April 13, 2023

What Does the Bible Say about the Salvation of Those Who Cannot Comprehend the Gospel?

Nathan W. Bingham & Sinclair Ferguson
What Does the Bible Say about the Salvation of Those Who Cannot Comprehend the Gospel?

Is salvation possible for infants and other people who seem unable to respond to the gospel? Today, Sinclair Ferguson helps us think through this topic by reminding us of several foundational truths from God’s Word.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: Today on the Ask Ligonier podcast, I’m joined by Dr. Sinclair Ferguson, one of our teaching fellows here at Ligonier. Dr. Ferguson, what does the Bible say about those who are unable, mentally, to comprehend the gospel message?

DR. SINCLAIR FERGUSON: Well, this is a question I think that people often ask, and people who are parents who may lose an infant or a child often ask—families where there is a child born and perhaps there’s been brain damage or other functions have been damaged, and the children don’t seem to grow up mentally. And I think one can say, first of all, that the Bible does not say a great deal directly about this, which is interesting in the light of the fact that the infant mortality rate must have been enormous.

I think one of the clues the Bible gives to us is in the experience of David when the little boy that was born to Bathsheba dies, and he says that, “He will not come to me, but I will come to him.” And I think David must be saying more there than, “I’m going to die, too.” I think he is looking to a future after death for himself, when he and his little boy will be reunited. So there is that light.

I don’t know that there is really any direct light on the question about, What about those whose brain functions are damaged? So in questions like this, I think the important thing is to go back to first principles. And there are several first principles in the Bible that help us to work our way through to how we should think about this.

The first, of course, is that the Judge of all the earth will do right and that He is a God of tremendous grace, that He sent His Son to bring us to Himself. There is no dark side in God, and so we can rest in the fact that He is a God who everything He does is right and true and good.

The second thing I think to say is this—and I think this is where what we call the Reformed faith is so helpful to us—sometimes people have a problem with this because they say, “But these infants and these people are not able to exercise faith.” And what is one of the great emphases and glories of the Reformed faith is that the Bible teaches us that God’s salvation is not first of all dependent on our faith, nor is our experience of it first of all dependent on our faith. But our faith is the fruit of God’s work of renewal and regeneration in our lives. And God does that sovereignly, and He can do that sovereignly. And I think we can rest in that, that we don’t need to worry, “Did they have faith or did they not have faith?” because God is able to regenerate those who are too young to give us evidences of faith, or we might not be able to recognize those evidences if we saw them because we tend to judge in terms of a twenty-five-year old male who is a college graduate and all the rest of it. So that is a tremendously helpful thing to understand.

And that’s why in the Westminster Confession of Faith, in the chapter on effectual calling, it emphasizes that yes, you need to trust in Christ for salvation, but you also need to understand that because effectual calling, regeneration, is a sovereign work of God, that God is able to do that when and where and in whomsoever He pleases. And it very specifically says “infants” on the one hand and “those who are incapable of the gospel.” And by that it doesn’t mean people who are living in other countries, right? It almost certainly means people who seem to us, because of brain damage or other considerations, not to be able to take it in. And this, I think, is very reassuring and comforting for us.

I think another consideration here, to me, is: think about what Jesus did. Think about the way He healed people. There are occasions He did it sovereignly. There seemed to be one or two occasions, at least, where He doesn’t say, “Do you have faith?” that He works mercifully and sovereignly, and the result of that is faith. And I think this gives us a wonderful illustration of the disposition of Jesus to the weak and the helpless.

And then, the final thing I would say is with respect to both infants and also those who seem to us to be mentally challenged: I do not myself believe that we should over-hastily think that they’re not able to respond to the Lord Jesus, because what I notice is that they respond to their mother, to their family. And just watching people who have grown up with very severe mental disabilities for whatever reason, I think I’ve often observed that you can see the fruit of the Spirit in them even though they’re not able to articulate what we would think of as the gospel.

So I don’t think that we should... I think because sometimes we think of the gospel as just, “You’ve got to believe these statements,” when at the end of the day, the gospel is, “You’ve got to trust this Person.” And the ways in which you may encounter that Person is that you encounter His presence in family or in friends or in church.

And I must say, I think it’s been one of the delights to me in ministry to see people who have had very, very severe mental challenges not only embraced into the fellowship, but able in ways, if you watch, able in ways to express that. And sometimes, because they don’t have all the elements of politeness that we have, to me, it’s been a delight and sometimes amusing to see just how straightforward they can be in what they say. And sometimes in saying things, you think: “I think there are Christians around here who feel that. They would never dare to say it because it seems so unspiritual.” But in saying these things, it’s quite clear that the Lord Jesus is a living person to them.

So, I think when the Bible doesn’t give you chapter and verse on every question, once you begin to feel your way into it, you get to the heart and mind of God. And I think these are some of the important considerations to bear in mind.