God’s Electing Grace among the Unevangelized

Billy Graham Crusades in India
Billy Graham in India

“…that all the adult heathen are lost is not the teaching of the Bible or of the Westminster Standards.”

— William G. T. Shedd

“That’s in God’s hands. I can’t be their judge. …My calling is to preach the love of God and the forgiveness of God and the fact that he does forgive us. That’s what the Cross is all about and what the Resurrection is all about. That’s the Gospel.”

— Billy Graham, interview with Larry King asking Graham about Mormons, Jews, Muslims, etc., and whether they are condemned


This blog has been on break for the last couple of weeks, and I might continue the break for a little while longer. But I want to make a quick interruption, pertaining to a post from last month: “Calvinism and Salvation Outside the Church.”

In that post, I provided an excerpt from William G. T. Shedd (1820-1894) — a Presbyterian dogmatician of known excellence — on the vexing question of salvation outside the church. Can the electing grace of God reach the unevangelized, i.e., those who have not heard the gospel of Jesus Christ in its explicit, apostolic form? As is well known, the “exclusivist” answer is “No!,” apart perhaps from some extraordinary vision or dream of Christ in the unevangelized person. You can read this post from Kevin DeYoung for a clear presentation of this position.

Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology

As we saw, Shedd disagrees. In his Dogmatic Theology, he teaches that the “heathen” are capable of a “broken and contrite heart” under the ministration of the Holy Spirit: “It is certain that the Holy Ghost can produce, if he please, such a disposition and frame of mind in a pagan, without employing, as he commonly does, the written word” (vol. 2, p. 709). Not only does Shedd disagree with exclusivism — although, we should remember that “exclusivism” and “inclusivism” were coined later and are not without problems — he is also adamant that the Westminster Standards, and scholastic Calvinism as a whole, are also opposed to exclusivism.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, X.3, states: “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word” (emphasis mine). This is the clause in question. Who are those “incapable of being outwardly called”? In his Dogmatic Theology, Shedd refutes those who teach that this only pertains to “idiots and insane persons,” i.e., those mentally incapable.

Shedd’s Calvinism: Pure & Mixed

In the year before his death, Shedd published Calvinism: Pure & Mixed, a strident defense of the Westminster Standards against those in the Presbyterian Church (Northern branch) who sought to modify the doctrine of election. It is far beyond the scope of this post to evaluate the merits, or demerits, of Shedd’s overall thesis. For our purposes, it is valuable because Shedd defends here, near the end of his life, the same position that he promulgated in his earlier systematic theology.

Shedd formulates the question in this way: “Does Scripture also furnish ground for the belief, that God also gathers some of his elect by an extraordinary method from among the unevangelized, and without the written word saves some adult heathen ‘by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost’?” (p. 59). He must first deal, once again, with the question of “idiots” and “maniacs” who are not capable of the outward call. Shedd is forceful. He believes it is “remarkable” and “incredible” to say that the confession is talking about the mentally incapable — because they are not “moral agents” and cannot therefore be “classed with the rest of mankind.” As he puts the matter:

It is utterly improbable that the Assembly took into account this very small number of individuals respecting whose destiny so little is known. …[They] are contrasted with ‘others not elected, who although they may be called by the ministry of the word never truly come to Christ’; that is to say, they are contrasted with rational and sane adults in evangelized regions. But idiots and maniacs could not be put into such a contrast. The ‘incapacity’ therefore must be that of circumstances, not of mental faculty. A man in the heart of unevangelized Africa is incapable of hearing the written word, in the sense that a man in New York is incapable of hearing the roar of London. [pp. 59-60]

So, the incapacity must be that of “circumstances.” And thus Shedd distinguishes “two classes” of those who are saved: the evangelized and the unevangelized. But he emphasizes their commonalities, namely the same operation of the Holy Spirit upon their hearts. In this way, he continues:

