"For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus" (Romans 2:12-16, English Standard Version).
I received an e-mail last week from a minister who used those verses to propose that some people who have never heard of Christ do not actually need to believe specifically in Christ in order to be saved. As I understood his premise, the minister asserted that a non-believer could be saved by living a good life and trusting in the existence of a god who is unknown to him (or who is misidentified by him).
I could see how the minister could come to such a conclusion by reading those verses, but I have concluded that he has taken the verses out of context and has misunderstood them.
In the first chapter of Romans, the apostle Paul informed his readers that the problem with humanity is not the absence of God and his standards. The problem is that we have rejected and replaced God and his standards (Romans 1:18-32).
In chapter 2, Paul made the point that people have not lived up to God's law, whether they were Jews or Gentiles. He was not making the point that people could be saved from their sins by simply being decent people who acknowledged the concept of the existence of deity. In the passage quoted above, the apostle was making the point to Jewish men and women that a knowledge of the law was insufficient. After all, many Gentiles who did not have the written law were living better lives than some of the people who were experts in the law. But even among the good Gentiles, conflicting thoughts were a part of their lives. They could not stand before God with any degree of real confidence because some of their thoughts accused them of guilt while other thoughts excused them.
In chapter 3, Paul made it clear that everyone has a problem with sin. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23, English Standard Version). From that point on, the apostle Paul emphasized that all who would be saved from the consequences of their sins "are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith" (Romans 3:24-25a, English Standard Version). "For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law" (Romans 3:28, English Standard Version).
I believe the preaching pastor who thinks that a decent non-believer who has not been exposed to the gospel of Christ is safe has a kind heart. He does not want to believe that the unbeliever is in any real danger of hell. But I believe the preacher has made a mistake in underestimating the pervasiveness of sin and evil within the hearts of the best of us. The truth is: we are in great danger without Christ, no matter how good we are, because we are not good enough. That is why Christ came as one who would take the punishment that sinners deserve. We needed him, and God loved us enough to send him to save us.
The preacher's e-mail asserted that non-believers who respond favorably to "available light" will be saved. In a sense, he was right. For example, Cornelius the Roman soldier was saved because he had responded favorably to the light of God available to him. However, he was not saved without any knowledge of Jesus Christ. Cornelius sent for the apostle Peter to tell him the message of Christ because an angel had told him, "(Peter) will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household" (Acts 11:14, English Standard Version). The Lord gave Cornelius the saving message of Christ because Cornelius had responded favorably to the will of God that he already knew. He still needed the gospel of Christ, despite being a very good man because his goodness was not good enough.
Contrary to the preacher who sent the e-mail, I cannot presume that some people do not need the gospel of Christ. The gospel is the good news of salvation in Christ, but it starts with the realization that everyone is in a bad situation to begin with.