Special revelation is gracious. God does not have to give this to a world rejecting general revelation. Special revelation comes within human culture. That is, human culture transmits not only general revelation, but also special revelation, when God graciously speaks to that culture. Whether it be through angels, theophanies, visions, dreams, prophecies, or the leading of the biblical writers to write inspired Scripture, it all still occurs within human culture, using human language, and the metaphors and analogies found in that culture. It makes up a far smaller proportion of knowledge, and yet that small proportion is decisive and crucial.
After Eden, God’s requirement of man continued to be repentance and faith in God, through His revelation. However, it seems that the content of that faith was a mixture of what was made known in general and special revelation. General revelation was too vague to reveal the identity of God fully (or give a moral system, or disclose redemption), and God’s special revelation was needed to rightly interpret natural revelation and avoid idolatry. General revelation was necessary, but not sufficient. Special revelation is necessary and sufficient alongside general revelation.
We see in Scripture the salvation of pre-messianic believers from Israel (Enoch, Noah), as well as non-Israelites (Melchizedek, Job). These had believed whatever combination of general and special revelation was given to them. We have to assume that God’s special revelation was present for these believers and believers from Seth to Noah. Some people, such as Jonathan Edwards, believed in the notion of a prisca theologia, the idea that people in ancient cultures had received knowledge of the true God, of the Fall, of Noah’s Flood and even of the triune nature of God. Whether or not this is true, it can be demonstrated that some cultural traditions have preserved remnants of biblical truth, that were either delivered to them directly through special revelation, or had been passed on to them by cultures that had been exposed to special revelation.
Some exclusivists agree that before the Incarnation, the amount of knowledge required for saving faith may have been less particular or restrictive. Exclusivism does not accept salvation is possible through false religion or general revelation, but it does accept that the content of saving faith has not always been the same. Before Christ, people were required to believe in what God had already revealed to them.
In the passage of time, the content of saving faith has increased in the specificity and clarity, as one headed to the particularism of the Incarnation. Paul often refers to progressive revelation, when speaking of the mysteries that were once hidden but are now revealed. Certainly the Incarnation represents the pinnacle of special revelation (Heb 1:1-2), and therefore we should expect the content and particularity of special revelation to reach its climax in Christ.
As this revelation particularised, the need to globalise its message became imperative. The further away from the time of the Incarnation, and the more the message is known, the greater the requirement for people to respond rightly to special revelation. The sense in which God knows the overlap and relation of general and special revelation seems to be implied by Acts 17:30. God did not overlook sins, but He overlooked the vagueness in men’s faith when present. Since we believe God is able to save infants apart from conscious faith, we believe God is able to save whom He wills. However, it seems to be normative for God to require faith in His special revelation.
The human race must be seen in light of its native aversion to truth. Its willingness to believe lies, suppress truth, and refuse inconvenient facts shows that the problem would not be solved by adding more detailed facts, or by exposing all people to exactly equal amounts of revelation. Indeed, it also appears that God, in some cases, displays mercy by reducing the amount of light some are exposed to, to reduce their culpability.
However, there is enough knowledge in general revelation to indict a man for rejecting his personal, moral, beautiful, holy Creator. Guilt is proportionate to knowledge, and exclusivists hold that general revelation is enough to condemn the soul, but not enough to save. This condemnation also implies there is also enough knowledge here to have prepared those who wish to seek, to be led to special revelation. This is the doctrine of universal sending held by some exclusivists: those who seek light will receive more light. In Christian history, people who would be otherwise classed as exclusivists have held to this doctrine. This was widely discussed during the Middle Ages, and held by people like Peter of Abelard, Bonaventure, Dante. It was later held by Jacob Arminius. It is the notion that if someone seriously seeks after God, then God will see to it that they receive the message of the gospel in some way. The Ethiopian eunuch was seeking, and God sent him Philip. Cornelius was seeking, and God sent him Peter. The Magi were seeking, and God led them to Jerusalem and to the Scriptures. People who respond to the light they have by approaching it, receive more light.
For those who never hear the Gospel, their situation must be analogous to people from Adam to Christ, who had varying degrees of exposure to special revelation. General revelation has made them culpable. They are still required to repent and believe in what God has revealed to them. As R. C. Sproul once said, “If a person in a remote area has never heard of Christ, he will not be punished for that. What he will be punished for is the rejection of the Father of whom he has heard and for the disobedience to the law that is written in his heart.”
A few exclusivists believe in the possibility of post-mortem evangelism: that the soul upon death will be exposed to enough gospel truth to save, but once again, faith must be in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This is taken from 1 Peter 4:6. The text is very obscure, and it is dubious to construct a doctrine from such a verse. Philosophically speaking, it is probably true that only a post-mortem encounter would completely level everyone’s chances of receiving the gospel, but it is not clear that God requires that exactly equal revelation be given to all in order to be just (Lk 10:13).
The degree to which modern people know of Christian revelation rules out most forms of inclusivism, where faith in general revelation is salvific, or faith in the right aspects of their religion will be salvific. Unless this general revelation revealed sufficient truth about the true and living God, it is not sufficient for salvation. Again, perhaps some form of special revelation has been present in every culture. We have to embrace particularism, recognising that post-Incarnation, faith must be in the person of Christ. Alongside this, we recognise that God saving people through Christ is not dependent on the church’s evangelism, and we cannot assert that people who have not heard the direct preaching of God’s Word are all condemned, though the preaching of the Word is the normative way (Ro 10:14-17).
Some exclusivists believe that God may use unrecorded forms of special revelation, such as prophets that spoke to other cultures, or even dreams that are given to people in cultures where evangelists have not reached.
The basis of salvation for all men, of all times, is the atonement of Jesus Christ. For this reason, pluralism is incorrect, for no salvation can be found within a hardened rejection of the Son of God. The judgement of evil at the cross also refutes universalism, for not all who are evil wish to be saved. Exclusivism remains the most biblical position, which holds that Christ shared through special revelation is the means of salvation today. We accept that God alone knows the combinations of general and special revelation, in each generation, that constitute rejection of Him, and constitute a merciful invitation to fellowship.
God may also apply the atonement as He wishes, as in the case of infant salvation. In those cases, God chooses to apply the atonement apart from faith, whereas the usual approach is to apply it in connection with faith.