What about Those Who Never Hear the Gospel: The New Testament

In Part 1 we looked at the Calvinist argument that is supposed to demonstrate that Extensivists (non-Calvinists) have their own form of election since, as they contend, God does not give everyone a chance to hear the gospel and be saved. We saw their argument fails to be convincing. To further clarify and amplify God’s salvific love for everyone, we looked at some of His salvific work in the Old Testament Part 2. Now we will look at what the New Testament says about God’s salvational love for everyone. This series will conclude with Part 4, in which we will look at the issue of Foreordination and Foreknowledge.

There is ample New Testament evidence that God makes Himself known to not just people groups but everyone in all people groups. This revelation is such that He can safely say He has so sufficiently made Himself known to everyone so that every single person is without excuse for not fleeing the wrath to come by acknowledging him. Paul makes this clear:

Rom 1:18–23

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom 1:18)

The first thing to note about God’s wrath is that it is against ungodly people who “suppress the truth.” The words “revealed” and “suppress” are present tense verbs. The present tense signifies an action that is repetitive or continuous. The present display of God’s wrath does not replace his foreboding eschatological judgment (Rev 20:11–15), but rather it serves as an ever-present harbinger and warning of it.

It seems God makes his anger known because he desires the truth of his existence, deserved worship, and redemption to be known to all so that they will not suffer the final judgment because of their sin. He is angry with all who seek to suppress his self-revelation through his creation–signifying, in part, that God is presently dispensing measured judgments upon people in carrying out his salvation plan. He reveals his wrath today in select and measured proportions on those who seek to suppress the truth about him. They may seek to suppress this truth in word and deed by seeking to operate beyond his permissive will to impede His ultimate will, thereby attempting to thwart his plan of redemption. God desires that He be known and worshiped and that men will be saved, so every attempt of man to undermine those desires angers a holy and loving God.

Those who continue suppressing the truth are led into greater spiritual darkness and often lead others into deeper darkness as well (Matt 23:13). At times, God may dispense measured judgment on some who may have rejected him for the final time, or those he knows will ultimately do so, in order to warn others of their ultimate fate while there is still time for them to repent. If this is the case, when all the facts are known, these measured judgments will be seen to be acts of righteous grace. Scripture is clear that God often blesses and dispenses measured judgments to make himself known to everyone so that people might repent. All people are under the wrath of God before faith in Christ (John 3:18). God’s tempered judgments are a constant reminder of God’s abhorrence of sin and unrighteousness and a foreshadowing of future judgment for those who suppress the truth.

He judges today in measured displays because fallen humanity continually works through a galaxy of ways such as idolatry, cults, occult, philosophy, and science to suppress the truth of God. One lexicon puts it this way, “The people whose evil ways keep the truth from being known, Rom1:18.”[1] God is continually demonstrating His wrath against sin. Man explains it away and seeks to suppress the truth of the existence of a holy and loving God, to whom every person will give an account based upon God’s standard and not man’s. Man seeks through a myriad of ways to suppress the contemplation of the final judgment in which no person will escape apart from the grace and mercy of God. The declarations of God so that man may know him are seen throughout Scripture and history. We also see the works of man to suppress such revelation, but they are unsuccessful (vs. 23). They are all so unsuccessful that God can declare when all the facts are known, there is not one single person who can rightly say, “I did not know.” Why? Because God’s love is manifested to every single person so that “they are without excuse.”

Mankind seeks to explain natural catastrophes in any way except the biblical one, which is they are all a consequence of sin and God’s judgment against sin. The biblical picture is that God’s creation was life-giving and sustaining. It is when sin entered into his creation and sin required judgment that everything changed (Gen 3). All calamities, death, and destruction have as their ultimate cause God’s wrath and sin. Knowing the ultimate cause is quite different than attributing each storm, earthquake, tragedy, or even human death to a direct and immediate act of God, even though, at times, that may very well be the case. Instead, it is to say that death itself, as well as natural calamities, are ultimately the result of sin and judgment upon sin. The present judgment is declared by grace, tempered by grace, and escapable by grace. The final judgment is unmitigated and inescapable.

