Is General Revelation Sufficient for Salvation?

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Inclusivists believe that one can be saved through Christianity as well as other faiths. Ask an inclusivist about his or her belief that one can be saved through other faiths, and he or she will tell you that salvation is possible in other religions because of general revelation; that is, the individual’s practice of another religion or faith is the person’s way of responding to the revelation they have.

Since a person cannot help where he or she was born (whether in evangelical America or Buddhist Asia), the individual can only help whether or not he or she is religious. If a person responds to the “form of salvation” he or she has access to (the form of salvation being the religion or faith leader and doctrine followed), the individual can be saved.

Despite the individuals who do adhere to some form of religion, there are individuals in the world who die without hearing the gospel from the lips of a human missionary.

Surely, God wants to save the island inhabitants as well as Americans, correct? Yes, He does. For many, however, they struggle to understand how an individual can be saved if he or she never hears the gospel — since “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17, NASB).

Romans 10:14 is even more explicit as to the struggle many Christians have between their belief that Jesus came to save all persons in the world and their belief that one must hear the gospel through a Christian missionary in order to be saved:

“How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed?

How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard?

And how will they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14)

Many respond by saying that those who do not have access to a missionary can still be saved.

I agree; the question becomes, “how can the inaccessible be saved without the aid of a human missionary and hearing the gospel message?”

For some, the answer is general revelation: since general revelation is the only revelation they have, then inclusivists believe that humans who respond to the only revelation they have (general revelation) can be saved.

Unfortunately, for inclusivists, the Bible does not support the idea that general revelation saves.

The reason is simple: general revelation is common to all, while special revelation comes through the preached gospel of the Word of God.

Only faith in Christ saves (Rom. 10:9-13).

Thus, special revelation is what is required for salvation. Christ is Lord of all creation, as John says in his prologue (John 1:1-3); however, at the same time, it is Christ’s coming into the world that “enlightens every man” (John 1:9). As Jesus Himself says in John’s Gospel,

“If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have both seen and hated Me and My Father as well. But they have done this to fulfill the word that is written in their Law, ‘They hated Me without a cause'” (John 15:22, 24-25 NASB).

In other words, it is Christ’s coming to earth that eliminates excuses and unbelief. Without His arrival and without special revelation, someone could say, “I did not believe because Christ did not reveal Himself to me.”

Since Christ came to earth, however, and revealed Himself in bodily form, it is not enough to believe that God is Creator by examining nature.

What does general revelation do?

General revelation is God’s way of disclosing Himself to all people by way of nature, as Paul writes:

“For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20, NASB).

The Lord’s essence (as divine) and His power are revealed in creation. This seems to be enough, correct? Not so. While creation shows God is Creator, it does not show God as Savior in Christ. This is the reason why “the Word [Jesus] became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

Jesus’ coming was necessary because without it, the world would not have known who the Creator was. While creation tells that God is divine (not human or an object of nature) and powerful, it does not tell humanity exactly who is the real God. The identity of the Creator makes special revelation necessary.

A. Does the Bible Distinguish Between General and Special Revelation?

Whenever someone makes a distinction between “two different types” of something with regard to the Scriptures, it is always a wise thing to investigate the Scriptures before agreeing to the division.

With that said, can we see two types of divine revelation within the Bible? Yes. We see these two types of revelation in Psalms:

“The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2 NASB).

In the same chapter, we read of special revelation, as revealed by God’s Law:

“The law of The Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of The Lord is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7).

While the law of The Lord refers to the Old Testament (perhaps the first five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Law:

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17 NASB).

Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.

There are several verses in the New Testament that demonstrate that actions involving Christ and His teachings (such as His name, “Jesus”) are only a fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures (Matt. 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 3:15; 4:14; 5:17, 33; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 35; 21:4; 26:54, 56; 27:9; Mark 1:15; 13:4; 14:49; 15:28; Luke 1:20, 45; 4:21; 21:22, 24; 22:16, 37; 24:44; John 12:38; 13:18; 15:25; 17:12; 18:9, 32; 19:24, 28, 36).

