Saturday, September 19, 2009

What kind of revelation can save? Part 2

Last time I started with a question: what kind of revelation can save? Or more specifically, does general revelation provide enough truth to save a person from sin? There are two main positions, the first of which is inclusivism, which holds that general revelation does indeed provide, by itself, salvific truth. If you missed the introduction to this view, you read about it here.

This time I’d like to provide an introduction to the other view, exclusivism. In subsequent posts, I’ll reveal which position I prefer (no big mystery), defend it, and respond to the most prominent objections to it.

Exclusivism is also referred to as restrictivism or particularism. Exclusivists hold that general revelation, by itself, does not provide salvific truth and that special revelation of Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation. In other words, biblical truth about Christ must be apprehended in order for a person to be saved.

One of the main biblical texts used to support this position is Acts 4:12, “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” As well, John 14:6 is cited, which says, “ . . . I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” John Calvin, one of the leading historical figures to support the exclusivist view, wrote, “Surely, after the fall of the first man no knowledge of God apart from the Mediator has had power unto salvation.”[1]

On the other hand, exclusivists hold that general revelation, while it does not offer sufficient truth to save man, does provide sufficient truth to condemn man. Proponents of this view contend that this truth is the main thrust of Romans 1:18-32, particularly vv18-20 and 28-32:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.

19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.

20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse…

28 ...And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.

29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips,

30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,

31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

32 Though they know God's decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Exclusivists find in this passage that the revelation depicted here is exclusively general revelation. Without special revelation, accompanied by God’s grace, man will inevitably reject the truth afforded by general revelation.

It follows then that all the unevangelized – those who have not and will not hear the gospel in their lifetime – are condemned to hell. “If a person in a remote area has never heard of Christ, he will not be punished for that. What he will be punished for is the rejection of the Father of whom he has heard [via general revelation] and for the disobedience to the law that is written in his heart,” writes R. C. Sproul.[2] “Man’s problem is not that he doesn’t know God but that he refuses to acknowledge what he knows to be true. . . [This] revelation is sufficient to render man inexcusable.”[3]

The main strength of the exclusivist position is the voluminous biblical support for the exclusivity of salvation in Christ, who cannot be known outside of special revelation. Belief in Christ is necessary for salvation. “How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard?”[4]

So which view is more biblical? Does the creation itself – all the things God has made – provide sufficient truth for salvation? Or is it necessary to hear the gospel of Christ in order to be saved? Next time, I’ll start making a biblical case for the view I hold. But I exhort you in the meantime to search the Scriptures for yourself and see what you find. One of the two views is definitely more biblical. Which one is it?


[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Library of Christian Classics, vols. 20-21, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 2.6.1.

[2]R. C. Sproul, Reason to Believe (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 56.

[3]R. C. Sproul, Reason to Believe (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 59.

[4] Rom 10:14b

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