Buddhist and animist. They worship statues and pray to demons. Ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God they try to establish their own righteousness by following the Buddha’s teachings.
When we consider the world as a whole, they more closely resemble the norm than we do. 33% of the world claims to be Christian, but only 6% are Protestant. This means that in the world only about 6% of people claim to believe in the gospel alone to save them from sin. We who count ourselves among that 6% are a small minority in the world. In fact, an estimated 40% of the world’s population—2.8 billion people—are considered unreached by the gospel.
Us Bible Belters are a stark contrast indeed. There are six churches that I can think of within a one mile radius of my apartment, not to mention the significantly larger number that I drive past on the way to meet with my church on Sunday. I can turn on the radio and choose from a multiplicity of Christian stations where world class music and preaching feed my soul. I can drive to Barnes and Noble—which is not even a Christian bookstore—and choose a Bible translation in any color of the rainbow, with notes, a glossary, and cross references.
There are racks of other Christian books to choose from as well, and even more down the road at Family Christian Stores, Lifeway, and Mardel. These stores also have music about Jesus in country, rock, and rap. I have high-speed internet in my apartment and know of a dozen quality pastors (many of them in the metroplex) whose podcasts I can download in a matter of minutes. I could also drive to many of their churches in less than an hour to hear them in person. Need we mention the number of Bible colleges, Christian universities and seminaries around within range of daily commute?
We have more gospel resources at our disposal than any people at any time in the history of humanity, not to mention higher salaries, standards of living, and greater access to transportation. In less than 30 hours we can be taken by plane to the other side of the planet, where most of the people without the gospel live. However you slice it, when compared to the rest of the world, we are undoubtedly the most blessed people on the planet.
The contrast between our gospel blessings and the remaining majority of the world—especially the 40% who are nearly altogether unreached by the gospel—is perplexing. Why were we born in the Bible Belt rather than the Buddha Belt? How do you answer that? What if we were born where they were? Would we know Jesus and his gospel? The answer is no. We would worship statues and pray to demons just like they do, because that would be what our parents and society taught us to do. Where we were born is outside of our control. We did nothing to deserve being born in the Bible Belt and they did nothing to deserve being born in the Buddha Belt. Yet here we are, and there they are. What do we do with that?
Blessed To Be A Blessing
The biblical theology of blessing gives us the only answer to this question. We read in Psalm 67: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us… that your way may be known on the earth, your saving power among all nations” (Ps 67.1-2). Here the Psalmist prays for God’s blessing. This is good. We all pray for God’s blessing, as we should. But the Psalmist does not stop there. He continues to give the reason for his request: “that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all the nations”. He asks for God’s blessing not just for his own sake, but for the sake of others, so that they too may come to enjoy the blessing of God’s salvation and know his ways. God always blesses his people, not just for their own sakes, but also to make them a blessing to all the peoples of the earth.
God’s Promise to Abraham
An example of the theology of blessing is found in the life of Abraham. In Genesis 12 when God called Abraham to leave his country, his family, and his father’s house to go to an unspecified place, he promised to bless Abraham beyond his wildest dreams. But that blessing, God said, was not just for Abraham. God loved Abraham and wanted to bless him, but he did not intend for the blessing to stop there. In fact, God promised that it would not stop there. “I will bless those who bless you … and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12.3). God promised that the blessing he gave to Abraham would result in the blessing, not just of his family, but of all the families, or people groups, of the earth.
Paul interpreted God’s promise to Abraham as being fulfilled in the gospel. He writes in one of his letters, “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal 3.8-9). Since Jesus was born in the family line of Abraham, God has made the greatest possible blessing available through him—forgiveness of sins, the indwelling Spirit, and eternity with him beyond the grave.
God blessed Abraham tremendously, but not just for Abraham’s sake. God blessed Abraham in order to bless all the people groups of the earth through him with the incomparable riches of the gospel. This is the biblical theology of blessing. God does not bless a person for that person’s sake alone, but in order to pour his blessing out through that person into the lives of others, including all the peoples of the earth.
In Romans 1 we see how this theology fleshes itself out in Paul’s life. He writes to the Romans, “I want you to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (Rom 1.13-15). Paul expresses here his intense desire to visit Rome and share the gospel with them. Why? Because he has an obligation. Paul feels obligated by the gospel to share it with those who do not have it, and makes that a chief aim (Rom 15.20). He understands the theology of blessing. God did not just give Paul the gospel for his own sake, but in order to share that blessing with others.
