1. Posing the Question
The question posed in this title really contains three questions, and they are utterly crucial for the missionary task of the Christian church. We can watch the three questions emerge when we ponder the answers people are giving.
1.1 Many today would answer, “Yes, Christ is man's only hope,” but would mean that everyone is going to be saved whether they hear about Christ in this life or not. For example, even though he has been dead since 1905, the preacher-novelist George MacDonald is being published and read as never before in America and is extending the influence of a kind of universalism that makes hell into an extended means of amendment and atonement through which the justice of God will eventually destroy all sin in his creatures and bring them to glory.1 So we must make clear what we are really asking:
Is anything eternal at stake? That is, will anyone be eternally cut off from Christ and under the wrath of God?
1.2 Others would answer, “No, Christ is not man's only hope.” They would mean that Christ is the provision that God has made for Christians, but for other religions there are other ways of getting right with God and gaining eternal bliss. For example, British theologian John Hick argues that different religions are "equals, though they each may have different emphases." Christianity is not superior, but one partner in the quest for salvation. We are not to seek one world religion, but rather we look to the day when "the ecumenical spirit which has so largely transformed Christianity will increasingly affect relations between the world faiths."2 So we must be clear that we are really asking,
Is the work of Christ the necessary means provided by God for eternal salvation?
1.3 Others would say, “Yes, Christ is man's only hope, but He saves some of those who never hear of Him through faith that does not have Christ for its conscious object.” For example, Millard Erickson represents a broad range of evangelicals who argue that on the analogy of the saints of the Old Testament who were saved by the work of Christ without knowing Him consciously, some unevangelized persons today may "receive the benefit of Christ's death without conscious knowledge-belief in the name of Jesus."3 So we must make clear that we are really asking,
Is it necessary for people to hear of Christ in order to be eternally saved? That is, can a person today benefit from the work of Christ even if he does not have an opportunity to hear about it?
Biblical answers to these three questions are utterly crucial, because in each case a negative answer would seem to cut the nerve of urgency in the missionary cause. Evangelicals like Erickson do not at all intend to cut that nerve and their view is not in the same category with Hick or MacDonald. They insist that the salvation of anyone apart from the preaching of Christ is the exception rather than the rule and that preaching Christ to all is utterly important.
Nevertheless, there is a felt difference in the urgency when one believes that preaching the gospel is the absolutely only hope that anyone has of escaping the bondage of their own corruption in sin. So with all three of these questions there is much at stake. In the end it is not our desire to maintain the urgency of the missionary cause that settles the issue, but: What do the Scriptures teach?
2. The Biblical Evidence
My aim here is to provide the biblical data that, in my judgment, compel a positive answer to each of the three questions in section 1 and demonstrate that in the fullest sense Jesus Christ is man's only hope for salvation. To do this I will gather together into three groups the texts that relate most directly to the three questions we have posed. Some comment will be made where it seems necessary.
2.1 Group One: Texts Teaching the Reality of Eternal Punishment
And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
The Hebrew 'olam need not always mean "everlasting," but in this context it seems to because it points to a decisive division into joy or misery after death and resurrection.
Matthew 3:12 (=Luke 3:17)
His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the granary, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.
This is John the Baptists' prediction of the judgment that Jesus would bring in the end. He pictures a decisive separation, and the term "unquenchable fire" (puri asbesto) implies a fire that will not be extinguished and therefore a punishment that will not end. This is confirmed in Mark 9:43-48.
And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.
Here the "unquenchable fire" is clearly hell, and the last line shows that the point is the unending misery of those who go there ("their worm does not die"). If annihilation (the teaching that some simply cease to exist after death)4 were in view, why would the stress be laid on the fire not ever being quenched and the worm never dying? This focus on duration is confirmed in Matthew 18:8.
And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.
Here the fire is not only unquenchable, but more explicitly, "eternal" (to pur to aionion). That this fire is not merely a purifying fire of "the age" to come (as some take aionion to mean) will be shown in the subsequent sayings of Jesus, especially the one on the unforgivable sin. (See below.)
Matthew 10:28 (Luke 12:4-5)
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
The "destruction" referred to here is decisive and final, but it does not have to mean obliterate or annihilate. The word apolumi frequently means "ruin" or "lose" or "perish" or "get rid of" (Matthew 8:25; 9:17; 10:6; 12:14). It is eternal ruin. (See 2 Thessalonians 1:9 below).
Matthew 25:41, 46
Then He will say to those at His left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’ … And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
Here the eternal fire is explicitly "punishment," and its opposite is eternal life. It does not honor the full import of "eternal life" to say that it only refers to a quality of life without eternal connotations. So it would fall short of truth to say that "eternal punishment" has no reference to eternal duration.
The Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.
If Judas were destined for glory eventually, or even destined for annihilation, it is difficult to imagine why it would have been better for him not to have been born. In John 17:12 he is called the "son of perdition" (huios tes apoleias)—a term related to the word for destroy in Matthew 10:28.
Mark 3:29 and Matthew 12:32
Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.
