Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
Regarding salvation, what do you believe about the death of infants and those who have never heard the gospel?
It is clear in our EFCA Statement of Faith “that God commands everyone everywhere to believe the gospel by turning to Him in repentance and receiving the Lord Jesus Christ” (Article 10, Response and Eternal Destiny). Jesus Christ and his claims are exclusive, and apart from hearing and receiving the gospel one will be judged and condemned to “eternal conscious punishment” (Article 10, Response and Eternal Destiny).
These exclusive claims of Christ and the necessity of hearing and responding to the gospel often raise the question as noted above. It is important to note that this question really consists of two, and each must be addressed separately and appropriately nuanced biblically if we are to gain biblical, theological and pastoral clarity to these important questions.
Here is what we have stated in response to these questions in Evangelical Convictions: A Theological Exposition of the Statement of Faith of the Evangelical Free Church of America, 242-244 (highlight not in the original, but for the purpose of the question):
First, what is the destiny of those who die in infancy or who may be mentally incompetent and unable to respond to the message of the gospel in conscious faith? Some difference of opinion exists among us on this issue. Almost all would contend that God can accept such people into his eternal presence, though the grounds on which this is possible differ. Some believe that even though all are sinful by nature in Adam, those who die in infancy or who may be mentally incompetent are incapable of conscious and deliberate sin, and, therefore, their sinful nature has not been personally ratified. Consequently, Adam’s guilt is not attributed to them. (All, however, would agree that both infants and the mentally incompetent are still subject to a corruption of nature flowing from the fall and that Christ’s saving work of restoration is still necessary.) Others believe that though all humans at any stage of development or level of mental capability are guilty by virtue of their union with Adam, God can apply the saving work of Christ to them without conscious and deliberate faith through the regenerating work of the Spirit. How many God may choose to save in this way, we cannot know, but we do have confidence that God is gracious, especially to those who are the weakest and most vulnerable.
Second, we ask, what then is the destiny of those who have not heard of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, that is, the unevangelized—can they be saved? Since the coming of God’s final work in Jesus Christ, Scripture speaks clearly of the need to hear and to believe the gospel (cf. Rom. 10:13-15; Acts 4:12; John 14:6; Luke 24:46-47; Acts 26:16-18). And among those capable of understanding the gospel, we affirm that we have no clear biblical warrant for believing that, since the coming of Christ, God has saved anyone apart from conscious faith in Jesus. Paul’s statement referring to the Christian Ephesians’ previous state as pagans without a faith in Jesus is straightforward and comprehensive: “remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). Further, we find nothing in Scripture that suggests that the nations may find God somehow present in a redemptive way within their own religious practices, theological outlooks, or cultural structures.
And again, while God could reveal Christ to some apart from the normal means of the ministry of the Word (e.g., through dreams or visions), we have no biblical warrant for believing that he will reveal himself in that way to anyone. The Bible speaks instead of the mandate given to Christ’s followers to preach the gospel to all nations (cf., esp., Rom. 10:14-15), and we are woefully remiss if we fail to engage in that great task when so much is at stake.
The “benevolent impulse” in Christian believers that desires and seeks eternal life for as many as possible is good and right. Abraham pleaded with God for the salvation of the city of Sodom (Gen. 18:23-24), and Jesus’ disciples were rebuked for being more zealous to punish evildoers than their Lord (Luke 9:54-55). As we humbly consider this question of the unevangelized we are confident that God’s ways are always just and right, and in the end they will be seen to be so. As Abraham reflected, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). At the same time, we must remain faithful to the clear and insistent message of the Bible—Jesus Christ is the Savior of the whole world, and the whole world needs to hear about his saving work. Because all have sinned and are deserving of God’s condemnation, we believe that we can be saved only by the atoning work of Christ, and we believe that we can be sure that people can be saved by that work only if they are told about it.