Can a person be saved without verbalizing the formula of faith?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

(Click here to read Monday Musings ... the place where I discuss the thinking that went into this article.)

Question: Can one be saved without making an expression of faith? And similarly, can one be saved without making an “adequate” expression of faith?

For this question, an expression of faith would be one where a Christian explains the Gospel to a nonbeliever and that nonbeliever responds positively that he/she understands and accepts the message. In basic form, they believe that Jesus died and rose for their sins. An “inadequate” expression of faith is one where no one (except God of course) ever can at least verbally understand if they understand the Gospel message. Three real-world examples that prompted this question.

1. A three-year-old child undergoes brain surgery and is left in a vegetative state. She never went to church and her parents are nonreligious. 2. A young man attended Catholic church with his family as a boy. In his teens, he stopped attending. He died in his early 20s. No one, not even the priest, was ever able to determine his understanding of the Gospel. 3. A woman born with down syndrome dies at the age of 50. Her mom took her to church a few times during her life. Before she dies, the woman at times would utter “God loves me, Jesus loves me”; that’s the full extent of her personal theology.

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for touching down with us at Mainsail Ministries — and wow! You’ve asked a question that gets right at the heart of things! And as God would have it, I’ve been working on just this question in another venue. So, not only am I spiritually ready (via the indwelling Holy Spirit), I have some data on hand... and I can’t wait to get into this with you.

It sounds like you have been brought up in (or are at least conversant in) the evangelical Christian tradition. That is good news and bad news. The good news is that it purports to uphold biblical Christianity... and it does a pretty good job end-to-end. But it also does a lousy job... and that’s the bad news. The Christian culture saves no one while the Christian person saves everyone. American evangelicals get the two confused.

I’m going to start by critiquing the premise of your three salvation scenarios. I’ll address each of the three examples later in the answer.

Let me affirm at the outset that I am a disciple of Jesus Christ — a Bible-believing person of long-standing who identifies with evangelicalism more than any other “ism.” I believe that people are saved by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ... and not by works. Also, I had a “classical” salvation experience like the one you described in your premise. But this is where the story gets messy.

I did not grow up in evangelical tradition, and by the time I was converted at 19, I knew a “sales pitch” when I heard one... and that’s what the “classical” gospel presentation is. It’s a Ted Talk that asks for a sale. Again, that’s not a problem in itself. It is only a problem if you insist that this is how it must be done.

Now, sales pitches exist because they work — but mostly, they work in America. The problem here is that American Christians think that America represents the world... but it does not. Of the 108 billion people who have ever lived, less than 1% have heard that “classical” gospel message.... and I refuse to believe that God established a redemption program where 99% of his targets would go to hell. Such a notion is nonsensical.

God is reasonable (Isaiah 1:18). He wants everyone to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). But one of the “odd prices” one pays by insisting that we must drive everyone through the classical gospel presentation for them to be legitimately saved is that most people can’t or won’t make the cut.

I am not saying not to use the classical presentation of the gospel. There are reasons it is so popular. First of all, its intentions are good and its elements are biblical. But the methodology has become a juggernaut — one that fails to make disciples. And since making disciples is “the job” (Matthew 28:18-20), we could be doing more harm to the kingdom than good... but that’s difficult to measure.

You see, there is no call in the Bible to make “converts” ... and that’s what the classical presentation of the gospel is designed to do. I realize that a person needs to be converted to become a disciple, but I repudiate the idea that this needs to be a separate and knowable moment.

Most of the people who are “in” Christ couldn’t begin to tell you how they got there theologically or even doctrinally. “Knowing” the right things is always a plus. But ignorance of a pet set of doctrinal particulars is not necessarily a roadblock to salvation. It is often presented as such, however.

Ideas like, “If you don’t know the moment you are saved, you are not really saved.” Or, “If you haven’t declared that Jesus Christ is Lord with your lips, then you haven’t been saved.” Or “If you don’t haven’t come to grips with just how bad your sins are, you are not saved” are from doctrinal constructs... which are all at least one step removed from the Bible. As such, you are under no obligation to use that classical methodology. Instead, do what God is telling you to do.

I have written an article that focuses on this evangelical failing. It is called Leaning Against the Gates of Hell, The Problem with Evangelical Soul-Winning Methodology. Click here if you like to read that article.