It is quite common to hear Calvinists explain the knowledge expressed in this passage as sufficient only to result in judgment, but not salvation. This juxtaposition incorrectly provides only two options. I believe there is a third alternative that seems more reflective of the passage. While natural revelation provides sufficient knowledge for judgment yet is insufficient for salvation, it may still serve as an intermediate step in knowing God. God has designed his plan so that people can come to know him through natural revelation (vs. 19, 21). If they accept that, God will get the gospel to them. In other words, he will see that those who accept this light of creative revelation, that unmistakably testifies to His existence, get an opportunity to hear and receive the gospel so they may be saved and know Him personally.

God knows who receives the light He has given and is accordingly receptive to more light. In the New Testament, providing enough light sufficient for salvation means taking the light of the gospel to those who receive the light of creation because He is not willing that any perish (2 Pet 3:9). This understanding seems to fit better the nature and working of God and the explicit declarations of Scripture (John 3:16). Even some Calvinists speak consistently with this meaning of the declaration. However, technically their understanding of the nature of man and God’s exclusive soteriology prohibits any light leading to salvation for anyone other than those who are unconditionally elected.

John MacArthur comments regarding verse 19, “As Paul declares in the following verse, ‘That which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them’ (v. 19). His point is that all people, regardless of their relative opportunities to know God’s Word and hear His gospel, have internal, God-given evidence of His existence and nature, but are universally inclined to resist and assault that evidence. No matter how little spiritual light he may have, God guarantees that any person who sincerely seeks Him will find Him. ‘You will seek me and find Me’ He promises, ‘when you search for Me with all your heart’ (Jer. 29:13)”[2] (italics added).

John MacArthur recognizes all have this knowledge. He says, “All people . . . are universally inclined to resist and assault that evidence.” I cannot be sure how he is using the word “inclined,” but the word means to be disposed to, tend, or lean in a certain direction. I assume he meant it that way in light of his quote of Jeremiah 29:13, which, taken at face value, means man has a choice to either seek God according to His revelation or suppress his revelation. If that is how he is using it, I would agree. People are naturally inclined toward self and sin apart from God’s gracious work of revealing Himself through natural and special revelation.

However, according to Calvinism, people are not merely inclined to suppress, they are actually predetermined to only suppress the truth of creation or the gospel.[3] That is all anyone can do given the fallen nature of mankind who has compatible moral freedom. No one will or can seek God who is not unconditionally elected, which seems contrary to the intent and wording of this passage. If MacArthur means to use “inclined” in a normal Calvinist sense, that such inclination is unalterable, that would be consistent with the idea that the revelation is sufficient only for condemning man, who is already unalterably predetermined to eternal condemnation. And then the point is?

The passage gives every indication God desires to reveal Himself and His salvation before the final judgment and is angered by people who actively fight against Him in suppressing His revelation through creation. It does not seem those who suppress have to but choose to do so. It does not seem to be saying God is angry with the ones who can only choose to suppress the truth about Him because He predetermined them to do so. As seen in the Old Testament, God makes Himself sufficiently known by miracles, witnesses, displays of power, and judgment not only to judge or display His glory but that those who witness such works might repent and believe.[4] If people accept the light of creation, God will get the truth to them so they can know Him personally.

John A. Witmer suggests man has a real choice. “People had God’s truth but suppressed it, refusing to heed it. And these wicked ones did this in an attitude of wickedness”[5] (italics added). Robert Mounce similarly comments, “Although the wrath of God is primarily eschatological, it is at the same time a present reality. The use of the present tense apokalyptetai (‘is being revealed’), indicates something that is taking place in the present. Furthermore, verses 24–32 describe divine wrath as currently operative in the lives of the ungodly. That God’s wrath is present does not mean that it will not also be eschatological. God’s present wrath anticipates his final withdrawal from those who do not respond to his love[6] (italics added).

It is best to understand the passage as involving God working sufficiently to provide man with a choice to believe God’s natural revelation as man believes God’s special revelation. Those who choose to suppress that truth, including both the grandeur of creation and the reality of his abhorrence of sin as seen in the measured judgments in time, will suffer His unmitigated eschatological judgment. This understanding is congruent with what we see in the Old Testament. God works sovereignly, judging the sin of those who seek to reach beyond His permissive will while the day of salvation is still present. He works to give more revelation that He is the one true God, and then for those who accept that light, He works to bring sufficient light to them so that they may be saved.

“Because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them” (Rom 1:19).

