Understanding The Nature of The Question
Central to examining the question of this post are three related topics, the efficacy of general revelation, the necessity of special revelation, and the depravity of man. First of all, the universal or general revelation of God is that revelation by which He communicates to all persons at all times and in all places. As one example, we are discussing the truth that all of creation testifies to the glory and wonder of God (Psalm 19:1-6). You cannot truthfully examine the matter of whether or not those who have never heard the Gospel are saved without first seeking to understand the extent of general revelation. Therefore, we must turn our attention to seeing whether or not it is able to give salvation.
Nowhere in the Scripture are there any examples of someone being saved solely on the basis of general revelation. God is plainly known to His creation through general revelation, according to the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:20. However, the entirety of Romans 1:18-32 only shows the judgment of sinners who do not honor God, it never shows them being saved by general revelation. Here we see the inability of general revelation to save anyone. Certain elements can be known about God from His universal revelation, but it is not salvific.
The Necessity of Special Revelation
This point brings us to the requirement of special revelation unto salvation, which is clearly supported by the Scripture itself. God’s special revelation involves His communication of Himself to specific individuals at particular times, which now are available only by the sacred writings (the 66-books of the Bible). The Apostle Paul upholds the necessity of special revelation when he talks about the fact that preachers must be sent if people are to believe (Romans 10:14-15). The primary point is that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). There is no biblical record of anyone being saved apart from faith in God because it is faith alone that saves. They have faith in the true God as revealed in the Scripture.
Another issue on this front is the missionary zeal of the early church to proclaim the special revelation of God amongst all the earth. Would the passion we see in the Scripture for missions by the church logically follow if general revelation is salvific? When we examine this question, the answer is that the idea of universal revelation being able to save does not correspond with the theology and missionary activity of the early church in the days of the Apostles. As mentioned earlier, Paul clearly says proclaimers are necessary for individuals to hear the Gospel and be saved.
The emphasis for the early church sending out missionaries was to save sinners who would otherwise be damned apart from the Gospel. If the driving force would have been to merely assist them into a greater understanding of the God of whom they already had saving knowledge via general revelation, then Paul’s argumentation does not make sense. However, because the driving force for missions is the necessity of special revelation to save, then it is right to point out those holding to salvific general revelation are not in alignment with the biblical motivation. The Scriptural testimony as to the lack of ability that general revelation has to save is clear. Plus, the biblical witness of the activity of the early church in missionary endeavors and the motivation for them corroborates this fact.
The Depravity of Man
The depravity of man must now be discussed as this area is the one where much of the contention arises. Some contend that individuals might have the ability to come to a conclusion of their guilt, throw themselves at the mercy of God and receive salvation without knowing anything about the work of Christ. However, this viewpoint downplays the depravity of sinful man. Humans are not those who are going to see their guilt apart from the work of the Holy Spirit (John 3:5). The Apostle Paul indicts unbelievers who “suppress the truth” which is plainly revealed to them (Romans 1:18). Even in Acts 17, when addressing the Areopagus, Paul never discusses how the people of Athens had gained salvation via general revelation but rebukes them for their ignorant false worship. Those who believe a human will come to a right understanding of God without the work of the Holy Spirit through special revelation are, with all due respect, drastically negating the total depravity of man. Only the name of Christ can save, and one must place faith in Him to obtain salvation (Acts 4:12). The Gospel message, the special revelation of God, is necessary for salvation. The proclamation of the Gospel is what the Holy Spirit uses to draw men to saving faith in Christ.
A Couple of Specific Cases To Consider
Sometimes individuals will bring up the biblical examples of Melchizedek, Cornelius, and Abimelech to point to certain persons who were saved without special revelation. Therefore, I want to address all of these in turn. We really are not given enough information about Melchizedek to know how he came into a relationship with God. Did he come to a knowledge of God because someone else told him, because God appeared to him in a dream, or something else? We unfortunately do not know because we do not have the information in the passages regarding him. If anything, the fact that he served in the capacity of priest might indicate he had received special revelation, but there is just not enough information for us to be able to dig into this particular person very far.
Cornelius is a more straightforward individual to consider than Melchizedek because we are given information as to how he obtained saving knowledge. Acts 11:14 says Cornelius and his household would be saved after hearing the message declared to them by Peter. Therefore, special revelation was received by Cornelius and he was saved by the Gospel message. As to Abimelech, God did appear to him in a dream, according to Genesis 20. Cornelius had an angel appear to him, and Abimelech received a dream, both of which classify as special revelation. In all of these cases, we see either concrete example of special revelation or indications there may have been. For example, how would Melchizedek have conducted his priestly duties if he had received no instructions as to what they were? That thought on Melchizedek is simply an inference, though the instances of Cornelius and Abimelech are clear from the text.
The Point of The Subject
Since it is true biblically speaking that only the Gospel of Jesus Christ saves, then we must take it to the ends of the earth. Understanding the fact that this message alone is able to make man right with God and to put them in an eternal relationship with Him whereby they glorify His name should give us fire to share the Gospel that Christ might be magnified. We as the church have been given this great responsibility to declare the entirety of the biblical message around the world that sinners might be won to Christ and discipled for His sake. May we then be faithful to the charge given us by our Lord and declare the Scripture for the renown of the Lamb who was slain!