The Necessity of Christ as the Conscious Focus of all Saving Faith
What happens to those who never hear the gospel of Christ? This is one of the most common questions asked about Christianity. The answer is closely tied up with many other issues. Therefore, in order to understand the Biblical teaching on this issue, we will break it open into three distinct questions. First, does the Bible teach that Jesus Christ is the only savior of the world, or does it allow for the belief that other religions also result in salvation? In answering this question, we will show that Jesus is the only source of salvation. Second, if Jesus is the only savior, must one believe in Christ in order to be saved, or will Christ save people who know about Him but follow other religions instead? In answering this question, we will show that faith in Jesus Christ is the only means of salvation. After examining these issues, we will be in a position to understand the third question: If one must believe in Christ in order to be saved, what about those who have never heard? Does one have to hear of Him in order to be saved or can one be saved by Him without knowing it? As we will see, these questions very much overlap because they all involve making Christ supreme in saving faith.
Jesus is the only Savior of the world.
In regards to the first question, the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is the only savior of the world. All other means of salvation are false. The Apostle Peter declared: "And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Since there is "salvation in no one else," we must conclude that according to the Bible, those who take refuge in other so-called gods will be given the opposite of salvation, which is eternal punishment. This is reinforced by the phrase "under heaven." Nowhere on earth ("under heaven") is there any other name that saves. Not Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, David Koresh, or anything else can provide salvation. Jesus is the only source of salvation in the whole world.
The apostle Paul agreed with this truth, for he said, "For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Timothy 2:5). Since there is only one mediator between God and men, no other religions actually reach God--for that would mean that there is more than one mediator. In Galatians 1:8 Paul is very bold and declares that anyone who teaches a way of salvation different than the true gospel of Christ is under eternal condemnation: "But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed." All religions other than Christianity would fall under this condemnation, because they all teach a different way of salvation, and thus a "different gospel." No religion other than Christianity teaches salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in the person and work of Christ alone.
But doesn't the diversity of religions show that man is sincerely seeking after God? The answer is no. Religion does not represent humanity's sincere search for the true God, but is actually humanity's flight from God. This is obvious, for example, from a general understanding of the Old Testament, where God says He detests all other religions because they worship false gods. In the New Testament we read that men do not reach God through their own wisdom (such as religion), but only through the gospel: "For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe" (1 Corinthians 1:21). In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul calls the pagan religions and their followers foolish: "professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures" (Romans 1:22-23). Non-Christian religions are an attempt to replace the true Creator God with something else. They are a sinister and disguised attempt to hide from the truth by replacing it with a lie (Romans 1:25).
So it is clear from Scripture that Jesus is the only source of salvation. But why is this? Does the Bible simply ask us to accept it without knowing why? No. In fact, it is very important to understand why Jesus is the only way to God if we are going to properly understand the gospel and Christian Exclusivism. The Scriptures want us to understand why Jesus is the only way.
The Bible teaches that every person is separated from God by their sin and in need of forgiveness (Romans 3:9, 10; 6:23). Because God is just as well as loving, we cannot cross this gulf and have a relationship with Him (eternal life) unless the penalty for our sin is paid--death (i.e., eternal punishment and separation from God). If God did not judge our sin, He would no longer be just. Could we really respect God if He smiled down on us as we graffitied all over His holiness and He said, "That's okay, guys--do whatever you want, as long as you're having fun"?
Living a good, moral life cannot save a person because good works do not pay the penalty for sin. Just as we can only pay a $50 speeding ticket with $50 (not by baking cookies for the judge or even paying $49), only death can pay the death penalty for sin. Being religious cannot save a person either, because religion does not pay the death penalty. That is why no other religion, such as Islam, Buddhism, or whatever, can provide salvation--they don't deal with the death penalty that we are under. The only way a person can be saved is if somebody dies in their place, thereby paying the death penalty for them.
The sacrifice that dies to pay the penalty for sins has to meet at least three qualifications: He has to be sinless in order to qualify Him as an acceptable sacrifice for the sins of others, He has to be infinite so that He can pay the infinite penalty that our sins deserved (and to pay the penalty for more than one person), and He has to be human so that He could pay the penalty for other humans. Jesus Christ is the only one who meets these requirements because He is fully man (and thus can die for humans), fully God (and thus is infinite), and sinless (and thus can make a successful offering for the sins of others since he has no sins of His own to pay for). Nobody else has even made a serious, even half-way legitimate claim to have fulfilled these conditions and then backed it up by rising from the dead. Therefore, Jesus is not just the only Savior of the world--He's the only possible savior of the world.