Consequently, the Confession, in this section, intends to teach that there are some unevangelized men who are ‘regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit’ without ‘the ministry of the written word’, and who differ in this respect from unevangelized men who are regenerated in connection with it. There are these two classes of regenerated persons among God’s elect. They are both alike in being born, ‘not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’. They are both alike in respect to faith and repentance, because these are the natural and necessary effects of regeneration. Both alike feel and confess sin; and both alike hope in the Divine mercy, though the regenerate heathen has not yet had Christ presented to him. As this is the extraordinary work of the holy Spirit, little is said bearing upon it in Scripture. But something is said, God’s promise to Abraham was, that in him should ‘all the families of the earth be blessed’ (Gen 12:3). St. Paul teaches that ‘they are not all Israel which are of Israel’ (Rom 9:6); and that ‘they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham’ (Gal 3:7). Our Lord affirms that ‘many shall come from east and west, the north and the south, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt 8:11). Christ saw both penitence and faith in the unevangelized centurion, respecting whom he said, ‘I have not found so great faith no, not in Israel’ (Matt 8:5-10). The faith of the ‘woman of Cannan’, an alien and stranger to the Jewish people and covenant, was tested more severally than that of any person who came to him in the days of his flesh, and of it the gracious Redeemer exclaimed, ‘O woman, great is they faith!’.

…That this work is extensive, and the number of saved unevangelized adults is great, cannot be affirmed. But that all the adult heathen are lost is not the teaching of the Bible or of the Westminster Standards. [pp. 60-61]

And all God’s people say —


He continues for a couple of pages more and cites Zanchius and Witsius (and the Second Helvetic Confession, once again) as witnesses to this common understanding among “the elder Calvinists,” as he likes to say.

Billy Graham Being His Awesome Self

And how is Billy Graham relevant to all of this? On a few occasions, Reverend Graham expressed his inclusivist beliefs or, at least, heavy leanings in that regard. He is definitely not a strict exclusivist, yet somehow he was motivated to preach the gospel to more people than anyone in human history. One such example is an interview he gave with Larry King on CNN:

I love, love, love Billy’s answer to that question. The person who uploaded the video did not, which is sad. The liberating love and unfettered freedom of God is something joyous. Praise God!


Image: Billy Graham Crusades in India




  1. This is good. It recognizes the significance of the work of the Holy Spirit, which seems to be unavoidably downplayed in American Evangelicalism.

    • Indeed. There is a fear that the Spirit is working prior to and apart from the propositional content of the Word. I would say that this is precisely how the Spirit works in most of our lives prior to coming to Christ in an explicit faith, sometimes for years.

    • Niebuhr didn’t like what he called the simplistic “pietistic individualism” of BG’s gospel. He also didn’t like the way “the high pressure techniques of modern salesmanship” and “all the arts of the Madison Avenue crowd” were exploited for its presentation. And, of course, he belittled its cultural captivity.

      BG’s alliance with Nixon was the last straw. It “was potent enough to stir Niebuhr from his deathbed. In ‘The King’s Chapel and the King’s Court’, he composed a biting put-down of religious complacency and ministerial collusion. There was an urgency to his prophetic satire; he was summoning up vestiges of the anti-establishment militance he had rarely expressed since the mid-1930s. Billy Graham, ‘a domesticated and tailored leftover’ from the wild frontier evangelists, was the modern equivalent of Amaziah, the king’s chaplain who scorned the ‘critical radicalism’ of Amos.”

      — Richard Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.

      Had I been a Christian and making theological observations in them thar olden days, that would have been my reading of BG too.

      • Thanks for the info, Kim. At least Billy would later confess the folly of his Nixon association. I don’t have any citation, but I remember an interviewer asking him if he had any regrets in his ministry and Billy cited being too involved with politics.

        If y’all are interested, there’s a two-part documentary on Billy Graham on YouTube called ‘God’s Ambassador’, hosted and narrated by Sir David Frost. It’s well-done, once you get past the hagiography stuff at the beginning. In particular, his work against segregation was treated well (it’s at the end of part one and beginning of part two).

  2. Yeah, Billy repented. But now we’ve got Franklin as twice the hound his old man ever was. An old proverb about sour grapes and children’s teeth comes to mind …

  3. I already said my piece and perplexities on the last post, so I won’t rehash them here.

    All I will say is that the further one allows to get around the Christ story, the more incoherent talk of “salvation” becomes. Salvation from what? Maybe this is a part of my growing frustration with popular Evangelicalism and the gospel they preach.

    I don’t dislike Billy Graham, but the fruit of his work has been the creation of a new nominalism of authenticity. If you prayed the prayer, you’re saved. No hell for you. Grace defeats even the “legalism” of attending worship. You already have your “personal relationship” with God. And then you float off to Heaven, the kind that Kip Moore yawned at.

