The Condition of Those Who Are Without the Gospel


QUESTION LX. Can they who have never heard the gospel, and so know not Jesus Christ, nor believe in him, be saved, by their living according to the light of nature?

ANSWER. They who, having never heard the gospel, know not Jesus Christ, and believe not in him, cannot be saved, he they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, or the law of that religion which they profess; neither is there salvation in any other, but in Christ alone, who is the Saviour only of his body the church.

Opinions and Preliminary Remarks respecting the Salvability of the Heathen

THIS Answer is an inference deduced from the doctrine of the preceding. For if redemption be applied to those only who are enabled to believe in Christ according to the gospel, it follows that they who have not the gospel, cannot be made partakers of this privilege. The general scope and design of the Answer, is to assert the necessity of divine revelation, as well as of faith in Christ, against those who suppose that the gate of salvation is much wider than our Saviour has determined it to be, who says, 'Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.' I am sensible that this doctrine cannot but be disrelished by those who are not disposed to exclude any from a possibility of attaining salvation, and are ready to charge those with groundless censoriousness and want of Christian temper who pass so severe a sentence on so great a part of mankind as are included in it. It is contrary also to the presumptuous hope of corrupt nature, which is unwarrantably prone to expect salvation, without faith in Christ. This expectation some defend by arguments, but many more by their practice.

They who maintain the doctrine of universal redemption, design to advance the goodness of God, and are ready to conclude that it is inconsistent with that divine perfection to exclude any from a possibility of salvation. It is hence not agreeable to their method of reasoning, to confine the means of grace to so small a number as that of those to whom the gospel is preached. Accordingly, many of them have asserted, that the Heathen, as well as Christians, are put into a salvable state by the death of Christ; so that they shall be saved if they live according to the dictates of the light of nature, though they know nothing of Christ and the gospel. But, in order to their maintaining this argument, they have some great difficulties to surmount; in as much as, while they attempt to aggrandize the mercy of God, they seem to overthrow the necessity of divine revelation, as well as run counter to the sense of many scriptures. On this account, others who have asserted universal redemption, have not extended the universality of it any farther than to those who are favoured with the gospel. They either leave the salvability of the Heathen as a matter which we know nothing of, and ought not to inquire into; or they seem to suggest that the dark traditional knowledge of the gospel, which they suppose some of the Heathen have had, was sufficient to lead them to a small degree of faith in Christ. Or as this opinion cannot well be defended, others have supposed that God may lead many of the Heathen into the knowledge of Christ, before they go out of the world, by some secret methods not to be discerned by us. These are not willing, with the Deists, to set aside the necessity of divine revelation. Others again, who do not suppose it necessary to salvation, believe it to be necessary only in order to our farther improvement in the way of salvation; and therefore conclude, that Christianity is only a brighter or clearer way to heaven. These are more especially opposed in the Answer we are explaining.

I am sensible that the subject we are entering on has been treated with more reflection and censure than many others; and that, in maintaining it, we are supposed to conclude that the divine dispensations are too severe, and that that goodness and mercy which are God's nature and delight are not sufficiently advanced and magnified. We are told also, that it is a sour and ill-natured way of reasoning to suppose that any are put under a necessity of perishing for want of a divine revelation; and that it does not become us to pass a damnatory sentence on any, more especially on so great a part of the world as that is, who know nothing of Christ and the way of salvation by him. It is necessary for us, therefore, to premise that we pretend not to pass a judgment concerning the final state of particular persons, by concluding that they who are now strangers to Christ and his gospel shall always remain so. For we know not when, to whom, or by what means, God will reveal Christ to those who now sit in darkness, and are unacquainted with the way of salvation by him. And as for the possibility of God's revealing Christ in a secret way to those who do not sit under the sound of the gospel, we will not deny it. Yet we cannot infer the certainty of events from the possibility of them; so that we must have a clearer proof of the salvability of the heathen before we can believe it. Again, God might justly have excluded the whole race of mankind, as well as the fallen angels, from a possibility of attaining salvation; for there was nothing out of himself which moved him to have compassion on those who are the heirs of salvation, any more than on others. Farther, we are far from supposing that the heathen shall be condemned for not believing in Christ, whom they never heard of, or for not complying with the gospel overture, which was never made to them. Invincible ignorance, though an unhappiness, and a consequence of our fallen state, is not a crime. Hence, the heathen shall be judged by the law of nature. If the apostle's words, 'As many as have sinned without law, shall also perish without law,' be applicable to them, which, I think, no one will deny, their condemnation cannot be equal to that of those who neglect and despise the great salvation offered to them in the gospel. Yet the heathen, who have had no other light than that of nature, cannot be exculpated from the charge of many other sins committed by them; in which respect they have rebelled against the light they have been favoured with. All of them, indeed, have not contracted the same degree of guilt with those whom the apostle describes; who committed sins contrary to nature, 'being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness,'z and many other sins of the blackest nature; and therefore all of them are not liable to the same condemnation. Indeed, some of the heathen moralists have been a blessing in many respects to the age in which they lived. By their writings and example they have endeavoured to reform it from vice and immorality; and it is certain that they shall not be punished for crimes which they have not committed. But whether the best of them shall be saved by the merits of Christ, though destitute of faith in him, is the question under our present consideration. To conclude that their good works have merited salvation, is not only contrary to the analogy of faith, but is more than what can be said concerning the best works which were ever performed by Christians; and to argue, as many do, from the goodness of God, that they shall be saved, is certainly an inconclusive way of reasoning, unless we had some intimation of his purpose relating to the subject. If God has determined to save them, we must have recourse to his revealed will, and prove from scripture that there are promises of eternal life made to those who have no interest in Christ, and that there is at least some ground for believing that some shall be happy in beholding his glory in another world, who have had no communion by faith with him in this. These things must be proved, before we can see reason to deny what is stated in this Answer; which we proceed to consider.