Last but not least, the Law leads to Christ:

“For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4).

“God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world” (Hebrews 1:1-2).

There is a distinction between general and special revelation. Nature is God’s general revelation, but the Law (and Christ, the summation of the Law) is God’s special revelation. While I applaud inclusivists for wanting everyone to be saved (and I believe The Lord desires the same thing, John 3:16), inclusivists cannot find the truth by denying the distinction between the two types of divine revelation.

An excellent case in point concerns Cornelius, the first Gentile to receive the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts.

The State of the Unevangelized

If the special revelation of Jesus Christ and the gospel (the special revelation the world has today) is required for salvation, what about the unevangelized?

You may not know it, but many Christian theologians struggle with the question, “What About Those Who Have Never Heard the Gospel?” (a book title by John Sanders). John Sanders is both an Open Theist and Inclusivist, and believes in many of the things I have discussed here on inclusivism. He is the author of the book “The God Who Risks,” and is a huge proponent of Inclusivism. This view has gained ground within the evangelical movement within the last twenty years, and is more of an opponent to Christocentric salvation than many conservative Christians have estimated.

Believe it or not, there are those who live on the earth who do not have access to human missionaries. There are countries and lands in which missionaries and preachers are killed for preaching the gospel, and Christians are persecuted, tortured, and killed for naming the name of Christ.

In these places, as well as unreached people groups, there are those who have never seen a human missionary before — and have never heard of the name of Jesus. What about those individuals?

Does The Lord desire that they be saved?

He does. After all, did Jesus not die for them? Did He not tell the disciples to “go into the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15)?

Why would He want the disciples to preach salvation to every creature if He did not want to save them — even the person on the island, or a person in an area where the gospel is not allowed to be proclaimed?

The Italian centurion Cornelius provides the perfect example of someone who surrendered to God long before he received the gospel, salvation, and the Holy Spirit. Acts 10 says that Cornelius “feared God with all his household” and “gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually” (Acts 10:2).

The text tells us that Cornelius was a God-fearer, someone who knew the Creator God through general revelation. Not only did he acknowledge God as Creator, his family did so as well. He also did good for God’s people (the Jews), and prayed to God constantly.

It is interesting that Cornelius did not know God’s special revelation in Jesus Christ, but yet and still he prays to the Creator God and acknowledges Him as Lord.

While he is praying one day, he has a vision of an angel who tells him what to do in order to reach Simon Peter (who later presents the gospel to him and his family). The angel tells Cornelius a remarkable thing: “Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:4).

In other words, the angel told Cornelius that his prayers and alms to the Jews was remembered by God. God coming to Cornelius in a vision was the Lord’s way of letting Cornelius know that the Lord God heard and was pleased with Cornelius’s prayers. Even though Cornelius had not heard the gospel and had yet to receive the Holy Spirit, the Lord still heard his prayers and was pleased with his almsgiving.

Now, I must place a word of caution here. There are many who will say, “Cornelius was an Italian soldier of some rank and gave to the Jews. He must have known about the God of Israel in order to give to the Jews.”

This seems to be true from the text; after all, he was a Gentile; why give alms to the Jews unless he knew something about Israel and Israel’s God?

There is also another fascinating point about Gentiles in Acts: there are some Gentiles present at the Pentecost event called “proselytes” (Acts 2:10), and these “proselytes” from Rome are contrasted to Roman Jews in the same verse.

Perhaps Cornelius and his family were similar to proselytes in the sense that they conformed to the ways of the Jews and accepted the God of the Jews — despite the fact that they were Gentiles and had not yet received salvation. This means that there is a possibility that Cornelius was familiar with the ways of Judaism and the God of the Jews. While he was not yet saved and had not yet heard the gospel, he did pray to the God of Israel and give to the Jews — signs that he was a believer in his heart.

Does God desire the Unreachable People Groups to Know Him?

Some individuals live in areas where they know even less about God and the Jews than Cornelius and his family. They are not devout, nor “God-fearing,” and they do not pray to the God of Israel. “What about them,” some may ask?

