after several posts about my love for scripture (the word of god), i thought i would post a paper i wrote a while ago on the revelation of god. i hope this is helpful. any comments are welcome.
General and Special Revelation
In Christian theology, when discussing the aspects of revelation, it is essential to distinguish between general (or natural) revelation and special revelation. The discussion and understanding of these separate types of revelation is necessary in order to clearly establish what we believe to be the means in which God reveals Himself, what He reveals, and the importance, necessity, and sufficiency of what is revealed.
General revelation can be defined as “that revelation of God by which one receives and is aware of as a result of being, living in, and observing the environment in which one is, and which was created by God.” Paul speaks of this revelation in Romans 1:18-21 and following:
18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20For 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. 21For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened…” (Emphasis mine)
Simply by being a creation that is observing, receiving, acting, responding, and for all intents and purposes “living” in the environment of the Creator, there are characteristics of the Creator that are known. They are not simply available to be observed, but are inescapable. That God is creator (Acts 17:25), eternal (Rom. 1:20, Acts 17:25), invisible (Rom. 1:20), personal (Ps.104: 24), and is involved in His creation and sustainer of it (Acts 14:15-16; 17:24-28) are all things that are known to all man due to general revelation. Also known to all men is a basic moral code that is held by the conscience (Rom. 1:32), and their guilt (Rom.1:32 ; 2:14-16).
This knowledge as a result of general revelation is also a means of common grace granted by God to all mankind, believer or not. Imagine a world where murder, dishonesty, or even cowardice were not universal vices. However, this is not the case. In the fallen world in which we live, even a community of unregenerate thieves will feel wronged if they are stolen from, lied to, or physically harmed - by one of their own, or anyone else.
Since the knowledge of these things is intrinsic to all, all are held accountable for their actions in light of this knowledge. Paul states that “… they know God's decree that those who practice such things deserve to die…”(Rom. 1:32). All mankind is accountable for rebellion against god. In matters of salvation, one is not condemned simply for what they do not know, but for what they do know as well. Man stands condemned for living in direct rebellion of the God they know by general revelation is there.
Man is responsible for defying what he does know to be the decree of God. Mankind knows what its creator requires, and lives in direct disobedience. This is what is meant in the doctrine of total depravity. Not that man acts out in every instance the fullness of sin imaginable without ceasing, but that in every part of his nature man is in direct rebellion of God. Man is aware of what is required, but his reason and affections are tainted by sin.
What general revelation cannot reveal, however, is the way of salvation. Christ Himself stated in John 14:6 that no one could come to Father without coming through Him. Salvation comes from faith in Jesus Christ. Only faith in Christ can grant salvation. Not by good works, not by observing a moral code, not by sacrifices to appease the wrath of a deity. Only faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the propitiation for sins can bring salvation. This is where Romans 10 raises the importance, the essential need, for special revelation.
Paul says in his letter to the Romans:
“For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ 14But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching…
17So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
General revelation lacks the gospel. No one can know the gospel by observing the world in which they live. Mankind knows it is guilty, but what does one do to appease the “wrath of god”(Rom. 1:18)? On the basis of general revelation alone, mankind cannot be saved. More is needed.
Special revelation is the knowledge of God through His disclosing his direct word through prophets, Christ Himself, and Scripture. With the special revelation of God, man can know the only way for salvation. Scripture alone is necessary for salvation, whether by reading, or by hearing it preached faithfully.
“…you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God;”(1 Peter 1:23)
Not only does special revelation inform us of the way of salvation, but it also reveals to us the fullness and definite will of God. General revelation gives us notions of right and wrong, but special revelation is God’s deliberate act of bestowing his will in the lives of those who hear His word. (Deut. 29:29; Ps. 1:1-2, 119:1; John 14:15, Heb. 1:1; 1 John 5:3)
God’s word in the form of scripture gives us clear and distinct knowledge on every aspect he intends to address. Wayne Grudem states:“ … it can be argued that the Bible is necessary for [knowledge with certainty] about anything.” ( Grudem: Systematic Theology pg. 119) Since it is God alone who has supreme knowledge of everything, it is only by consulting His word that we can have confidence in what we do know, because the One with ultimate knowledge has told us. We can know with confidence the things that God has revealed through His word are true and necessary. As summed up by Paul in his second letter to Timothy:
“…and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 timothy 23:15-17)
The Pneumatological Argument
There are some who would state that the faith necessary for salvation is not exclusive to special revelation, but that recognition of general revelation is transferred. Said in another way, one need not know of Christ for salvation, only in the work of the spirit in whatever general revelation generates a saving faith. This argument, known as the pneumatological argument, anchors itself on the fact of the love of God. Surely, it is argued, that a loving God who wants “all” to be saved (citing 1 Tim. 2:3-4; 2 Peter 3:9) would provide access to all for salvation- even those who have no knowledge of Christ.The argument then proceeds to acknowledge that not all people through the scope of time and geography have equal access to the gospel. It is then assumed that such a loving God would provide salvation apart from explicit knowledge and faith in Christ. So the conclusion is reached that the way salvation is provided is either by general revelation, or post-mortem salvation.
This argument fails at several points, the first of which is the neglect of God’s other attributes in addition to His love. God’s holiness, justice, wrath, and vengeance are all explicitly cited and demonstrated in scripture. To champion God’s love as a characteristic that trumps all others is to be careless with the character of God. If god is just, how can he allow sin, direct disobedience, to go unpunished? God demonstrated his wrath on the world in the flood, in one society at Sodom and Gomorrah, with the people of Israel, Egypt with the plagues, and a plethora of other examples. To simply state, “God is love” and assert that His presence in the world is only ever gracious and salvic is to ignore the revelation of the fullness of God. It does not follow logically from general revelation that everyone must have access to salvation. What we have already seen, and what scripture tells us is that it does follow that the only thing that all humankind is in rebellion to the Creator. How can we who sing and speak so passionately of grace and mercy have a concept of grace and mercy, if there were not punishment and destruction, judgment and consequences? (Rom 3: 10-18,23; 6:23; 9:14-23). What of Old Testament followers of God? Surely they could have no knowledge of Christ who had not yet come? Again, God’s word does not leave us with excuse to call Him unjust. For the followers of God before Christ were not condemned, but were saved by faith that looked forward to Christ through the promise of God that He would provide a Messiah. (Gen. 3:15; John 8:56; Heb.11: 13,26)
What we can see when we look at general revelation is that we are creations of a Creator, living in His world that has a standard of living and morality that we fall short of, and by our nature are living in disobedience. General revelation is not insufficient insofar as it does point to a Creator and His moral code, but it is incomplete and made full only by His special revelation. God is gracious in that no man is without excuse to know Him. He cannot be called unjust to punish those who do not know him, for He has revealed Himself to all men and we are “without excuse”. His common grace is extended to all men and prevents chaos from reigning over all creation. But it is only through knowledge of and faith in the person and works of Jesus Christ as revealed through His word, that salvation is possible.