Because of His love for us and His glory, God sent Jesus to die in the place of those who would come to believe in Him, thus paying the penalty for their sins. "For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God" (1 Peter 3:18). "For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). "The Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world" (1 John 4:14). Jesus chose to do die for sins out of His love for us and His zeal to glorify the Father.
On the cross, God judged Jesus for our sin so that we wouldn't have to be. That's why He is the only way to God--only Jesus was willing and able to die for us to pay our death penalty, thus providing forgiveness for our sins. No one other religious leader has done this; no one else could have done this.
So now there are two options. Either a person can pay this penalty themselves--and so not be saved--or Jesus can pay it for them--and they will be saved. In both ways, God is just because the penalty is paid. Before each of us is an option, for the saving benefits of Christ's death belong only to those who repent and believe in Him. Those who refuse God's free offer of forgiveness must pay the penalty themselves.
To summarize, Jesus is the only source of salvation and forgiveness because only He has taken away sins and bridged the gulf between humans and God. It took His death to pay the penalty for our sins. If there had been any other way, Jesus would not have died (Gal 2:21). Considering the sacrifice Jesus made, we should not think it is unfair that there is only one way, but we should be glad that there is any way at all.
From the Scriptures we have seen and from the fact that only Christ has taken care of the penalty of sin, we may rightly conclude that the Bible teaches that Christ is the only Savior of the world. Therefore, no other religions have any saving truth because no other religion preaches salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ, who is God made man. Nobody ever reaches God through Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, American Indian religions, New Age religions, or any other variety. According to the Bible, these religions are in fact lies because they deny the truth that Jesus is God, that He died for sinners, and that He rose from the dead. Therefore, according to the Bible, the common notion that God has revealed Himself through all religions is false. The only way of salvation is Jesus Christ, and no other ways ever deliver on their promise.
One must believe in Christ to be saved.
It should be obvious that since Christianity claims to be the only true religion, those who follow other religions will not be saved. So I fear that answering the second question may be redundant. But someone may say, "Sure, Christ is the only source of salvation. But that doesn't mean that followers of other religions are on the path to destruction. Rather, if these people are sincere in their religion, Christ saves them even though they don't come to Him. This doesn't contradict the Scriptures we have seen because these people are not saved by their religion--they are still saved by the work of Christ. It is just that He saves them apart from their believing in Him." For this reason, we will now probe the question of whether or not one must believe in Christ to be saved. (Note: I am not yet dealing with the question of whether one must hear of Christ in order to be saved. In the following discussion, I am speaking of situations where people have access to the good news.)
In John 14:6 Jesus rules out all other roads to God: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me." Jesus is very clear that those who do not come to Him, do not reach the Father. The only people who reach the Father are those who come to Him. Thus, it is necessary to believe in Christ to be saved. Likewise, Jesus also said "For unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins" (John 8:24). Again, He states the absolute necessity of trusting in Him in order to be saved. Those who do not trust Him, will not be saved. We read in John 3:36 that "He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on Him." Earlier in that same chapter we read "He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God" (John 3:18-19).
In 2 Corinthians 4:3, Paul says that those who do not believe the gospel of Christ are perishing. In 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 he says that when Christ comes He will deal out "retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power..." First John 2:23 says "Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also."
Finally, it would be utterly inconsistent with the character of God to save people because they were sincerely following after their own religion. This is because these religions, as we saw earlier, are distortions of the truth and flights from the true God. "To be zealous in the worship of idols is to be zealous in the insulting of the glory and dignity of God" (R.C. Sproul, Reason to Believe, p. 58). Non-Christian religion does not please God but "adds insult to injury to the glory of God (see Isa. 42:8)" because Jesus said that those who do not honor Him as the judge and savior of the world (a category into which all followers of non-Christian religions fall), dishonor His Father as well (John 5:21-23).
So in answer to the question, "Does one have to believe in Christ to be saved?", the Scriptures we have seen are clear that, in the very least, those who have access to the gospel must believe it in order to be saved. But this leads us to our third question. What happens to those who never hear the gospel? Can they be saved by Christ without knowing it, or are they eternally condemned?
