Is there reason not to believe that God has seen fit to ensure that all who would believe (by grace) will be reached with the gospel in this life? How biblically sensible is it to believe in unconditional election but not the ordained means of reaching those who have been chosen in Christ?
When it comes to the question of the eternal state of those who’ve never heard of Jesus, at last three views have gained attention over the years, all of which entail Christ’s redemptive work.
- Good works release Christ’s benefits.
- The Holy Spirit baptizes people into Christ.
- People will get a chance to receive Christ after death.
Let’s take a brief look at these views, though there are others.*
- Good works release Christ’s benefits:
Evangelicals believe Christ’s redemptive work is the basis for man’s pardon and right standing before God. Notwithstanding, some evangelicals maintain that those who by no fault of their own never hear the gospel can be justified apart from faith in Christ. The work of Christ is necessary for salvation but because one cannot possibly believe in a Savior who remains unknown to them, there can be no faith by which the benefits of Christ’s saving work can be appropriated. Consequently, something other than faith in Christ is needed to release the benefits of the Christ. By framing one’s life according to the light of nature, it’s believed the un-evangelized can be saved. (Roman Catholicism teaches a similar view.)
There are many exegetical and theological problems with such a view, not the least of which is man’s depravity. Given that (a) without the grace of faith it is impossible to please God, and (b) unregenerate man can do no spiritual good – we are correct to infer that works of the flesh cannot be looked upon with divine favor. Since the flesh profits nothing, we simply cannot righteously frame our lives according to the light of nature. (John 6:63) Apropos, even the good works unbelievers perform are a fruit of sinful passions that seek respectability and enlightened self-interest, not God’s glory and Fatherly approval. Consequently, framing our lives according to the light of nature apart from regeneration cannot result in divine favor and the reward of Christ’s redemption no matter how magnanimous the rewarder.
- The Holy Spirit baptizes people into Christ:
This invites the question of whether regeneration unto union with Christ and all his saving benefits ever occurs apart from the ministry of the Word. In other words, since the works of the flesh can only accuse one who remains outside of Christ, might we expect that where the gospel has not been preached the Holy Spirit operatively unites some people to Christ and all his saving benefits without self-consciousness.
In response to this proposal, Scripture informs that we receive the rebirth through the living and abiding word of God. (1 Peter 1:23) Moreover, it is God’s will that fallen sinners are brought forth into the new creation by the word of truth. (James 1:18) Consequently, the Word-Spirit principle doesn’t bode well for hope of union with Christ apart from saving faith in Christ.
We’re not out of the woods yet. We must reconcile the promise to elect covenant children who die out of season with the promise to the elect who are afar off.
Although it is normative that the Holy Spirit works life by giving increase to the intelligible gospel, we may not dismiss salvific hope for the un-evangelized in a way that would undermine the salvation of elect infants dying in infancy. In other words, if elect infants dying in infancy are regenerate and united to Christ apart from cognizant faith, then why can’t unreached people groups be saved in the same way as infants? We must do justice to the hypothetical. May we expect that God sometimes unites to Christ those outside the covenant community apart from the ministry of the Word?
Given their cognitive limitations, infants of the faithful cannot be born again by means of the Spirit granting increase to a gospel message that is intelligible to them. Notwithstanding, we have biblical precedent to regard covenant children as God’s heritage in Christ. Consequently, the Reformed tradition rightly maintains that God regenerates elect infants who die in infancy (apart from them ever understanding the gospel and exercising saving faith). However, there is no biblical precedent whatsoever that suggests the Holy Spirit takes up residence in the cognitively mature that are providentially outside the orbit of gospel ministry. Moreover, it’s not merely pure speculation that some who abide in unreached lands ever live regenerate lives – the rhetorical force of Romans chapter ten would seem to settle the matter. Scripture alone must set our boundaries of expectation.
- People will get a chance to receive Christ after death:
Other evangelicals believe that faith in Christ alone is necessary for salvation but that those who of no fault of their own never hear the gospel can nonetheless be saved, but not by their good works! It is believed that Christ will be offered to the unreached after death. The rationale is grounded in God’s love for sinners and a subjective sense of fairness.