As I said last Lord’s Day evening, I want to return to the text we read last time to consider the statement Peter makes in v. 12. It is the ground of Peter’s appeal to submit to Jesus Christ:
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”
Now, in the total context of Holy Scripture, this is not an unusual or controversial thought, however much a scandal this doctrine may be to the world.
Jesus said the same thing before Peter:
“I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me.” John 14:6
Paul will repeat the point:
“There is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.” 1 Timothy 2:5
And, as a matter of fact, this emphasis is nothing other than a repetition of that exclusivity that was always a feature of the faith of Israel in the OT.
“Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.” Isaiah 45:22
But, still more, this exclusivity — salvation in Christ alone — is the inexorable implication of hundreds of other texts and many other doctrines.
- When Paul argues that both Jew and Gentile are shut up to sin and guilt in Romans 1-3, and then that Christ and his redeeming death is the only answer to that guilt, it follows inexorably that no one can be saved without the righteousness of Christ.
Paul argues that the Gentiles (that is, those that have not necessarily heard of salvation in Christ) know both that their deeds are evil and that, by God’s righteous decree, they deserve death for their sins — this knowledge is written upon their hearts (1:32); and he teaches that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
- This fact is then made the basis for the evangelistic mission of the church.
Paul says, for example, in Acts 20:21: “I have declared to both Jews and Gentiles that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
All in all, it seems clear that no one can be saved who is not a Christian.
So, it may surprise you to learn that there is in our Reformed theology, a strong tradition of belief that some outside of the church and separated from all the means of grace — the Bible, the preaching of the Gospel, the witness of Christian people — are nevertheless saved.
Now, in the Reformed tradition, this belief is carefully circumscribed. It is not regarded as a certainty that some such folk are saved, only a possibility, but, it is supported by important voices. Zanchius, an important Reformed theologian of the Reformation period, wrote in his famous treatise on predestination, after acknowledging the fact that many nations never had the privilege of hearing the gospel,
“It is not indeed improbable that some individuals in these unenlightened countries may belong to the secret election of grace, and the habit of faith may be wrought in them.” [Cited by Shedd, II, p. 708]
In the Second Helvetic Confession (X,3), we read: “We know that God is able to illuminate human beings without the external ministry [of the Word], where and when he pleases…” And, our own Westminster Confession of Faith (X,3) reads: “elect infants dying in infancy are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when and where and how he pleaseth,” and adds, “so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the word.” That last phrase has been taken by many to refer not only to the mentally impaired or actually insane but to people in the pagan world whom God chooses to regenerate without the aid of the written or spoken gospel.
Now, it was carefully stated by our authorities that what is being considered is not a distinction based upon a pagan man or woman’s “virtue.” That is, it is not being said that God’s saves those who are “sincere” or “who do the best they can with the light they have” or some such idea that you hear even from Christians from time to time.
This was the idea Dante expressed in Paradiso (xix, 66ff.) when he puts this question to the eagle:
Is born on Indus’ banks, and none is there
Who speaks of Christ, nor who doth read nor write;
And all his inclinations and his acts,
As far as human reason sees, are good;
And he offendeth not in word or deed;
But unbaptized he dies, and void of faith.
Where is the justice that condemns him?
Well, the Bible makes unmistakably clear that there is no such man, never was, never will be. All men are comprehensively sinful, enemies of God, lovers of themselves. To imagine the situation as Dante describes it is to reintroduce works into salvation, to say that while some need the righteousness of Christ, others have enough of their own to get into heaven. This is the great danger of the Arminian scheme. In an effort to defend God’s honor and man’s freedom, Arminians argue that God has made salvation a possibility for all, but that man must make it an actuality in his own case by believing in Christ. But, they are then faced with what would seem to be an insurmountable problem for their scheme. For Christ died to make salvation a possibility for all who believe in him, he died with the hope of the salvation of everyone, but then did not ensure that all men would even hear about his death and the offer of salvation through his name. This seems to drive a wedge between God’s saving love and God’s own providence, between the work of Christ purchasing redemption and the work of the Holy Spirit applying it: creating a gift for all to receive but not telling all of its existence. This has lead most Arminian theologians through the centuries to suggest that those who never heard the gospel could be saved on some other basis — the sincerity with which they hold their convictions, their desire for God, or God’s foreknowledge that they would have believed the Gospel of their own free will had they had the opportunity. Here, for example, is Donald Lake, a contemporary Arminian, a Bible prof. at Wheaton College:
“When the atonement…is understood as having potential significance for all mankind, this radically changes the perspective. A valid offer of grace has been made to mankind, but its application is limited by man’s response rather than God’s arbitrary selection. God knows who would, under ideal circumstances, believe the gospel, and on the basis of his foreknowledge, applies that gospel even if the person never hears the gospel during his lifetime.” [Grace Unlimited, p.43]
The obvious question then becomes, well why missions then? What difference does it make whether a man hears or not? If he would believe he is saved: period! And so Lake goes on: “The task of evangelism and missions is to bring the knowledge of salvation, not the salvation itself.”
Well, I don’t think so. The Bible never says this. It seems rather always and everywhere to say the contrary. What is brought with the gospel is salvation, people are saved only when they believe it and only through believing it. [In any case, it is a strange twist: usually we Calvinists are accused of undercutting the motive of missions — if God has predestined the salvation of the elect, what difference does it make — but here the urgency is taken away by the Arminians. No! We say, God has said, if they don’t hear they won’t be saved, predestination or not! But, of course, they will hear and God will use us to see to it! That is the story of Acts: “as many as the Lord our God shall call;” “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” when Paul preached to them, etc.]
