“As any practical evangelist will tell you, as they go to this place or that, they will find people that by God’s gracious Holy Spirit, have been worked upon, and their conscience has been aroused. Maybe they haven’t gotten to the point of complete illumination but they’re stopping to think. And God, in His mercy, brings a preacher to them, and these folks have been prepared. And when they hear the Gospel, they believe.”
– Dr. David Gooding, on Acts 13:48
If the Spirit is already at work, striving with those who do not know God, what happens when someone responds to that drawing? What if they die before hearing the Gospel message; that is, what if they pass into eternity knowing only the silent stirring of the Spirit, but responded positively to those promptings? Are they saved?
On these questions there is a range of views among Arminians. On the one hand, there are those known as “Inclusivists” who hold that those who die without the Gospel could be saved according to the light they had.
But Arminius had a higher view of providence than that. He saw from passages like the examples of Lydia, Cornelius, and the Bereans, that where someone responded positively to God’s initial grace, they would be given more grace (link). The examples demonstrate what he had in mind by “more grace”: if someone is prepared by prevenient grace to the point of accepting the Gospel if only a preacher would come, that God would send a preacher to that person.
Though Arminius does not mention them, we could also add examples like the Ethiopian official (Acts 8:26), those in Acts 13 who were ready for the gospel (as Dr. Gooding explains in the quote above), and even the Apostle Paul who, after he responded to the direct revelation on the road was then sent to a preacher, Ananias (Acts 9:17).
We also have similar Old Testament examples like Jonah (the people’s positive response to his preaching demonstrates they were ready to hear the message, Jonah 3:5-6), or Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (which prompts the king to seek out Daniel, and results in the king acknowledging “your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings”, Dan. 2:47). Even Abraham, after he responded to God’s call, was sent to a place where he met Melchizedek, a priest of the true God (Gen. 14:18).
All of these examples are to say that God’s usual course is to use a human preacher as the instrument of the Gospel where a person has responded to the prevenient drawings of the Spirit.
H.A. Ironside, in his book Full Assurance, shares two modern day examples of this very thing (link).
In one case, he tells of a time when he was to catch a train up to Winnipeg and a friend, a farmer, was to give him a ride to the train station. Despite Ironside’s insistence that it was time to leave, the farmer continued his chores. Finally, they left for the station, but about a mile from town, they saw the train pass and knew he had missed it: “There was nothing to do but wait some five or six hours for the night express, on which I had no reservation…” He continues:
While annoyed, I comforted myself with the words, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” I prayed earnestly that if He had some purpose in permitting me to miss my train and comfortable accommodations, I might not fail to find it out.
When I boarded the crowded, foul-smelling coach, I found there was only one vacancy left and that was half of a seat midway down the car, a sleeping young man occupying the other half. As I sat down by him and stowed away my baggage, he awoke, straightened up, and gave me a rather sleepy greeting. Soon we were in an agreeable, low-toned conversation, while other passengers slept and snored all about us. A suitable opportunity presenting itself, I inquired, “Do you know the Lord Jesus Christ?” He sat up as though shot. “How strange that you should ask me that! I went to sleep thinking of Him and wishing I did know Him, but I do not understand, though I want to! Can you help me?”
Further conversation elicited the fact that he had been working in a town in southern Minnesota, where he had been persuaded to attend some revival meetings. Evidently, the preaching was in power and he became deeply concerned about his soul. He had even gone forward to the mourners’ bench, but though he wept and prayed over his sins, he came away without finding peace. I knew then why I had missed my train. This was my Gaza, and though unworthy I was sent of God to be his Philip. So I opened to the same scripture that the Ethiopian treasurer had been reading when Philip met him: Isa. 53.
Later in the same chapter he recounts another instance. This time, searching for a barber shop in Indianapolis:
Entering the first one I saw (my attention being attracted by the red and white striped pole), I was soon seated in the chair, and the tonsorial artist began operations. He was chatty but subdued, I thought, not carelessly voluble. Praying for an opening, it soon seemed a fitting time to ask, as in the other case, “Are you acquainted with the Lord Jesus Christ?” To my astonishment, the barber’s reaction was remarkable. He stopped his work, burst into uncontrollable weeping, and when the first paroxysm had passed, exclaimed, “How strange that you should ask me about Him! In all my life I never had a man ask me that before. And I have been thinking of Him nearly all the time for the last three days. What can you tell me about him?”
It was my turn to be amazed. I asked him what had led up to this. He explained that he had gone to see a picture of the Passion Play, and that it had made an indelible impression on his mind. He kept asking, “Why did that good Man have to suffer so? Why did God let Him die like that?” He had never heard the gospel in his life, so I spent an hour with him opening up the story of the Cross We prayed together and he declared that all was now plain, and he trusted the Saviour for himself. I had the joy of knowing, as I left his shop, that the gospel was indeed the dynamic of God unto salvation to him, an uninstructed Greek barber, who had learned for the first time that Christ loved him and gave Himself for him.
Does God still send a preacher? Of course he does. And we should be ready for the opportunity when the Spirit prompts us forward.
But what if a preacher cannot come? Well, God could send one in a whirlwind–He did for the Ethiopian official in Acts 8–but Arminius thought that in extraordinary cases, God could also share the Gospel by an angel, or by direct revelation by the Spirit. He is clear that this would be “extraordinary”, and by no means the usual course, but God is not out of options (link and link).
So to the question we posed, “What if they die before hearing the Gospel message?”, it seems, with all that is at God’s disposal, that no person would ever need to be left in that predicament.