Is conscious faith in Jesus Christ necessary for justification or can God apply the benefits of Jesus' sacrifice to someone who either has not heard about it, or does not fully understand it?
I'm afraid I take the somewhat inclusive view that perhaps He can. I'm not stating categorically that He does, because I can't say that I know for sure, but I also believe that no one can say categorically that He can't, or doesn't, because neither can they know for sure.
Then, on Stand Firm I came across This from R.C. Sproul on the very same subject; What about the innocent native? Listen to it all; it is less than 20 minutes.
Sproul makes some valid points;
- that there are no innocent natives in far-off corners of the world. "All have sinned..." of that there can be no doubt.
- that no one is off the hook because they have not heard of Jesus. They may not have rejected Jesus, but they certainly have rejected God the Father.
But here, I think, is where he actually begins to contradict his own position. He cites Psalm 19
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
and Romans 1
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him,
... as evidence, and quite rightly, that God has revealed Himself to all people everywhere, and no one can claim, when they stand in judgment, they were not given enough evidence. I would add Acts 17 to the body of Scriptural evidence.
But it seems to me that if God has given all mankind enough evidence to condemn those who reject Him in spite of it, He has also given, by corollary, sufficient evidence to save those who might turn to Him and trust Him because of it. And who's to say they can't. Abram did -- and every other 'Old Testament saint,' even those before Abram, before there were 'Jews,' God's chosen people. And those are just the ones we read about in the Bible. Could there have been others, even in other parts of the world? Well... why not?
There can be no doubt that no one can come to the Father except through Christ. That is indisputable. But how narrowly or broadly is John 14:6-7 to be interpreted? Certainly, if not for the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, there would be no hope of salvation for anyone.
But can God apply the benefits of that sacrifice to those who have not heard, but trust Him according to the extent He has revealed Himself? Can He apply those same benefits to those incapable of understanding; the mentally ill or infants?
Again, I do not say that he can't. I like to think I allow God a little more sovereignty than those who claim that He doesn't.
(Just a further thought)
Someone might say that people before the time of Christ were saved because they believed in God's promise of a coming Redeemer, and of courst, that is true. But the first promise was given to Adam and Eve, from whom all humanity has descended. So presumably, in addition to God's common evidence of Himself, all their descendents, (and ultimately, all descendents of Noah and his family, through whom the human race was begun anew), which includes all mankind since, has had access to, and awareness of this same promise.