No Salvation except by knowledge and belief of the Gospel

It is observed that they who never heard the gospel, and neither know nor believe in Christ, cannot be saved. This supposes that faith and salvation are inseparably connected. Though it is particularly applied to those who are destitute of the gospel, it is levelled against all who, whether they have the means of grace or not, presumptuously expect salvation without ground, and remain in a state of unbelief and impenitency. Here let us consider, that many who are called Christians, though they know little more than the mere name of Christ, yet doubt not that they shall be saved by his merits, and so live and die in this fatal mistake, how vile soever their conversation has been. Accordingly, the prophet Isaiah says, 'Thou art wearied in the greatness of thy way; yet saidst thou not, There is no hope.' So Moses also describes a person who, 'when he heareth the words of this curse, yet blesseth himself in his heart, saying, I shall have peace, though I walk in the imagination of mine heart, to add drunkenness to thirst.'b It is too notorious to be denied, that a great part of men who live without God in the world, though grossly ignorant and openly profane, expect to be saved; and it is one of Satan's great engines, by which he endeavours to banish all religion out of the world, to persuade his deluded subjects that all things shall go well with them, though they make no pretensions to it. This presumption is rather founded in stupidity, than supported by arguments; and is a great instance of the alienation of the mind and affections from God, and shows how deceitful and desperately wicked the heart of man is, when destitute of divine grace.

But what shall we say of those who pretend to defend this, and thereby put a sword into the hands of those who adhere to them to destroy themselves? This the Deists do. As their method of reasoning is subversive of the Christian religion, and of faith in Christ as connected with salvation, I cannot omit to mention it in this place. Though they express not a due veneration for the divine Majesty, they profess not to be Atheists, that they may not be excluded from the society of mankind, who have some degree of abhorrence of Atheism impressed on their nature. They talk, indeed, of God, and of natural religion, but make revealed religion the subject of their scorn and ridicule. If they read the scriptures, it is apparently with a design to burlesque them, and charge them with inconsistency and self-contradiction. When they speak of revelation, or the gift of prophecy, they give it no better a term than enthusiasm; and, when they mention the failings, recorded in scripture, of those who were otherwise holy and excellent men, they take occasion maliciously to reproach them, and insinuate that they were vile persons, guilty of the most enormous crimes, and yet were saved; and they wickedly infer that there is nothing solid and substantial in religion, and that persons may be as safe and happy without it as with it. If they refer to the brightest and most excellent part of the character of the saints recorded in scripture, they suppose it to be the effect of implicit faith, and to take its rise from priestcraft. Our Saviour himself is not only divested by them of his glory, but reckoned, as they suppose Moses was of old, a designing person, who brought a new set of notions into the world to amuse and confound it. As for his miracles, which none but the blinded Jews, and they who are equally prejudiced against Christianity, ever pretended to contest, much less to vilify, they treat them with the utmost scorn and contempt, as a late writer has done, whose blasphemy has been made manifest by those who have written in defence of this part of our religion. There are other persons, however, who are not disposed to indulge so great a degree of profaneness, and have been sensible that the method we have stated is not a right one to extirpate Christianity, and cannot but be treated with the utmost abhorrence by those who read the scripture with any religious design; who, nevertheless, though they speak of God, yet glorify him not as God. These will, indeed, allow him to have some divine perfections; but they cast a reproach on his providence, and suppose that he is too great to be affected with or concerned about the actions and behaviour of so mean a creature as man. They say, too, that as what we call sin can be no disparagement to his glory, so he is too good and pitiful to his creatures to punish them, at least, with eternal torments for it. Hence, if they allow the soul to be immortal, and capable of happiness in another world, which all of them, without exception, do not; yet they suppose that God made no creature to be for ever miserable. As for the laws he has given to mankind, which are enstamped on their nature, and which contain nothing but what might have been known without revelation, they pretend that these were designed only to keep the world in order, to promote the interest of civil society, to prevent men from murdering one another, disturbing the tranquillity of the government under which they live, or invading the property of others; which is not doing as they would have others to do to them. As for the punishment of sin, that they say is no farther to be regarded than as vice and immorality render persons obnoxious to bodily diseases, to some marks of infamy which custom has annexed to them, or to the lash of human laws. This is all the scheme of religion which some among the Deists endeavour to propagate; and everything which is built more immediately upon divine revelation, they reckon not only unnecessary but enthusiastic, and no other than a contrivance of some who, with a view to their own interest, endeavour to puzzle the world with mysterious doctrines which neither they nor their votaries understand. It must be supposed that these men do not think that the knowledge of Christ, or faith in him, is necessary to salvation; yet they doubt not that it shall go well with them in another world, if there be a future state,—which, through the influence of that scepticism which is, for the most part, a concomitant of Deism, they sometimes question. We shall not make so great a digression from our present subject as to give a particular reply to their assertions; which, though propagated with much assurance, are not pretended to be defended by solid arguments. Indeed, the whole gospel is a reply to them. Whatever doctrine of the gospel is maintained by Christians, will have a tendency to give them an abhorrence of their scheme, and confirm their faith against such attempts as are used to stagger and pervert it.