The creative testimony of God is not limited to something one sees externally, but the knowledge of it is within the human mind and heart, and this knowledge is understood (vs. 20). Understood is the word nous, meaning comprehend, understand, perceive.[7] God has overcome any barriers that might keep such truth from being comprehensible to sinful man. He made it evident, clear, to all. Regarding the second use of the word evident, one Greek lexicon defines it as “to cause something to be fully known by revealing clearly and in some detail–’to make known, to make plain, to reveal, to bring to the light, to disclose, revelation.'”[8] God makes it clear, demonstrably clear, and internally known and understood. God works comprehensively to reveal Himself to those whom He desires to be saved, which is everyone. God is not judging a man, holding him accountable for rejecting an unclear or inaccessible revelation, but rather God judges a person for rejecting what God has made undeniably evident and accessible.

Mounce comments, saying, “Verses 19 and 20 tell why the wrath of God is being revealed. God, in his creation, has provided sufficient evidence of himself to hold accountable all who reject that revelation. What can be known of God is perfectly clear. God himself made it plain.”[9] Consequently, man’s indisputable comprehension of the connection between creation, creator, and man’s accountability to Him is not dependent upon the natural understanding of man but rather the omnipotent revelatory power of God.

The warnings of this passage and His tempered displays of wrath are acts of grace. To see this, think of heading to eternal judgment without any warnings, experiential deficiencies of this world, or current consequences of sin. Similarly, Scripture gives examples of Christ warning his listeners to repent or perish (Luke 13:1–5). Both God’s tempered judgments against sin, as well as the experiential consequences of sin, are acts of grace, as is His patience because He truly desires the salvation of every individual (Rom 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9). He works in many known and, I assume, unknown ways to give every person an opportunity to flee the wrath to come.[10]

The final judgment due to committing the unpardonable sin (Matt 12:32) is a spiritual darkness that was not present before that particular refusal in a person’s life. One’s spiritual state of blindness to the truth can be said to be individually self-imposed, leaving each person without an excuse. Like the Pharisees, some work arduously to suppress the truth, and others are even more deceived (Matt 23). God’s gracious work is such that it overcomes all cloaks of deception and darkness so that if a person desires, which he can by grace, he can flee the wrath to come. If he chooses not to flee, he is without excuse for not turning to God. Mounce highlights this point by saying, “God has revealed to all humans something of his eternal power and nature. Yet people refuse to believe, and as a result, their understanding is darkened. To turn willfully against God is to move from light into darkness. The blindness that follows is self-imposed.”[11] Mounce is clear that an individual’s darkened understanding is the result of a refusal to believe, and like their blindness, it is self-imposed, indicating natural revelation can be accepted.

The word “revealed” (vs. 18) signifies God is the revelator, and being so, He is overcoming whatever obstacles may hinder fallen man from seeing the glory of God in creation and the sure wrath that awaits all who die while suppressing the truth of His creative revelation. Revealed is in the present tense, demonstrating it is a continuous action. It is being revealed. It appears God works so fallen man can have sufficient understanding to know by the witness of creation that God exists, that God will judge him, and that he should serve God. It is again important to emphasize this verse assures that even if man, because of his sinfulness, cannot on his own see God in creation, God works to overcome whatever may hinder man so that every man knows and can be said to have no excuse.

Of course, this revelatory work of God is not necessary for God to righteously judge sin, for that will indeed happen in the eschatological judgment. God could be just and choose to shield mankind from any temporary revelation of mitigated wrath, man’s sinfulness, condign punishment, or the connection between sin, wrath, and natural calamities. Such workings as delineated here are not needed for God to enact His eschatological judgment. But as always, God in grace does everything to give man a chance to know Him, even giving his Holy Son for sinful, wrath-deserving truth suppressors.

My heart resonates with the thoughts and words of John, “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him” (1 John 3:1). Great is the translation of a word that means what sort of, what kind of. The KJV says, “What manner of love.” What manner of love indeed! God’s continual revelation overcomes man’s efforts to suppress the truth so all can know of the one true God. God works, so the knowledge is not only in what people see (external creation) but in what people understand (internal knowledge). God works to assure that man internalizes this knowledge and understanding. Such comprehensive exposure to God’s revelation in creation requires an active and intentional choice and concentration to suppress it.

“For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Rom 1:20).

