Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
Bookmark and Share

The Impossibility of the Salvation of
Unevangelized Heathen Through General Revelation


I. False Theologies That Wrongly Teach the Possibility of the Salvation of Unevangelized Heathen (Through General Revelation and "Universal Grace")

A. Pelagianism

B. Romanism

1. "[Those] who no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation" (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 15).

2. "Our holy mother, the Church, holds and teaches that God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 36).

3. Karl Rahner (1904-1984), German Jesuit, advocate of "anonymous Christianity"

C. Anabaptism

D. Arminianism (including John Wesley)

E. Amyraldianism

1. Philip Doddridge (1702-1751), the hymn writer (e.g., "Grace, ’Tis a Charm­ing Sound" and "O Happy Day, That Fixed My Choice"), was a hypothetical universalist, like Amyraut, advocating the possibility of the salvation of unevangelized heathen: "It has been much disputed, whether it be possible that the Heathens should be saved. Some have absolutely denied it, upon the authority of the texts mentioned ... which universally require faith in Christ; but to this it is answered that they can only regard such to whom the gospel comes, and are capable of understanding the contents of it. The truth seems to be this, that none of the Heathens will be condemned for not believing the gospel, but they are liable to condemnation for the breach of God's natural laws: nevertheless, if there be any of them in whom there is a prevailing love to the divine being, and care in the practice of virtue [see Acts 10:1], there seems reason to believe, that for the sake of Christ, though to them unknown, they may be accepted by God: and so much the rather, as the ancient Jews, and even the apostles of Christ, during the time of our Saviour's abode on earth, seem to have had but little notion of those doctrines, which those who deny the salvability of the Heathens are most apt to imagine fundamental. Compare Rom. 2:10[-16], 26; Acts 10:34-35; Matt. 8:11-12 to which may be added I John 2:2 which Mr. R. supposes intentionally decisive on this question, as to the application of Christ's merits to all virtuous men, who may not have opportunities of hearing his name. Some also add John 1:29" (quoted in Alan Clifford, The Good Doctor [Great Britain: Charenton, 2002], p. 274).

2. Alan Clifford, the leading advocate of Amyraldianism in the British Isles today, approves of Amyraut’s and Doddridge’s view, stating, "Some [unevangelized heathen] will discover that it was through [Christ] alone they were saved" (Clifford, The Good Doctor, p. 274).

F. Quakerism (e.g., Robert Barclay: "The benefit of the death of Christ is not only extended to such as have the distinct knowledge of his death and sufferings, but even unto those who are inevitably excluded from this knowledge. Even these may be partakers of the benefit of his death, though ignorant of the history, if they suffer his grace to take place in their hearts, so as of wicked men to become holy.")

G. Open Theism (e.g., Clark Pinnock, John Saunders)


II. The Reformed Creeds on the Impossibility of the Salvation of Unevangelized Heathen

A. Scottish Confession (1560): "... we utterly abhor the blasphemy of those that affirm that men which live according to equity and justice shall be saved, what religion soever they have professed" (Article 16). This confession was authored by John Knox, amongst others.

B. Belgic Confession (1561), especially over against Romanism and Anabaptism: "We know him by two means: first, by the creation, preservation and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely, his power and divinity, as the apostle Paul saith (Romans 1:20). All which things are sufficient to convince men, and leave them 'without excuse.' Secondly, he makes himself more clearly and fully known to us by his holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to his glory and our salvation" (Article 2).

C. Thirty-Nine Articles (1562, 1571): "Of Obtaining Eternal Salvation Only by the Name of Christ: They also are to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law of Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature. For holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved" (Article 18).

D. Canons of Dordt (1618-1619), especially over against Arminianism:

1. "There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the differences between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment. But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God, and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God" (III/IV:4).