Having thus spoken concerning the methods which are used by some to overthrow revealed religion, and the necessity of faith in Christ to salvation, we shall now proceed to consider on what grounds persons hope to be saved without the knowledge of Christ or faith in him.

1. Some have no other ground of hope than the goodness of the divine nature. They think that, because God delights not in the misery of any of his creatures, but takes all occasions to make himself known as a God of infinite kindness and compassion, whose thoughts are not as our thoughts, nor his ways as our ways, and who will not resent those injuries which we may offer to him, but will lay those under eternal obligations to him who have, by their sins, rendered themselves unworthy to be saved by him; they may therefore hope that all things shall go well with them, though they are utter strangers to the way of salvation by a Redeemer, and are altogether destitute of faith in him. But this we cannot call any other than a presumptuous confidence. It is nothing else but to abuse the riches of God's goodness, and to claim an interest in it without ground. It is, indeed, a very great truth, that God delights in mercy; and this attribute cannot be too much admired or advanced by us; yet it must not be set in opposition to any of his other perfections. He is certainly a just and holy, as well as a merciful God; and therefore we are not to suppose that one of these perfections shall be glorified, to the dishonour of another. Might not fallen angels as well say that, because God is merciful, he will deliver them from those chains of darkness and misery in which they are held; as men may say that the mercy of God should be presumed to be a foundation of hope to those who have no ground to conclude their interest in it, as expecting it in another way than that in which he has declared his will to glorify it? It is certain that whensoever God designs to glorify his mercy in saving persons, he first determines to advance the glory of it in making them meet for salvation, by sanctifying or purifying their hearts by faith. To separate these two, therefore, is a dishonour to the divine perfections. God never designed to save his people in sin; but first to save them from it, and then to crown with complete blessedness the work which he had begun. Hence, the man who lives in all excess of riot, and yet hopes for salvation, must be guilty of a groundless presumption. When we read, in scripture, of God's extending mercy, we find that there are certain marks and characters given of those persons who have ground to lay claim to an interest in it. Thus it is said, 'The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy;' but then it is added, that this 'mercy is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, to such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them.'d Elsewhere the psalmist admires the goodness of God, which is doubtless, beyond expression, wonderful, when he says, respecting the present displays of goodness, and the future reserves of it, 'O how great is thy goodness which thou hast laid up, and wrought!' but it follows that this belongs only 'to them that fear him, and to them that trust in him before the sons of men!' Elsewhere too, it is said, 'All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth, unto such as keep his covenant and his testimonies,'f that is, to them, exclusive of all others. Moreover, we never read of God's glorifying his mercy but in Christ; first in bringing sinners nigh to him by his blood, and then in applying, by his Spirit, the redemption purchased. Thus the apostle says, 'God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself;' and then he adds, as an expedient to give sinners a ground of hope that they have an interest in this privilege, that, in the gospel, God sends an embassy to them, to 'beseech them,' as they value their own souls, 'to be reconciled to God,' by complying with the gospel overture, and repenting of and desisting from their rebellion against him. When he is represented as 'the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort,' he is, at the same time, styled 'the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,'h to denote that his mercy is displayed in and through a Mediator. Hence, our hope of attaining it must be founded in our interest in him; and this cannot be considered otherwise than as including the grace of faith. Are they who have a right to expect salvation called 'heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ?' They are farther described as 'conformed to his image.'k Have they a right to 'the inheritance of the saints in light?' They are characterized as 'made meet for it.' And when the apostle exhorts persons to 'look for the mercy of God unto eternal life,' he intimates that their doing so would be a presumptuous expectation, were it separate from their 'keeping themselves in the love of God.'m