People are not saved without hearing the gospel of Christ.
Sometimes the question is phrased like this: "What happens to the innocent native in deepest Africa who never hears the gospel?" If one puts it this way, the answer is easy: the innocent person has nothing to worry about! As R.C. Sproul has said, "The innocent native who never hears of Christ is in excellent shape, and we need not be anxious about his redemption. The innocent person doesn't need to hear of Christ. He has no need of redemption. God never punishes innocent people. The innocent person needs no Savior; he can save himself by his innocence" (Sproul, p. 49).
The problem, however, is that there is no such thing as the innocent native in Africa, or anywhere! The Bible teaches that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 6:23) and "there is none righteous, not even one" (Romans 3:10). In fact, the Scriptures go so far as to say that left to ourselves, "there is none who seeks for God" (Romans 3:11).
This leads us to an important principle: the person who has never heard of Christ is already condemned--not because they haven't accepted a Savior they've never heard about, but because they have sinned against what they do know about God. But one may ask, "What has this native known about God that He could reject?" The answer is in the distinction the Bible makes between general revelation and special revelation. Special revelation is the message that Christ died and rose again for sins, and that salvation comes through trusting in Him. This message is only revealed in the Bible, and therefore the only people who get special revelation are those who either hear it from others or read it for themselves. General revelation is "the mute non-verbal witness of the creation that points men to the existence of God" (Robert Morey, Studies in the Atonement, p. 246). Since general revelation is given through nature, all humans are aware of it. The Bible teaches that everyone, through the general revelation of nature, knows that God the Father exists and is holy (Romans 1:18-21) and that they are sinful (Romans 1:32; 2:14-15) and thus are deserving of death (Romans 1:32). Therefore, all humans to ever live, whether they have heard of Christ or not, are guilty and without excuse before God for rejecting what they do know about God (Romans 1:20, 21; 3:23).
This should clear up a huge misunderstanding. Often we think that humanity is in the neutral zone, and that "the only damnable offense against God is the rejection of Christ" (Sproul, p. 50). Thus, it would seem unfair for God to condemn those who have never heard, because they never had the chance to respond to the gospel and commit the "damnable offense" of rejecting Christ. However, we have seen that the Scriptures are clear that we are not neutral, and even those who do not have the Bible are willingly and knowingly guilty of sin and rejecting God. We are sinners by nature (Eph 2:3) and by choice (Romans 6:23) even if we have never heard of Christ (Romans 1:18-32), and thus we are all deserving of condemnation. That is why we need Christ. "For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him" (John 3:17). So the gospel is sent to save those who are already condemned for reasons independent of the message, not to condemn those who are neutral in the sight of God but are in danger of perishing if they are never exposed to special revelation.
Therefore, "We can rest assured that no one is ever punished for rejecting Christ if they've never heard of Him" (Sproul, p. 50). Those who never hear are condemned because they have rejected the general revelation of God the Father in nature that all people without exception receive, not because they have never heard of Christ. Those who never hear are not under condemnation for not knowing about special revelation that they never received, but for rejecting general revelation that they did receive.
Now that we properly understand the issue, we see that if those who never hear of Christ are lost, it is not because God is unfair. It is because they are willfully rejecting what they do know about God through nature. This gives us the background for finally asking, "What, then, happens to those who never hear of Christ?" The answer is emotionally difficult and must be handled with sensitivity, but the Scriptures do teach that no one is saved without hearing and believing in Christ. Again, this does not mean that there are people out there sincerely seeking God who are lost because they just never happen to hear about Christ. Rather, no one seeks God on their own. Those who are lost, are lost becasue they are not even seeking God in what they do know about Him. If someone is truly seeking God, we can be sure that God sends the gospel in answer to their search.
What is the Scriptural evidence that one must hear of Christ in order to be saved? First, the Scriptures we saw above about the need to believe in Christ seem to teach more than just that those who have heard of Christ must believe in Him. They appear to be unqualified statements. When we read things like "whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved" (Romans 10:13) and "believe in the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved" (Acts 16:31), it seems to imply that everybody, without exception, who does not believe in Christ will be lost. But those who never hear of Christ cannot believe in Him (for it is impossible to trust in something that you do not know about), and therefore it seems to follow that they are lost.
