Can people be saved apart from hearing about Jesus?

I wrote this post originally for my congregation in order to clear up some questions and a little push back after I preached this sermon: Why the Task is Urgent, Romans 10:14-17

Some of it came from well-meaning and very Scripturally-savvy friends whom I respect very much. The questions basically went like this:

“How can we say, assuredly, that there’s no way to be saved apart from conscious faith in Jesus? Haven’t Christians disagreed on that over the years? And why can’t we just leave the verdict out and just ‘let God judge them’? The Gospel is offensive enough without adding this element into it! And if it’s true that all adults are responsible to God (since they have a law written on their hearts), but children do not, wouldn’t that make us excited about abortion, since that is the only way you can guarantee going to heaven?”

The answer is yes, I am familiar with the varying opinions on this question. But varying opinions doesn’t alway mean that something is not clear in Scripture… It may just mean that the results are so offensive that it’s hard to reconcile ourselves to them. I also know that my opinions are NOT infallible. I am open to being persuaded I am wrong. I have been wrong about many things in the past and might be so about many things now. I am open to anyone approaching me with an open Bible and open mind.

I have read just about all of the major dissenting views to the one I shared on Sunday. I just found them unconvincing, and their ideas more based on human reasoning (i.e. “this is what I think God should be like…” “this idea about God offends me,” etc) than deductive conclusions from Scriptural affirmations. I wanted (oh, how I wanted!) to believe in the escape-hatches and plan-B’s, but just could not find allowance for it in Scripture. What I preached this morning was my conscience, and the most faithful interpretation, in my judgment, of Paul’s thought in Romans. I think he builds up to a very weighty conclusion… namely, that they simply cannot believe unless they hear, and they cannot hear without a preacher, and we (the church) are the only preachers who can be sent. Ultimately, this is what the whole argument is about. Can they believe apart from our being sent? I think Paul’s answer is unequivocally “no.”

When I am urged to just “let God judge them,” that is surely what I am trying to do. Paul has concluded that, in response to general revelation, no one has responded to the general revelation correctly. He even clarified, lest we doubt: “no, not even one!” Thus, all are without excuse; all have sinned; all are under the righteous wrath of God. Had God saved none of us (like he did with the angels) none could have faulted him with injustice.

The force of Paul’s logic is, quite simply, the lost nations cannot call on one whom they have not heard, and they cannot hear unless someone is sent to preach. Where there is no preached word, there can be no faith, and without faith, it is impossible to please God. There is not even a hint of a hole in Paul’s logic, and his conclusion is inescapable. There is no record of anyone in Scripture, ever, coming to faith in Christ apart from the instrumentality of the church.

And… if there was such a one as who worshipped Christ by worshipping God sincerely in his religion, and so found the ‘exception clause’ from needing to hear about Jesus, SURELY Cornelius was he! Yet, as I pointed out, the clear language of Peter is that Cornelius needed to be justified, not told that he was already justified.

Now, I left, intentionally, one “hole” in this whole thing… namely “could God do things he didn’t tell us about?” and I said “sure.” But, even so, it is clear that he never let on to us in the only revelation he gave to us that he was doing that. Throughout the Bible, which is ALL we have to go on (Deut 29:29), no one comes to faith apart from preaching by a human being. Can you find me even one example from any place in the Bible that even approximates such a case, where where faith and salvation was achieved apart from the preaching of a human instrument? Even one?

So, in humility, I must speak clearly what Scripture says, even when it offends me greatly. And it certainly does so on this point. But let God’s word stand and our opinions be damned.

As to the rationalisms… such as “if what I’m saying is true, then abortion is the greatest missionary endeavour ever,” that would be to take a path clearly forbidden to the people of God (Deut 29:29). “Let us do evil that good may abound” is something we can always come up with, and even if its true, we are forbidden from it. This is not the only case where we can reason how a sin would bring about greater good… For example, if you believe that you can lose your salvation, as Wesley did, then as soon as you are convinced they are saved, kill them immediately so they won’t fall away. Makes rational sense, but clearly forbidden. The revelation is what we have to go on. It says that where there is no law there is no sin (thus no babies are condemned), and that all adults have a law which they have rejected.

Reasoning from moral axioms is never as reliable as revelation, even when it makes sense to us or more clearly accords with our sense of justice, rightness, or compassion.

Frankly, I find other aspects of God’s revelation to be even more offensive than what I shared today. For example, I think the idea of eternal punishment is abhorrent. I can’t yet make it make sense. But I am not the judge. And I cannot and will not judge God’s revelation.

It overwhelms me, hushes my mouth in silence, and drives me into God to seek, desparately to be used by God in His salvation plan.

Again, I am always open to being persuaded to be wrong. But I can’t see any conclusion but this one. So, may God empower us to get this message to our neighbors and the nations.

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  1. Joshua   •  

    Thanks for posting this J.D.

    While it may be offensive, we should not be satisfied to let God’s ways stay offensive to us.

    Once we grasp and submit to the truth that there is no salvation outside the proclamation of the gospel, we need to be diligent in our submission so that we don’t continue to be offended by God’s ways. Saying, “Yeah I know it is true, but I don’t like it” is still prideful and sinful, no?

    I appreciate your dedication to God’s Word above your own emotions and personal reasoning of what is fair or right. It is certainly an encouragement to me.

    God is just in all his ways!

  2. Paul   •  

    Isn’t the apostle Paul an example of someone who came to Christ by direct revelation? He may have heard some preaching but in the end it was a direct revelation and he didn’t stand a chance!

  3. Greg Alford   •  


    I think that most people have a hard time with this one because for the most part they lack any real since of just how different man is from God. By that I mean, that our very natures are radically different! God is Holy and man is sinful… Now, sin is not radically offensive to man, in fact he likes it. However, sin is radically offensive unto God and this is something that we just don’t generally grasp very well.

    People do not go to Hell because they have not heard the Gospel… Not at all. People go to Hell because they have sinned. And there sin is so radically offensive unto God that he cannot, will not, forgive it. Therefore, in order for anyone to be saved Jesus had to pay their sin debt by dying in their place.

    So it is that I find in this debate, that the best place to start in helping people begin to develop a Biblical understanding of the necessity of hearing the Gospel preached is to help then understand the radical difference between man and God.

  4. Doug Hibbard   •  


    Yet Paul would not have been without the witness of the church: he had seen the martyrdom of Stephen, he knew their preaching and their testimony. Depending on how much time truly falls between the Acts 1 and Acts 9, he could have been in Jerusalem during the very Passover and Pentecost that marked the Crucifixion and birth of the Church.

    So he would have encountered the Gospel from the church he was persecuting. That the specific moment of his conversion came from Jesus Himself is true, but what does the Lord say? “I am Jesus, who you are persecuting?” There is little other explanation given, because Saul already knows the rest. This is moment is less unlike many people’s conversions: all they have already heard comes together at the move of God in their lives.

    And as a young Pharisee-in-training, it is not unlikely that he had not heard/encountered Jesus Himself, is it? Paul should have been near Jerusalem at the times when Jesus was there, preaching and teaching at the Passover dates.

  5. Max   •  


    Your honesty in approaching this subject is impressive and a good example to follow.


    You are right that if we are offended by anything God does, we must be seeing things wrong in some way. He is altogether beautiful and whenever he does something we should like the fact that he does that thing. That is the ideal for us to strive towards.

    Paul and Doug,

    Acts 22:16 makes it clear that the apostle Paul didn’t receive salvation until he was with Ananias. See also Acts 9. God used Ananias in Paul’s conversion.

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