2. Others have no foundation for their expectation of salvation, but by extenuating sin; and are hardly persuaded to confess themselves to be sinners, how vile soever their conduct be. Thus it is said concerning Ephraim, 'The balances of deceit are in his hand, he loveth to oppress;' yet he refuses to acknowledge this, and says, 'In all my labours they shall find none iniquity in me that were sin.' So, when the prophet Jeremiah exhibits a charge against a degenerate age, and tells them, 'Thou hast taught the wicked ones thy ways, also in thy skirts is found the blood of the poor innocents,' what abominable stupidity were they guilty of when they reply, 'Because I am innocent, surely his anger shall turn from me!'o Sometimes the persons of whom I speak build their hope of salvation, though they cannot exculpate themselves from the charge of sin, on the mere supposition that some others are greater sinners than themselves. Thus the Pharisee pleases himself that he was not guilty of some notorious sins,—that he was no extortioner, or adulterer, nor even as the Publican, whom he looked upon with great contempt. Or if they are forced to conclude themselves to be among the number of the vilest and most notorious sinners; yet they presume that God will not punish them eternally for their sins, but will make some allowance for the propensity of human nature to sin, or the force of those temptations which they have not been able to withstand. Or, if they are liable to any extraordinary afflictions in this life, they suppose that these are sufficient to compensate for all the sins they have committed, and that therefore their miseries shall not be extended beyond it. Hence, that which lies at the root of this presumptuous hope, is a secret denial of the infinite demerit of sin, or that it deserves eternal punishment. Now, that we may show the vanity of the expectation which has no other foundation than this, let us consider, that to extenuate sin, is an argument that persons are unacquainted with themselves, and know not the plague of their own hearts. This expectation, therefore, is the most destructive fallacy which men can put on themselves, and a sad token that they are given up to judicial blindness. When God shall charge sin on the conscience, or as the psalmist says, 'reprove them,' and 'set their iniquities in order before their eyes,' which he will do at one time or other, they will appear to have been self deceived, and the ground of their hope of salvation will sink under them.—Again, to suppose that sin does not deserve eternal punishment, is an affront to the holiness of God, and a disbelief of those threatenings which are denounced against it. It is, in effect, to deny that sin is objectively infinite; which cannot be done without denying, in effect, that God is a God of infinite perfection. It is a flying in the face of his justice, and charging him with mal-administration. To such as are guilty of it, it may be said, as Elihu says to Job, 'Wilt thou condemn him that is most just?'r or, as God says to reprove and humble him, 'Wilt thou also disannul my judgment? Wilt thou condemn me that thou mayest be righteous?' But, as the eternity of the punishment of sin is particularly insisted on, under a following Answer,t we shall say no more on the subject at present, but that this method of reasoning has a tendency to banish all religion out of the world, and is never made use of except by those who make no pretensions to it.

3. If it be reckoned preposterous for any one to found his hope of salvation on the extenuating of his sins, others have a more plausible pretence. Though they are not only destitute of the grace of faith, but strangers to the way of salvation by Jesus Christ, they expect to be saved because they perform some works which are materially good. If they perform some moral duties, or abstain from some gross enormities, much more if they have a form of godliness, and are reckoned to be religious persons by the world, and, in many instances, are useful to those with whom they converse; they are ready to conclude that they do, as it were, merit eternal life, and that God becomes a debtor to them. The class formerly mentioned have too light thoughts of sin: these set too great a value on their duties; and to do this is contrary to what our Saviour says, 'When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants.' I would not have it thought that by these remarks I design to depreciate any moral duties or virtues, which have a degree of excellency in proportion to their nature. The only thing which I intend is, that good works which do not proceed from a right principle, and are not performed for right ends, if there be not an internal principle of grace implanted in regeneration, or faith in Christ, as the main-spring of them, or if they be put in the room of Christ's righteousness, and so made the foundation of our justification or right to eternal life, are not accepted by God; so that the hope of salvation which is founded on them is vain and unwarrantable.

4. There are others who, as it is expressed in this Answer, frame their lives according to the light of nature, or the law of that religion which they profess, and doubt not but, in so doing, they shall be saved. This presumption is defended by many who call themselves Christians, who suppose that a person may be saved in any religion, whether true or false. These do not hesitate to say that, if they lived at Rome, they would embrace the Popish doctrines; or, if in Turkey, they would profess the Mahommedan faith; or, had they been born in India, among the Pagans, they should have had ground to conclude that they were in a safe way to heaven. This opinion certainly reflects dishonour on the Christian name. It also savours so much of scepticism, that those who hold it must be supposed to believe that there is nothing certain in religion, or that the different modes of it are only a political engine, a mere human invention, which stands upon no other basis than tradition, and has nothing else to propagate it but implicit faith. This is the notion which they who set themselves against divine revelation entertain concerning religion in general. Or, if there be any thing in religion which escapes their reproach and censure, it is only such maxims as are founded on the laws of nature, such as that we ought to do to others as we would have them do to us; that we ought to govern our passions, that they may not be outrageous, and disturb not only our own peace but that of all civil societies; and that we must not offer injuries or violence to those whom we converse with, but rather be gentle, good-humoured, kind, and compassionate to them, and abstain from those enormities which are abhorrent to nature. An attention to these matters they suppose to be sufficient to denominate any one a good man, who needs not entertain any doubt of his own salvation. But this is to set aside all revelation, and disbelieve the demonstrative evidence which we have of the truth of the Christian religion. It is to cast contempt on that, as unnecessary, which possesses the greatest excellency. It also involves a denial of that which is experienced by all true believers, namely, that revealed religion has the greatest tendency to dispose them to glorify God, and to do good to men. These sensibly find that they have the greatest comfort, and most solid ground of hope, in firmly adhering to religion, in laying all the stress of their salvation on what is revealed in the gospel, and in desiring to adhere steadfastly by faith to Christ as the only way of salvation.

Salvation only by Christ

It is farther observed, in this Answer, that there is salvation in no other than Christ. The scripture is very full and express to this purpose. Thus it is said, 'Neither is there salvation in any other; for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.' Elsewhere also the apostle says, 'Other foundation can no man lay, than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.'y On him the church is built. He is the only Mediator between God and man, the only Redeemer, who purchased salvation for those who shall be made partakers of it. He laid the foundation-stone of this glorious fabric, and we must conclude, that the carrying on of the work belongs to him, till the top-stone is laid, and the work brought to perfection. On this account he is styled, 'the Author and Finisher of faith.'

