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

In Part 1 we looked at the argument that is supposed to demonstrate 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. Still to further clarify and amplify upon God’s salvific love for everyone, some of his salvific work in the Old Testament is worth considering. That is the focus of Part 2. This will be followed by a look at what the New Testament says about this and then we will, in Part 4, look at the issue of Foreordination and Foreknowledge.

We can safely say, before the death of Christ on the cross, one was still saved by faith, and God was righteous to forgive one’s sin based upon the merits of the gospel that Christ would die for the sins of the world (even though one could not as yet hear and believe in the gospel proper). This forgiveness covers sins committed before and after his death upon the cross (John 1:29; 1 John 2:2). This is because the work of Christ is ontologically necessary (the object or the event of the cross must happen at some point) for the salvation of anyone at any time, even though it may not be epistemologically necessary (it has not always been necessary to know and believe in the gospel proper as explained in the New Testament, which was demonstrated in Part 1 with Old Testament saints). Charles Ryrie succinctly states, “The basis of salvation in every age is the death of Christ; the requirement for salvation in every age is faith; the object of faith in every age is God; the content of faith changes in the various dispensations.”[1] Ryrie’s summary reflects the nature of progressive revelation in God’s salvation plan. It also dispels the incorrect notion that eternal salvation in the Old Testament was somehow dependent upon keeping the law.

Beyond the chosen nation of Israel, there were those known as proselytes and God-fearers. The latter two groups came to believe in the one true God and, in varying degrees, committed themselves to the Jewish faith. An article in the Encyclopedia of the Bible says, “The ‘proselytizing,’ or bringing into the covenant community of willing Gentiles, occurred most predominantly in … Jewish communities outside Palestine. Jews, living in most areas of the known world due to exile, commercial, or military reasons, naturally carried their religious faith and practice with them …. This … was attractive to many of the surrounding Gentiles …. The result was that many Gentiles attached themselves in varying degrees to the Jewish faith through the life of the synagogue (see Isa 56:1–8; Mal 1:11).”[2] We find some God-fearers hearing and responding to the gospel in the New Testament (Acts 2:10, 11; 6:5; 10:2, 22; 13:16, 26, 43; 17:4, 17).

God’s work in dealing with Pharaoh is not demonstrative of his eternal state, as some would like us to believe. Instead, it is indicative of deliverance for God’s people and an evangelistic endeavor for all, as seen in Rom 9:17–18, “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.’ So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.” These emphatically declare that God raised Pharaoh up to demonstrate his power. God gives the specific reason he wants to demonstrate his power and that was so his name would be declared “throughout the whole earth.” God is sovereign, not Pharaoh, and he can harden whom he desires. The hardening, in this case, was not an eternal hardening but one of mercy, an act of love and evangelism. God showed his power over the one who seemed the most powerful to all because he loves people and is not willing that any would perish.

Christ acted similarly when he spoke repeatedly and lucidly about hell and judgment (Matt 5:29; Luke 13:3). Likewise, God acted with compassion and mercy in Egypt when he exposed the vacuousness of the idea that one should look to and trust Pharaoh for the provisions of security and life. It was a self-declaration of God and a call for everyone to come to him.

The message was do not worship Pharaoh who cannot save you but worship Jehovah who is mighty to save. God cared about all who were there. He would prove to Israel that he was the Lord who delivered them (Exod 6:6–7; 10:1–2; 13:14–16) and show Pharaoh that he was the only God (Exod 9:14). He would show the Egyptians he was Lord (Exod 7:5; 14:4; 18) and that his name would be declared throughout the whole earth (Exod 9:16). We well know that God often works to demonstrate things, systems, false gods, and people are unworthy of our trust, for they shall all fail. To wit, God’s compassion makes it known to all who will heed that He is the one true God who is alone worthy of our trust and devotion. His mighty acts in Egypt were acts of compassionate evangelization.