How do we feel about the idea of the gospel giving us obligations? We may be more comfortable with the idea of God’s obligations to the gospel. If we believe the gospel, then God is obligated to forgive our sins, give us the Holy Spirit, and take us to be with him forever beyond the grave. This we know, but do we know that the gospel also has obligations for us? Did not Jesus say, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mt 16.24)? Does this not speak of obligation? Surely Jesus grants the greatest of blessings by grace through faith in the gospel, but he also calls us to deny ourselves, to take up our cross, and follow him. The gospel does not just obligate God to us, it also obligates us to him for the good of others. Are we willing to join Paul in accepting this obligation?
Why does Paul feel this deep sense of obligation to make the gospel known where it is not? The answer, at least in part, comes in his next sentence to the Romans, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” (Rom 1.16-17). Paul says that the gospel is the power of God for salvation. Implicit here is humanity’s need for salvation. Salvation from what? In the following verses Paul explains it as salvation from the wrath of God:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
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 worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Rom 1.18-25)
Paul explains here that all humanity, apart from the grace of God in the gospel, is subject to God’s wrath because of their sinfulness, suppression of truth, and rejection of the knowledge they had about him. In Romans 3 Paul includes even the Jews in this, “What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are all under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’” (Rom 3.9-12).
This is not a flattering description of humanity. Everyone has some knowledge of God, but all have rejected that and are subject to God’s wrath because of it. This includes those who exchanged God’s glory for statues resembling men and animals, as well as those who call themselves Christians. Apart from the gospel “… there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3.22-23).
This is the state of all humanity apart from the gospel—justly subject to God’s wrath both in this life and in the one to come. Paul says God gave those who rejected him “up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves” (Rom 1.24). In other words, God has allowed them to destroy themselves by following their sinful desires. The wrath of God beyond the grave is the same, except it is eternal. Everyone who persists in this rebellion until death will be given over to the eternal consequences of their sin in the fire of hell. Paul writes in another place that Jesus will return to earth “in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. The will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess 1.8-9).
If this is the natural state and destiny of all humanity—and the gospel is the only way God’s power for salvation can be obtained—no wonder Paul feels obligated to give them the gospel.
Those Who Have Never Heard
But what about those who have never heard? Surely God will not punish them in hell, will he? Romans 1 says that they are without excuse because they rejected the knowledge they had about God. But isn’t God loving and just? Where is the love and justice in that? The answer is seen in the cross. The love and justice of God compelled him to die a cruel, gruesome, and shameful death for crimes he was innocent of. Where is the justice in that? Jesus died an innocent death because of us. He took our sin on him to satisfy justice. There is the love and justice of God. Jesus bought our redemption. Gave us the message, and his final instructions were, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Mt 28.19).
Jesus gave his life for our redemption, and asks us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him to extend that redemption to others. He has put the cure in our hands. He has given us the blessing, so who’s fault is it that 40% of the world is unreached by the gospel? Later in his letter to the Romans Paul processes it this way:
Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed?
And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?
And how are they to hear without someone preaching?
And how are they to preach unless they are sent?
As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news” (Rom 10.13-15).
Paul lays out here a sequence of events that will make the Lord’s provision for sin affective for any particular person: sending, preaching, hearing, and believing. These are like rungs on a ladder which starts with sending and ends in believing. If the bottom rung of sending is absent then the second rung of preaching does not happen. If preaching does not happen then the 40% who are unreached by the gospel will not hear. If they do not hear, they will not believe and they will not be saved. Each rung of the ladder is essential for unleashing the power of God for salvation.
As people born in the Bible Belt, who know the power of the gospel, and have believed Jesus for salvation, we are the blessed people of the planet. We need not pray for God to bless us. He already has. But has that blessing achieved God’s intended result? Has that blessing spilt out of our lives into the lives of others, particularly those of all people groups to whom God promised the blessings of the gospel through Abraham? The answer, sadly, is no. Millions, probably billions, are still living and dying without a single hearing of the gospel.
The question for us is “why?” Why hasn’t the grandmother in Myanmar heard the gospel yet? Has God not blessed us with the means to get it to her?
A better question may be: do we truly believe the gospel—the only power of God for salvation, without which all are subject to God’s current and eternal wrath?
Could it be that we are functionally ashamed of the gospel?
“I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome [the Buddha Belt, Myanmar]. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1.14-16)
“May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine upon us… that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations” (Ps 67.1-2).
May each of us who have the blessing of the gospel search our hearts before our God and Savior with these things to see what he would have us do.