1. We may observe, then, that faith, and all other graces which accompany salvation, have a peculiar reference to Christ. We are said to 'obtain precious faith through his righteousness.' He is said to 'dwell in the hearts' of his people 'by faith,'b and 'to increase their faith.' He is also the object of faith. He says, 'Ye believe in God, believe also in me.'d The grace of faith is frequently described as a 'coming to him;' and it is such a coming as implies more than an attendance on his ordinances, for it is connected with salvation. This is the meaning of the metaphorical expression in which it is said that those who come to him 'shall never hunger not thirst;' by which we are to understand that all their desires shall be fulfilled, and they shall be satisfied with that perfect blessedness of which he will make them partakers. Besides, it is such a coming to Christ, as is the effect of God's almighty power: he says, 'No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me, draw him.'f

That faith and all other graces which accompany salvation have a peculiar reference to Christ, will further appear if we consider that salvation is founded on his executing his three offices of Priest, Prophet, and King. The first of these he executes in our behalf; not in us, but for us, whereby faith and all other graces are purchased. As to his other two offices, namely, his prophetic and kingly, especially when the work of them is rendered effectual to salvation, his people are the subjects in whom they are executed. The work performed is internal; the consequence of it is the soul's giving that glory to him which is the result; this cannot be done without our knowing him to be a Mediator, and, as such, ordained and qualified to execute the offices; and a knowledge of these points cannot be attained without divine revelation. Moreover, the point we are considering is evident from that reasoning of the apostle in which he views our 'calling on the name of the Lord,' as inseparably connected with salvation, as necessary to it, and as proceeding from faith; for, says he, 'How shall they call on him, in whom they have not believed?' And this faith supposes the preaching of the gospel; which gospel is represented, in many scriptures, as a display of the glory of Christ. It follows, therefore, that there is no salvation without divine revelation, or that they who never heard of Christ, and consequently never believed in him, have no right or claim to it. We might observe also the account which the same apostle gives of that worship which is necessary to salvation, when he says, 'Through him we have access, by one Spirit, unto the Father.' To have access to God is certainly necessary to salvation; and this is by a Mediator, and is elsewhere called 'coming to God by him.' But this cannot be done without the knowledge of him as the way to the Father, and that faith in him which is founded on knowing him. Moreover, salvation is to be considered as a promised blessing, founded in the covenant of grace; so that they who are strangers to this covenant have no right to lay claim to its promises, which are nowhere contained but in divine revelation, and are said to be 'yea and amen in Christ, to the glory of God.'i What hope, then, can there be of obtaining these promised blessings without the knowledge of Christ?

2. That there is no salvation without faith in Christ, as founded in divine revelation, farther appears from the fact that there is no justification without it. Justification is inseparably connected with salvation by the apostle, when he says, 'whom he justified, them he also glorified.' To separate these two, is to suppose that a person may expect salvation, without being delivered from the guilt of sin, and the condemning sentence of the law; or to have a right to eternal life, without being able to plead any righteousness which is worthy of God's acceptance. But to do this is certainly to build our hope on a sandy foundation, and is contrary to those scriptures which set forth the impossibility of our being justified by the works of the law, or the necessity of faith in Christ's righteousness in order to our being justified. This the apostle Paul frequently inculcates. Hence no one can plead any thing done by him as the matter of his justification, though he could say as that apostle did, 'Touching the righteousness that is in the law, I am blameless.'l Elsewhere the apostle Paul says, 'Though I know nothing by myself, yet am I not hereby justified.' If the best saint in the world must, to support his expectation of being discharged from condemnation, have something infinitely more valuable than any act of his own obedience; then certainly that obedience which is performed according to the dictates of the light of nature, without divine revelation, is far from being a sufficient foundation to support a person's hope of justification and salvation. But such as are destitute of the gospel, have nothing else to plead. Hence, we must conclude, as it is expressed in this Answer, that they who never heard the gospel, and believe not in Christ, cannot be saved.

3. This may be inferred also, from those scriptures which set forth the pernicious consequence of unbelief. It is said, 'He that believes not, is condemned already,' and 'shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him;' and elsewhere, 'If ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins.'o in as much, too, as faith is founded on divine revelation, there are other scriptures which represent those who are destitute of it as being in a hopeless state. Thus the apostle tells the church at Ephesus, that 'when they were Gentiles,' and consequently strangers to the gospel, 'they had no hope, being without God in the world;' so that whatever knowledge they had of a God by the light of nature, or whatever blessings they received from common providence, they had not such a knowledge of him, nor such an interest in him, as gave them hope of salvation. The apostle does not speak of them as being in a hopeless state, because their conversation had been more vile than that of other Gentiles, as acting contrary to the dictates of the law of nature; but he speaks of them as Gentiles, that is, without the light of divine revelation; so that what he says concerning them, is applicable to all the heathen as such.q Again, it is observed in scripture, that, before Christ was preached to the Gentiles, they were not the objects of his special care and goodness, but, in this respect, neglected by him. Accordingly it is said that, 'in times past, he suffered all nations to walk in their own ways;' and elsewhere these are called, 'times of ignorance which God winked at.'s So the passage is rendered in our translation. But this is not so agreeable to the sense of the Greek word, as if we rendered it, 'During the times of this ignorance, God having overlooked them,' that is, the Gentiles, 'hath now commanded all men every where to repent;' and, if they were disregarded by him, they could not be supposed to be the objects of his special grace, or to have a right and title to salvation. Moreover, the apostle Paul, when speaking of some among the heathen who, notwithstanding their being destitute of gospel-light, excelled others in wisdom, casts the utmost contempt on those attainments in the knowledge of divine things which they gloried in, as being insufficient to salvation. Hence he says that, whatever they knew of the perfections of the divine nature, so far as these may be known without divine revelation, yet 'by wisdom they knew not God;' and he adds, 'Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?'u