Salvation is not as complex as the classical method presumes. Salvation is really a yes or no question. “Are you in Christ?” If they answer yes, I may probe a bit to find out about their warrant — what gives them the right to affirm that they are “in” Jesus Christ. But I never ask how. The people who insist on a classical presentation feel they need to know how... and this leads to some odd practices.

It’s time to address your qualification numbers 1 and 3. Please note that I would consider the person with Down Syndrome in your question to be equal to a child who is under the age of accountability for salvation purposes. Just note that I do not believe this to be true of all Down Syndrome sufferers because they exhibit a range of mental capabilities.

For the Down’s sufferer in your scenario, the extent of her theology would be a nonstarter. She would be like a very young child. If she were culpable, however, then her theology would come into play... but under the terms of the second scenario (which I will cover after this section).

So, my answer to qualification numbers 1 and 3 is that children belong to God — period! Now, I believe that every person has a sinful nature... but I do not subscribe to the imputation of original sin. I believe that all people are “in Christ” before sin and accountability catch up with us. So, although children certainly sin, that pre-accountability sin does not condemn them. Let’s look at Jesus’ teaching on this.

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!” (Matthew 18:1–7, NIV)

 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:10–14, NIV)

Jesus taught that the default home of children was in the kingdom of heaven. He also taught that the more childlike we are, the greater we are in that kingdom! Yet evangelicals prefer to send their children to hell because they are invested in a methodology — and here you going to have to forgive me... but I am just going to say this.

Well-intended Christian parents that have eternity in view often push their children prematurely through the classical salvation moment... insisting that they see their sin, confess it and pray to receive Jesus Christ as their Savior. Friend, Jesus Christ is already their Savior. It is one thing to teach children about sin and salvation, but it is another thing to send them to hell so you can save them. This is one of those “odd prices” we pay by insisting that everyone be saved in a classical manner.

A child who has not said no to Christ remains “in” Christ... so he does not have to say yes to him “officially” unless he or she steps out knowledgeably. Forcing such an action shows that we prefer methodology over both biblical data and common sense. Very young children come under the Prodigal Son rules (Luke 15:11-32), not the Philippian jailer rules (Acts 16:22-34).

Before the age of accountability, when children sin, they are still in God’s family. When they are ready, they will seek to be restored to fellowship. Therefore, it is a mistake to put our knees on their necks until they tap out and repent. No one wants to save them more than God the Father — no one! But it is a mistake to force them through an “I have received Christ” moment prematurely.

The problem with this is that after they have become accountable, they may well say “no” to God... but assume that their salvation is assured because of something they “said” in their youth. When they are adults, that is the time they need to see their sin for what it is and receive Christ. That is the hour of salvation... no matter what their mouths said previously.

So, what about this boy in scenario number two who has received some light in his life but who has died before making a classical profession of faith? The apostle Paul talks about such people in Romans 1:18-25.

“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.” (Romans 1:18–25, NIV, emphasis mine).

The vast majority of people who have passed under God’s judgment have never read a Bible or talked to a Christian. These are the people Paul has in view. God revealed himself through the things he has made... and in this passage, this is the universe.

The physical creation contains so much revelatory power that if a person fails to see God’s deity through those things, they are without excuse. In other words, missing Jesus doesn’t send them to hell. Missing the available light does. Everyone is saved through Jesus Christ, however... even if they have never heard his name.

The lesson here — the lesson that goes over many evangelical heads — is that God does not hold the vast majority of humanity responsible for the classical gospel message. He holds everyone responsible for the light they have. In a small minority of cases, that light is that classical gospel message... the one that saved my soul. But there are other lights... other revelations. I’ve identified eleven of them. Click here if you'd like to see them explained.

Now, an argument can be made about your person in qualification number 2... that he had some Christian light, and therefore, some culpability. I think this is true. But we can’t be the ones who judge a person’s response to God’s light. That’s on God.

But for people on both sides of this discussion — for those who think that they have to use the classical method and those of us who share God’s truth more organically — there is nothing we can do for such a person. Even if you believe in gospel education after death, there is nothing we could do now for that person. All we can do is do the work that’s in front of us... using whichever method we are convinced is the best method.

Reasonable Faith Ministries has a five-minute video about those who have never heard of Christ. It is well worth watching. Click here to watch that video, and thank you for touching down with us at Mainsail Ministries.


(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: ??? TBA ???).

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