2. "The Synod rejects the errors of those ... who teach that in the election unto faith this condition is beforehand demanded, namely, that man should use the light of nature aright, be pious, humble, meek, and fit for eternal life, as if on these things election were in any way dependent. For this savours of the teaching of Pelagius, and is opposed to the doctrine of the apostle, when he writes: 'Among whom we also all once lived in the lust of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest; but God being rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace have ye been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in heavenly places, in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus; for by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory' (Ephesians 2:3-9)" (I:R:4).

3. "The Synod rejects the errors of those ... who teach that the corrupt and natural man can so well use the common grace (by which they understand the light of nature), or the gifts still left him after the fall, that he can gradually gain by their good use a greater, namely, the evangelical or saving grace and salvation itself. And that in this way God on his part shows himself ready to reveal Christ unto all men, since he applies to all sufficiently and efficiently the means necessary to conversion. For the experience of all ages and the Scriptures do both testify that this is untrue. 'He showeth his Word unto Jacob, his statues and his ordinances unto Israel. He hath not dealt so with any nation: and as for his ordinances they have not known them' (Psalm 147:19-20). 'Who in the generations gone by suffered all the nations to walk in their own way' (Acts 14:16). And: 'And they [Paul and his companions] having been forbidden of the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia, and when they were come over against Mysia, they assayed to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit suffered them not' (Acts 16:6-7)" (III/IV:R:5).

E. Westminster Confession (1646):

1. "Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation: therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his Church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan, and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the holy scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people being now ceased" (1:1).

2. "… men, not professing the Christian religion, [cannot] be saved in any other way whatsoever, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, and the laws of that religion they do profess. And to assert and maintain that they may, is very pernicious, and to be detested" (10:4).

F. Formula Consensus Helvetica (1675), especially over against Amyraldianism: "Accordingly we have no doubt that they are wrong who hold that the call to salvation is disclosed not by the preaching of the Gospel solely, but even by the works of nature and Providence without any further proclamation. They add that the call to salvation is so indefinite and universal that there is no mortal who is not, at least objectively, as they say, sufficiently called either mediately, meaning that God will provide the light of grace to those who use the light of nature correctly, or immediately, to Christ and salvation. They finally deny that the external call can be said to be serious and true, or the candour and sincerity of God be defended, without asserting the absolute universality of grace. For such doctrines are contrary to the Holy Scriptures and the experience of all ages, and manifestly confuse nature with grace and confuse the things which we can know about God with his hidden wisdom. They further confuse the light of reason with the light of divine Revelation" (Canon 20; cf. Canons 17-19).


III. Theologians on the Impossibility of the Salvation of Unevangelised Heathen

A. Bernard of Clairvaux: "Many labouring to make Plato [or any other pagan] a Christian, do prove themselves to be heathens."

B. Pierre du Moulin: "We condemn the school of Arminius, teaching that all men, even the heathens, to whom the name of Christ hath not come, are indued with sufficient and saving grace, to come to faith, and by it to salvation ... Although (saith he [i.e., Arnoldus, an Arminian theologian]) many nations are destitute of the ordinary preaching of the Gospel, yet they are not precisely excluded from the grace of the Gospel, but always the good things which are offered in the Gospel do remain equally propounded to them as to the rest, who do enjoy the privilege of the preaching of it, so that they perform the conditions of the covenant. Hath Satan so much liberty, that in this light of the Gospel he should stir up men, who should openly teach and write, and that under a pretence of piety, that an entrance into heaven doth lie open, and that salvation is propounded as well to heathens and infidels, to whom not so much as the name of Christ is known, as to those to whom Christ is preached? ... This man, while he would have us hope well of the salvation of the heathen, who followed an austere kind of life, although they were altogether ignorant of Christ, doth in the mean while vilify and lightly esteem of Christian faith, as not necessary, and doth secretly insinuate, that one may be saved by Christ, without the knowledge of Christ ... Yea, whosoever shall look over the records of all histories, shall find that the most wisest amongst the heathen, whose lives were more temperate, whose appetites were less violent, and who loved justice, and said or wrote many famous things concerning God, were yet very far from the kingdom of heaven. Experience hath proved this; for when the Gospel began to be published through the nations, Christian religion endured not greater enemies than the philosophers. These turned the subtilty of their wit to defame the cross of Christ, and held out to others fierce firebrands to cruelty and persecution. For the more any one doth affect the praise of civil virtue, and hath his wit practised with much learning, so much the more base doth the simplicity of the Gospel seem to him, and he is the more offended with the scandal of the cross of Christ" (Anatomie of Arminianism [London: T. S. for Nathaniel Newbery, 1620], pp. 363, 366-367, 412, 414).