God desires that those who know nothing of the God of Israel or Jesus would come to know the one true living God. Solomon prays this in his prayer at the temple dedication:

“Also concerning the foreigner who is not of Your people Israel, when he comes from a far country for Your name’s sake (for they will hear of Your great name and Your mighty hand, and of Your outstretched arm); when he comes and prays toward this house, hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to You, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know Your name, to fear You, as do Your people Israel, and that they may know that this house which I have built is called by Your name” (1 Kings 8:41-43).

When Solomon prays in the temple, he prays for Israel but also the foreigner, the Gentile, who will travel from a place far away to worship the God of Israel. He asks Yahweh to honor the request of the Gentile “in order that all the peoples of the earth may know Your name.”

The prayer not only pleads with Yahweh to bless His people, but also to bless the foreigner. Jesus calls the temple “a house of prayer,” referencing the Old Testament:

“‘Even those I will bring to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; for My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.’ The Lord God, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares, ‘Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered'” (Isaiah 56:7-8).

While the above passage from Isaiah is from the NASB, other translations state that the temple is called “the house of prayer for all nations.” Both of these translations show that The Lord wants both Jews and Gentiles to worship together in His sanctuary.

One of the Psalms prays that the nations would know of God’s salvation and praise The Lord:

“God be gracious to us and bless us, and cause His face to shine upon us — that Your way may be known on the earth, Your salvation among all nations. Let the peoples praise You, O God; Let all the peoples praise You” (Psalm 67: 1-3).

While Solomon prays to God in the Old Testament (1 Kings 8), he also writes a Psalm that praises Yahweh, the King of Kings. In this Psalm, he also ties God’s glory and praise to the nations:

“May he also rule from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth. Let the nomads of the desert bow before him, and his enemies lick the dust. Let the kings of Tarshish and of the islands bring presents; the kings of Sheba and Seba offer gifts. And let all kings bow down before him, all nations serve him” (Psalm 72: 8-11).

Notice that the Psalm shows the desire of the “kings of…the islands” to “bring presents”. This means that The Lord desires that even the islands (tiny masses of land surrounded by large bodies of water, with no neighboring lands) to worship Him. Does this sound like The Lord would forsake the island inhabitants throughout the world? Of course not.

Psalm 98 states that The Lord has revealed Himself through Christ:

“The Lord has made known His salvation; He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations. He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God” (Psalm 98: 2-3).

As is demonstrated from these few verses, The Lord desires to reach the ends of the earth and have the inhabitants at the ends of the earth to worship Him. This is not the desire of a god who would simply abandon those on the islands and leave them to die in their sins eternally without revealing Himself to them.

More About Cornelius

Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal.

But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:8-10, English Standard Version).

Previously, I discussed Cornelius’s background as a God-fearer, and used him as an example for the individual on the island who has never heard the gospel or the name of Jesus before.

While Cornelius was an Italian soldier of some rank and education, The Lord desires to save more than just the elite — He came for all, which is why the Scriptures state that He was born in a manger. He came meek and lowly, and refused to shut anyone out of the kingdom if they would only believe in Him.

Although he came to believe in the Creator God and general revelation (nature), he needed to hear the gospel message and believe in Jesus — God’s special revelation of salvation to the world.

The Lord appears to Cornelius by way of an angel in Acts 10:3-6 and tells Cornelius to send men to see Simon Peter. Simon Peter (Peter was his Christian name given by Christ) was staying with a tanner named Simon who lived in Joppa. It is important at this point to understand that Cornelius was seeking salvation but it does not seem as though he knew who Simon Peter was, nor did he know where Peter lived.

He had no contact with the Jews in regards to the salvation of Gentiles, and few Gentiles conformed to Judaism at this point. Cornelius paid alms to the Jews and prayed to God constantly (Acts 10: 2), so he seems to perform actions that conform to proselytes — those in the Upper Room who converted to Judaism.

While Cornelius prayed to God and gave alms to the Jews, he did not convert to Judaism. We have no justification from the text that Cornelius was a Judaizer, or that he practiced the ways of the Jews (except to give alms and pray to Yahweh). His family also believed in the Creator God, though they too, did not convert to Judaism.