This is the argument the apostle Paul takes up in Romans 10:13-17. In verses 13-14 we read: "...'whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.' How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed?" Thus, "effective calling presupposes faith in the one called. This rules out the argument that one might call on God savingly without faith in Christ" (John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Missions, p. 155). Paul continues in verse 14: "And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard?" This verse seems clear that "faith presupposes hearing Christ in the message of the gospel. This rules out the argument that a person might have saving faith without really knowing or meeting Christ in the gospel" (Piper, p. 155). Continuing with verse 14, we read: "And how shall they hear without a preacher?" As Piper comments again, "This rules out the argument that one might somehow meet Christ or hear Christ without a messenger to tell the gospel." And as if to make the point absolutely clear, Paul says in verse 17: "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ." This makes very clear that Paul is talking about special revelation--because he is speaking of a message that is told by a messenger and that the person must hear. Since "faith comes from hearing," those who do not hear the message cannot have faith and therefore, it seems, will not be saved.
Therefore, one cannot say that if someone who has never heard the gospel lives up to the light they have they will be saved. Nor can we say that, since our conscience sometimes reflects the morals of Christ, following conscience is the same as following Christ, and therefore those who sincerely follow their own conscience will be saved. We cannot say those things and be biblical because we have just seen that the Bible teaches that one must call on Christ Himself to be saved (not just give an appearance of acting like Christ), and that in order to call on Christ, they must hear of Him, and in order to hear of Him, somebody must tell them. Saving faith is not doing the best to follow your conscience and act like Christ--it is an act of will to call on Christ which "comes from hearing" (v. 17) the gospel of Christ given to you by a messenger (v. 14).
Some may object that in verse 18 Paul says that everybody has heard the words of God. Since we know that not everybody has heard the special revelation (the gospel), it might be argued that Paul is therefore speaking of natural revelation and therefore one does not need to hear special revelation to be saved--the general revelation is sufficient. Thus, people can be saved without hearing the gospel. However, this would make Paul contradict himself, for he had just said that one cannot hear the gospel without a preacher and that one must believe in this gospel, which is carried by preachers, to be saved (v. 14). So it is clear that Paul has been talking about special revelation (since that is what comes through human messengers) as being necessary for salvation in verses 14-17.
Why, then, does Paul seem to say in verse 18 that the whole earth has heard the words of God? Most commentators agree that "Paul uses the words of the of the Psalm [which he is quoting] to draw a parallel between the universality of general revelation and the universal spread of the gospel. The point is that God has set in motion a missionary movement (the sending of verse 15) that will reach to all the peoples of the earth on the analogy of the universal spread of God's glory through natural revelation...The words, 'their voice has gone out,' does not have to mean that the spread of the message is finished. In Paul's contrast the natural meaning is that the gospel has been propelled into the world to reach all peoples. Olshausen suggests that 'their voice has gone out' is to be understood as prophetically spoken; 'that which is begun is viewed as if already completed.'" (Piper, p. 157). Thus, Romans 10:14-17 seem to clear teach that one must hear of Christ in order to be saved.
Another evidence for this is Ephesians 3:6, which says that "the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel." Notice that the pagan nations come to salvation through the gospel, not apart from the gospel.
Acts 4:12, which we saw earlier, is a key passage on the fate of those who have never heard: "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." Those who believe that people can be saved without hearing the gospel will respond that "the verse says that salvation comes only through the work of Jesus but not only through faith in Jesus" (Piper, 150). However, the text is saying more than just "there is no other source of salvation than Christ." As Piper explains, "The point of saying, 'there is no other name,' is that we are saved by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus. Calling on his name is our entrance into fellowship with God. If one is saved by Jesus [without hearing of Him], one does not speak of being saved by His name" ( Piper, p. 150). In other words, Christ's name is His reputation. The verse says that we must be saved by taking shelter in this reputation. But if someone hasn't heard of His reputation, he cannot take shelter in it and thus there is no means of salvation him. Thus, to believe that people can be saved without conscious faith in Christ is to go against this verse, which says the only way to be saved is by Christ's name.
Earlier in John 14:6 we saw how Jesus said that "no one comes to the Father except by Me." Thus, those who have never heard of Christ are not saved, because you need to hear of Christ before you can come to Him, and you need to come to Him before you can be saved.