    If one is to assume an Inclusivist position, why would one even remotely celebrate Billy Graham who only indulged enthusiasm through mass-media. At least an anxious exclusivist would celebrate the low-bar spread of Jesus’ name.

    Billy Graham is just the otherside of the coin from Niebuhr. Both lacked any serious vision of the Kingdom of God, that both collapsed it into some kind of politics, the former unthinkingly and the latter self-consciously.

    I’m not against mass-evangelism, or rallies, or anything like that. And I’m not saying God didn’t utilize, purpose etc. Graham’s preaching. But there is a whole generation of thoroughly inoculated people from the deep social demands of the Gospel.

    I’m not familiar with Billy Graham’s work on ending segregation, so I’d be curious to hear more. I’m curious if that made connects with his preaching.

    my 2 cents,

    PS. Sorry if I sound antagonistic or curmudgeonly. I’m not trying to be a pain in the neck.

    • Addendum: By social demands of the Gospel, I am not saying a Social Gospel. I think that movement is a generally utopian, discredited, and failed experiment.

    • I appreciate the push-back, as always.

      More than people realize, Graham did listen to his critics like Niebuhr and Barth, and it is why his crusades made increased efforts to work intensely with local congregations in each city, an admirably ecumenical effort (including not just mainline Prots but also Catholics, notably when he went to Poland), as a way for people to grow and mature in the body of Christ — not just get their ticket punched and go on their merry way. Graham did not perceive his ministry as a substitute for the local church but, rather, as a means for revitalization, as Thielicke and Brunner understood it and extolled Graham for doing. The problem is when evangelical churches started to model their worship services on the model of Graham’s crusades, such that “decision” replaced discipleship and music replaced the sacraments.

      I do have concerns about the focus on decision, as emotions are easily manipulated, and an obsessive concern with personal assurance of salvation. This is why so many of us who grew-up evangelical eventually had to seek a deeper, more substantive faith. Barth’s relentless attention to the objective — the object of faith and theology in who God is — is therefore immensely attractive. Rome’s doctrine of the church is attractive for similar reasons. For others, the ethical-social imperatives in a Hauerwas is attractive. Yet, as my “what Baptists do right” post tried to articulate, there is immense value in the expectation of personal decision, in all its “individualism,” which is obvious after spending a large amount of time among mainline Protestants.

      On segregation / civil rights, just go to YouTube and watch “God’s Ambassador,” toward the end of part one and continuing at the beginning of part two.

      If one is to assume an Inclusivist position, why would one even remotely celebrate Billy Graham who only indulged enthusiasm through mass-media. At least an anxious exclusivist would celebrate the low-bar spread of Jesus’ name.

      I’m at a loss on this one. I’m not sure what you mean.

      As for inclusivism and the danger of getting away from the Christ-story, I do realize that I would need to do constructive theological work. These two posts on Shedd are historical theology posts, not constructive/systematic theology. I do hope to do some of the latter in the future, and I would want to emphasize that the Spirit is not some “universal Spirit” who we can know and claim from human phenomena, with its own criteria for evaluation. The Spirit at work among the unevangelized, assuming such a work happens, is specifically the Spirit of the triune God. As such, it is Jesus Christ himself at work. Perhaps there is no means for us to know, with certainty, when and where it is truly the Holy Spirit at work, and we have the same problem among confessing Christians in the church.

      That’s just a rudimentary beginning.

      • As to the history of Billy Graham, fair enough. Perhaps there is a distinction between his intentions and the results. Perhaps I am strawmanning. I am not deeply knowledgeable and have little experience with Billy Graham outside some time among Baptists and his status as popular icon. I’ll stay open for further info. I’ll try to check out the documentary.

        I have no problem with an personal emphasis on the responsibility one has for one’s life and choices. I don’t think that requires certain Baptist/Evangelical doctrines or sentiments, but many times people act and speak better than they know. I think a proper understanding of ‘participation’ can hold together individuality, corporate belonging, and the locus of our person.

        My point was that if one can hold a strong Inclusivism, why ever praise aberrant preaching? It can be criticized as sub-Christian or whatever and yet there is no anxiety about God losing souls. I think some exclusivists praise Billy Graham because, at the very least, he got the name Jesus out there and brought a lot of converts in, even if they had bad theology or were heretics.