This verse reminds us God has comprehended the eventuality of sin, man’s lost estate, and the salvation of man in His plan. He has so designed creation, man’s knowledge, and access to an understanding of creation that we can see His invisible attributes such as His power and divine nature in the visible reality of creation. The word translated “divine nature” is the word theiótes. This “expression ‘divine nature’ may be rendered in a number of languages as ‘just what God is like’ or ‘how God is’ or ‘what God is.’ In Rom 1:20 ‘deity’ may sometimes be expressed as ‘the fact that he is God’ or ‘is truly God.”‘[12] Another reminder that to question man’s comprehension of these attributes of God is not to question sinful man’s ability to do so; rather it is to question God’s ability to communicate clearly and undeniably.

Some philosophers, skeptics, and scientists may question God’s eternal power. People may blame God for man’s plight, thereby attempting to exonerate man, as was true with Adam and Eve. They may even claim to not know God. Nevertheless, Scripture makes it undeniably clear that everyone, including those who make such charges and denials, does know of God. They see his invisible attributes, power, and character of holiness, love, mercy, and benevolence in creation. They see “just what God is like” and that He is “truly God.” It is a testimony of perennial clarity that can neither be missed nor ignored but requires either acceptance or continual suppression.

Any claim that creation insufficiently displays the one true God is false because whatever deficiency there might be with the raw facts of creation and fallen man’s comprehension of such facts displaying the one true God are overcome by the revelatory power of God. This testimony of creation shows God’s eternal power in the powers of nature and reveals God’s very nature through the five senses. When man looks at nature, by God’s design and work, he can see God’s love, provision, goodness, and his own need for the work of the one true God in his heart. Man’s response that he does not see evidence of God is due to man’s suppression of the truth, not a lack of revelation on God’s part (Rom 3:4).

Witmer, commenting on this verse says, “‘God is spirit’ (John 4:24), all His qualities are invisible to physical eyes and can be understood by the human mind only as they are reflected in what has been made, that is, in God’s creative work . . . The word theiot?s, translated ‘divine nature,’ . . . embraces the properties which make God. Creation, which people see, reveals God’s unseen character–the all-powerful Deity. An Old Testament parallel to these verses is Psalm 19:1–6.”[13] Similarly, MacArthur says, “Every person, no matter how isolated from God’s written Word or the clear proclamation of His gospel, has enough divine truth evident both within and around him (Rom. 1:19–20) to enable him to know and be reconciled to God if his desire is genuine. It is because men refuse to respond to that evidence that they are under God’s wrath and condemnation”[14] (italics added).

In light of Calvinism’s doctrine of unconditional election, and since MacArthur is a Calvinist, we are faced with the crucial underlying questions. Can anyone and everyone desire reconciliation with God? Is there sufficient love and grace from God to permit that opportunity? If there is not a genuine opportunity afforded to everyone by God’s grace and love, then the truth is that the vast majority, by God’s design, do not have enough divine truth “to be reconciled to God.” The non-elect cannot have a “genuine desire” to be reconciled. Any such talk of even a minuscule possibility within Calvinism is double talk. As MacArthur states it, one would rightly conclude God has provided so that everyone is enabled to desire to be genuinely reconciled with God. Of course, this is antithetical to Calvinism. If he means what his words indicate, he is speaking contradictorily to Calvinism. If he does not mean what his words say and seem to clearly mean (i.e., he actually means only the elect can genuinely desire God), then he should speak so as to be clear rather than implying God’s love and provision is for all.

According to Calvinism, God judges those who ultimately die in their sin, which sin He predetermined they commit. He judges them for what they cannot do, which is repent and believe the gospel, and for what they cannot keep from doing, which is suppress the truth. Extensivism contends God judges the lost for their sin and what they, by grace, can and should do but choose not to do, which is to repent and believe the gospel.

It seems by God’s grace, even fallen man can respond sufficiently to the light God grants so that he may ultimately be saved, an opportunity of choice harkening back to Adam. This is not to say there is enough general revelation for one to be saved, or that man on his own can, apart from redemptive grace, come to God in salvation. It is to say there is enough light in creation to assure that everyone can have sufficient knowledge about God and respond to that light; if they do, God will get the light of the gospel to them so that no one can say they did not have an opportunity to know God.

The passage makes it clear all have a sufficient understanding that leaves them without excuse, and this knowledge is so clear that it must be actively and willingly suppressed. It makes it most assuredly clear that those who do suppress are the recipients of God’s moderated wrath today; however, it does not seem to make the scope of the suppression unmistakable. That is to say, it does not say everyone continually suppresses this knowledge, which is the conclusion of some who argue general revelation is only sufficient to judge. Instead, it specifically says, “men who suppress the truth.” Given that it does not say all people, and suppress is in the present tense, I suggest it means that while all may at one time or another suppress the truth, not all continue or continually do so. This conclusion seems self-evident since surely some of the suppressors are eventually believers in the gospel. Something that is true for both Extensivists and Calvinists.