Piper comments on Acts 26:15-18 that "without making any distinctions, the Lord says that those who do not yet have the gospel are in darkness and in the power of Satan and without the forgiveness of sins...[the gospel] delivers from the power of Satan. The picture of nations without the gospel is that they are blind and in the darkness and in bondage to Satan and without forgiveness of sins and unacceptable to God because they are unsanctified" (Piper, p. 158).
The glorious truth of predestination also makes clear that one must know of Jesus in order to be saved by Him. Jesus declares that the Father has chosen who will be saved and given these people to Christ (John 10:26; 17:2, 9). In John 6:37, Christ declares that all of these elect will believe in Him. "All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out" (John 6:37). Obviously, since they all come to Him, they will all hear of him. Thus, everyone that is saved is saved by hearing of Jesus and then coming to Jesus. Nobody, therefore, is saved without having heard of Christ: "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me." Likewise, we read in many other places that those whom God elects to salvation are predestined to believe as well (2 Thessalonians 2:13; Acts 13:48).
The truth that people must hear the gospel to be saved has an excellent application to our lives. God has a wonderful rescue mission of gathering His elect. We can be a big part of this rescue mission because He brings them to Himself through faith in the gospel, not apart from the gospel. There are many elect out there who are already ransomed, but have never heard the gospel. Go get them! And do it in the joy of knowing that Christ Himself is calling them through your words (John 10:16; 17:20).
This brings us to our final arguement: Why would God command Christians to preach the gospel to all nations if those who never hear it can do just fine without it? As Robert Morey put it, "If the ignorant and sincere can be saved as long as they don't hear the gospel, do missionaries actually damn more than they save?...If men were not already lost and without hope, would missions make any sense?" (Morey, p. 254).
We have now seen enough Scriptures to be in a position to respond to the claim that those who never hear of Christ will be saved if they sincerely follow their conscience or other aspects of general revelation. To be fair to the other side, they are not claiming that these people are saved by sincerely obeying false religions, but by obeying the general revelation that God has revealed in nature and in conscience. Is this view biblical? On the basis of the many Scriptures we saw above, the answer must be no. As we saw, no one is saved apart from explicit faith in Christ, which comes from hearing about Him.
Another important fact that this objection overlooks is that nobody ever lives up to the light of general revelation, such as their conscience. Paul says in Romans 3:20 that the law of God (and thus our consciences, since they are reflections of God's law) shuts all of our protests against God's fairness because it reveals, through our failure to keep it, that we are guilty before God. "Both Jews and Greeks are all under sin" (v. 9). Therefore, "by the works of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the law comes the knowledge of sin" (v. 20). Since attempting to follow conscience is basically attempting to follow the law (the law he put in people's hearts), it seems that we may also say "by the works of the [conscience] no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the [conscience] comes the knowledge of sin."
One may respond that the attempt to obey conscience is not a salvation by works, but a salvation by faith because all that is required is a sincere effort to follow conscience, not flawless obedience to it. But what kind of conscience/law is this that does not require perfect obedience? Paul says that everybody who does not fully follow God's law is under the curse of the law (Galatians 3:10; see also James 2:10). Further, this seems like a contradictory supposition. When Paul says that salvation is by faith, He means it does not come through following rules (such as the law or conscience), but by trusting in someone else--namely, Christ (Romans 3:21-24). Further, as we saw earlier, the only faith that saves is faith in Christ Himself--not faith in the general revelation of God revealed in nature and conscience.
What, then, are we to make of Romans 2:14-15? "For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternatingly accusing or else defending them." I do not see how this verse can be used to argue that one can be saved without hearing of Christ if he follows his conscience. First, that is never said in this verse. Second, this interpretation violates the context. Paul is arguing that all people are guilty of sin. He has just said in verse 12 "all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law." As John Murray argues in his commentary, Paul is most likely, in verse 14, addressing the question, "if the Gentiles are without the law, how can they be regarded as having sinned?" (John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 72). Paul is answering that while they do not have the law that God revealed in special revelation, but they do have God's moral law by virtue of general revelation. God has written his law on all people's hearts, meaning that he has put in all people an understanding of what is good and what is evil. This is proven when the Gentiles "do instinctively the things of the law" because it shows that "the work of the law is written in their hearts," and thus they are a "law unto themselves"--which means they reveal God's law to themselves. Paul is not saying that these people meet the demands of the law because he says that their consciences judge them for having failed: "their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them." "Therefore in reference to the law as it bears upon them in this way they are transgressors of the law and have therefore sinned" (Murray). Far from this verse teaching that people can be saved by sincerely following their conscience, it teaches that they are justly lost and need to be saved because they knowingly and willingly fail to follow the general revelation of God's law revealed in conscience.
