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Does General Revelation Provide, by Itself, Salvific Truth?

A Defense of Exclusivism from Pluralism and Inclusivism

Andrew Wencl

Systematic Theology I (27060*WW*)

Professor Bruce Ware

November 8, 2009
Issue:

While growing up in a Western Michigan town, my Sunday School classes frequently

addressed complex and challenging issues. One question we focused on during a discussion on

Romans was, “What about those who have never heard?” This question challenges our concept

of God’s fairness and justice in light of the untold billions throughout history who’ve died

without having heard the gospel1. Christians have posed versions of this question in times past

and it will no doubt continue surfacing well into the future. Some attempt to reconcile the

exclusivity of the cross with the availability of the message, while others come dangerously close

to accusing God of injustice. Others ignore the boundary, cross the line, and plunge head-first

into contempt. An inquiring and less accusative way to ask the question is, “Does general

revelation provide, by itself, salvific truth?”

Before discussing the major positions regarding this issue, one must note the specific

wording of the question. First, it calls for a definition of “general revelation” and “salvific

truth.” Second, it disqualifies a few approaches to answering the question with the phrase “by

itself.” According to a modified definition from Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, general

revelation is “[t]he knowledge of God’s existence, character, and moral law that comes through

creation [and human conscience] to all humanity.”2 The term “salvific truth” refers to

information that is sufficient for a person to act on in accordance with God’s expectations

(understood to be faith) and for that action to be credited to him as righteousness. If general

revelation is to provide salvific truth “by itself,” one must assume no influence in the slightest

from God’s special revelation of himself in any situation purporting to be a salvation experience.

1
The gospel, for the sake of brevity and clarification, is the message that we must have faith (total dependence) on
the work of Christ on the cross and the hope of his resurrection as our only means of salvation. See Galatians 3 for
a more exhaustive explanation of the gospel.
2
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), p.
1243. Bracketed text mine.

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Positions:

Four views on salvation dominate the discussion within Christian circles, though one falls

outside the scope of the question and this essay does not address it.3 Pluralism, inclusivism, and

exclusivism represent the most common views held within the Church regarding salvation, the

last of which has been the historical and most common view within Evangelicalism.

The sentence, “There are many ways to God,” accurately summarizes pluralistic belief,

which in its most “Christianized” form argues general revelation is salvific. This view shares

more in common with Eastern religions such as Buddhism or Hinduism than historical

Christianity because it denies foundational Christian doctrines. Though nominal Christians may

agree with the statement, most evangelical Christians would not.

The most “Christian” argument for pluralism holds that people all around the earth have

recognized by means of creation and conscience that something exists beyond this world we live

in. In response to this general revelation, these people have sought God based on what they

know. God responds to these human attempts at connection with the divine and freely accepts

them. God allows the Five Pillars of Islam, the Christian faith, and any other sincere approaches

as legitimate avenues to Him.

Inclusivism identifies more closely with traditional Christian belief and carries a

continuum of ideas, but proponents of this view would affirm that “We […] know that no person

can be saved except through Christ...”4 Though pluralism would deny this statement, the most

liberal positions within inclusivism closely resemble pluralism and may border on universalism,

such as John Sanders’ belief that “refusal to accept the church’s invitation should not be equated

3
Universalim, the belief that God saves everyone, usually makes no argument from general revelation to support
its view. Any arguments adopted by proponents of universalism are included in either pluralism or inclusivism.
4
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. (New York: Touchstone, 1996), p. 65. The full quote reads, “We do know that no
person can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved by Him.”

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with refusal to accept God’s invitation,”5 thus denying the responsibility of men to respond to the

full truth of the gospel even if they are presented with it.

The inclusivist argument says since Christ is the creator of all things, any attempt at

reaching out to the Creator constitutes faith in Christ. Though they don’t know the gospel

message, they are saved by the work of Christ on the cross, like Old Testament saints who had

little or no understanding of the full gospel of Christ.6 John Sanders says that God may have

chosen the church to proclaim the fullness of salvation, but he is not limited by it as the sole

means of reaching the lost.7 Inclusivists give special emphasis to non-Jewish and non-covenant

believers such as Enoch, Melchizedek, Rahab, and Ruth to support their view that God accepts

those who seek him though they may not have heard the gospel.

Along with verses from Romans, Cornelius and the thief on the cross who Jesus assured

would be with him in paradise stand as some of the most common New Testament evidence of

salvation apart from a full understanding of the gospel, according to inclusivism.