If unconditional election is true, it is unclear why God would make such a display of Himself through natural revelation, thereby leaving everyone without an excuse for not knowing. Also, if all man can do is reject such knowledge, it is unclear why God would make such a display to justify his temporal and eschatological judgment because that is sufficiently validated based on the fact that everyone is a sinner and God is holy (Rom 3:23). The “without excuse” seems to correspond to the continual display of undeniable evidence of the reality of the one true God as seen through creation so that people are aware of the verdict now, and they can flee such a verdict before the final unmitigated outpouring of the wrath of God in the final judgment (Rev 20:11–15). To wit, the revelation of creation leaves all sinners without an excuse for saying they did not have an opportunity to know God.

The following is what we see in the Old Testament as well. God worked to get more light to those who received the light given, even if His response required extraordinary and miraculous undertakings, maybe even to the caliber of the people of Nineveh or Rahab (see my previous article God Demonstrates His Salvific Love for All through Pharaoh). The New Testament appears to present the same loving God who will get the saving gospel to those who receive the light of creation.

MacArthur seems to concur, even if such is meaningless in Calvinism. He says, “It is evident within them as well as without them. All men have evidence of God, and what their physical senses can perceive of Him their inner senses can understand to some extent . . . All men know something and understand something of the reality and the truth of God. They are responsible for a proper response to that revelation. Any wrong response is ‘inexcusable.'”[15] I agree, but the question remains, can all men make a “proper response”?

The indication of the passage, as MacArthur clearly suggests, is they can and should make a proper response, but some do not. However, we must remember the unambiguous claim of Calvinism does not permit the remotest possibility of one of the non-elect making a “proper response.” Moreover, the unconditionally elect cannot make a “proper response” before the quickening of the Spirit or some other equally determinative work of selective grace upon the elect (for Calvinists who reject regeneration happening prior to faith); both of which are contrary to the verse. Thus, MacArthur’s response omits the true teachings of compatibilism, Calvinism, and unconditional election. According to compatibilism, they may be held responsible for not accepting the light of God’s natural revelation, yet they were also predetermined not to accept it; the very thing the passage teaches they have no excuse for doing.

Sometimes Calvinists obscure this reality by contending the place of people, things, and experiences within Calvinism’s determinism are a part of the process, which could include natural revelation. While that may be true, they may only insubstantially be so; they are as predetermined as everything else. The end is predetermined, and the elements along the way are only insubstantially related to that end. That is to say, if one, several, or even all of the elements were not there, the end, such as unconditional election, would still take place. It is unconditional. If such are substantially related, then things like unconditional election are conditioned upon them, and unconditional election becomes conditional election. Whereas, given libertarian freedom, some things are substantially related to salvation in Extensivism because if they were not a part of the process, something different would be happening; therefore, the result would be different in indefinite scenarios.[16]

A.H. Strong speaks of the balance between man already knowing and preaching the gospel, “The Scriptures . . . both assume and declare that the knowledge that God is, is universal (Rom 1:19–21, 28, 32; 2:15). God has inlaid the evidence of this fundamental truth in the very nature of man so that nowhere is he without a witness. The preacher may confidently follow the example of Scripture by assuming it. But he must also explicitly declare it, as the Scripture does.”[17] As mentioned with regard to MacArthur’s response, the same is true with Strong’s. While creation may provide a witness, according to Calvinism, the non-elect cannot respond to the witness except with utter rejection. The same is true of the kind of response they can make to the gospel–only one of rejection prior to regeneration. Equally important is the text does not say that suppression is the only response or that every person responds to natural revelation that way.

It is far more accurate to understand this knowledge is more than mere knowledge to which man should respond but cannot if he is not one of the elect, which reduces it to a knowledge that can only result in judgment without the possibility that it will lead to salvation. What this passage seems to present lucidly is the knowledge is within, without, constant, and ever so clear that it leaves no one with an excuse for not knowing God. Man cannot passively ignore it, rather he must continually suppress the opportunity of knowing God. Witmer notes, “The witness to God in nature is so clear and constant that ignoring it is indefensible. Their condemnation is based not on their rejecting Christ of whom they have not heard, but on their sinning against the light they have.”[18] Such words again seem meaningless if the person with such knowledge could not respond to the light of creation, which results in God getting the light of the gospel to those who receive the light given. Because of God’s benevolent care for his creation, He has made this creative revelation clear and compelling enough to reveal his very nature. Such creative revelation is not the same as special revelation but is detailed enough to lead to more accountability, more light, and potentially salvation.