It is objected, that it is contrary to the goodness of God to condemn persons for invincible ignorance, as that of the heathen must be supposed to be, since it was impossible for them to know the way of salvation by a Redeemer. But we must distinguish between God's condemning persons for not knowing the gospel, which is to condemn them for invincible ignorance; and his not giving the gospel, as a necessary means of grace and salvation, to a great part of the world, whom he designed, as we formerly observed, to overlook, and suffer to walk in their own ways. If the goodness of God had laid a natural obligation on him, without an act of his sovereign will, to bestow the means of grace, or the knowledge of the way of salvation on them, then it would have been contrary to his divine perfections to have denied the gospel to any, and so to condemn those who are ignorant of it. But it is one thing for God to leave them in their fallen state, the result of which is their not knowing the way of salvation; and another thing for him to condemn them for not knowing it, as if there were no other reason obliging him to inflict his righteous judgment on them,

It is farther objected, that the apostle says, 'That which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them;' and, 'When the Gentiles, which have not the law,' that is, any other law than that of nature, 'do by nature, the things contained in the law; these having not the law, are a law unto themselves; which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their consciences also bearing them witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing, or else excusing one another.'y From this it is argued that the Gentiles have sufficient knowledge of the divine law to bring them into a state of salvation; their consciences being said to 'excuse them,' that is, not to charge guilt upon them, so that they are justified by walking according to the dictates of the light of nature. But as to the former of the scriptures quoted, 'That which may be known of God, is manifest in them, or showed to them,' the apostle does not speak of those things which are to be known of God which have an immediate reference to salvation; nor does he say that every thing necessary to be known of him in order to salvation is manifest in them. What he says, is, 'that of God which is known by them,' is from him as the God of nature; 'he has shown it to them,' that is, as he adds in the following context, he has given them sufficient light to discover his 'eternal power and Godhead,' in a way of reasoning 'from the things that are made.' But the eternal power and Godhead may be known by those who are destitute of that knowledge which is necessary to salvation. As to the other scripture quoted, in which the Gentiles are said 'to do by nature the things contained in the law,' the apostle does not infer from this fact that they are the servants of God, or willing subjects to his government, or indeed that they fulfil the law of nature. Hence, we cannot suppose that he concludes them to be justified thereby; which is contrary to the whole tenor of his doctrine in other parts of his writings. It is true, he says that 'their consciences' sometimes 'excuse,' as well as at other times 'accuse them;' yet it must be considered that conscience may excuse, or plead not guilty, with respect to the charge of some crimes which are committed by others, when, at the same time their doing so does not exempt them from the guilt of sin in general, or give them a right and title to eternal life. The apostle, therefore, designs only to show how far the corruption of men may be restrained by their attending to the dictates of the light of nature, whereby much sin and guilt might be prevented. But he does not determine that God has any farther design of grace towards them. If God had had any such design, he would have given them the means of salvation; and if he has not said that he will save them, without giving them these means, we have no ground to assert that he will; for to do so, would be to draw a conclusion, without sufficient evidence from scripture.

Another objection is this: it is said that 'the goodness of God leadeth to repentance;' but repentance is certainly connected with salvation; therefore the goodness or bounty of God, which persons who have no other light but that of nature have some knowledge of, may lead them to salvation. But it is evident that the apostle in this scripture speaks not to the Gentiles, but to the Jews; for, having, in the preceding chapter, considered the vile abominations which were practised by the Gentiles, he in this reproves the Jews when he says, 'Thou art inexcusable, O man that judgest, and yet dost the same things;'b and, 'Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God.' Now, if the apostle is speaking to them when he says, 'The goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance,' we are to understand hereby, not only the bounty of common providence, or those effects of the divine goodness which are known and experienced by the whole world, but the goodness of God which they had experienced who were its peculiar objects, who were favoured by him above all the rest of the world, 'to whom pertained the adoption, the glory, the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises.'d Certainly, therefore, they were highly to blame, that they were not hereby led to repentance.