The final position, exclusivism, disagrees with both parallelism and inclusivism by

believing that salvation is found only through faith in the redeeming work of Christ and in no

way does a response to general revelation provide salvation. Whereas inclusivism believes

responding to the truth that can be known about God from general revelation is sufficient for

salvation, exclusivism holds that God may give an opportunity to hear the gospel to a person that

responds to the truth found in general revelation, but not credit religious sincerity with

5
Sanders, John. No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B.
Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992) p. 237.
6
See “Were Old Testament Saints Indwelt by the Holy Spirit?” by James Hamilton (Themelios. 30-1 ©2005) for
evangelical views of how the Old Testament saints were saved.
7
Sanders, op cit., p. 241.

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righteousness.8 Using the same passages as inclusivists, exclusivists agree that Scripture teaches

general revelation should incite a response to recognize our “creatureliness,” and worship the

Creator and to repent of our ways, but disagree by affirming it is sufficient only to condemn us

before God because we don’t respond that way.

Again, many exclusivists agree with inclusivists that God will judge people differently

based on what they knew about His requirements and how they responded to them. However,

this judgment is not a decision between heaven and hell, but between rewards, in the case of

believers, and punishments, in the case of unbelievers.

Support:

I hold to the exclusivist view and affirm that Scripture, though veiled to some, is quite

clear on the subject. In the space below I affirm the authority of the Bible for the resolution of

the matter of salvific general revelation, salvation through Christ alone, the insufficiency of

general revelation for knowledge of salvation, and God’s just judgment through varying degrees

of punishment for those who’ve never heard.

Parallelism uses a limited appeal to the Bible as the corroboration of its view, but

inclusivism pleas for its case on the basis of many biblical passages. To deal with these issues in

such a limited space requires the assumption that the Bible is the ultimate standard of authority

on the matter. This will severely hinder parallelism’s position, but failure to hold to that

essential standard would dismiss the relevance of even studying the Bible and the question of

salvific general revelation in the first place.

Contrary to parallelism, the Bible is clear that the only means of salvation is through

Jesus Christ. He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father

8
Ravi Zacharias, in the book The Case for Faith, holds this position; though it is not clear from the text what he
believes about some specific aspects of the idea (i.e. whether God would use only a vision or angel to
communicate the gospel).

Wencl / General Revelation / Pg. 5 of 13


except through me.”9 Paul attests that “there is one mediator between God and men, the man

Christ Jesus.”10 Nothing suggests that other religions are equally viable ways of attaining

salvation. Quite the contrary, as it says in Acts 4:12, “there is salvation in no one else, for there

is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Though this

doesn’t necessarily discredit the inclusivist position yet, the clear wording of these verses and the

testimony of the entire Bible against all the religions of the nations, declaring their idols to be

nothing but wood and stone,11 deny the plausibility of the pluralist position.

Both inclusivism and exclusivism appeal strongly to the book of Romans for their proof

texts for salvific general revelation. Three sections of Scripture bear special emphasis on the

subject: Romans 1:18-23, Romans 2:14-15, and Romans 10:18. I address the first and second

passages below.

All three of the proceeding Scripture passages work within the framework or build upon

the foundation of the early chapters of Romans. Here Paul argues for the universal

condemnation against all men, regardless of whether they’ve heard the gospel or not. Verses

such as “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,”12 and “we have already charged that

all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one

understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;

no one does good, not even one,’”13 show that instead of seeking God as a response to what He

has revealed of Himself through nature and conscience, we have hardened our hearts and turned

aside to our own destruction.

9
John 14:4 (ESV). Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright ©
2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
10
1 Timothy 2:5 (ESV).
11
In Jeremiah 2:11, God accuses his faithless people and says “Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are
no gods?” (ESV).
12
Romans 3:23 (ESV).
13
Romans 3:9-12 (ESV).

Wencl / General Revelation / Pg. 6 of 13


General revelation carries with it no salvific qualities. As John Piper states in his book,

Let the Nations be Glad!: The Supremacy of God in Missions, “According to Romans 1:18-23

general revelation through nature has always been sufficient to make people accountable to

glorify and thank God, but not efficient to do so.”14 This passage contains two key points.

First, Paul is resolutely negative in all he has to say about mankind in its relation to

general revelation. He speaks of God’s wrath, and man’s lack of excuse. He says they

“exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and

animals and creeping things.”15 Were pluralism or inclusivism possible from Scripture, this

verse would immediately disqualify a vast majority of people throughout history who’ve set up

and worshipped idols, including most Native American peoples.16

Second, Paul’s emphasis here on judgment against all men for wickedness does not carry

an exception for the hypothetical person who properly responds to God’s general revelation who

had no access to the gospel. To understand the force of this point, the whole of Romans 1:18-23

must be compared with the verse immediately preceding it. “For in it [the gospel] the

righteousness of God is revealed…”17 Paul’s point is that justification comes from the gospel,

not from an impersonal imputation of Christ’s righteousness through a faith response to general

revelation. Likewise, God’s wrath does not come solely from rejecting the gospel, as if that were

the only sin between us,18 but for rebelling against God, or as D.A. Carson often puts it, for the

“degodding” of God.