C. John Owen: "... we absolutely deny that there is any saving mercy of God towards [the unevangelized heathen] revealed in the Scripture, which should give us the least intimation of their attaining everlasting happiness. For, not to consider the corruption and universal disability of nature to do anything that is good ('without Christ we can do nothing,' John 15:5), nor yet the sinfulness of their best works and actions, the 'sacrifice of the wicked being an abomination unto the Lord,' Proverbs 15:8 ('Evil trees cannot bring forth good fruit; men do not gather grapes of thorns, nor figs of thistles,' Matthew 7:16-17);—the word of God is plain, that 'without faith it is impossible to please God,' Hebrews 11:6; that 'he that believeth not is condemned,' Mark 16:16; that no nation or person can be blessed but in the Seed of Abraham, Genesis 12:3. And the 'blessing of Abraham' comes upon the Gentiles only 'through Jesus Christ,' Galatians 3:14. He is 'the way, the truth, and the life,' John 14:6. 'None cometh to the Father but by him.' He is the 'door,' by which those that do not enter are 'without,' with 'dogs and idolaters,' Revelation 22:15. So that 'other foundation' of blessedness 'can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ,' I Corinthians 3:11. In brief, do but compare these two places of St. Paul, Romans 8:30, where he showeth that none are glorified but those that are called; and Romans 10:14-15, where he declares that all calling is instrumentally by the preaching of the word and gospel; and it will evidently appear that no salvation can be granted unto them on whom the Lord hath so far poured out his indignation as to deprive them of the knowledge of the sole means thereof, Christ Jesus. And to those that are otherwise minded, I give only this necessary caution,—Let them take heed, lest, whilst they endeavour to invent new ways to heaven for others, by so doing, they lose the true way themselves" (Works, vol. 10, pp. 112-113).

D. William Cunningham: "The history of theology affords abundant evidence of the tendency of the doctrine of universal atonement to distort and pervert men's views of the scheme of divine truth" (Historical Theology [Great Britain: Banner, repr. 1969], vol. 2, p. 367). He observes "the progress of error" from (hypothetical) universal atonement to the salvation of unevangelized heathen. He states, "The idea very naturally occurs to men, that, if Christ died for all the human race, then some provision must have been made for bringing within all men's reach, and making accessible to them, the privileges or opportunities which have been thus procured for them. And as a large portion of the human race are, undoubtedly, left in entire ignorance of Christ, and of all that He has done for them, some universalists have been led, not very unnaturally, to maintain the position—that men may be, and that many have been, saved through Christ, or on the ground of His atonement, who never heard of him, to whom the gospel was never made known, though Scripture surely teaches—at least in regard to adults—that their salvation is dependent upon their actually attaining to a knowledge of what Christ has done for men, and upon their being enabled to make a right use and application of the knowledge with which they are furnished" (pp. 367-368). The same unbiblical theory claims that unevangelized heathen are brought to salvation by a "universal vocation, or a universal call to men—addressed to them ... through the words of creation and providence." This, states Cunningham, is the position of the "Arminians" (p. 368), as well as the Amyraldians, etc.

Hand out in connection with the Belgic Confession Class on Article 2, "By What Means God is Made Known Unto Us (II)."