It is farther objected that the apostle, in disputing with the Athenians, puts them upon 'seeking after God, if haply they might feel after him, and find him.' From this it is argued that, if it were impossible to find God, that is, the way of acceptance in his sight, by the light of nature, it would have been a preposterous thing for the apostle to have put them upon seeking him; so that, from his address to them, we may infer that the heathen are not destitute of all means of grace, or without a possibility of salvation. Now if, by 'seeking the Lord,' the apostle means inquiring into the way of salvation by a Redeemer, and pressing after faith in him, as it is said, 'Seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you;'f 'If thou seek him, he will be found of thee;' this does not argue that the heathen, before the gospel was preached to them, might, in seeking the way of salvation, find it. For, though he is speaking to the heathen, they are considered, at the time of his doing so, as having the gospel preached to them by him, and therefore not destitute of the external means of grace; which he advises them to attend to, in hope that their endeavours might be successful. If, on the other hand, he speaks to them without regard to the privilege they then enjoyed, and so informs them what they might attain to without divine revelation, which is the only sense which seems in the least to favour the objection, then, by 'seeking the Lord,' we must understand their inquiring into the divine perfections, so far as their knowledge of these is attainable by the light of nature; and the consequence would be, their attaining such a degree of that knowledge as would discover the absurdity of the idolatry which they were guilty of, and which the apostle is arguing against. He makes use of a mode of speaking which is very agreeable to this sense of the text, when he says, 'If haply ye might feel after him.' This is a metaphor taken from those who are endeavouring to find their way in the dark, when they feel after things which they cannot see, and sometimes, by doing so, find them. His saying that 'haply,' or peradventure, 'you may find him,' implies that, though the heathen, by the light of nature, had some means of attaining such a measure of knowledge as would have given them a full conviction that there was but one God, and that this God ought to be worshipped in a way agreeable to his divine perfections, and consequently that they ought not to think that 'the Godhead was like to gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art, and man's device,' so that they would have been effectually convinced as to the gross idolatry which they were charged with; yet some did not attend to the light of nature, so far as this amounts to, which was the case of those with whom he was disputing. His design, therefore, is to reprove their idolatry, and persuade them to seek after that knowledge of God which would have induced them to forsake it. This is his design in that part of his argument in which he speaks of their 'seeking the Lord, if haply they might feel after him;' and when, in another part of it, he treats of that knowledge of God which is more immediately connected with salvation, he speaks of 'Jesus and the resurrection,' though they treated what he said with ridicule and contempt. It does not follow, therefore, that the heathen, by the light of nature, had a sufficient discovery of the way of salvation.

There is another objection against the doctrine we are maintaining, founded on the case of some persons who are supposed to have been destitute of divine revelation, as living without the pale of the church, and yet are commended in scripture as men excelling many others in grace, concerning whom there is no reason to doubt that they were in a state of salvation; such as Melchizedek, Job, Job's friends, with whom the dispute was held, mentioned in the book of Job, the centurion concerning whom our Saviour says, 'Verily, I have not found so great faith, no not in Israel,' and Cornelius, whom we read of in the Acts of the Apostles; who were all supposed to be in a state of salvation, and yet reckoned among the heathen. As to Melchizedek, we have under a former Answeri given our sentiments who he was; and if what was there observed be true, it will render this objection of no force. But as the objection is founded on the commonly received opinion, that Melchizedek was a priest and a king in the land of Canaan, we may add that his having been so will make very little to the purpose; for, it is certain that he was not an idolater, or a stranger to revealed religion; so that it cannot be argued from his case, that they who are so, may be in a state of salvation. As to Job and his friends, it is certain that they were well acquainted with the revealed will of God, as appears from their discourses recorded in the book of Job; and to say that they were out of the pale of the church, as they did not descend from that branch of Abraham's family from which the Israelites came, will not do much service to the objection, unless it could be proved that they were strangers to the faith and way of salvation professed by the church. Under a former Answer, we considered them as living before the scriptures were committed to writing, and also before the distinction between Jew and Gentile was much known in the world, or, at least, before the true worshippers of God had universally apostatized to idolatry. Hence, though many other nations were idolaters, and probably some were so in the country where they lived, yet it does not appear that they were so. Their case, therefore, cannot be brought as an argument, to prove that such as are destitute of the knowledge of the true God as founded on divine revelation, may be in the way of salvation. As to the centurion, though he was a Roman officer, it does not follow that, when he came to our Saviour, and expressed his great faith and humility, he was an heathen; for he had seen or heard of Christ's miracles and his doctrine, and probably might have been convinced thereby, and disposed to believe in him from conviction. It is certain, at least, that his words do not argue him to be an heathen; so that the part of the objection which refers to him is foreign to the design for which it is brought. As to Cornelius, there are certainly many things extraordinary in his character, such as that he was a 'devout man, and one that feared God;' that he gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God always;'l and that his prayers and his alms 'came up for a memorial before God;' all which expressions seem to favour the objection. Yet, if this account of him give ground to conclude that he was in a state of salvation before Peter was sent to preach the gospel to him, which the learned Beza and others suppose, it must still be proved that he was altogether a stranger to divine revelation, and to the knowledge it conveys of the way of salvation, else the objection founded on his case is of no force. It is said, indeed, that 'he fell down at Peter's feet, and worshipped him;'n which seems to argue him to have been, at that time, no better than a heathen idolater. But they who conclude him to have been then in a state of salvation, reckon this nothing else but an act of extraordinary civil respect; which, because it had the appearance of religious worship, Peter, as is intimated in the following words, refused to receive, lest some present should conclude that he gave him that honour which belongs to God only. All that I shall say, in answer to the objection, as supposing him to be in a state of salvation, is that though he was a Roman, and bred up in the Roman religion, yet it appears, from his general character, that he was very much concerned about the salvation of his soul, and therefore, doubtless, had not been wanting in his inquiries about the way to attain it. The gospel, indeed, had not been publicly preached at that time to the Gentiles, and he had not had any opportunity to converse with the apostles, or to sit under their ministry; but, as his conversation had been principally among the Jews, he might have been informed by them that, though they did not believe our Saviour who was crucified to be the Messiah, yet the Messiah was expected, and that, when he came, he would do that for his people which was foretold by the prophets. Here his faith rested. He wanted only a convincing evidence that our Saviour was he; and this, Peter was sent to communicate to him. We may suppose, however, that he was not converted before Peter was sent to him. This seems the more probable view; for, in Peter's relation of the matter to the apostles, he adds a particular circumstance which implies as much, namely, that 'he should tell him words, whereby he and all his house should be saved.' This plainly argues that he and his house were not previously in a state of salvation; and, if so, the objection, which supposes that he was, is sufficiently answered. If we acquiesce in this answer, there is one difficulty which remains to be accounted for, namely, how his not having been in a state of salvation is consistent with his character as a devout man, fearing God, and having his prayers and his alms accepted by him. The only reply I shall give to this is, that some duties which are materially good may be performed by those who are not in a state of salvation; and that these works may, as far as they have any property of goodness in them, come up for a memorial before God. Thus God owned the humiliation, repentance, and reformation of the Ninevites. Thus, also, when one came to our Saviour, and told him how he had observed the commandments of God, and, at the same time, expressed an earnest desire to inherit eternal life; it is remarked that, though he would not part with all for Christ, and therefore was not to be reckoned a believer, yet 'Jesus beholding him, loved him,'p that is, he approved of what was good in him, though it wanted some circumstances which were necessary to constitute an action good in all respects. Why, then, may we not suppose that God approved of what was excellent in Cornelius' character before he was converted by Peter's preaching?

