Author Greg Koukl
Published on 03/28/2022

Can a Person Be Saved through General Revelation?

Greg and Amy consider examples of salvation from the Old Testament next to what Paul writes about general revelation and salvation in Romans.


Question: Is general revelation (Romans 1:20) enough to lead a person to salvation? Or is personally putting your faith in Christ the only way to the Father (John 14:6)?

Greg: General revelation plays a role, and I think there are far too many Christians that are ambiguous about this. They’ll say we don’t know what happens to the people who never heard of Jesus. Well, Romans 1 is probably the most elegant characterization of the significance and the content of general revelation. Now, to be clear, Romans 1 doesn’t tell us about Jesus. It doesn’t tell us about the Son. It tells us about the Father. But it says the evidence of the Father is available to everyone, and Paul identifies two ways it’s evident. First, in the external world, that which has been created. Second, something is going on internally. God has made it evident within, and this is what Calvin called the sensus divinitatis.

So, there are two things going on. There’s an external witness and an internal witness. The point is that there are certain things that are built into every human being, in virtue of being made in the image of God, that are still operable, even after the fall, and that we can use to our benefit. These things are going to come out. That’s the “Inside Out” tactical maneuver. We must live with these things that we know to be true about God, even when our mouths and our worldviews deny it. We can run from God, but we can’t run from ourselves.

The question, now, is, given that revelation, is that adequate to save us? This awareness? And the answer Paul gives is no. He does not imply anywhere that you can be rescued simply in virtue of natural revelation. He says people are without excuse. So, there are clear statements by Paul that natural revelation is real. It’s adequate to inform about the Father, and it is adequate to condemn. Paul does not suggest it’s adequate to save.

Now, having said that, it’s clear that there are all kinds of people in the Old Testament that seem to fall under the mercy of God who didn’t know about Jesus, obviously, because there was no Jesus, and only the Jews had an anticipation of Jesus. I was reading the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus said the people of Nineveh will rise up and condemn the people of Capernaum. So, I wondered what precisely happened there with Nineveh. Condemnation was preached, finally, eventually, by Jonah, and the people repented. They changed their ways, and they presumed that a changing way would result in the mercy of God. You don’t have a lot of detail about salvation, but you do have an understanding that their God is merciful and will respond when they turn to him and away from evil. So, there is a certain gospel there. Clearly, many of them did attain salvation because they’re going to be the judges of cities in Galilee that Jesus was referring to. And what did they know? They didn’t know much. But they threw themselves upon the mercy of God, sackcloth and ashes. They repented. So, people can be rescued, at least in the Old Testament economy, by an appeal to God’s mercy without a whole lot of detail.

It’s clear that there is Old Testament salvation apart from Judaism proper. You have Melchizedek, for one, and you have Jethro, who is Moses’ father-in-law, who is a worshiper of the true God, and he doesn’t have the Mosaic sacrificial system, but there is a sense in which he is trusting in and turning to the true God. We know that faith is the requirement through the whole system, going all the way back to the to the archetype of faith, which is Abraham. That is repeated frequently, so it’s possible for Old Testament saints to express faith in God that’s salvific without much information. However, when it comes to the New Testament, we see a whole different thing going on. Jesus is the ground of salvation. Anybody who gets saved in the Old Testament not having heard of Jesus is saved because of Jesus. In the New Testament, the object of faith and the grounds of salvation are the same. That’s why the statements are made that people have to believe in Jesus in order to be rescued, and it seems to me univocal. I’m not willing to say I don’t know what’s going to happen to people who never heard of Jesus. I think Paul makes it clear that if they’re guilty, they will be judged. They are without excuse. If they’re seeking God, God will see to it that they get the message, and there are biblical examples of that. Cornelius is a great example. Acts 10. Cornelius prayed regularly. He gave alms. He had visions from God. But he wasn’t saved. That’s why he needed the gospel. And that’s what we see happening in Acts 10.

By the way, I think it’s safer to preach the narrower view because, if we’re wrong, there’s more people in Heaven than we thought. If we teach the broader view, especially without biblical justification, and we’re wrong, then we’ve given false hope to people who needed Christ, and that’s not a good place to be.

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.” And that’s as clear as you can get.

Amy: I think you’re right, Greg. There are a lot of points that say this, and the one that comes to mind immediately is the Romans 10 verse, where Paul is saying that whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved. “How then will they call on him on whom they have not believed? How will they believe in him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent?” In other words, you do need to know about Jesus in order to be saved.

Greg: Notice, in your Romans passage that you just cited, though, if you keep reading following that, he is, as you pointed out, identifying the fact that we need to preach specific things about Jesus for salvation, but then he says, “And some people are going to say, ‘We never heard.’ Well, you have.” And then he goes to statements about general revelation. The line is going out through all the earth. Everybody has enough information to be held guilty, even if they don’t have enough information to be rescued.

The way that someone put this for me is, if you’re asking for money to help you, and I offer you ten bucks, and you turn it down, why would I offer you a hundred if you won’t even take the ten? Now, that’s a parallel to people who reject the Father based on general revelation. Why would God give them any special revelation? They’ve already poked God in the eye and said no to him. Why would he be obliged to give more? Now, he does give more in many cases. By the kind intention of his will, he goes and he reaches out to people, and there are wonderful stories of amazing ways God has revealed himself to people in very obscure circumstances. But the point is, even in those cases, they get saved through a knowledge of Jesus, not through a general knowledge of some divine god or some divine being who created everything. That’s just the first step. When they respond to that, then more is given.