By Dan Musick, MA, Theology
Wheaton Graduate School, 1978
Content Last Updated July 21, 1998
Is the Bible silent about the salvation of those who never hear the Gospel?
It has been said that we should tolerate inclusivistic views of salvation because the Bible does not address the issue of those who never hear the gospel. According to some, ruling out the possibility of salvation for those who never hear would be putting God in a box. I agree that we can't put God in a box, but we can hold Him to His Word. And He has spoken quite clearly regarding the fate of those who have never heard the gospel.
The Bible is God's Word; it is "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness." It is our authority. We affirm this. We must each ask ourselves, however, "Does our understanding of Scripture mold our view of culture around us, or do we allow the whims of our culture to mold our understanding of Scripture? Do we go to the Scriptures to determine the truth of a matter, or do we prefer to first seek the opinions of those we respect regarding what is right and just?"
Since the Bible is our authority, I encourage you to search the Scriptures. A concordance or a Bible computer program with search function will help answer your questions regarding the salvation of those who never hear the gospel. Following are several points to assist in our studies of this issue.
1. The Faith in Christ Motif
One point to consider is the "faith in Christ" motif. If you search the word "faith," and the variations of the word "believe," you will find about 200 verses that stipulate faith in Christ or believing the gospel message as a necessary condition for salvation. Except in Old Testament references and in references to John the Baptist, saving faith is always linked to Christ or to the gospel message. In contrast to those who might suggest that salvation is possible by believing in God as He has revealed Himself in natural revelation, there are no references in the New Testament to suggest that believing in God can save anyone apart from believing the gospel.
2. The In Christ Motif
Second, you can search the "in Christ," "in Jesus Christ," "in Christ Jesus," "in Him," "in Whom" motif. More than 100 verses spell out the importance of, and conditions for, being in Christ, and the consequences of not being in Christ.
3. The Repentance Motif
A third valuable word study would be one on the words "repent" and "repentance." Forty-one verses stipulate the necessity of repenting to be saved or to enter into or to remain in God's covenant.
4. The Covenant Motif
Fourth, search the word "covenant" throughout the Bible. Besides the 40 references to the "ark of the covenant, you will find 340 verses stipulating the conditions and terms of God's covenant with His people, and the dire consequences for those not in, or not following the terms of, His covenant.
5. The Obedience Motif
Fifth, I suggest you study words such as "works," "obey, obedience," "fruit," and "continue," as in "continue in the faith" (Col. 1:23). The faith by which we are justified is more than intellectual assent to the gospel. It proves itself in the fruit of obedience and good works; it endures to the end. Fruit-bearing faith is impossible without the gospel, the indwelling Christ, and His word.
6. The Love of God Motif
Sixth, it would also be instructive to study the New Testament references to God's love in their contexts. By doing so you will discern the differences between God's unconditional and His conditional love. God's love is unconditional, but the eternal benefits are undeniably conditional (Jn. 3:16-18). The belief that those who never hear the gospel can be saved through natural revelation ignores the stipulations of God's conditional love.
Contrary to the views of our culture, it should also be observed that God's love is not the predominant theme of evangelism in the New Testament. The Church was birthed with 5,000 converts at Pentecost, but Peter's sermon did not focus on the love of God. According to Luke's account Peter didn't even use the word "love;" nor did Paul, Stephen or any other evangelists. The word "love" does not even appear in the book of Acts. Christ's one-on-one personal evangelism with Nicodemus in John 3:16 is the only passage in the New Testament where God's love is mentioned in an evangelistic context, and there it is specifically conditional and worthless to those who do not believe in Christ (3:18). According to New Testament usage, God's love is arguably a family secret. (The rare mention of God's love in an evangelistic context can be confirmed by an exhustive concordance or by searching a Bible program for all words containing the root "lov.")
7. Natural Revelation in Context
Seventh, I urge you to examine Paul's discussion of natural revelation (Rom. 1:20-21) in its context. You will find that is sandwiched between the clearest statement in Scripture that the power of salvation is the Gospel (1:16) and the longest litany of sins in the Bible (1:22-32), which is man's best response to natural revelation.
There are no indications in the entire Bible that anyone has ever been saved through natural revelation. It is adequate to condemn, but it is not sufficient to save. God's self-revelation in nature exposes man's sin so that he is without excuse (1:20). Only in Christ is the condemnation removed (Rom. 8:1). Residents at Mars Hill acknowledged the unknown God, but they were not saved until they heard and believed the Gospel (Acts 17:23-34). To conclude from Romans 1:20-21 that anyone can be saved by natural revelation is like proclaiming that a seedling in the middle of a pine forest is an apple tree before it has grown any identifiable features.
8. Historic Confessions of Faith
Besides the Biblical passages above, I would also suggest you study the early historic statements of faith based upon these and many other Biblical passages. All four of the early creeds are predicated on the assumption that only the right faith saves. These statements form the core doctrine of historic Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant faith alike.
In the Athanasian Creed, for example, when transitioning between the orthodox definitions of the Trinity and the incarnation, death, resurrection and return of our Lord, we find these stern conditions: "This, then, is what he who wishes to be saved must believe about the Trinity. It is also necessary for eternal salvation that he believes steadfastly in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ."
The absolute necessity of believing the Gospel for salvation was stated more succinctly by no other than Christ Himself in John 3:18: "He who believes in Him (Christ) is not condemned; he who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God."
Is the Bible silent about the salvation of those who never hear the Gospel? The notion of inclusivism is based primarily on the misinterpretation of a single passage in Scripture taken out of a context that contradicts the point it attempts to make. God is accountable to no one but Himself, and because of this, we can hold Him to His Word. He has spoken, and the urgency to proclaim the gospel to those who have never heard presses upon us with a stewardship for which each of us will one-day give an account.