And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
This rules out the idea that after a time of suffering in hell, sinners will then be forgiven and admitted to heaven. Matthew says that there will be no forgiveness in the age to come for the unforgivable sin, and so Mark calls it the eternal sin, which shows that the word "eternal" is indeed a temporal word of duration and not just a word referring to a limited period in the age to come.
And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.
These words are the words of Abraham in heaven speaking to the rich man in Hades. The point is that the suffering there cannot be escaped. There is no way out.
For God will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.
This text is significant because wrath and fury are the alternative to "eternal life." This seems to imply that the wrath and fury keep one out of life "eternally"—forever.
2 Thessalonians 1:9
They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at in all who have believed.
The word for "destruction" (olethros) means "ruin" (1 Timothy 6:9; 1 Corinthians 5:5). The picture is not of obliteration but of a ruin of human life out of God's presence forever.
Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, with instruction about ablutions, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.
These are blemishes on your love feasts … wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars for whom the nether gloom of darkness has been reserved forever.
And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.
There is no stronger Greek expression for eternity than this one: eis aionas aionon.
Once more they cried, 'Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever.'
And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
Again the strongest of expressions for everlasting duration: eis tous aionas ton aionon.
2.2 Group Two: The Necessity of Christ's Atonement for Salvation
If, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Then as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man's obedience many will be made righteous.
The crucial point here is the universality of the work of Christ. It is not done in a corner with reference merely to Jews. The work of Christ, the second Adam, corresponds to the work of the first Adam. As the sin of Adam leads to condemnation for all of humanity that are united to Him as their head, so the obedience of Christ leads to righteousness for all the humanity that are united to Christ as their head—"those who receive the abundance of grace" (v. 17).
The work of Christ in the obedience of the cross is pictured as the divine answer to the plight of the whole human race.
1 Corinthians 15:21-23
For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.
In this text Christ's resurrection is made the answer to the universal human misery of death. Adam is the head of the old humanity marked by death. Christ is the head of the new humanity marked by resurrection. The members of this new humanity are "those who belong to Christ" (v. 23). Christ is not a tribal deity relating merely to the woes of one group. He is given as God's answer to the universal problem of death. Those who attain to the resurrection of the dead attain it in Christ.
1 Timothy 2:5
There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all.
The work of Christ corresponds to His role as sole Mediator in the universe between God and man.
Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.
The whole book of Revelation pictures Christ as the King of kings and Lord of lords (17:14; 19:16)—the universal ruler over all peoples and powers. This verse shows that he purchased a people for himself from all the tribes and languages of the world. His atonement is the means in every culture by which men and women become part of his kingdom. (See John 11:51-52.)
And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.
The work of Christ is not mentioned here explicitly, but the universality of his name as the only way to salvation would imply that whatever he did to win salvation for his people (namely, shed his blood, Acts 20:28) has universal significance.
Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.
Romans 3:9-20 establishes that all humans—Jew and Gentile—are under the power of sin and are speechless before the judgment of God. Therefore the death of Christ is set forth as an answer to this universal problem of sin. It is not one among many ways God deals with sin. It is the basis of the way God justifies any sinner.
For further study of the significance of Christ's death consider the following texts: Mark 10:45; Matthew 26:28; John 1:24; 6:51; Romans 4:25-5:1; 5:6; 8-10; 1 Corinthians 15:3; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21; Galatians 1:4; 4:4; Ephesians 1:7; 2:1-5,13,16,18; 5:2,25; Colossians 1:20; 1 Thessalonians 5:9; Titus 2:14; 1 Timothy 4:10; Hebrews 1:3; 9:12,22,26; 10:14; 12:24; 13:12; 1 Peter 1:19; 2:24; 3:18; 1 John 2:2; Revelation 1:5.
2.3 Group Three: The Necessity of Hearing and Believing the Gospel
The question that concerns us here is whether some (perhaps only a few) people are quickened by the Holy Spirit and saved by grace through faith in a merciful Creator even though they will never hear of Jesus in this life.
In other words, are there devout people in other religions who humbly rely on the grace of the God whom they know through nature (Romans 1:19-21)—the God who made them and who sustains them—even though they know they are sinners deserving of eternal punishment?
To answer this we need to ask whether there are any examples of such people mentioned in the New Testament. And then we need to ask how the preaching of the gospel of Christ is related to the nations in the New Testament.
2.31 The "Times of Ignorance" and the "Mystery of Christ"
Something of immense historical significance happened with the coming of the Son of God into the world. So great was the significance of this event that the focus of saving faith was henceforth made to center on Jesus Christ alone. So fully does He sum up all the revelation of God and all the hopes of God's people that it would henceforth be a dishonor to Him should saving faith repose on anyone but Him.
Before His coming a grand "mystery" was kept secret for ages. With the uncovering of this mystery the "times of ignorance" ended and the call to repentance sounds forth with a new specificity: Jesus Christ has been appointed Judge of all by His resurrection from the dead. All appeals for mercy and acquittal must now come through Him, and Him alone. We turn now to the texts which lay this truth open for us.
