Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
What About the Innocent Native in Africa?
And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. Acts 4:12 ESV
Question 60 of the Larger Catechism, asks, “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?” It gives the answer, “They who, having never heard the gospel, know not Jesus Christ, and believe not in him, cannot be saved, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, or the laws 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.” Last week we examined the doctrine of definite redemption: that all those whom the Lord Jesus Christ sought to redeem are certainly redeemed. This week we consider the possibility of salvation apart from knowing and believing in Jesus Christ.
Can a person who has never heard of Jesus, and therefore is not able to believe in Him, be saved? Whenever the Christian gospel is accurately explained as the only way of salvation, there will inevitably be some who bring up the “problem” of those who have never heard of Christ. They believe that such a gospel that makes faith in Christ necessary for eternal life is unfair. Their protest is usually expressed like this: How can a just God condemn people for not believing in a Christ of whom they have never heard? The Bible’s answer to this question is that people are not condemned for their ignorance of the gospel of Christ, they are condemned for their sins! Jesus is the only remedy for sin. The reason why sinners need to hear of Christ is because they are already under the just condemnation of sin. Accordingly, the preaching of the gospel does not make men sinners, it is the only way they can be delivered from their sins. To illustrate: the cause of death for a man who dies from a fatal illness is never the absence of the cure, but the presence of the disease!
But what about the person who does not know he is a sinner, and is not aware that there is a God? How is it fair that God condemns someone who is innocently unaware of his guilty condition and creaturely responsibility? The Catechism has already answered this protest way back in question 2: “The very light of nature in man, and the works of God, declare plainly that there is a God,” (see: Rom. 1:19-20; 2:14-15; Ps. 19:13; Acts 17:28). Thus, there is no such thing as a person who is unaware that he is a creature, that God made him a moral being, and that he is accountable to Him for every thought, word, and action. Every human being who has ever been born knows these facts, just as certainly as he knows himself and the world around him. However, the Catechism declares that this certain knowledge given by the light of nature cannot avail him for his salvation in the slightest, for even were he to live perfectly according to it, he cannot make atonement for his sinful condition and therefore he cannot be saved. If a man could live well enough to save himself, then he would be his own savior, but as the Scripture at the head of this article declares, there is salvation in no one else but in Christ alone.
Now here, even if the critic accepts the concept of original sin, affirming that all men are born in and conceived under the just condemnation of sin. And even if he affirms that sinful man, by his own perfect works, cannot atone for this sinful condition, he will sometimes still protest that this single way of salvation is grossly unfair. It is not fair, he will say, because such a person is condemned without ever being given “a chance” to believe in Jesus. Here, the critic does not understand the sinfulness of man’s sin, nor the graciousness of God’s grace. The sinful man cannot come to Christ not because he has not been given a chance to make the right decision. The sinful man does not come to Christ because he will not come! The sinfulness of our sin is that apart from the salvation of Christ, we condemn God and justify ourselves! We blame Him as being wrong to condemn us, and so we will not condemn ourselves and exonerate Him, even when our salvation is at stake. The sinful man will not rightly condemn himself! Therefore, the graciousness of God’s grace is not just to give a chance for a sinner to come to Jesus, for if that is all it was no one would ever come! The true graciousness of grace is to create new hearts in dead sinners birthing in them the willingness to confess their sins and come to Christ. Jesus purchased this regenerating grace for all of God’s elect in His atoning death on the cross. It is the reason why He can assure us that not one of His sheep will perish (John 10:28) but all of them will come to Him (John 6:37). Theologians refer to this grace of God as not merely an offer of a great opportunity, but an effectual call. It is the work not of the decision of man but of the power of God’s Holy Spirit.