Truth for Today

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One Way (Part 2)

by Rev. David Blunt

The second article in this series. Having studied "evangelical" arguments for opportunities of salvation beyond the grave, we now look at suggestions that those never hearing the gospel may be saved in the present life. It may be seen that, tempting as such ideas are, they do not arise from diligent exposition of Scripture but instead conflict with the Word at many points.

This article was published in the Presbyterian Standard, Issue No. 8, October-December 1997.

T HE second view which we consider advocates that:


There are three strands to this claim.

1. Universal Reconciliation

There are those who, while professing to be evangelicals, believe that the redemption purchased by Christ is in some way bestowed upon all men in this world. We are not talking about the classical Arminian here: he insists that though Christ paid a price for every individual yet not all are saved because the Holy Spirit does not overcome the unwillingness of all.

To many the German Swiss minister and professor in the Reformed Church Karl Barth was the saviour of evangelicalism – from the extremes of Rationalism on one hand and the presumed excesses of strict Calvinism on the other. His teaching seems to straddle both post- and pre-mortem salvation ideas, and yet does not easily fit into either category! Such is this man's "theology of contradiction."

The foundation of all Barth's dogmatics is his "Christ alone" principle: everything which God says about Himself and which we have to say about God, is anchored in Jesus Christ. His view of God's sovereignty, a God who is love and freedom in that order, is vital too. Against the historic Calvinistic doctrine of predestination, where individuals are the object of divine foreordination, Barth held that Christ as true God and true man shows us what predestination means. He alone is the damned one and blessedness is chosen for us in Him. God has not eternally predestined individual men but He predestinates them from moment to moment: there is no election that cannot become reprobation, and vice versa. Barth thus denies the closed number of the elect, taught in John 17:2,6,24; Rom. 8:29,30; Rev. 13:8. The extent of election is "God's business."

There is undoubtedly a strong suggestion of universalism in Barth. The ungodly stretch out their hands for eternal perdition but this end is unattainable for them because God has taken it away beforehand in Jesus Christ. Barth does not seem to distinguish between the evangelised and unevangelised unbeliever: all are reprobates, those who set themselves against their election in Christ. But, he says, Jesus was delivered so that hell could never again triumph over anyone. He is the sole reprobate.

Considering the reality and efficacy of Christ's substitutionary work, Barth says we may not abandon the hope of the future salvation of those who die unrepentant. Universal salvation? Barth was characteristically equivocal: "I do not teach it, but I also do not not teach it!" Yet from his view of election universal salvation is really inevitable; any condemnatory judgment has to be merely provisional.

There are "evangelical" theologians today claiming that Jesus' death fulfilled its purpose of reconciling all mankind to God: play is made of; "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor. 5:19). The only separation between man and God exists subjectively in man's mind: the sinner is to be told that he has already been saved; he needs to realise that fact and enjoy the blessings secured for him by Christ. T.F.Torrance, a British Barthian, portrays "gospel" preaching:

"Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour...He has acted in your place in the whole range of your human life and activity...He has believed for you, fulfilled your human response to God, even made your personal decision for Jesus Christ you are already accepted by (the Father)."

In this scheme all human beings (including those who are never evangelised in their earthly existence) believed, repented and were saved through the vicarious (and fallen) Human Nature of Christ in the 1st. century A.D. All we need to do is to realise our participation in Christ. The result: a completely vicarious religion! And what sort of divine love permits its objects to languish in hell?!

Against this "Christological Universalism" we find Scripture distinguishing between the accomplishment of redemption by a sinless (Heb. 7:26,27) Christ, and the particular application of it to particular sinners by the Holy Spirit: see Shorter Catechism Q.29. Without the application of redemption, a sinner, evangelised or not, remains dead in trespasses and sins, a child of wrath (Eph. 2:1,3,5). He must be made spiritually alive through regeneration: this precedes conversion, producing a life bearing fruit for God's glory (Eph. 2:10). Where no fruit is seen, we must conclude that redemption has not been applied.

2. General Revelation

Every man, say some, has in this life a chance to react in a saving way to God: this is not limited to the recipients of special revelation, i.e. Scripture; the unevangelised by exposure to general revelation have enough light to enable them to exercise implicitly faith in Christ, without knowing of Him. Thus the reach of saving grace is wider than that of special revelation. The claim is not that all unevangelised are hereby saved; as with the evangelised, some respond to the revelation, others reject it and are lost.

General or natural revelation comes via the facts of creation (Psa. 19:1,2), conscience (Rom. 2:14,15) and providence (Psa. 75:6,7; Rom. 1:24,26,28). Historically some have enlarged upon this, e.g. James Denney on John 1:9:

"What came into the world in Jesus Christ was the true light which lighteth every man, and no man is quite without it. What that light wins from the heathen may not be what it wins from the disciplined Christian, but it may be enough to prove him Christ's kinsman, and secure his entrance into the Kingdom."

But Matthew Poole comments here:

"Some understand this of the light of reason; but besides that reason is no where in holy writ called light, neither did this illumination agree to Christ as Mediator. It be understood of the light of gospel revelation, which Christ caused to be made to all the world, Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:15."