        It’s for this reason I sometimes think broadly inclusivist bodies, like Rome, seem a little lackadaisical about evangelism. Protestants and Muslims are only different in degree, though Vatican II complicates this with non-sensical language of “ecclesial communities” that aren’t the Church. Either way, God is still saving people in ways that reflect a kind of Universal Spirit. I’m simplifying and stereotyping Modernism among Papists, but the point still stands.

        I know you’re not trying to systematic work. But, to indulge a little criticism, when you offer statements of excitement about what Shedd is saying, I’m a bit puzzled.

        Westminster Calvinism’s Inclusivism makes a lot of sense, but comes off cold in the same way post-Reformed decretal theology is. God chooses who He chooses. This, In Wesminster terms, means including the possibility of an elect ruthless heathen murderer if it be God’s will. This creates a pocket for the hyper-Calvinists to coexist among Presbyterians. I’m not saying this could be refuted on other grounds, but an appeal to this passage alone by Shedd could go either way.

        They are only different in degree and convention from those Dutch youth who believed, in a supralapsarian way, election was already decided, thus they could live as they willed, as they were assured that their election was secure. They were punished as heretics and apostates, but how can this be reprimanded besides an appeal to moralism or raising anxiety over whether they were truly elect?

        My exclusivism, if it’s exclusivism, wants to affirm both God’s power and omnipresence, but taking seriously that God is not a God of double standards. If the name of Jesus is the only name under Heaven that saves, as the Apostle preaches, then we must presume Paul is ignorant about what else God could do. But of course, I’d argue that salvation is more than a momentary decision or crisis, it’s an event of a lifetime.

        I won’t beat a dead-horse, as we are deadlocked. Yet, I have been more deeply contemplating the use of words like “salvation”. I can understand why critics and unbelievers scoff when salvation is muddled.


      • This, In Wesminster terms, means including the possibility of an elect ruthless heathen murderer if it be God’s will.

        How’s that? The whole of scholastic Reformed theology teaches, with Calvin, that the elect are regenerated and receive the benefits of their adoption by the Father and union with Christ and fruit of the Spirit. That hardly would characterize a “ruthless heathen murderer,” unless we’re talking about prior to regeneration and coming to faith.

      • I’m being a little facetious with the example, but I’m playing on the sort of exceptionalism that hyper-Calvinism can dabble in. Normatively, union with Christ includes knowledge of the Savior. Normatively, fruit of the Spirit includes repentance and faith. What of exceptions? If we can toy with the one, what of the other?

  4. What about WCF 10,4?

    “Others, not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit,yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved: *much less can men, not professing the Christian religion, be saved in any other way whatsoever, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, and the laws of that religion they do profess. And to assert and maintain that they may, is very pernicious, and to be detested.*”

    • That’s the next paragraph in Shedd’s discussion, which I cut short in order to keep the length of the blog post manageable. Here it is:

      “The declaration in Confession x.4, and Larger Catechism, 60, does not refer at all to the heathen as such, but only to a certain class of persons to be found both in Christendom and heathendom, and probably more numerously in the former than in the latter. The ‘men not professing the Christian religion’ are those who reject it, either in spirit, or formally and actually; that is to say, legalists of every age and nation, evangelized or unevangelized, who expect future happiness by following ‘the light of nature’ and reason, and the ethical ‘religion they do profess’, instead of by confessing sin and hoping in the Divine mercy. The Jewish Pharisee, the Roman Julian and Antoninus, the self-satisfied Buddhist sage following the ‘light of Asia’, the Mohammedan saint despising Christianity, the English Hume and Mill, all of every race and clime who pride themselves on personal character and morality, and lack the humility and penitence that welcome the gospel, are the class spoken of in these declarations. …They [the WCF and WLC] do not shut out of the kingdom of heaven any heathen who has the spirit of the publican, but do shut out every heathen and every nominal Christian who is destitute of it.” (Calvinism: Pure & Mixed, p. 62)

      In other words, neither religious discipline nor the following of the light of nature can save. Only the Holy Spirit can save. Inclusivism, rightly formulated, does not teach that other religions can save, and, in fact, the operation of the Holy Spirit will undermine the pride, works-righteousness, and idolatry of such. If you want a much more extensive treatment of this from another Calvinist, I recommend Terrance Tiessen’s Who Can Be Saved? (IVP Academic, 2004).