The revelation of beauty and power is so awe-inspiring that it reveals the very nature of God. It does this so clearly and persuasively that for men to resist the obvious conclusion and refuse to bow before God, they must work continually, creatively, deceptively, and arduously to suppress such overwhelming clarity. The natural order gives every indication of someone existing outside the natural order who is far different in power and glory than the natural order. It does so with such intelligibility and power that it can lead to reverence for God and acceptance of the light of creation, which results in God getting the gospel to that person. It is so persuasive on its own that men must work at remaining in the dark.

Accepting the God-given light that leads to salvation is never forced, but man is responsible for how he responds to that light of creation because a proper response can result in more light. Creation leaves man sufficiently enlightened to lead to salvation and ultimately be saved. Mounce says, “The text says that people are without a defense for their unwillingness to believe. The Greek word translated ‘without excuse’ (anapologetous) suggests that from a legal standpoint people had been stripped of any defense. The age-old question about the salvation of the ‘heathen’ is clearly answered in this verse . . . Things visible call for a power that is invisible.”[19]

“For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures” (Rom 1:21–23).

These verses clearly reach back to the choices of Adam and Eve and those who might have lived soon enough after the fall that the knowledge of God was not as perverted as it has progressively become through the millennia. Additionally, it seems certain those referred to in these verses are the same people in verses 18–20. This shows the progression of man from the beginning. It also describes any person who refuses God’s revelation, both general revelation in creation and special revelation. The sin of Adam and Eve, though more glaring without the effect of sin, is committed throughout human history. It is to reject God’s love and grace despite the opportunity to receive it. It is to reject the well-known and understood truth that God is the creator, and man is accountable to him.

In the New Testament era, God works through the gospel, but not hearing the gospel is not precisely equivalent to the idea that the one who never heard the gospel did not have an opportunity to be reconciled with God. In our present era, belief in the gospel is the exclusive method by which one can find deliverance from the wrath to come for his sin. However, this passage demonstrates God is working in many ways, one being the perennial testimony of creation to give people an opportunity, and there may be other ways of which we are not aware.

D.A. Carson similarly says, “To be sure, God is sovereign in the communication of his grace as well as in its application, and he may at times choose to bring to people a knowledge of the gospel in ways quite unforeseen and even unknowable to us”[20](italics added). He further states, “Paul makes clear that Gentiles in his day, and people who have never heard the gospel or read the Bible, have genuinely ‘seen’ something of God and who he is. But some people who receive that truth do not respond appropriately to it: rather than glorifying God or giving him thanks, they turn from the truth to embrace idolatry . . . all human beings have the capacity to receive such revelation because they continue to bear the divine image . . . No one, Paul makes clear here, can ever be saved on the basis of the truth revealed in nature by itself.”[21]

Carson states that “some people … do not respond appropriately” to this revelation, which seems to imply, as the text seems to, that some people do respond. To believe otherwise necessitates believing that no saved person ever suppressed the truth revealed in creation prior to salvation. He is correct to recognize all humans have the capacity to receive because man still bears the image of God. I think he is right to conclude natural revelation alone is insufficient for salvation. I would add the following to his comments. Since man has the capacity to receive this revelation, and it is not enough to save; since it is absolutely unnecessary to reinforce man’s condemnation; and since God’s righteousness to judge and surety that He will need no witness unless it serves as a warning and includes the possibility of avoiding his judgment against sin. It is best to see creative revelation as an intermediate act of grace that can lead to God getting the gospel to those who receive the light of natural revelation. It is genuinely another evidence of God’s love in witnessing against sin and warning people to flee the coming judgment. It is reflective of the God of love (1 John 4:8). It is a perennial revelation of God so people can come to know him and live eternally.

This understanding means man is not merely given enough knowledge to confirm judgment but rather enough to lead to salvation. Man cannot say God did not give him the opportunity to know Him and flee the wrath to come. This understanding is consistent with what we see in the preceding and following verses. Rejecting truth brings God’s judgment because mankind should have received his deliverance and worshiped and served him.