2.311 The Mystery of Christ
When you read this you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that is, how the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God's grace which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.
Before the time of Christ's coming the truth was not fully and clearly revealed that people from all the nations of the world would be full and complete partners with the chosen people of God. But now this very truth is happening "through the gospel" (3:6).
The gospel is not the revelation that the nations already belong to God. The gospel is the instrument for bringing the nations into this equal status of salvation. Paul sees his own apostolic vocation as the means God is graciously using to declare the riches of Christ to the nations (3:8).
So a massive change has occurred in redemptive history. Before the coming of Christ a truth was not fully revealed—namely, the inclusion of the nations with equal standing among the redeemed. The time was not "full" for this revelation because Christ had not been revealed from heaven. The glory and honor of uniting all the peoples was being reserved for Him in His saving work. It is fitting, then, that the nations be gathered in only through the preaching of the message of Christ, whose cross is the peace that creates the worldwide church (Ephesians 2:11-21).
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man mature in Christ. For this I toil, striving with all the energy which he mightily inspires within me.
The mystery in this text is defined as the indwelling Christ giving the hope of glory to the Gentiles to whom Paul is writing (1:27). They too are included in this awesome destiny of glory promised to the people of God.
Again Paul sees his own preaching ministry as a divine means of accomplishing this new thing—spreading the message that fulfills the mystery of the ingathering of the nations (1:25-26).
He even says that his work completes what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ (1:24). I take this to mean that the sufferings of Christ are sufficient to purchase His people from every people and tongue and tribe and nation, but that the actual application of this atonement must come through the preaching of the gospel. In this preaching Paul completes the aim of Christ's sufferings.
He makes it his aim to proclaim and warn and teach every man so that he can present men to God, mature in Christ (1:28). In fact, Paul saw his apostleship as the work of a priest preparing an acceptable offering of Gentiles to God sanctified by the Holy Spirit, as we will see later in Romans 15:15-18.
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.
Again Paul describes his gospel and his preaching as the means by which God is now fulfilling a mystery that has been secret for ages. The divine command is that now the obedience of faith be performed by all the nations.
But note that the making known of this mystery to all the nations is "through the prophetic writings." This means that the truth of the mystery was not totally hidden in ages past. The inclusion of the nations in God's blessing was part of the Old Testament revelation ever since Genesis 12:1-3 ("By you all the families of the earth shall be blessed"). But the revelation was not full and complete with regard to the fullness of their standing. And in actual fact this inclusion of the nations was not made known to the nations. Israel did not move toward the nations except in very rare cases (e.g. Jonah).
But "now" Paul has the vocation to call for the obedience of faith from all the nations. God is "now" doing a new thing. With the coming of Christ, God will no longer "allow the nations to walk in their own ways" (Acts 14:16, see below). The time has come for all nations to be called to repent and for the mystery to be fully revealed that the nations are "fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promises through the gospel" (Ephesians 3:6).
2.312 The Times of Ignorance
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead.
This text comes from Paul's sermon to the Greeks on the Areopagus in Athens. He had noticed an "altar to an unknown god," so he said, "What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you" (17:23).
In other words, he goes so far as to say that they worship the true God unawares! This "ignorant" worship is what makes the past generations "times of ignorance" (v. 30). And we will see that the worship of the true God "ignorantly" is not a saving act.
The "times of ignorance" in this sermon correspond to the ages in which the "mystery of Christ" has been kept secret (Romans 16:25; Colossians 1:26; Ephesians 3:5). These are the times in which, according to Acts 14:16, God has "allowed the nations to walk in their own ways." Or as Acts 17:30 says, the times that God "overlooked."
God's overlooking the "times of ignorance" does not mean that He ignores sins so as not to punish them. This would contradict Romans 1:18 ("the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men") and Romans 2:12 ("those who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law").
Rather, God's overlooking the "times of ignorance" refers to His giving men over to their own ways. His overlooking is His sovereign decision to postpone an all-out pursuit of their repentance through the mission of His people. "The reason why men have wandered from the truth for so long is that God did not stretch forth His hand from heaven to lead them back to the way … Ignorance was in the world, as long as it pleased God to take no notice of it" (Calvin, on Acts 17:30).
This does not mean that the commands and instructions were not there in the Old Testament for Israel to bear witness to the nations of the grace of God and invite their participation (e.g. Psalm 67; Genesis 12:2-3). It means rather that for generations God did not intervene to overcome this disobedience, but for His own wise purposes "allowed the nations to walk in their own ways"—and allowed His own nation to walk in the disobedience of missionary indifference.
God's ways are not our ways. Even today we live in a similar time of "hardening"—only now the tables are turned, and it is Israel that is passed over for a season:
Lest you (Gentiles) be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved. (Romans 11:25-26)
There was a time when the Gentiles were passed over while God dealt with Israel and now there is a time while Israel is passed over as God gathers the full number of His elect from the nations. In neither case are the people of God to neglect their saving mission toward Jew or Gentile "that they might save some" (Romans 11:14; 1 Corinthians 9:22). But God has His sovereign purposes in determining who actually hears and believes the gospel. And we may be sure that those purposes are wise and holy and will bring the greatest glory to His name.