Justyn Martyr, the first Christian apologist (2nd century A.D.), extended this principle of "enlightenment" to the age before the Incarnation, saying that Socrates was a Christian without knowing Christ personally. Such "unacknowledged" Christians, saved through general revelation, were like the Athenians who worshipped the 'unknown god' (Acts 17:23).

Modern promoters of a salvific general revelation make a triple appeal:

(a) Scripture. The passage most often cited is Peter's words on Cornelius: "Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him." (Acts 10:34,35). The Old Testament declares (Psa. 68:31; Isa. 19:18-25) and gives individual examples of (Melchizedek, Balaam, Jethro) God's gracious activity outside Israel. It is said that Peter here broadens the scope of the God-fearing to include not only those who keep the O.T. laws but also any who trust and obey God to the extent of the revelation they have. Cornelius, with limited knowledge of God and of the life of Jesus (10:38) was acceptable as a believer – indeed was saved before Peter arrived but now became a Christian believer.

The Anglican Ellicott speaks of Cornelius gaining by conversion to Christ "a clearer faith, a fuller justification, and a higher blessedness"; even Matthew Henry writes of a grace from God without the knowledge of Him. The key to a true understanding of this account must lie in answering the question, What, if anything, did Cornelius know of Christ before his encounter with the apostle? Peter recognised God's grace in Cornelius and his companions, despite his prejudice to the contrary (v.34): this grace had produced willing obedience to God's law (v.33). He traced this grace to the preaching of Christ (v.36); "That word, I say, ye know, which was published throughout all Judaea, and began from Galilee, after the baptism which John preached" (v.37). The very gospel may be hinted at in this verse, and also in the next.

So it appears plain that Cornelius and those gathered in his house were already the recipients of special revelation, for he endeavoured to keep Old Testament precepts (10:2) and they had heard the doctrine of the gospel. They were like Apollos, to whom Aquila and Priscilla expounded the way of God more perfectly (18:24-26), or the Ephesian twelve, who knew only the baptism of John (19:1-7).

(b) Theology. It is argued that saving faith means to trust in the true God and does not necessarily include explicit knowledge of Jesus Christ. What specific knowledge is essential? The traditional view is that though belief in the existence of God and trust in Him are foundational, they are insufficient. According to 1 Cor. 15:3-4 one must also know: First, that the death of Christ was for sins according to the Scriptures; Second, that He was buried; Third, that He rose from the dead.

Advocates of salvation via general revelation protest that if knowledge of Christ is necessary for salvation, then how were Old Testament believers saved, whose knowledge concerning the Messiah was limited, but who yet were justified by faith in God's Word? There are differences though between O.T. saints and unevangelised heathen. Firstly, the saints before Christ were saved through the medium of special revelation, i.e. the gospel was preached to them (Gal. 3:8; 1 Pet. 4:6): the unevangelised heathen by definition do not have this. Next, O.T. saints did know of Christ. At Matthew 13:16,17 Poole says:

"From the very first giving out of the promise of Christ to Adam... there was in believers an expectation of the Messiah...we are told that Abraham saw Christ's day and rejoiced (John 8:56). And Simeon's and Anna's expectation of him, Luke 2, lets us know that other pious souls had such desires. Our Saviour blesseth his disciples, that they had seen with the eyes of their bodies, what others had only seen afar off by the eyes of their minds, Heb. 11:13."

Thus the Westminster Confession of Faith in Chapter

"The justification of believers under the Old Testament was, in all these respects, one and the same with the justification of believers under the New Testament."

Modern advocates of this view tend to see the essential elements of the gospel message available through general revelation, saying that a man acting upon them is saved though he does not know Christ. The approach is flawed in its idea of the content and the purpose of general revelation.

General revelation declares to men that there is a God, revealing His goodness, wisdom and power ( WCF I.i). Further, it is sufficient to tell men they are obliged to worship this God ( WCF XXI.i). But for fallen man it "is not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation" ( WCF I.i).

Special, verbal revelation was needful that sinners might be saved (1 Cor. 1:21). Creation, conscience and providence do not communicate the mercy of God or show how it is obtained. We must therefore deny that the way of salvation through a blood atonement is available via general revelation.

This revelation now shows divine wrath burning from heaven "against all unrighteousness and ungodliness of men" (Rom. 1:18; 2:14,15). Changes were made to the natural order after the Fall (Gen. 3:18ff.) that it might testify to man's folly and ruin. The immediate, exclusive reaction of the heathen to this knowledge of God is to "hold the truth in unrighteousness" (Rom. 1:18); change "the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image" (v.23); and to change "the truth of God into a lie" (v.25), not liking "to retain God in their knowledge" (v.28). The purpose of God with this self-manifestation is awful divine justice: "so that they are without excuse" (v.20).

(c) History. This may more accurately be termed anecdote. Missionaries throughout Church history have told of finding heathens who showed belief in the true God. A.H. Strong gives details of apparently regenerated heathen, but at best this line of evidence is no basis upon which to build a doctrine concerning the unevangelised.

3. Twilight Salvation

This view is not dissimilar to the previous one, but its advocates are less sure that general revelation is salvific. We may consider two proponents.