Cornelius is a great example of how those who do not yet know Christ can be saved: he received the revelation he had (in nature) and did good deeds. Although good deeds and prayers are not enough for salvation, they are a sign that a human heart is receptive to God and the gospel. Before Cornelius even heard the message, The Lord had already made the hearts of Cornelius and his family receptive to the preached message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Cornelius relays the message from the angel of The Lord to his two servants and a soldier (which indicates that Cornelius was of some rank to command soldiers to do his bidding). He tells them the same message that the angel tells him, and the three men go to Joppa to look for Simon the Tanner’s house (and thus, Simon Peter). The Lord first goes to Cornelius, then He works on the heart and mind of Simon Peter. This doesn’t happen, however, until the next day.

The following day, The Lord places Peter in a trance while he is on the rooftop of Simon’s home, praying to God (in a place of spiritual retreat). The trance concerns beasts and animals. Peter calls them “unholy and unclean,” but The Lord rebukes Peter for this three times. Then, Peter comes out of the trance. The words “while Peter was reflecting on the vision” (Acts 10:19) and “Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be” (v.17) show that Peter was confused as to the meaning of the vision.

In the midst of his confusion, the Spirit tells him that “three men are looking for you. But get up, go downstairs and accompany them without misgivings, for I have sent them Myself” (Acts 10: 20).

The Lord tells Peter that he has sent these three men, and Peter reasons within himself that the vision ties in to the three men that are looking for him. As he says in his sermon before Cornelius and his family, “God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.

That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for” (Acts 10:28-29). Although he did not know the reason for which Cornelius came to him (vv.21, 29), he did know that the vision of the animals had some relation to the Gentiles.

When the soldier and two servants arrive at Simon the tanner’s home to speak to Simon Peter, their description of Cornelius is interesting: “Cornelius, a centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews” (Acts 10:22). He is called “righteous” and “God-fearing,” terms that also describe Job (Job 1:1, 8).

As God-fearing as Cornelius was, however, he still needed the gospel. He wanted something more than to be God-fearing: notice in verse 31 that Cornelius quotes the angel as saying, “your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God” (v.31, NASB).

In verse 4, the angel told Cornelius, “your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God.” This is important, since many claim that Cornelius wanted to receive the Holy Spirit. It seems then, that verse 4 appears to be The Lord directing Cornelius to salvation (which The Lord does); verse 31 harmonizes with the Lord’s direction by alerting the reader that salvation was not just the Lord’s desire for Cornelius, but Cornelius’s desire for himself; he wanted to be saved!

A. Peter Preaches the Gospel Message

One of the first things Peter says is welcoming: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him” (Acts 10: 34-35).

Peter makes it clear to Cornelius’s family and friends (v.24) that The Lord does not favor the Jew over the Gentile, but accepts all who acknowledge Him and do what is right.

This has been used to argue, according to some Christian theologians (known as inclusivists and open theists), that The Lord automatically saves those who do what is right and respond well to the revelation they have.

Cornelius was one who responded well to the revelation he received, but The Lord still sent Cornelius a vision to direct him and his family to hear the gospel (preached by Peter) and be saved. Cornelius was a “God-fearer,” as was Job in the Old Testament; yet and still, Cornelius had a responsibility to hear the message about Jesus — a message that was preached in a different form in the days of Job.

In Job’s day, there were prophecies about the Messiah that were preached but there was no message about the historical suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ.

Whereas Cornelius had a responsibility to believe in Jesus of Nazareth and the Jesus of history, Job had a responsibility to believe in Yahweh and the prophecies about Christ that existed in the Torah (Deut. 18:18-19, among them). Christ had not yet come to earth in those days, but The Lord still used the Scriptures to proclaim the promise of the Messiah’s coming (Isaiah 9:1-7).