We are given a glimpse in 1 Corinthians 1:21 of this divine wisdom:
Since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.
This says that it was God's wisdom that determined that men would not know Him through their wisdom. In other words, this is an instance and illustration of how God overlooked the times of ignorance and allowed men to go their own ways.
To make crystal clear that men, on their own, by their own wisdom (religion!), will never truly know God. An extraordinary work of God would be required to bring men to a true and saving knowledge of God, namely the preaching of Christ crucified, "a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). In this way all boasting is excluded. For left to himself man does not come to God.
In his inspiring book, A Vision for Missions, Tom Wells tells the story of how William Carey illustrates this conviction in his own preaching. Carey was an English Baptist missionary who left for India in 1793. He never came home, but persevered for 40 years in the gospel ministry.
Once he was talking with a Brahman in 1797. The Brahman was defending idol worship, and Carey cited Acts 14:16 and 17:30.
God formerly, "suffered all nations to walk in their own ways," said Carey, "but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent."
"Indeed," said the native, "I think God ought to repent for not sending the gospel sooner to us."
Carey was not without an answer. He said,
"Suppose a kingdom had been long overrun by the enemies of its true king, and he, though possessed of sufficient power to conquer them, should yet suffer them to prevail and establish themselves as much as they could desire. Would not the valour and wisdom of that king be far more conspicuous in exterminating them than it would have been if he had opposed them at first and prevented their entering the country? Thus, by the diffusion of the gospel light, the wisdom, power, and grace of God will be more conspicuous in overcoming such deep-rooted idolatries, and in destroying all that darkness and vice which have so universally prevailed in this country, than they would have been if all had not been suffered to walk in their own ways for so many ages past." (A Vision for Missions, Banner of Truth, 1985, pp. 12-13)
Carey's answer to why God allowed nations to walk in their own ways is that in doing so the final victory of God will be all the more glorious. There is a divine wisdom in the timing of God's deliverances from darkness. We should humble ourselves to see it rather than presume to know better how God should deal with a rebellious world.
In Acts 17:30 how does Paul assess the ignorant worship of the unknown god (17:23)? He says that the time has come for repentance in view of the impending judgment of the world by Jesus Christ ("He has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed," Acts 17:31).
In other words, Paul does not reveal to the worshipers in Athens that they are ready to meet their judge because they render a kind of worship to the true God through their altar to the unknown god (17:23). They are not ready. They must repent. As Jesus said in Luke 24:47, from the time of the resurrection onward "repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in His name to all nations." The times of ignorance are over. Jesus has brought the purposes of God to fulfillment. In Him all the promises are yes. At His throne every knee will bow. Therefore, henceforth He is the focus of saving faith. He is now openly installed and declared as Judge, and He alone can receive the appeals for acquittal.
What, then, are we saying so far? We are saying that the coming of Jesus Christ into the world is an event of such stupendous proportions that a change has occurred in the necessary focus of saving faith. Before His coming, saving faith reposed in the forgiving and helping mercy of God displayed in events like the exodus and in the sacrificial offerings and in the prophetic promises like Isaiah 53. Jesus was not known. The mystery that the nations would be fully included through the preaching of His name was kept secret for ages. Those were times of ignorance. God let the nations go their own way.
But "now"—the key word in the turning of God's historic work of redemption—something new has happened. The Son of God has appeared. He has revealed the Father. He has atoned for sin. He has risen from the dead. His authority as universal Judge is vindicated. And the message of His saving work is to be spread to all peoples. This turn in redemptive history is for the glory of Jesus Christ. Its aim is to put Him at the center of all God's saving work. And therefore it accords with this purpose that henceforth Christ be the sole and necessary focus of saving faith. Apart from a knowledge of Him, there will now be no salvation.
But is this conclusion supported by other New Testament teaching? What about the case of Cornelius? Was he not a Gentile, living after the resurrection of Christ and saved through his genuine piety without focusing his faith on Christ?
2.32 The Case of Cornelius, Acts 10:1-11:18
The story of Cornelius the Gentile centurion could lead some to believe that a man can be saved today apart from knowing the gospel and just by fearing God and doing the good that he can.
- Cornelius is described as a "devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people and prayed constantly to God" (10:2).
- On one occasion an angel says to him, "Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter" (10:31-32).
- Meanwhile, the apostle Peter has had a vision from the Lord designed to teach him that the ceremonial uncleanness of the Gentiles is not a hindrance to their acceptance by God. A voice said to Peter, "What God has cleansed, you must not call common" (10:15).
- When Peter meets Cornelius he says, "Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him" (10:34-35).
This is the sentence that might lead some to think that Cornelius was already saved from his sin, even before he heard and believed the gospel. But in fact Luke's point in telling the story seems to be just the opposite.
