Is it Possible to Believe the Historical Facts of the Gospel and Not be Saved?
The Gospel message is strikingly simple, so simple that, I think, many stumble in their presentation of it. Paul, in stark simplicity, tells us what the Gospel is in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4.
Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures […]
And we would do well to remember that it is by believing this Gospel, and believing alone, that a man is fully pardoned, clothed/wrapped/enveloped with the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ the spotless Lamb of God, and granted eternal life. That’s it. Period. If one believes the Gospel, he is a Christian. And if he believes, then he has been born again by the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 John 5:1), given eyes to see (i.e. perceive, comprehend, grasp, understand – see my post on John 3 and how the natural man is completely unable to understand and believe the Gospel, here) and ears to hear (cf. Matt 13:10-13).
This is, simply, to say: There is no person believing the Biblical Gospel that has not been born again and who is not, therefore, a true Christian, for “the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14). The unsaved person’s mind cannot grasp the Gospel, since he has become “futile in [his] thoughts, and [his] foolish hearts [has been] darkened” (Ro 1:21). He has given them over to a “debased mind” (Ro 1:28), a mind that “do[es] not understand” (Ro 3:11), that has been “blinded” (cf. 2 Cor 3:14), that operates solely after the dictates of its own satanically driven lusts (cf. Eph 2:1-3), that is nothing but sinful futility and darkness toward the things of God (cf. Eph 4:17-19), and which is, by nature, alienated from God by wicked works (cf. Col 1:21).
The Scriptures quickly eliminate any hope of a man perceiving, understanding, and coming to believe the Gospel apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, and yet there are some who believe that a person can believe the truths of the Gospel apart from the Sovereign regenerating work of God. Of those who believe that the unregenerate mind is able to perceive, comprehend, and believe the truths of the Gospel apart from the Sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration are the Romanists, Arminians, and even some Calvinists. Where Romanism and Arminianism, on the one hand, however, believe that the natural man’s ability to believe the Gospel is unto salvation, Calvinists who agree with their assessment of the human mind believe that the natural has the ability to believe the historical facts of the Gospel, just not unto salvation.
To know that Roman Catholicism, which is steeped in all sorts of abominations, and Arminians, who share much in common with Rome (at least regarding soteriology), believe that the natural man has the wherewithal to even get the simple Gospel facts straight, let alone believe them, is no surprise, considering that they both deny the Biblical teaching of total depravity. But to hear Calvinists teach the same thing (of course, subtracting the efficacy of the unbeliever’s heart, while affirming the sound operations of his head) is really confusing to me. Especially since Scripture is abundantly clear on this matter: The unbeliever does not understand, cannot perceive, comprehend or believe the Gospel, for if he did believe the Gospel, then he would be saved.
They protest: “Ah, but one can believe all the historical facts of the Gospel and yet not be saved!”
And this is where I find the problem to be even greater than their affirmation of the soundness of the unbeliever’s mind, for such a statement falsely draws a distinction between (i.)the historical facts of the Gospel, and (ii.)the theology of the Gospel (for lack of a better term), when Paul does no such thing.
You see, this distinction between the historical facts, on the one hand, and the theological truths they teach, on the other, is exactly what Paul is combating. The Corinthian heretics were trying to teach that a man could be forgiven of his sins, justified, part of Christ’s body, and a son of the living God apart from believing the historical facts of the Gospel. He writes:
12 Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. 14 And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. 15 Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise. 16 For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. 17 And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! 18 Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.
-1 Cor 15:12-18
For Paul, the historical facts of the Gospel are the Gospel. A person, therefore, who denies the historical facts, while attempting to affirm the theological content intrinsic to the very constitution of the historical facts themselves, is deluded and not a Christian. So the question we must ask is: If Paul sharply contested against anyone drawing such a false dichotomy between the historical facts of the Gospel and the theology of the Gospel, how is it that men still persist in thinking someone can truly believe the historical facts of the Gospel and not be saved?
Tradition, I think, is deeply set it, for Scripture doesn’t allow for such an idea. When Paul presents the Gospel, he does not present a Gospel that is divorced from historical facts, or that can be believed partially (i.e. the history or the theology), but the flesh and blood, historico-theological Gospel that says: History is God’s story, and is, ipso facto, theological in nature.
The dichotomy, then, between the historical facts of the Gospel and the theology of the Gospel is mistaken, seeing as Paul nowhere allows for this, but greatly insists that history is the outworking of God’s plan decreed from eternity past, and it is intrinsically, constitutionally theological.
I challenge anyone to find a passage in Scripture that allows for the idea that a man can believe the historical facts of the Gospel and yet not be a Christian. I have yet to find one. I also put forward the challenge to anyone to find one example among the non-Christian religions, philosophies, and cults that affirm and believe the historical facts of the Gospel. I have yet to find any.
This, by the way, is no moot point. You see, by placing the emphasis upon something that happens in addition to the historical facts of the Gospel, one could be seen as adding something to the simple words of our Lord Jesus Christ, when He told Nicodemus, who could not in any way, shape, or form perceive, comprehend, or believe the Gospel:
“For God so loved the world, He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”