      • I’ll stop after this: If the light of nature is not sufficient reveal the nature of sin, and the light of nature is not sufficient to reveal the possibility of Divine Mercy, these must come from God. But if God is willing to give a contrite heart, and a broken cry, why would He not also be willing to give His name? I know Shedd is a solid Augustinian (hence the emphasis on contrition), but it seems like a selective hermeneutic. The Publican knew what was sin, and to whom he must confess. What if one repented of being too soft-hearted towards the poor? What if one put their trust of divine mercy through the acceptance by a human lover?

        I’m pulling at the strings of this, I want to see how you will continue to articulate and form your position.

      • The Spirit works on our hearts, turning them from stone to flesh, and thereby leading us to confess Jesus Christ, the name alone by which any are saved. That is the ordinary means by which we are saved. For the unevangelized, this is still true — the Spirit converts and leads to Christ, except that they will meet Christ at their death and confess his name for their salvation. The evangelized, by contrast, know Christ now and the full cost of our redemption on the Cross. On this point, even the OT believers were living under types and shadows, until the full manifestation of God in the Messiah.

        The difficulty, which Shedd does not address, is how the unevangelized are brought by the Spirit to a state of a “broken and contrite heart.” Is this a purely internal operation — a direct action of the Spirit upon the heart — without any external means? That is possible, perhaps. But I think it is more likely that this work of the Spirit is accompanied by external signs and external means to encountering Christ in the Spirit. This is where Matt 25:31ff, as Kim rightly reminded us in the previous discussion, is helpful. The unevangelized can encounter Christ in the poor, broken, and burdened — those clothed in the form that Christ himself came among men (Phil 2:6-8). And in this encounter with the invisible Christ, the Holy Spirit draws men unto himself and ultimately will usher them into the heavenly courts. If this person is fortunate to meet a missionary, then he will recognize the Christ proclaimed to him and confess His name. Otherwise, he will hear the name of Jesus for the first time in heaven.

        So, there you have it — a constructive proposal.

      • Also, as I noted in the previous discussion, I would want to expand the “unevangelized” to include those who, for a wide variety of reasons, are genuinely unreached in the West, though surrounded by churches. In this thread, I am simply following Shedd in considering the unevangelized as those yet beyond the reach of the Church in other lands, but this happens here too. Our neighbors are often misinformed and prejudiced about the Christian faith, and the Church is often responsible for this and other barriers to hearing the gospel. Tragically, it may be someone who grew-up in an abusive church or with an abusive minister who betrayed his or her trust, resulting in deep psychological wounds regarding the Church.

      • Speaking of Matt 25:31, what do you think of the narrow interpretation, i.e. “the least of these” only refers to the Christian poor and/or the messengers of the Gospel? You’re constructive proposal would require a defense of the broad interpretation (which I do hold to BTW).

      • That’s right, Ivan, I reject the narrow interpretation of Mt 25:31ff. As far as I know — I could be wrong — that interpretation only has traction among some evangelicals, and the reason is clear. It is a way to say that the “sheep” are saved according to how they respond to these “gospel messengers,” which is to say, to the gospel message. Conveniently, the narrow interpretation thereby fits neatly with the evangelical focus on salvation as rendered according to one’s response to the gospel message.

        But, the text says nothing of the sort. The King recognizes their response to the needy and their particular needs: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger/homeless, the prisoner.

        Out of curiosity, I checked the wikipedia article on this discourse, and it says that John Gill, the 18th century Baptist theologian, put forward the narrow interpretation. That makes sense.

      • Many advocates of the narrow interpretation claim that the majority of past exegetes including Chrysostom and Calvin interpreted “the least of these” as only referring to the Christian poor. So they would claim their interpretation is the historic one. It’s still a problematic interpretation considering that the previous two parables talked about how the followers of Christ would be identified. And in Matt 25:31ff, it is nations and not churches which will be judged. No amount of apparent parallels with Matt 10 is going to change that.

      • I checked Calvin’s commentary, and he does say that “one of the least of my brethen” is referring to fellow members of God’s household. That can be debated, but, even if true, it seems that this would not necessarily exclude the same manner of judging in regard to those outside the church. Moreover, even in this passage, “the stranger” should indicate as much, since the prophets exhorted the Israelites to take care of the foreigner (as with the widow, orphan, poor, etc.).

        Anyway, I would need to do a more thorough study of the passage and consult the commentaries. I should do that at some point.

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