At Cornelius' house Peter begins his sermon about Jesus, and when he says, "To Him all the prophets bear witness that every one who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name," the Holy Spirit fell on the hearers.
Later on in Jerusalem Peter explains that the reason the Spirit fell just then is that God could see their hearts.
And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith (15:8-9).
In other words, it seems that what God saw in the hearts of the Gentiles was a kind of readiness—perhaps what Paul called the "hearing with faith" in Galatians 3:2. To this readiness God granted the gift of the Holy Spirit, as is His way according to Galatians 3:2.
Luke makes clear that this is the point at which Cornelius was saved and that it was the gospel that God used to save him. The way Luke makes this clear is that in Acts 11:14 Peter reports what the angel had said to Cornelius: "Send to Joppa and bring Simon called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved (hremata en hois sothese), you and all your household."
So it appears that the preaching of the gospel is the occasion God uses to save even those who have feared him and sought to do good. Later on in Acts 15:14 at the Jerusalem council James described God's intention in Peter's preaching:
Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.
Before God visited Cornelius in the preaching of Peter, he was not part of the "people for God's name."
Therefore Cornelius does not represent persons who are saved without hearing and believing the gospel; rather, he illustrates God's intention to take out a people for His name from "every nation" (Acts 10:35) through the sending of gospel messengers across cultural lines which had once been taboo.
We should learn with the Jewish church in Jerusalem that "to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life" (11:18). But we must be sure that we learn this the way they learned it: they inferred this from the fact that the Gentiles have believed the gospel that Peter preached and have received the Holy Spirit. They do not infer the acceptance of the Gentiles from their fear of God and their good deeds.
It appears, therefore, that Luke's intention in telling the Cornelius story is to show that the Gentiles can become part of the chosen people of God through faith in Christ in spite of their ceremonial "uncleanness."
The point is not that Gentiles are already part of God's chosen people because they fear God and do many good deeds. The key sentence is Acts 11:14—"He will declare to you a message by which you will be saved."
2.33 "No Other Name Under Heaven," Acts 4:12
The reason the message saves is that the message proclaims the name that saves—the name of Jesus. Peter said that God visited the Gentiles "to take out of them a people for His name" (Acts 15:14). It stands to reason then that the proclamation by which God takes a people for His name would be a message that hinges on the name of Jesus.
This is, in fact, what we saw in Peter's preaching at the house of Cornelius. The sermon comes to its climax with these words about Jesus: "Every one who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name" (Acts 10:43).
The implicit necessity of hearing and embracing the name of Jesus which we see in the story of Cornelius is made explicit in Acts 4:12, in the climax of another sermon by Peter, this time before the Jewish rulers in Jerusalem: "And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved."
Seen in its wider context in the Book of Acts, especially in connection with the Cornelius account, this text is a clear declaration not that Jesus must provide the atonement for all who are saved even if they do not hear of Him, but rather that the name of Jesus is the one and only name that a person must call upon in order to be saved. A person must hear this name, that is, a person must know this person in order to be saved.
2.34 "How Are They to Believe in Him Whom They Have Not Heard? Romans 9:30-10:21
We turn now again to the thought of the apostle Paul, and specifically to one of the most crucial texts on this issue of whether someone must hear the gospel in order to be saved.
In Romans 9:30-10:21 Paul shows that the chosen people Israel have failed to attain saving righteousness, even though they have had the message of faith taught them in the Old Testament all along. In other words, the fall of Israel is not owing to the failure of God to reveal to them what they needed to know.
Romans 9:32 tells us why Israel did not attain to the righteousness taught in the law. The reason was that they pursued it "not from faith but as though it were from works."
This "as though" shows that the true intention of the law was never to be a system of works by which men were taught to earn their righteousness. Rather, its intention was to be a "law of faith"—it taught that Israel should trust the mercy of God and that all obedience should be the "obedience of faith" and all works should be the "works of faith" (1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 2:11).
But Israel stumbled over this teaching and distorted it into a legalistic system called "works of law" (9:32). Another way to say this is to say that Israel was "ignorant" of the righteousness of God offered to faith, but instead sought to establish its own righteousness (10:3).
In 10:4 Paul brings this age-old distortion of the law into relation to Christ. He says that Christ is the goal of the law. He means that Christ is the climactic expression of what the law was teaching all along, namely, the message of faith. Christ is the stone of stumbling referred to in 9:33. Therefore, it is not surprising that Israel rejected Christ, because they had already rejected the true meaning of the law which came to fulfillment in Him.
In Romans 10:6-8 Paul refers to Deuteronomy 30:11-14 and treats Christ as the essence of the commandment. The point of Deuteronomy 30:11-14 is that the commandment of the law is not too hard to be kept. "For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off" (Deuteronomy 30:11). It does not require heroic moral efforts. The implication is that it only requires faith.
Now Paul says that Christ is the fulfillment of this truth: that the requirement of God is not hard—it is not too far off or too deep. Rather, it is as close as your lips and the belief of your heart.
Hence the statement in 10:9, "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."