People often tell stories of pagans who seemed ripe for the gospel when it was brought to them by missionaries as if this proved that faith can exist apart from divine revelation. But all of those examples are rendered utterly irrelevant to our present question because these are all, in the nature of the case, people to whom the gospel did come! Fact is, this way of thinking comes all very near if it is not in fact a reintroduction of works righteousness as well as a denial of what the Bible actually does say about the sinfulness of all men.
Our Confession of Faith leaves no room for any such opinions. In X,4 we read:
“Others, not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come to Christ, and therefore cannot be saved; much less can men, not professing the Christian religion, be saved in any other way whatsoever, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, and the laws of that religion they do profess. And to assert and maintain that they may, is very pernicious and to be detested.”
That statement tends to make me think that the previous statement quoted from the WCF did not in fact refer to pagans, but only to the mentally incapable, as is suggested anyway by its context, which is the special case of infants dying in infancy. But, in any case, what is most definitely asserted is that no one can be saved apart from the application of the righteousness of Christ to a sinful life, however God may see to that application.
Now, the Reformed did use that argument with a certain plausibility. We know, in the case of covenant infants dying in infancy, that they are saved apart from and without the means of grace. They are too young to understand the Word of God read or preached to them and cannot respond in active faith to the gospel. But, they are saved and saved by Christ, as he himself says. Could there not be others, then? And there is a certain force to that argument.
But, I want to suggest that there is precious little reason to accept that argument, that it has little force when considered more carefully.
- First, not only does the Scripture say that Christ is the only way of salvation, that is, Christ as believed on by men, but it explicitly says (Rom. 2:12) that “all who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law…”
- Second, Paul not only says that it is necessary to proclaim the gospel to the world, but that apart from the acceptance of that gospel there can be no salvation. The point is made both negatively and positively.
Romans 10:13-15: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.'”
Or, similarly, John 3:16. God’s love for the world leads to a situation in which “all who believe in Christ shall not perish…”
Acts 26:17-18: Paul says that God said to him on the Damascus road, “I am sending you to [the Gentiles] to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”
- The case of covenant infants cannot be extended beyond the covenant itself precisely because the ground of our hope of their salvation, when they die in infancy, is an explicit promise that was part of that gospel we believed. In other words, the infant children of believing parents are Christians, are included in the class of people united to Christ in the gospel. They belong to the church of God. They are not like pagans who have never heard.
- Further, Christ is, in fact, saving the nations. A people that numbered 120 in an upper room is now numbered in the billions and is found all over the world. This is the great promise of Acts and the implication of Pentecost.
Clearly is not for lack of desire or lack of ability on God’s part that a people or a nation or an individual is not reached with the gospel.
- Christ’s cross is said in the Bible to purchase the grace of faith and repentance for his people. As Paul elaborates the point in Rom. 6, if we were crucified, buried and raised with Christ we are new creatures in him; and in Rom. 8: “he who did not spare his own Son but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him freely give us all things” (by which “all things” he means what he has been talking about: faith, perseverance, etc.).
- Drives a wedge between justification and sanctification as if a man can go to heaven without the latter, when Christ said that without holiness (and he meant sanctification) no one will see the Lord.
- The arguments used to bolster the notion of pagans saved without faith in Christ are all sub-Christian:
- God would be unfair! Blasphemy. We have no claim on divine grace.
- The good heathen: Are any of us tempted by this? Shame on us if we are. Show us the heathen — good grief, show us the Christian, who loves God with all his heart and his neighbor as much as he loves himself. Certainly not the men sometimes thought of as likely candidates for this extra-biblical salvation: Plato, Seneca, etc. These were sinful, sinful men. Sincere? Yes, of course, by a human measure. But Hitler was sincere, Judas too, so were the Pharisees. Pascal has it right: most of the real damage in the world is done by utterly sincere people.
Bernard of Clairvaux: “…many laboring to make Plato a Christian, do prove themselves to be heathen.”
Paul put it plainly, quoting Psalms: “there is none that seeks God; there is none who does good, not even one.”
- The disparity between the number of the saved and the lost. This, I think, is perhaps the most powerful, though often unstated, consideration. Can it be possible that there be so many more unbelievers than believers in this world, that hell will be more crowded than heaven, if God is the God of love and mercy we know him to be? Must not many of those who have not heard be saved too to reverse this imbalance?
- God is sovereign and he says himself, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy” and he said that in regard to a situation — Israel in Egypt — when there were many more unsaved than saved in his view. The issue is never whether a person has heard, but ultimately the divine mercy. 1) It is a divine mercy for the non-elect not to hear; 2) the elect will hear — God is able.
- We ought to avoid speculation regarding things we neither have been told about nor can understand. We must stick with what the Bible says.
- There are indications that the eventual proportion of the saved may be very much greater than now seems to be the case. Christ’s statements to the effect that “many are called and few are chosen” and “wide is the gate and broad the road that leads to destruction and many walk it” may well refer only to the state of affairs that prevailed in his day or usually prevails. Such prophesies of a future day when the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth as the water covers the sea may well indicate that a different situation will someday prevail and many more be saved than lost.
But, we are lost if we don’t stick close to what the Bible says. Our speculations are worthless on a subject of this kind where all we could possibly know must have been revealed to us by God. To the Law and the Testimony! And when we return there we learn that there is little reason to take Acts 4:12 in any other way than the obvious sense of its words — you have to be a Christian to be saved!