This paper was written as a case study for class at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, to address more or less the question above.
God has allowed His children to hear the Gospel and accept its special revelation. As a believer, it is known that the Gospel is the Good News that comes to teach of Christ’s life and how He defeated sin. Sin and death are the bad news that the Gospel has come to fight against. The bad news is seen in Genesis 3 when man sinned and through all wickedness thereafter. The problem is that even though people have a knowledge of who God is, these people never knew Him in such a way as to worship Him. Romans 1:21 says, “ For although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Mankind rejected God, they left Him who they knew to be real for idols of their own hearts. We cannot truly know and understand God without His Word, and so no one can get to heaven without God.
If people could get into heaven based on the things they did apart from Christ, there would be no need for Christ. However, Christians understand through Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” All have sinned and deserve death (Romans 6:23). All are wicked, and Psalm 5:5 explains that “The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.” This verse tells readers that the Lord hates evil. Furthermore, remember that one is saved by faith, not works. Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast,” helps put this in perspective. So no matter how good an individual has been or how much he worshiped something thought to be a god if it was not Christ; it can never save him from the wrath of God. Herman Bavinck said, “The Spirit of God lives and works in everything that has been created. Therefore there still remain in man certain traces of the image of God. There is still intellect and reason; all kinds of natural gifts are still present in him. Man still has a feeling and an impression of divinity, a seed of religion. Reason is a priceless gift. Philosophy is an admirable gift from God. Music is also a gift of God. Arts and sciences are good, profitable, and of high value.”
General revelation causes everyone to know in their heart that there is a god, whether or not they know the one True God. Everyone knows fundamental right from wrong, and everyone has done wrong. Romans 1:21-22 reveals that “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools.” John Calvin helps us understand that even though God allows wicked people to live, He shares general revelation with them, but can choose not to give special revelation. “As by the revolt of the first man, the image of God could be effaced from his mind and soul, so there is nothing strange in His shedding some rays of grace on the reprobate, and afterward allowing these to be extinguished.”
A minuscule explanation of the wickedness of a person’s heart can be seen by a simple equation. If a person’s ancestors were to have lived 70 years, and they did wrong ten times a day, by the time they died, they would have sinned 255,500. Christians know that God is also seen in Luke 18:7 which says “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?” John 3:16 emphasizes God’s love for the world by saying “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” So even though He loves us, He cannot allow wicked people to stand and be counted as righteous in his holy judgment. Psalm 1:5 says, “Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.” As a good judge, could God let someone who sinned 255,500 times and not asked God for forgiveness or even known God past the natural understanding be held as one who was righteous? Of course not, one sin is too many sins to be forgiven without Jesus. “The proper Christian focus is the wise one’s confession that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom”(Prov 9:10).” Christians need to hold fast that God is good and in His sovereign plan there is a reason He allowed the ancestors to die without knowing Him.
“The task of the church is to call out and equip disciples who can see the moon and the stars – and indeed all reality – as Jesus did and does.” The call of the missionary is to tell the Good News of what Christ has done. The idea that the world needs missionaries is because, without them, nobody would be sharing the Word. If people could be saved by actions apart from Christ, then there would be no reason to follow the rules and laws, everyone would be okay following his own heart and gut feelings. However, Jeremiah 17:9 explains, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” It is important to remember that human nature is wicked, mankind is drawn to sin, so sin corrupts man’s understanding of the natural law and what is holy vs. what is evil.
(3,4) Akin, Daniel L., ed. A Theology for the Church. Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2014. Pages 97, 101.
(1) Garber, Aaron. “Herman Bavinck on Common Grace.” Calvin Presbyterian Church (PCA). Calvin Presbyterian Church (PCA), March 9, 2011. http://calvinpca.org/news/2011/03/herman-bavinck-on-common-grace.
(2) Kuiper, Herman. Calvin on Common Grace. Goes (The Netherlands): Oosterbaan & Le Cointre, 1928.