For our purposes the crucial thing to see in this sequence of thought from 9:30 to 10:9 is that faith in Jesus Christ has come to stand in the place of faith in God that was required in the Old Testament and was referred to in 9:32. This is the point of 10:6-9: Christ is the goal of the Old Testament message and all faith must now be focused on Him for salvation.
So when Romans 10:11 quotes Isaiah 28:16, "No one who believes in Him will be put to shame," the reference is clearly to Jesus, the predicted cornerstone. And when 10:13 quotes Joel 2:32, "Every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved," Jesus is the "Lord" referred to, even though in Joel 2:32 "Yahweh" is in view. The reason we know this is that 10:9 said, "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord … you shall be saved."
So Paul is making clear that in this new era of redemptive history Jesus is the goal and climax of Old Testament teaching, and therefore Jesus now stands as Mediator between man and Yahweh as the object of saving faith.
This is the context in which Paul now asks in Romans 10:14-15,
But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard*? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!"
*The Greek verb for "hear" (akouo) followed by a person in the genitive case means hear the person, not merely hear about Him (Meyer, Murray, Cranfield).
What follows these verses (in 10:18-21) shows that Paul's main aim here is to establish the fact that Israel has indeed heard Christ through the preaching of the apostles and yet they have not believed on Him. This leads them into the question of 11:1, "Has then God rejected His people?"
But our concern is simply to learn what is implied in the sequence of questions in 10:14-15. Paul establishes an unbreakable chain:
- God must send preachers if they are to truly reveal Christ in their preaching (v. 15)
- Men must preach in this way if people are to hear Christ (v. 14)
- People must hear Christ if they are to call upon Him (v. 14)
- People must believe on Christ if they are to call upon Him (v. 14)
- People must call upon Him if they are to be saved. (v. 13)
- "For every one who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved" (v.13).
This chain establishes in a powerful way the fact that Paul saw an unbreakable connection between the preaching of Christ and the experience of salvation. These verses do not seem to allow the possibility of being saved without hearing Christ, and they seem to limit the means of hearing Christ to the preaching of those who are sent by God.
The theological assumption behind Paul's missionary conviction is that Christ is the fulfillment of all that the Old Testament was pointing toward. Before Christ, faith was focused on the mercy of God to forgive sins and to care for His people. As revelation progressed, faith could move more easily from the animal sacrifices onto the promised sin-bearer of Isaiah 53.
But when Christ came, all faith narrowed in its focus to Him alone as the One who purchased and guaranteed all the hopes of the people of God. From the time of Christ onward God wills to honor Christ by making Him the sole focus of saving faith.
2.35 Paul's Conception of His Own Missionary Commission
Already from the account of his preaching in Athens (see section 2.312) we have seen Paul's burden: eternal salvation is at stake everywhere he preaches, both among the Gentiles and in the synagogues.
Concerning Gentiles we may look at the account of the commission that the risen Lord gave Paul at his conversion. He reports this in Acts 26:15-18.
And I said, "Who are you, Lord?" And the Lord said, "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and bear witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from the people and from the Gentiles—to whom I send you to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me."
Here we see what was at stake in Paul's ministry. Christ did not call him to inform the Gentiles that they were already saved. He commissions him with a word of power that actually opens the eyes of the spiritually blind—not so that they can see that they are forgiven, but so that they can be forgiven.
His message delivers from the power of Satan. The picture of Gentiles without the gospel is that they are blind and in darkness and in bondage to Satan and without forgiveness of sins and unacceptable to God because they are unsanctified.
This accords with what Paul says elsewhere about the condition of man without the power of the gospel: all are under sin with their mouths stopped before God (Romans 3:9-19); they are in the flesh and unable to submit to God or please God (Romans 8:7-8); they are natural and not spiritual and therefore unable to receive the things of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:14-16); they are dead in trespasses, and children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3-5); and they are darkened and alienated from God and hard in heart (Ephesians 4:17-18).
Now, with the coming of Christ, there is a message that has power to save (Romans 1:16; 1 Thessalonians 2:16; 1 Corinthians 15:2) and bear fruit (Colossians 1:6) and triumph (2 Thessalonians 3:1), and it is the mission of Paul and all his heirs to preach that message to the nations.
Salvation is at stake when Paul speaks to the Jews in the synagogue as well. Paul does not assume that God-fearing Gentiles or Jews are saved by virtue of their knowing the Old Testament scriptures. What does he say in the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia?
Let it be known to you therefore, brethren, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him every one that believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.
Paul does not tell them that they are already forgiven by virtue of their Old Testament religion. He offers them forgiveness through Christ. And he makes "freeing" ("justification") from sin conditional upon believing on Christ.
When the synagogue later opposes this message, Paul says in Acts 13:46-48,
It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, "I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the uttermost parts of the earth." And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of God; and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.
When Jews thrust the gospel away they forfeit eternal life. They judge themselves "unworthy of eternal life." Why? Because Paul's message, according to the quote from Isaiah 49:6, is the means of salvation: "That you may bring salvation to the uttermost part of the earth."