14
Piper, John. p. 132.
15
Romans 1:23 (ESV).
16
Since Native Americans were virtually cut off from God’s special revelation until after 1492, this point should be
severely troubling to pluralists and inclusivists.
17
Romans 1:17 (ESV), brackets mine.
18
Compare to some Arminian views of the nature of Christ’s atonement

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The third passage, Romans 10:18, says “But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they

have, for ‘Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.’”

Inclusivists mistakenly assume this quotation of Psalm 19:4 implies that general revelation is

sufficient for salvation. They are mistaken for the following reasons:

First, they mistakenly apply the context for Psalm 19:4 when they should begin by

looking to the context of Romans 10:18. They correctly recognize that Psalm 19:4 refers to God

revealing himself through nature. However, the immediate context of Romans 10:18, which

takes precedence, gives a different understanding. Paul was not affirming salvific general

revelation in the Psalm; rather, he uses the Psalm quotation to emphasize his point: the

widespread announcement of the gospel to the Jews shows they have largely rejected it. It had

nothing to do with the Gentile world with no access to special revelation.

Second, if Romans 10:18 supported salvific general revelation, it would stand in clear

contrast to Romans 10:14-15. Paul argues here for the necessity to send preachers to proclaim

the gospel in order for people to hear and believe. John Piper comments on the verses this way:

“[Paul] clearly means that one cannot hear what one needs to hear for salvation unless a preacher

is sent. He would contradict this if he meant in verse 18 that [human] preachers are not essential

for salvation…”19 In addition, Paul would have had to suddenly break his chain of thought and

change the subject to affirm salvific general revelation in verse 18 and then continue on with his

point in verse 19.

Exclusivism and a firm belief in the sovereignty of God work hand-in-hand. There is

clear definition within both. Scripture never assumes God is morally responsible if people perish

without having heard the message of salvation. Ezekiel 3:18 says, “If I say to the wicked, 'You

shall surely die,' and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked
19
Piper, John. p. 156.

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way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will

require at your hand.” This verse implies that it is not only possible for someone to die without

hearing the words of salvation, but they will be judged for their wickedness apart from whether

or not they heard. Since God is God, He is not required to announce salvation any more than He

was required to provide it.

This realization should cause us to weep for the lost and to press on even harder to make

the gospel known. God has revealed in His Word that believers will receive different levels of

reward in heaven20 and unbelievers will receive different levels of punishment in hell21. We

should not entertain thoughts that God might grant salvation to those who’ve never heard the

gospel just to placate our own sense of guilt, and the Ezekiel passage should convict us of that.

Objections:

A strong objection to exclusivism asks for a satisfactory response to those in the Old

Testament who clearly had a relationship with God and were not of the Jewish camp. The most

common names mentioned to support inclusivism are Enoch, Melchizedek, and Job.

Despite the apparent surface evidence, no one within inclusivism can present a concrete

case from the Bible of someone who responded properly to general revelation and was saved.

These three examples all fail to show any evidence whatsoever of faith in God through His

general revelation.

For one, inclusivists cannot prove from Scripture that these three people didn’t have

access to what God had already revealed of himself through special revelation. With so little

recorded about these individuals, nothing can be drawn from their stories to answer the question

of salvific general revelation without adding to the text. Enoch was close enough in the birth line

20
See supporting passages Matthew 10:40-42, Matthew 25:13-26, and 2 John 1:8.
21
See supporting passages Matthew 10:14-15 and Matthew 11:20-24.

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to Adam that he probably would have been privy to information regarding what God had

revealed to Adam regarding how man is to relate to and have relationship with Him. Both King

David and the author of Hebrews view Melchizedek as an archetype of the priest-king messiah

because so little is known about him. Job, another patriarch, clearly had a personal encounter

with God at the end of his ordeal, but nothing can be said about how he learned about God in the

first place or when God declared him righteous.

Secondly, no evidence exists tying Enoch, Melchizedek, or Job to salvation through

general revelation. Inclusivists make the mistake of thinking that people living before the

Abrahamic or Mosaic covenants were bereft of any special revelation. Adam and Eve walked

with God in the Garden of Eden prior to the Fall and no doubt shared what they knew of God

with their children. God gave Adam and Eve instructions for how to live after He banished them

from the garden. Nothing suggests God didn’t explain how they and their descendents should

relate to him through sacrifice and obedience, especially since the reference to Cain and Abel’s

sacrifices follow immediately after He gives those directions.

The appeal to Old Testament saints relies too heavily on speculation from an underlying

worldview that assumes general revelation is salvific.