The unencumbered message of this passage is God’s revelation of who He is through what He has done is so evidentially sufficient from without and within that it requires continuous and active refusal to refrain from accepting the undeniable. It is the refusal to believe when one could and should have that is the cause of judgment. God judges a man for refusing to believe the gospel (John 3:18). In like manner, God judges a man for refusing to accept the witness of God that would have led to him hearing the gospel.

Therefore, people are under the wrath of Rom 1:18 because God has revealed himself so clearly by and through his creation that they actually “knew God” (vs. 21). They choose to “suppress” that knowledge under the weight of “foolish speculations” (vs. 25), choosing to “exchange” the glory of God for the images created by man (vs. 23), exchanging the “truth of God for a lie” (vs 25). Finally, God hands them over to what they desire (vs. 24). Suppressing the truth is never without consequence, as we learned with the first sin in the Garden of Eden. Their quest for control leads to judgment and the bondage of sin–their pursuit of determining right and wrong results in exchanging the most natural of all created relationships for the most unnatural (Rom 1:26–27).[22]

Ultimately, it is an exchange of life for death. While God will get the gospel to those who receive the light of creation, He is not obligated to get the gospel to those who reject the light of creation to demonstrate that He salvifically loves them. A lack of the presence or knowledge of the gospel by some in the world does not necessarily prove God did not truly desire for them to be saved and provide a sufficient opportunity for them to know him.

As a result, the difference between Calvinism and Extensivism is that Extensivism believes the simple declarations of God’s love and desire for every person to be saved means just that. It means such love is proven in his comprehensive salvational provision, including the opportunity for all, as attested to in this passage and throughout Scripture. In contrast, Calvinism interprets all such passages through the prism of unconditional election, which can only mean God does not truly desire all to be saved. Calvinists cannot equalize Calvinism and Extensivism by using the same problem argument to deflect criticisms of their austere portrait of God. As seen in Calvinists’ comments here, they do not even speak consistently with their doctrines. Therefore, Calvinists’ attempts to deflect Extensivists’ criticisms of their position fail.

Some accept, and some reject the special revelation of the gospel. That pattern seems to be the same with regard to being exposed to general revelation. Some reject, which also seems to indicate some receive the light of the testimony of creation. That some reject special revelation does not mean all reject, nor is such a conclusion entailed in the fact that some reject general revelation. Even though with regard to creative light, we may not be privy to who does and does not accept it as gospel encounters make apparent.

While an acknowledgment of or even awareness of general revelation is not a prerequisite for receiving the gospel, “it is the power of God unto salvation” (Rom 1:16). We can say when a person does receive the light of general revelation, God will get the saving light of the gospel to him because He truly desires all to be saved (Jer 29:13). We believe that is what God is doing when He works in the heart of his people to share and go even to the remotest parts of the earth because there is one, or some, who upon hearing will believe and pass from death to life just like the Ethiopian (Acts 8:16–40).

We do find a clear promise that man can find God when he seeks him (Isa 55:6; Jer 29:13). We find examples like the Ethiopian (Acts 8:26–39) and Cornelius, who, although a Gentile centurion in the Roman army, is described as “a devout man, and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people, and prayed to God continually” (Acts 10:2), to whom God sent Peter with the gospel. “While Peter was still speaking . . . the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message [and they were] baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:44, 48). Lydia provides another example. She is said to have been a “worshiper of God,” and God did not leave her without a sufficient witness. Upon hearing the gospel, “the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14).

It is true that man on his own will never seek God (Rom 3:11), but it is also true that God has not left man on his own. He works graciously calling, enabling, convicting, enlightening, drawing, and giving understanding, and both the Father and the Son seek man (John 4:23; Luke 19:10). Accordingly, he commands people to seek him (Matt 6:33) and promises that he will respond (Luke 11:9–10; Heb 11:6). He warns that many will continue to seek to come to God based on their own ideas and refuse to recognize their spiritual bankruptcy and need to repent and trust God. With that same warning, he commands the lost to strive to enter through the “narrow door” of repentance and faith (Luke 13:24). Robert Stein, commenting on this verse, says, “The main point of the verse centers on the need to make sure one is part of the ‘few’ who have through repentance and faith experienced God’s mercy and grace.”[23] Scripture teaches God’s love, provision, and desire and gives us many examples of people responding to the light they had and God working to get the light of salvation to them.