Through Paul's preaching, God is now doing the sovereign work that He had "overlooked" for so long during the "times of ignorance"—He is bringing Gentiles to faith according to His preordained plan. He is opening their hearts to the gospel (Acts 16:14) and granting them repentance (Acts 11:18) and cleansing their hearts by faith (Acts 15:9).
Before this time of gospel privilege these things were not possible, for God was allowing the nations to go their own way (Acts 14:16). But now a great movement is under way to gather a people for His name from all the nations, and God himself is active in the ministry of His messengers to sanctify a people for himself.
This becomes wonderfully clear in Romans 15, where Paul describes his own vocation in its relation to the work of Christ in and through him.
But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed.
Notice the initiative of God in these verses. First, God gave Paul the grace of apostleship and called him to the ministry of the gospel (vv. 15-16). Second, the Gentiles who believe Paul's message are acceptable to God because they are sanctified by the Holy Spirit (v. 16). Third, it is not Paul himself who has won obedience from the Gentiles; it is what Christ has "wrought through him" (v. 18).
So the Gentile mission is the new work of God. It is the fulfillment of divine prophecy that once God allowed the nations to go their own way, but now,
God has visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, as it is written,
"After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will set it up,
that the rest of men may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
says the Lord, who has made these things known from of old." (Acts 15:14-18)
A new day has come with Jesus Christ. The people of God are being rebuilt in such a way that they will no longer fail in their task of reaching the nations. In this new day, God will not suffer His people to neglect their mission; He will no longer allow the nations to go their own way. He is establishing a church "that the rest of men may seek the Lord."
And He will gather in all those among the nations who are called by His name! It is His new work! All those who are predestined will be called (Romans 8:30). All those who are foreordained to eternal life will believe (Acts 13:48). All those who are ransomed will be gathered from every people under heaven (Revelation 5:9). God himself is the chief agent in this new movement and he will take out a people for His name among the nations (Acts 15:14).
2.4 The Writings of John
John's conception of the new missionary task parallels Paul's.
Just as Paul said no one could believe in a Christ they have not heard (Romans 10:14), so Jesus says in John 10:27, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me" (cf. 10:4, 14). In other words, Jesus gathers His redeemed flock by calling them with His own voice. The true sheep hear His voice and follow and He gives them eternal life (10:28).
Whom does Jesus have in mind when He speaks of those who will hear His voice and follow Him? He means more than the Jews that actually heard Him on earth. He says, "I have other sheep that are not of this fold; them I must bring along, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock and one shepherd" (10:16). By "other sheep who are not of this fold," He means Gentiles who are not part of the Jewish fold.
But how will these Gentiles hear His voice? The answer is the same as with Paul: they hear the voice of Jesus in the voice of His messengers. We see this in the way Jesus prays for His future disciples in John 17:20-21: "I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one." We infer from this, then, that the "sheep that are not of this fold" will hear the voice of the Shepherd through the voice of His messengers.
So eternal life comes only to those who hear the voice of the Shepherd and follow him. "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life" (10:27-28). This hearing is through the messengers of the Shepherd.
And this eternal life is owing to the death of Jesus for His sheep (10:15)—a death that atoned not for a few Jewish sheep only, but for sheep from every nation.
We see this in John 11:51-53, where John interprets the words of Caiaphas: "Being the high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad."
The "children of God scattered abroad" (11:52) are the "other sheep that are not of this fold" (10:16). And when we look at John's picture of the consummation of the missionary cause in Revelation we see that these "sheep" and "children" are truly from all nations.
And they sang a new song, saying,
"Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God
from every tribe and tongue and people and nation,
and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on earth." (Revelation 5:9-10)
Here we see the true extent of the word "scattered" in John 11:52. He died to gather the "children of God" who are scattered among "every tribe and tongue and people and nation."
The implication is that the messengers of the Shepherd must (Mark 13:10) and will (Matthew 24:14) reach every people under heaven with the message of the gospel and the voice of the Shepherd. The redeemed in heaven from all the people are not redeemed without knowing it. Rather, as Revelation 7:14 makes clear, those "from every nation, and all tribes and peoples and tongues" (Revelation 7:9) are those who "have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (Revelation 7:12; 22:14). They are those who "keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus" (Revelation 12:17). The gospel of the blood of Christ crucified for sinners and risen in victory must be preached to all the nations so they can believe and be saved.
The question we have been trying to answer in section 2.3 is whether some people are quickened by the Holy Spirit and saved by grace through faith in a merciful Creator even though they never hear of Jesus in this life. Are there devout people in religions other than Christianity who humbly rely on the grace of a God whom they know only through nature and inner experience (Romans 1:19-21; 2:12-16)?
The answer of the New Testament is a clear and earnest no.
Rather, the message throughout is that with the coming of Christ a major change has occurred in redemptive history. Saving faith was once focused on the mercy of God known in His redemptive acts among the people of Israel, and in the system of animal sacrifices and in the prophecies of coming redemption. Outside Israel we hear of occasional Melchizedek types (Genesis 14) who seem to know the true God in a direct way.