Thus, we cannot say that God saves those who have never heard by means of their following their conscience. This is because nobody follows His commands until after they are saved, Christianity is a religion of salvation by faith and not works of the law, and many verses teach that one must hear of Christ and explicitly trust him for salvation in order to be saved.
All of these Scriptures make us conclude that, according to the Bible, one must hear of Christ and trust explicitly in Him to be saved. We cannot hold that if a person who has never heard the gospel seeks the right way to live, he is mysteriously following Christ and thus will be saved by Him. The Scriptures we have seen make clear that a person must believe the gospel of Christ to be saved, and in order to believe this gospel they must hear it. A common objection at this point is this: "Isn't Christ powerful enough to reveal Himself to everybody?" This misunderstands my whole argument. Of course Christ is powerful enough to reveal Himself to anybody. But the Scriptures seem to teach that the way He has chosen to reveal Himself is through the Gospel, not apart from the gospel. He is reaching out to the lost world--by zealously sending His missionaries everywhere to tell people about Him. And let us remember that all people without exception do receive general revelation, which they ought to respond to but don't.
Before moving on, there are a few last things that must be said about this issue. First, I am not defending the doctrine that one must hear about Christ in order to be saved because I am trying to be mean or trying to restrict the boundaries of God's saving love. Rather, I am attempting to preserve the central place of Christ in the salvation of human beings. If people can be saved without hearing of Christ, then the good news of Christ's death and resurrection are no longer the light sent out to save people in a dark and doomed world and the supremacy of Christ and the salvation He brings in the gospel seems to be lessened. Also, I am trying to be faithful to the words of Christ, which I believe to not only be true, but beautiful. If someone has a problem about this doctrine, the proper response is not to complain, but to do something about it. A person has no right to protest against this doctrine unless they are willing to become a missionary and go tell people who have never heard before about Christ. Finally, this doctrine does not result in the belief that people who have never heard of Christ are lost through historical accident. Rather, the Bible teaches that God is sovereign over history and has everything exactly the way He wants it (Isaiah 46:10; Ephesians 1:11). The saving mission of the gospel of Christ always has been and always will be successful in calling Christ's lost sheep back to Him (John 6:37; 10:16). If perhaps someone does begin responding to the general revelation of God in nature, it may be that God is beginning to work in their life. But, as the Scriptures we have seen seem to indicate, He will not save them apart from the gospel of Christ. Rather, it seems best to conclude that He will so arrange human affairs so as to ensure that this person hears the gospel and responds.
What about those who lived before Christ?
The question of those who have never heard usually brings up questions about those who lived before Christ. Were they saved? If so, how? The Bible is clear that the Old Testament believers were saved. Further, the source of salvation has always been the same--Christ and His death on the cross. Even the people who lived before Christ were saved because of Him. The means of salvation has also always been the same--by grace (God's undeserved favor) through faith. The content of this faith, however, differed before Christ and was not as specific, but it still pointed to Christ. For example, in the Old Testament God commanded the people to do animal sacrifices, because these pointed to the time when Christ would die once for all to take away sins. And let us remember that the content of their faith was still the special revelation that God had revealed, not general revelation.
In closing, let these truths motivate you to become involved in world missions. The world is perishing, and it needs to hear the gospel to be rescued. Go and tell them, or else get involved in supporting and praying for those who are going to tell them. We should either be a goer or a sender, but we should certainly not be indifferent. SourcesJonathon Edwards, "Concerning the Reasonableness and Necessity of the Christian Doctrine of Satisfaction for Sin," in The Works of Jonathon Edwards, Volume II, pp. 565-578.
Dean Halverson, editor, Compact Guide to World Religions (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1996).
John Hick, Philosophy of Religion, fourth edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990), pp. 109- 119.
John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993).
Robert Morey, Studies in the Atonement (Shermans Dale, PA: Christian Scholars Press, 1989).
John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1997), original edition 1968.
R.C. Sproul, Reason to Believe (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978).
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.
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