It demonstrated God’s sovereignty by overpowering Pharaoh, who was believed to be the sovereign. The news of this work of God spread to pagans in distant places like Jericho (Josh 2:8–14) and Gibeon (Josh 9:9). It spread to people like the prostitute Rahab in Canaan and “all the inhabitants of the land” (Josh 2:9). Rahab clearly understood the message because she believed and was saved. Donald Campbell notes, “Then Rahab declared her faith in Israel’s God: For the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. Responding to the word she had received about the mighty working of God, Rahab believed, trusting in His power and mercy. And that faith saved her.”[3]

Although we do not know how much fruit was born by this testimony of the mighty works of God, we do know that it led directly to the salvation of at least one pagan outside of Egypt, Rahab.[4] I suspect many more. It should at least cause reverent pause to anyone who suggests our lack of precise knowledge about God salvifically working among a people is equivalent to the idea that He is not. For unless Scripture told us about Rahab, we would have met an unknown Canaanite in heaven who had heard of the mighty works of our God and believed unto salvation. Could there be others? I think so.

God’s work in Egypt may provide an example of God overriding a person’s libertarian freedom to accomplish his will. In contrast, if he did not do so, Pharaoh would use his freedom in that particular area to thwart God’s ultimate will.[5] He would have continued beyond the permissive will of God. In this case, it was Pharaoh’s unchallenged power, which not only prohibited the liberation of the Jews but also kept the Jews and Gentiles from being able to know that Pharaoh is not God; God is God.

God’s redemptive power has been celebrated ever since in the Passover of the Jews as a testimony to their posterity and the world that God delivers people who trust him. [6] Regarding Rom 9:17, G.C. Berkouwer rightly says, “It is clear that Paul does not want to direct our attention to the individual fate of Pharaoh, but that he speaks of him in order to show his place in the history of salvation.”[7] God tells us why he hardened Pharaoh’s heart, “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt” (Exod 7:3)[8]

God continued to delay in implementing his final phase of judgment in Egypt, but it was not from an inability or unwillingness, as it might seem to some. On the contrary, he did so to make his power known. It was to give place for repentance. Between the sixth and seventh plagues in Egypt, God said through Moses to Pharaoh that he could have already obliterated Pharaoh and his people (Exod 9:15). Then in Exod 9:16, God tells why he had not done so. “But, indeed, for this reason I have allowed you to remain, in order to show you My power and in order to proclaim My name through all the earth” (italics added.) This Scripture and others remind us of God’s withheld or measured judgments as acts of kindness so that man may repent, thereby avoiding his unmeasured final judgment.

Similarly, Paul reminds us, “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance” (Rom 2:4)? He further states, “Whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed” (Rom 3:25). Peter says the same, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). God is slow to anger. “The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and great in lovingkindness” (Ps 145:8). In God alone, as seen in Christ, “Lovingkindness and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Ps 85:10). William Hendrickson says, “God is ever bearing with great patience vessels of wrath, to make known the riches of his glory lavished on vessels of mercy.”[9]

There is only one name under heaven whereby we may be saved (Acts 4:12). However, in the Old Testament, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus was the basis of everyone’s salvation, but not the content of their proclamation and faith because it had not yet happened. Today we preach the gospel, people are saved by believing in the gospel, and there is only one name under heaven to believe unto salvation. Before the cross, salvation was based upon the future work of Christ (Hebrews 10), but people were saved by faith in the one true God. The Scripture is clear that God used Pharaoh to declare his message of salvational love for all, not to demonstrate his Pharaoh’s lostness.

Deuteronomy 4:6–8 declares God’s concern about the world knowing him. Commenting on this passage, Jack S. Deere wrote, “One purpose of the Law was to give the Israelites a full life as they obeyed God (vv. 1–5). In verses 5–8 another purpose of the Law is revealed: to make Israel morally and spiritually unique among all the nations and thereby draw other nations to the Lord.”[10] Joshua says, “That all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, so that you may fear the Lord your God forever” (Josh 4:24). The immediate purpose of the law was to help Israel follow God, but the broader purpose was so that all people of the earth might know about God–global evangelism.