Another objection against the doctrine we are maintaining is, that the heathen had some means of salvation, which took their rise from divine revelation, as appears from several rules and modes of worship which they had by tradition from the Jews. It was a generally received opinion among them, that the sins they committed were, some way or other, to be expiated, or that some atonement was to be made for them; on which account they offered sacrifices, and had their temples, altars, and priests, consecrated for that purpose. These things, it is inferred, are more than they had learned from the law of nature. But this argument has very little weight. It seems, indeed, to allow that there is a necessity of persons being, at least, in a small degree, apprized of some doctrines which took their rise from divine revelation. But what was transmitted pure and uncorrupt to the church, was handed down to the heathen nations by uncertain tradition, and with a great mixture of corruption; so that it is hard to find such a resemblance between it and the pure doctrine as to determine it to be of divine origin. But suppose they had a conviction that sin was to be expiated by sacrifice, they had still no manner of idea as to any reference the sacrifices they offered had to Christ. Yet this, as the apostle observes, was the only thing in those sacrifices which were performed by a divine warrant, which had a tendency to 'take away sin,' or 'make them that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience.' Hence, though the Jews offered sacrifices, and observed several other rites of worship instituted by God; yet, in as much as they rested in the external performance of them, and were destitute of faith in Christ, and did not perform other religious duties which were to attend them, their observances were reckoned no better than 'vain oblations,'r or unprofitable services. How much more might all the rites of worship observed by the heathen be deemed so? The fact of the heathen having performed these rites, therefore, does not give us sufficient ground to conclude that those have the means of salvation who are destitute of divine revelation and faith in Christ.

Christ the Saviour only of the Church

It is farther observed, in this Answer, that Christ is the Saviour only of his body the church. This seems to obviate an objection which might be brought against the impossibility of attaining salvation without faith in Christ. For some will be ready to conclude that Christ may be a Saviour, by his death, to those who are strangers to him, and not members of his body the church; and, therefore, it is added that he is the Saviour only of such. This is what several mean when they say that there is no salvation out of the pale or enclosure of the church. The point is rather to be explained than denied. The meaning of it will appear from what is said in the following Answers; wherein the visible church is described as including those who profess the true religion; and the invisible church is called 'the body,' of which Christ is 'the Saviour;' and the members of the latter are said to be made partakers of union and communion with him, and to be inseparably joined to him, as their Head and Husband, when they are effectually called, so that they have an interest in that salvation which he has procured. We hence have ground to conclude that he will save none by his merits but such as are made partakers of the internal graces of the Spirit, and are united to him by a lively faith, founded on divine revelation. This is accordant with what has been already maintained in this Answer; which establishes the necessity of divine revelation, or the impossibility of persons attaining salvation by framing their lives according to the light of nature, though they never heard of the gospel, or of Jesus Christ, the sum and substance of it. If this be reckoned a hard saying, tending to lessen the mercy of God with respect to its objects, it must be considered that we have no rule of judging concerning this matter but what is contained in scripture. If God has there made known to his people the only way of salvation, we have no warrant to extend it farther than he has done, or to say that, because he can apply his grace in such methods as are altogether unknown to us, he will do so. To speak in this way is no just or conclusive reasoning.

The great design of all that we have said in this Answer, is to induce us to set the highest value on Christ and his gospel, and to adore and magnify him for the privileges which we enjoy by being favoured with it, and to put us upon improving it to the best purposes; for if they are excluded from its benefits who never heard of it, 'How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?'


Ridgley, T. (1855). A Body of Divinity

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