In light of the entire passage, the evidence creation affords man seems far more valuable than evidence of God’s reality for only the sake of judging man, which serves no meaningful purpose if one cannot escape the judgment. God always takes the initiative; man is never left without a witness of God through miracles, his presence, his witnesses, creation, and special revelation. God truly desires all to be saved and none to perish (2 Pet 3:9), and one may know that by pondering the many works God has done to make himself known to all people.

It seems biblically faithful and intellectually reasonable to believe those people who perish under the judgment of God who had never heard the gospel in this present era would have received light sufficient for salvation if they had received the light they had in creation. It is because men reject the light that leads to salvational light that God, in holiness, must and will judge them in their sin. I am not saying those who accept general revelation will be saved because salvation comes only through faith in the gospel. It is only to say the light of creation can serve as an intermediate step in the plan of salvation.

Scripture here and elsewhere reminds us God always has a witness (Acts 14:15–17). God makes himself known and graciously works so man can seek him and find him. Depending on this grace of God in speaking to the pagans, Paul could say, “He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27). MacArthur comments, “Every person has a witness of God, and therefore every person is accountable to follow the opportunity to respond to Him in faith.”[24] “But if a person lives up to the light of the revelation he has, God will provide for his hearing the gospel by some means or another.”[25]

The Bible proclaims God includes everyone in his salvation plan, and Extensivists believe Scripture gives us ample insight to know God works to give every person an opportunity to know him. In those places where we do not know the details, we may trust his revealed character and explicit declarations. The question then changes from what about those who never heard, to how many times and ways must God show his salvific love for all of humanity before Calvinists will recognize his unbounded salvific love? When will they believe that anyone can be saved?

[1] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996. Logos Bible Software), 164.

[2] John F. MacArthur, Romans 1–8, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 67.

[3] To say they suppress because they are depraved does not remove the determinism of Calvinism, where they are depraved because God endowed man with a compatible freedom by which man would make a predetermined free choosing to sin. He will always do the same unless he is the recipient of unconditional election, and even the elect will do so until they receive the efficacious call of God.

[4] See my book, Does God Love All or Some?

[5] John A. Witmer, “Romans,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, edited by J. F. Walvoord, and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1985, Logos edition), 2:442.

[6] Robert H. Mounce, Romans, The New American Commentary, 27 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 77.

[7] “Rational reflection or thought, perceive, understand, comprehend (MT 15.17); (2) as perceiving through receiving sensory data, notice, think carefully about, recognize, consider (MT 24.15); (3) as mental conception imagine, conceive” Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000), 272.

[8] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996. Logos Bible Software), 337–38.<\p>

[9] Robert H. Mounce, Romans, The New American Commentary, 27 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 77.

[10] Clearly Scripture does not contain every act of God or working in salvation (Deut 29:29; John 20:30).

[11] Robert H. Mounce, Romans, The New American Commentary, 27 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 77.

[12] “The nature or state of being God–’deity, divine nature, divine being . . . his eternal power and deity’ Ro 1:20.” Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996. Logos Bible Software), 139.

[13] John A. Witmer, “Romans,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, edited by J. F. Walvoord, and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1985, Logos edition), 2:442.

[14] John F. MacArthur, Romans 1–8, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 68.

[15] John F. MacArthur, Romans 1–8, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 76.

[16] Here we are talking about the place of the witness of creation, but other such processual things include people’s testimonies, a host of events, other person’s prayers, growing up in a Christian home, ad infinitum. None of which are substantially related to salvation in Calvinism.

[17] Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907. Logos Bible software), 68.

[18] John A. Witmer, “Romans,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, edited by J. F. Walvoord, and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1985, Logos edition), 2:442.

[19] Robert H. Mounce, Romans, The New American Commentary, 27 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 78.

[20] D.A. Carson et al., eds., New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 1994, Logos edition), 1122.

[21] D.A. Carson et al., eds., New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 1994, Logos edition), 1122.

[22] “It is the substitution of one thing for another; hence, ‘exchange’ rather than ‘change’ is the correct gloss.” Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996. Logos Bible Software), 573.

[23] Robert H. Stein, Luke, The New American Commentary, 24 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992), 379.

[24] John F. MacArthur, Romans 1–8, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 78.

[25] John F. MacArthur, Romans 1–8, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 81.

Ronnie W. Rogers