For a couple of posts now, we’ve been looking at the issue of revelation and salvation. The specific question we’re seeking to answer is, “what kind of revelation can save?” There are two main positions on this question, the inclusivist view, which holds that salvation is possible based on general revelation, and the exclusivist view, which holds that special revelation is necessary for salvation. By clicking on the links above, you can read a short explanation of these two views.
In the next couple of posts, I’ll be making a case for the exclusivist view. I believe it is the most biblical view in light of the scriptural texts related to general revelation (the subject of this post) and the centrality of Christ in salvation (to be dealt with in the next post).
The classic text on general revelation is Romans 1:18-32. While this passage is normally used to build a strong case against the possibility of salvific truth in general revelation, some inclusivists have used it to argue the opposite. It has been claimed that the negative response that man gives to general revelation in Romans 1:21, namely, the failure to honor God or give thanks, implies that the opposite response would be a proper faith response to God. It is further asserted that this obedience, which would be based on the law written on a man’s heart (2:15), would be pleasing to God and would serve as evidence that God is working in that person’s life.
I see three difficulties with this line of thinking. First, general revelation in Romans 1 is not mentioned in relation to faith at all. In fact, it is only tied to the wrath of God. God’s wrath is revealed from heaven as a result of man’s rejection of God as revealed in general revelation. Second, the purpose of this portion of Romans 1 is not to give Gentiles hope that they might be saved apart from the knowledge of Christ. The purpose is to show that all Gentiles are under sin, just as the purpose of Romans 2 is to show that all Jews are under sin. After giving a list of the characteristics of the depraved mind, Paul writes in 1:32, “and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worth of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.” Again, they are without excuse.
The thrust of Paul’s argument in the first two-and-a-half chapters is that all men are under sin (3:9) and in need of a Savior (3:21-26). This sets the stage for Paul to raise up Christ as the object of faith by which man must be saved. The mention of general revelation in chapter 1 serves no other purpose than to show that the Gentile is without excuse. General revelation does not save him, but his rebellious response to that revelation condemns him.
One inclusivist has charged that according to Romans 2:6-16, “the Gentiles are capable of fulfilling the law by faith even though they do not have the written law, and thus they will receive ‘glory and honor and immortality, eternal life.’” However, there are three reasons why this will not work. First, the concept of faith is nowhere to be found in Romans 2. Second, the context shows that Paul’s purpose is to remove from the Jews any notion of spiritual advantage due to their having the Law, since the Gentiles have the law written on their hearts as evidenced by their occasional obedience to it. So, the focus in these verses, as well as in the rest of chapter 2, is the Jews. Third, the point is rendered moot by 3:20, which states that no flesh will be justified through the works of the law.
While some concede that there are no biblical examples of anyone being saved through general revelation alone, Millard Erickson has conjectured that there are five elements that if gleaned from general revelation could constitute a gospel message:
(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 upon his mercy.
Of course, no biblical text indicates that any components of the gospel are available through general revelation. Further, it seems unlikely that these clearly defined truths could be gathered from the created order. “How the holiness and justice of God can ever be reconciled with his willingness to forgive sins is a mystery that has never been solved . . . apart from the Bible.”
I mentioned recently a good standard for determining the validity of any interpretation of Scripture: you must be able to put your finger on the Words of Scripture and say, “this is why I interpret the passage this way.” Using this standard we can fully support the idea that general revelation is sufficient to condemn a person – we simply point to Romans 1:20…or Romans 1:24…or Romans 1:26…or Romans 1:28…or Romans 1:32. Or we could save time by just circling the whole passage since the very point being made is that man is condemned because of his rejection of general revelation about God.
On the other hand, the inclusivist has no place to rest his finger. There is no text that teaches us that general revelation is sufficient to save. Next time, we’ll show the utter incompatibility between inclusivism and the biblical teaching on the centrality of Christ in salvation.
Terrence L. Teissen, Who Can Be Saved? Reassessing Salvation in Christ and World Religions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 144.
John Sanders, No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992), 28.
Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, in vol. 6 of Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. ed. Moises Silva (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 121.
Terrence L. Teissen, Who Can Be Saved? Reassessing Salvation in Christ and World Religions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 149.
Millard J. Erickson, “Hope for Those Who Haven’t Heard? Yes, But . . .” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 11 April 1975, 125.
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 123.