Another attack on exclusivism generates from supposed “agnostics.”22 Some

publications from RBC Ministries, well known for its free devotional, Our Daily Bread, offer a

more subtle approach to the question of salvific general revelation that suggests both inclusivists

and exclusivists speak where Scripture is silent. In one publication, What About Those who have

Never Heard?, the author writes, “It’s important for us to say as much as the Bible says without

adding more.” 23 He offers points favoring both inclusivism and exclusivism, but ends by giving

22
Referring to those who believe we can’t say definitively that general revelation is or is not salvific.
23
De Haan II, Martin R. What About Those Who Have Never Heard? (Grand Rapids: RBC Ministries, 2002), p. 8.

Wencl / General Revelation / Pg. 10 of 13


a “we don’t know” answer, arguing instead for commitment to preaching the gospel and trust in

the justice of God.

In another article from RBC Ministries, Dan Vander Lugt mentions the story of how the

Waodani Indians (Aucas) came to Christ after the death of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, and three other

missionaries in 1956. Dayuma, the first believer, said her father realized they were living a

destructive lifestyle before the missionaries came. The article states,

“Unlike the others of his tribe, he was deeply conscious of his sinfulness and knew

that he and his people needed forgiveness. He told Dayuma that some day God

would send a messenger to the Aucas to tell them the way of salvation. Like Old

Testament believers, Dayuma's father was still living by faith when he died… Does

Scripture give us grounds for insisting that Dayuma's father is any different in God's

eyes than the believers of the Old Testament? …[T]here isn't a passage of Scripture

that definitively proves that God looks upon Dayuma's father differently than He

looked upon Old Testament believers who had only a faint idea of the nature of

coming redemption.”24

Despite the apparent call for moderation, the slant of the article is clearly in favor of

inclusivism. Vander Lugt, a Baptist, makes some clear mistakes in his approach to the topic and

sacrifices hermeneutical fidelity for compassion based on feeling instead of truth.

Although we may be able to judge someone’s fruit,25 Vander Lugt practically asserts that

Dayuma’s father was saved. While calling for non-decision on salvific general revelation, his

24
Vander Lugt, Dan. “Do Christians believe that everyone who hasn't heard of Christ will be damned to suffer
eternal agony in hell?” RBC Ministries, ©2009.
25
"For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own
fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.” Luke 6:43-44 (ESV).

Wencl / General Revelation / Pg. 11 of 13


inclusivist-leaning position uses nothing better than emotional appeal. Who wants to condemn

Dayuma’s father to hell?

More disturbing than the emotional appeal, the author sacrifices hermeneutical fidelity

for a sweeping generalization. He argues based on a faulty assumption that the Old Testament

patriarchs had little or no access to any salvific revelation from God and that Dayuma’s father

was practically in the same position. As he claims of the exclusivist position, “there isn’t a

passage of Scripture that proves” his assumption here. And though Dayuma’s father may have

been conscious of his sinfulness, the people mentioned in Romans 1:18-23 also were conscious

of their sins but were not justified before God.

Finally, John Piper’s words adequately sum up the Romans 1 passage from earlier:

“though these verses teach the reality of general revelation that is sufficient to hold humanity

accountable to glorify God (v. 21), nevertheless they also teach that men […] do not thank God

or honor him the way they should (v. 21) and are therefore without excuse (v. 20).” The thought

of anyone perishing and spending a Christless eternity in hell should deeply sadden us, but the

Scriptures affirm that God does condemn people for their wickedness whether they had access to

the gospel or not (Ezekiel 3:18). The Ezekiel passage also shows our responsibility as well. We

should follow Paul’s heart, when he said, “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where

Christ has already been named,”26 so that everyone may have access to the good news.

26
Romans 15:20 (ESV).

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Bibliography

De Haan II, Martin R. What About Those Who Have Never Heard? (Grand Rapids: RBC

Ministries, 2002), p. 8.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids:

Zondervan, 2000) p. 1243.

Hamilton, James. “Were Old Testament Saints Indwelt by the Holy Spirit?” Themelios. 30.1

(2005) Web. 20 Oct. 2009 <http://s3.amazonaws.com/tgc-documents/journal-

issues/30.1_Boda.pdf>

Holy Bible: English Standard Version (ESV). Wheaton: Crossway, 2007.

Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. (New York: Touchstone, 1996), p. 65.

Piper, John. Let the Nations be Glad!: The Supremacy of God in Missions. (Grand Rapids: Baker

Books, 1993), p. 131-157.

Sanders, John. No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized. (Grand

Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992), p. 237.

Strobel, Lee. The Case for Faith. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), p. 160-163.

Vander Lugt, Dan. “Do Christians believe that everyone who hasn't heard of Christ will be

damned to suffer eternal agony in hell?” RBC Ministries, ©2009. Web. 1 Nov. 2009.

<http://www.rbc.org/questionsDetail.aspx?id=45932&Topic=748>

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