Although Jesus had not yet come to earth in the Old Testament days, the Law of Moses, Prophets, and the Psalms foretold of Christ (Luke 24:44). Even Simeon, a prophet in the temple, recognized Jesus as the Lord’s salvation and Israel’s consolation (Luke 2:25-32). Simeon referred to Jesus as “a light of revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32), meaning that, unlike the Jews, the Gentiles did not have the Mosaic Law and needed further revelation than just general revelation (nature and its wonder) to be saved.

Peter agrees with the Old Testament as well as the words of Jesus (that the OT reveals Christ) when he says during the sermon, “Of Him [Christ] all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins” (Acts 10: 43). He says this after telling His testimony about Christ, who Jesus was, His miracles (“doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him,” v. 38b).

He then tells that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead three days later. After His ascension, He appointed His disciples (the Twelve) as witnesses of the truth about Christ (vv.38-42). We do not know how long or short the sermon was, but it is believed here that Luke summarizes Peter’s sermon for us. Sermons were often longer in the days of Peter than they are now; even Jesus preached long sermons (cf. Matthew chaps. 5-7).

In the midst of Peter’s preaching, the Gentiles experience the Holy Spirit, and the circumcised Jews who have traveled with Peter from Joppa are surprised “because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also” (v.45). The immediate, external sign of their salvation was that they began to speak in tongues (speaking in tongues being a gift of the Holy Spirit given to certain individuals in the church, cf. 1 Corinthians 12:10-11).

There were those who did not speak in tongues after being converted (see the Ethiopian eunuch, Acts 8:34-40). The Scriptures refute the Pentecostal notion that the external sign of salvation when a person is converted to Christianity is to “speak in tongues.”

God does not grant each saved person this gift — but speaking in tongues does not make or break a person’s salvation. If one confesses that Jesus is Lord and believes that God raised Jesus from the dead, he or she is saved (Romans 10:9).

Once the Holy Spirit falls on Cornelius, his family, and his friends, Peter then urges them to be baptized and says, “no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” (v. 47) In Peter’s mind, at least, baptism was not just any baptism, but the baptism of “believers” (what is known in conservative circles as believer’s baptism). The Scriptures teach that baptism does not save, but is an outward manifestation of an inward transformation — an external sign that a person has surrendered his or her life to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Peter has to later explain why he was found associating with Gentiles (Acts 11:1-18), giving credence to his earlier statement “how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him” (Acts 10:28). God, however, breaks beyond barriers because His Word is of far greater priority than an ethnic law or ethnic discrimination.

The Lord desires that the entire world hear the gospel and be saved, and He will send Jews to Gentiles and Gentiles to Jews, if that is what it takes to win the world to Himself. This makes sense when you consider that the apostle Paul was sent by God to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15).


2 Responses to “Is General Revelation Sufficient for Salvation?”

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  1. I have to agree with Matt that Pastor Chris has not come to a clear conclusion. Paul said,

    Romans 2:12-15
    For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law (for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified; for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them)”
    Those that are outside of the Law will be judged without the Law. He said that they are a law unto themselves. How? By their conscience. They will be judged by the witness of their conscience either “accusing them or excusing them.” And the Bible says that all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory Rms 3:23) and Paul wrote in Romans 8 that the carnal man cannot obey God.
    The one who has not heard the Gospel or the Law will be judged by his conscience. And the Bible says that no one can pass the test.
    The unsaved must have the Gospel to be saved.

  2. I’m sorry but this was one of the most confusing mess of words I have ever read on the subject. Having read it twice to the end I still don’t know what your conclusion is concerning those who have never heard the gospel and die in that state. Shocked that you also don’t bother to deal with Paul’s argument in Romans 2 that individuals without the law (special revelation) will be judged WITHOUT the law (special revelation). Rather Paul argues their “doing” of the law (or lack thereof) coupled with their conscience bearing them witness, can be sufficient grounds to either ACQUIT some and accuse others. If Paul thought individuals were automatically lost without special revelation he would not have summarized their ultimate judgment along the lines of “acquitting/excusing some and accusing others.” You may well believe the same but it is not at all clear. You attack an evangelical understanding of inclusivism through Christ alone, yet talk God extending mercy to people on small islands who died without a witness of special revelatin. You may want to offer a more clear conclusion.

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