Welcome back to the podcast on this Friday morning as we close out the week. And we’re about to close out the year, too, here in our final weeks of 2022. We’re closing out the year with something we’ve never done before on the podcast: we’re going to introduce you to some of our key international partners. Desiring God’s books and articles — even this podcast — get translated into dozens of languages around the world. And to do it, we need help, lots of help. And that’s what we have. So today we get to hear what God is doing in the French-speaking world through our friend Daniel Henderson. Stay tuned for that at the end of today’s episode.
And as you can imagine, Pastor John, based on what I just said, we are big believers in international missions and reaching the globally lost. Which leads to today’s question from Michael, who lives in Arrington, Tennessee. Michael writes this: “Hello, Pastor John! I have heard orthodox preachers say in the past that God could reveal the gospel to a native tribesman who has never been witnessed to by another human. Do you believe this is true? Can we have any hope that God occasionally revealed the gospel to a particular person, supernaturally, without any human witnessing — say, to an unreached Native American or to a Jewish prisoner of war in WWII? And however you answer this question, how should we think about Paul’s conversion by vision in Galatians 1:12?”
Let’s start where Michael’s question ends. He wonders about how the apostle Paul’s conversion came about in relationship to how conversion comes about today through the preaching of the gospel, or perhaps by other means — through direct revelation, say, or through dreams. And it is a very perceptive and relevant question, because Paul stresses in Galatians that his own transforming encounter with the risen Christ was not dependent on any human being but came by direct revelation. In fact, his entire argument for his apostleship in the first two chapters of Galatians hangs on that very fact.
Paul’s Unique Conversion
Here’s what he says in Galatians 1:11–12:
I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
And then to underline the point of being dependent on no one except the risen Christ, he says in Galatians 1:15–17,
When he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
So the point of Paul’s argument is that his unique apostolic authority, over against ordinary Christians in the early church, is based on his unique way of encountering Christ and being called into the ministry.
It would be wrong to use Paul’s unique experience to say that’s how other people around the world can come to Christ. Paul’s point is just the opposite: “My dependence on no other humans is the warrant for my apostleship, not a model for evangelism. If others could come to Christ this way, my argument would lose its force.” So that’s my answer to the last part of Michael’s question. Paul’s experience is not a model for how people can come to Christ without human input.
Saved Apart from Preaching?
So what about the first part of Michael’s question (which is even more important)? Can a person be saved who has never been witnessed to, preached to by another human? This is a hugely important question, especially for people involved in world missions. Does God save people who have never heard the gospel through a human witness? Does he, for example, give them dreams of all they need to know about Christ to be saved?
This is so important that in my book on missions, Let the Nations be Glad!, there’s a whole long, long chapter about this issue, and we — Desiring God and the publisher — thought it was so crucial that we published a small book from that chapter called Jesus: The Only Way to God; Must You Hear the Gospel to Be Saved? So I can only mention a few pointers here, but there’s more out there to read if you want to follow up.
“God does not save people today apart from hearing the gospel of Jesus.”
My answer is no, God does not save people today apart from hearing the gospel of Jesus. And the reason is that God’s purpose ever since the incarnation of Christ as the God-man is that the Son of God — Jesus Christ, crucified and risen — is to be the conscious focus of all saving faith everywhere in the world, among all the peoples of the world.
Faith Comes from Hearing
For example, Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1:21, “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.” It was the wisdom of God that decreed that people would not come to know him except through the preaching of Jesus. The incarnate, crucified, risen Son of God is so gloriously pivotal in God’s purposes for the revelation of himself in history that all saving faith orients on this Christ, and particularly as he is preached in the gospel. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
“It was the wisdom of God that decreed that people would not come to know him except through the preaching of Jesus.”
The apostles proclaimed that very truth in these words 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.” And then Paul put the finest point on it by arguing that this saving name must be preached, and heard, and believed for people to be saved. Here’s Romans 10:
Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord [Jesus] will be saved. How then will they call on 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 someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? . . . So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:13–15, 17)
In other words, I don’t think the Bible gives us any encouragement at all to believe that a person can come to saving faith without hearing the gospel. This is why world missions and personal evangelism are so utterly crucial.
Purpose of Visions
If we ask about the role of dreams and visions, say on the mission field, the guidance that the New Testament gives us is the story of Cornelius, the Roman centurion, who got a vision of an angel speaking to him that resulted in his conversion to Christianity. But Peter explains how this vision led to his salvation. Here’s what Peter says about that transaction in Acts 11:13–14: Peter said,
[Cornelius] told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.”
The vision from the angel was not the saving message. The vision connected him with Peter, who preached the saving message about Jesus. If God uses dreams or visions, I think, biblically, that’s the way he’s going to use them.
‘I Am Sending You’
So my conclusion is that God has mercifully provided a way of salvation through the glorious gospel of Christ. And he says to us, to missionary goers and senders, in the words of Acts 26:17, the risen Christ now talking to Paul (and really to all of us who care about bringing people out of darkness into light),
I am sending you [you, human being] to open their eyes, so 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. (Acts 26:17–18)
God uses people — speaking people, acting people, loving people — to save people. Let’s be about that.