I have an Evangelical friend who interprets Romans 10: 9-17 as meaning that unless one believes in Christ as saviour one cannot be saved; and that therefore the Church’s teaching on Baptism by desire and the idea that pagans who are invincibly ignorant of the truth of the Faith and lead upright laws according to the natural law can be saved.
A few things about this passage:
#1 Notice it says that “the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'” This takes us back to Genesis 4:26: “At that time men began to call on the name of the LORD” which occurred well BEFORE the covenant with Abraham.
#2 – St. Paul acknowledges the difficulty of excluding people from salvation who have not heard the gospel: “And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” This is the same question the Ethiopian Eunuch asked Philip: “Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.” (Acts 8:30-31)
Notice that the Ethopian was already a God-fearing Gentile. If Philip had not reached him (as countless missionaries in the past have not reached the outer edges of civilization), how can we say that such a person is definitely going to hell? That would make God a pretty horrible monster, in my opinion.
#3 – The whole intent of the passage is to affirm the hope of salvation in Christ against those who are positing a “works righteousness” as a means of salvation. Paul is trying to cut that thinking down by emphasizing the foremost necessity of faith vs. the pompous attitude that works (apart from faith and grace) can somehow gain us entry into heaven. It is absolutely crucial to put St. Paul’s remarks in the context of the time he was writing. He is not addressing the pagan in Mongolia but the self-righteous Jew in Palestine.
#4 – In addition to Romans 2:12-16, I would also add the verse immediately preceding:
God “will give to each person according to what he has done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism. (Romans 2:6-11)
God rewards each person based on the good deeds done in this life. Jesus warns us of that time and time again and His parables are directed at that reality. A pagan, who, through invincible ignorance, does good according to his convictions has an implicit faith in God. If he were to reject the gospel, then that would be a different story since we would know his *motiviations* were not from “above” but rather from “below”.
Another passage to consider would be:
“Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” Acts 10:34-35
The whole idea that someone can be damned simply because they had not an opportunity to hear the words of the Gospel can hardly be reconciled with a merciful and loving God, but an arbitrary, cruel, and sadicious one.
Hope this helps,
By John Pacheco