God promised Israel victory over the Philistines, saying, “This day the Lord will deliver you up into my hands, and I will strike you down and remove your head from you. And I will give the dead bodies of the army of the Philistines this day to the birds of the sky and the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel” (1 Sam 17:46). God was not just about destroying the Philistines or giving the Israelites a land but also had in mind his desire that all may know him. Regarding the last words of this verse, Robert D. Bergen comments, “Yet the Philistines would not die in vain. In fact, their destruction would serve a high theological purpose; it would be a revelatory event by which ‘the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel.'”[11] That is because of God’s desire for all to know Him salvationally.

Solomon calls on the people to treasure the presence of God in their lives saying, “May the Lord our God be with us, as He was with our fathers; may He not leave us or forsake us, that He may incline our hearts to Himself, to walk in all His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His ordinances, which He commanded our fathers. And may these words of mine, with which I have made supplication before the Lord, be near to the Lord our God day and night, that He may maintain the cause of His servant and the cause of His people Israel, as each day requires, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God; there is no one else” (1 Kgs 8:58–60). These words contain three blessings from King Solomon, and of the third, Paul R. House notes, “The king desires God to uphold Israel’s cause. Why? Not for national prominence or royal pride but so ‘all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God and that there is no other.'”[12] We repeatedly see the purpose of Israel reaches far beyond following God and receiving a blessing from him. It is so that everyone may know the one true God. This so that the deception of idolatry will be demonstrated to be the ersatz religion it is, and people will turn to the one true God and be saved.

Isaiah reveals the need to praise God, and the scope of that praise saying, “And in that day you will say, ‘Give thanks to the Lord, call on His name. Make known His deeds among the peoples; Make them remember that His name is exalted.’ Praise the Lord in song, for He has done excellent things; Let this be known throughout the earth. Cry aloud and shout for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, For great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel” (Isa 12:4–6). Notice that the message to “the peoples” is to “make them remember His name” which is to be made “known throughout the earth.” God is always about people knowing Him, not so that he may judge, but that he may save them. Gary V. Smith remarks, “Through praise directed to God, his name is exalted in community praise and other nations are reminded of the greatness of God. This sounds like a practical formula for worship and evangelism. The focus is always on glorifying and exalting God, the method is to use singing and retelling of the story, the content focuses on God’s great deeds and exalted name, and the results spread the good news of God to others.”[13]

Jeremiah says, “Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, And declare in the coastlands afar off, And say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him And keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock'” (Jer 31:10). Again, we see God’s concern for the nations. F.B. Huey sums up God’s concern, “Throughout the OT as well as the NT, the Lord shows his desire to be known by more than just Israel (Gen 1:28; 9:1; 12:3; Isa 12:4–6; 49:6; 52:10–15; 55:3–5; 66:18–19; Jer 1:5, 10; 3:17). His actions on Israel’s behalf would demonstrate to all his compassionate grace as well as his sovereign power and holiness.”[14]

We often hear people refer to Jonah as the great missionary book of the Old Testament. Jonah preached judgment, as did John the Baptist (Matt 3:11–12), the Lord Jesus (Matt 23–24), and later, John the Revelator. Just like his successors, the message of judgment was to warn with the hope of bringing the hearers to repentance. However, Jonah provides valuable insight into the missionary work of God that seems to extend well beyond the event of Jonah. That is to say that God sometimes works in extraordinary ways, with people we might not expect, with an outcome that could only come about by the grace of God. God procured everything necessary for everyone in Nineveh to repent and believe.

It appears from the story recorded in Jonah, and the rest of Scripture and human history that he will also do whatever it takes to get the message of deliverance to those he knows will believe. Additionally, are we to think that God would send the gospel to people that he knows will reject it, as we know he does, and yet fail to get it to those whom he knows will be receptive? My answer is no, not the God of infinite power, wisdom, and loving compassion. God knows everyone who will be saved because He is omniscient, but knowing they will by grace freely believe and be saved does not require they be caused to believe. Knowing does not require causing; thinking that it does comes about by the fallacy of a confusion of logical categories.