But now the focus of faith has narrowed down to one Man, Jesus Christ, the fulfillment and guarantee of all redemption and all sacrifices and all prophecies. It is to His honor now that henceforth all saving faith shall be directed to Him.
Therefore, this great turn in redemptive history is accompanied by a new mission thrust by God, as He no longer allows the nations to walk their own way (Acts 14:16), but sends His messengers everywhere, calling all to repent and believe the gospel (Acts 17:30).
God in Christ is himself the power behind the mission. He has ordained His people to life (Acts 13:48) and ransomed them by laying down His life for them (John 10:15; Revelation 5:9). Now He is commissioning Spirit-filled messengers to preach to them (Romans 10:15; 1:5) and He is speaking through these messengers with power (Luke 12:12; 21:15; 1 Thessalonians 2:13) and calling the lost effectually to faith (1 Corinthians 1:24; Romans 8:30) and keeping them by His almighty power (Jude 24).
Therefore the church is bound to engage with the Lord of glory in His cause. It is our unspeakable privilege to be caught up with Him in the greatest movement in history—the ingathering of the elect "from all tribes and tongues and peoples and nations" until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and all Israel is saved, and the Son of Man descends with power and great glory as King of kings and Lord of lords and the earth is full of the knowledge of His glory as the waters cover the sea for ever and ever.
See for example his sermon on "Justice" in Creation in Christ (ed. Rolland Hein [Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1976], pp. 63-81) where he argues forcefully that "Punishment is for the sake of amendment and atonement. God is bound by His love to punish sin in order to deliver His creature: He is bound by His justice to destroy sin in His creation." (p. 72) ↩
John Hick, "Whatever Path Men Choose Is Mine," in Christianity and Other Religions, eds. John Hick and Brian Hebblethwaite, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980. Hick ends with a quote from the Bhagavad Gita, iv, 11, "Howsoever man may approach me, even so do I accept them; for, on all sides, whatever path they may choose is mine." ↩
Similarly John Parry, the Other Faiths Secretary of the World Church and Mission Department of the United Reformed Church in London wrote in 1985, "It is to the faith of Jesus Christ that we are called. The change of preposition from in to of is significant. It is a faith that is shown in one's trust in God, in surrender to God's purposes, in giving oneself. Such a response of faith I have witnessed among my friends of other faiths. I cannot believe they are far from the kingdom of heaven, what is more, as Dr. Starkey writes '… people will not be judged for correct doctrinal beliefs but for their faith. Those who will enter the kingdom on the day of judgment are those who in faith respond to God's love by loving others.'" "Exploring the Ways of God with Peoples of Faith," in: International Review of Missions, Vol. lxxiv, No. 296, October, 1985, p. 512.
Erickson argues from the revelation available in nature according to Romans 1-2 and 10:18. The essential elements in the "gospel message" in nature are: "1) The belief in one good powerful God. 2) The belief that he (man) owes this God perfect obedience to his law. 3) The consciousness that he does not meet this standard, and therefore is guilty and condemned. 4) The realization that nothing he can offer God can compensate him (or atone) for this sin and guilt. 5) The belief that God is merciful, and will forgive and accept those who cast themselves on his mercy." ↩
"May it not be that if a man believes and acts on this set of tenets he is redemptively related to God and receives the benefits of Christ's death, whether he consciously knows and understands the details of that provision or not? Presumably that was the case with the Old Testament believers …
If this is possible, if Jews possess salvation in the Old Testament era simply by virtue of having the form of the Christian gospel without its content, can this principle be extended? Could it be that those who ever since the time of Christ have had no opportunity to hear the gospel, as it has come through the special revelation, participate in this salvation on the same basis? On what other grounds could they fairly be held responsible for having or not having salvation (or faith)?"
But here he is very tentative, for he goes on to say, "What Paul is saying in the remainder of Romans is that very few, if any, actually come to such a saving knowledge of God on the bases of natural revelation alone." Millard Erickson, "Hope for Those Who Haven't Heard? Yes, But…", Evangelical Missions Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 2, (April, 1975), pp. 124-5.
He is following here A.H. Strong, "Whoever among the heathen are saved must in like manner (i.e., like the patriarchs of the Old Testament) be saved by casting themselves as helpless sinners upon God's plan of mercy, dimly shadowed forth in nature and providence," Systematic Theology, Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell, 1907, p. 842. This is a departure from the older Reformed theologian, Charles Hodge, who argued that only through the word of God heard or read does the effectual call to salvation come. Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1952, p. 646.
Notable evangelicals espouse this view. For example, Clark Pinnock of McMaster Divinity College argues that "the 'fire' of God's judgment consumes the lost … God does not raise the wicked in order to torture them consciously forever, but rather to declare his judgment upon the wicked and to condemn them to extinction, which is the second death." ("Fire, Then Nothing," Christianity Today March 20, 1987, p. 49). ↩