Huldrych Zwingli. The Swiss Reformer wrote of the next world in A Short and Clear Exposition of the Christian Faith in 1536:

"You will see...the two Adams, the redeemed and the Redeemer... David...Paul; Hercules too and Theseus, Socrates, Aristides, Antogonus, Numa, Camillus, the Catos and Scipios; Louis the Pious and your predecessors the Louis, Philips, Pepins and all your ancestors who have departed this life in faith. In short there has not lived a single good man...a single pious heart or believing soul from the beginning of the world to the end, which you will not see there in the presence of God."

Though Luther was made angry, we should set these words in the context of Zwingli's overall soteriology. The salvation of the "pious heathen" was not tied to the revelation in creation, even less to personal merit: rather it proceeded from the free election of God. He stressed John 14:6: the elect heathen do not climb up "some other way" but are also redeemed through Christ's atonement. Those outwith the chronological or geographical bounds of redemptive history might never come to faith in this life, but this was not vital since faith follows election as a blossom springs from a bud.

William Cunningham observed:

"He thought, without any scriptural warrant, that the benefits of Christ's death might be imparted to men, and that their natures might be renewed by God's agency, even though they were not acquainted with any external supernatural revelation, and that some of the heathen did manifest such moral excellence as to indicate the presence of God's special gracious agency. This was certainly seeking to be wise above what is written."

W.G.T. Shedd. A 19th century Presbyterian, he wrote The Doctrine of Endless Punishment but his most controversial work was Calvinism: Pure and Mixed, defending the Confession in the light of revisionist moves in his own denomination. Shedd terms it an "erroneous conclusion" that the Westminster doctrine of the decrees "shuts out the entire heathen world from Christ's redemption."

Shedd maintains that the "incapacity" of WCF X.iii is that of circumstances, not of mental faculty. There are thus two classes of born-again adults among God's elect. With the "incapable" the Holy Spirit uses conscience, or "the law written on the heart," to convict prior to bestowing regenerating grace: a renewed pagan's felt need of, and desire for mercy is potentially, virtually, faith in Christ. The Saviour has not been presented, but the Spirit has wrought the disposition to believe in Him.

Admitting Biblical evidence lacks, Shedd cites Gen. 12:3, Matt. 8:11, Rom. 9:6, Gal. 3:7. More convincingly, he notes the faith of the centurion in Capernaum (Matt. 8:5-13) and of the woman of Canaan (Matt. 15:21-28). He says that Calvinism contemporary with the Westminster Assembly held this view, e.g. Chapter 2 (on Scripture) of the Second Helvetic Confession :

"We know, in the mean time, that God can illuminate whom and when he will, even without the external ministry; which is a thing appertaining to his power."

Shedd assumed that "the Scriptures teach that the number of the elect is much greater than that of the nonelect"; but there are texts which at least suggest that the Lord will be returning to a far from converted world (Matt. 24:40,41; Luke 18:8).

Secondly, there is his view of regeneration, – that the new birth is effected without the means the Spirit uses in conviction and conversion, being instantaneous, the direct action of Spirit upon spirit. Yet Scripture does associate the Word with regeneration (1 Cor. 4:15; Jam. 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:23).

Thirdly, it seems far more natural to link the "incapacity" of section X.iii to the case of "Elect infants, dying in infancy" stated earlier in the same section: their incapacity is not one of time or place, but of mental faculty.

Finally, the Scriptures cited by Shedd are inconclusive. The "unevangelised" centurion in fact had friendly contact with the Jewish elders, loved their nation, and had built a synagogue for the people (Luke 7:1-5) – he was familiar with the true religion. The Canaanite woman was a pagan, but living near Galilee she had doubtless heard of Christ, for she knew that He was regarded as the Son of David (Matt. 15:22). In both cases the individuals not only heard about Christ but also met personally with Him.

An echo of Shedd was heard in the Free Church of Scotland in the notorious Declaratory Act of 1892 :

"And...while the Gospel is the ordinary means of salvation for those to whom it is made known, yet it does not follow, nor is the Confession to be held as teaching, that any who die in infancy are lost, or that God may not extend His mercy, for Christ's sake, and by His Holy Spirit, to those who are beyond the reach of these means, as it may seem good to Him, according to the riches of His grace." (Section 1c).

There seems to be no Biblical basis for arguing that a follower of another faith can come to salvation in Christ in the "twilight," apart from a conscious knowledge, however imperfect, of the only Redeemer; this certainly requires that the facts concerning Jesus Christ have been made known to that individual. Read the answer to the Larger Catechism Question 60 – and learn!


Engelsma, D., in The Standard Bearer, Sept. 15, 1992, p.486.

George, T., Theology of the Reformers. Apollos, Leicester, 1988, pp.125,313.

Polman, A.D.R., Barth. Presbyterian & Reformed, Philipsburgh, New Jersey, U.S.A., 1982, pp.32,37,39,52.

Shedd,W.G.T., Calvinism: Pure and Mixed. BoT, Edinburgh, 1986, pp.57-59 & 128,129.

Stephens,W.P., The Theology of Huldrych Zwingli. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1986, p.126.