God called Jonah to preach judgment against Nineveh’s wickedness (Jonah 1:1–2). Jonah’s disobedience followed by God’s mighty works of deliverance caused Jonah to vow to obey Jehovah. He cried out, “But I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving. That which I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). Jonah then obeyed and preached in Nineveh the coming judgment of Jehovah (Jonah 3:4), and it appears the city, including the king, repented and believed in Jehovah God (Jonah 3:5–10). Jonah proclaimed the compassion of God for the pagan and debauched heathen, as we all were at one time (Jonah 4:2).

This book begins with a word of judgment from God against their wickedness, (Jonah 1:2), and ends with God’s loving compassion for those who repent, “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” (Jonah 4:11). Surely God’s compassion and desire for every person to repent and believe is present especially in light of the statement, “from the greatest to the least of them” (Jonah 3:5), which included the king (Jonah 3:6). The proclamation by the king and its language is all-inclusive (Jonah 3:7–10). It seems as though the number 120,000 bespeaks of the entire population.[15] At least, we can say that interpreting this missionary story as God merely calling out his selected ones lacks textual support and seems quite incongruent with the entire event. In reality, it shows God’s concern for all of his creation. God will judge sin, but only after man utterly rejects compassion.

Regarding Jonah 4:11, Billy K. Smith comments, “God’s question captures the very intention of the book. The issue is that of grace–grace and mercy. Just as Jonah’s provision was the shade of the vine he did not deserve, the Ninevites’ provision was a deliverance they did not deserve based upon a repentance they did not fully understand. God’s wish for his creation is salvation, not destruction. He will work to see that the salvation is accomplished if there is willingness on the creation’s part.”[16] Commenting on the same verse, G. V. Smith said, “God will (and does) act in justice against sin, but His great love for every person in the world causes Him to wait patiently, to give graciously, to forgive mercifully, and to accept compassionately even the most unworthy people in the world.”[17]

Regarding the message God sent to Israel through his working in and through Jonah, John D. Hannah writes, “First, one apparent message to Israel is God’s concern for Gentile peoples. The Lord’s love for the souls of all people was supposed to be mediated through Israel . . . Through Israel the blessing of His compassion was to be preached to the nations (Isa. 49:3). The Book of Jonah was a reminder to Israel of her missionary purpose. Second, the book demonstrates the sovereignty of God in accomplishing His purposes. Though Israel was unfaithful in its missionary task, God was faithful in causing His love to be proclaimed.”[18]

The book of Jonah should serve as a perennial and poignant deterrent to those who limit God’s salvific love for every person because they do not see or know about such works of God. It is one thing to say that a certain people group is unreached–meaning by the missionary endeavor–or even to hear of people who say they have never had an opportunity to hear of the one true God. It is another to deem such as equivalent to God not giving them an opportunity. The truth is, if the canon of Scripture did not include the work of God through Jonah, those inclined to limit the work of God to what they know (or think they know) would probably limit this incredible work by including them in the list of those overlooked by God. But we know otherwise because of the multitude of Ninevites that were saved. I believe we may safely assume there are many stories of the compassion of God, which we know not because he is the sum of love, compassion, mercy.

Franklin S. Page provides this summary, “From the Book of Jonah we learn that the Lord’s compassion extended even beyond his people Israel.”[19] This compassion is the theme of God’s grace in both the Old and New Testaments. He worked through Israel in the Old Testament, and when they failed, God did not fail to work mightily to make his name known to the nations, and the same is true in the New Testament. Regarding God’s concern for the nations and individuals in the nations, see also 1 Chr 16:23–24, 31; Isa 45:22; Zech 8:20–23.

God raised up Cyrus to bring God’s judgment on the nations and set the Israelites free so they could return to the land of Israel (Isa 45:1–5). God proclaims and demonstrates his sovereignty in both blessing and calamity (Isa 45:6–7). He exhibits his power and sovereignty through pagan kings like Pharaoh in Egypt and Cyrus in Persia. He does so for the benefit of Israel (Isa 45:4, 8; 46:13), but also so that every person may know he is the one true God and be saved. “Declare and set forth your case; Indeed, let them consult together. Who has announced this from of old? Who has long since declared it? Is it not I, the Lord? And there is no other God besides Me, A righteous God and a Savior; There is none except Me. Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; For I am God, and there is no other” (Isa 45:21–22).

The display of his sovereign power is not merely so that all may know he is sovereign, for that day is sure to come on the day of final judgment (Isa 45:23; Phil 2:10). Rather he manifests his sovereignty before the final judgment as an act of mercy and love for his creation so that they may be saved before it is too late. God knows that all will acknowledge him as the sovereign one day, for it will be undeniable. Equally true is that the day of salvation will have passed at that acknowledgment. Since God desires all to be saved as stated here, he continually acts so that men will know he is sovereign and flee the wrath to come.

Consequently, since all will know God’s sovereignty, such displays presently are not without purpose. The purpose is explicitly stated, and much of God’s judgments, calamities, and workings are in large measure evangelistic. God is working to bring about his plan of salvation. If He truly desires the salvation of every person, He must provide an opportunity to know Him, which He does in a host of ways.

The testimony of Rahab, the Egyptians, Nineveh, and countless others in the Old Testament declare in unison that God is aware and working in the (humanly speaking) strangest and most God-forsaken places to make himself known to every person. I daresay that is characteristic of John 3:16 and God himself desiring the “happiness” of his creation.

[1] Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody, 1995), 123.

[2] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988), s.v. O.T. Proselyte, 1784–5.

[3] Donald K. Campbell, “Joshua,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, edited by J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1985), 1:331. Logos electronic edition.

[4] For more comments regarding her genuine faith see Joshua by David M. Howard Jr., in The New American Commentary, vol. 5 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998), 104.

[5] That is if one concludes that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart prior to Pharaoh hardening his own. If God did, in fact, harden Pharaoh’s heart first, it only serves to remind us that God can and does override libertarian freedom if one seeks to operate outside of what God’s permissive will allows. Libertarian freedom is a force, but God alone is sovereign. The overriding of libertarian freedom does not mean that the person is divested of libertarian freedom, but rather his range of options was either temporarily or permanently altered.

[6] Although the Gibeonites acted deceptively, they had heard of the mighty works of Jehovah in Egypt, which is approximately 200 to 250 miles from Gibeon. Their choice was that of Rehab’s and all who hear of the mighty works of God; they can believe and be saved or disbelieve and continue to trust in oneself; even to the point of using God’s gracious and mighty works deceptively.

[7] G.C. Berkouwer, Divine Election, translated by Hugo Bekker (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1950), 212–13.

[8] God is said to have hardened Pharaoh’s heart in five places, (Exodus 9:12, 10:1, 20, 27, 14:8), and Pharaoh is said to harden his own heart in three places (Exodus 8:15, 32, 9:34–35). His heart is said to be hardened without mentioning who hardened it in four places (Exodus 7:13–14, 22, 8:19, 9:7).

[9] William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, vol. 12–13, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1953–2001), Accompanying biblical text is author’s translation, 329.

[10] Jack S. Deere, “Deuteronomy,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, edited by J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1985), 1;269. Logos electronic edition.

[11] Robert D. Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel in The New American Commentary, vol. 7 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 196. Logos electronic edition.

[12] Paul R. House, 1, 2 Kings in The New American Commentary, vol. 8 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 148.

[13] Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 1–39 in The New American Commentary, vol 15A (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2007), 283.

[14] F. B. Huey, Jeremiah, Lamentations in The New American Commentary, vol. 16 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993), 272.

[15] For commentary that the number 120,000 probably refers to the entire population, see Billy K. Smith and Franklin S. Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah in The New American Commentary, vol. 19B (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 283.

[16] Billy K. Smith and Franklin S. Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah in The New American Commentary, vol. 19B (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 282.

[17] Billy K. Smith and Franklin S. Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah in The New American Commentary, vol. 19B (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 282.

[18] John D. Hannah, “Jonah,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, edited by J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1985), 1:1462.

[19] Billy K. Smith and Franklin S. Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah in The New American Commentary, vol. 19B (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 204.

Ronnie W. Rogers