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Because of our focus on the inspiration and inerrancy of God’s written revelation, the Bible (i.e., Special Revelation), we often tend to ignore the other ways in which God has made himself known more generally to all mankind. Theologians call this General Revelation. What is it and why is it important that we understand what is meant by it?

(1) General Revelation refers to the truth that God has made himself known in the observable design and majesty of natural or physical creation. In Romans 1:18-20 we read: 

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 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” (Rom. 1:18-20). 

The invisible is made visible via creation or nature. Divine wisdom, power, eternity and goodness, for example, are not in themselves visible, but their reality is undeniably affirmed and apprehended by the effects they produce in nature. See also Psalm 19:1-6; 8; 29; 93; 104; Acts 14:15-17; 17:22-31. 

(2) General revelation in natural creation makes available to all mankind a true knowledge not only that God exists but what kind of God he is. What exactly is the content of that revelation about God made known in nature and conscience? Ronald Nash (What About Those Who Have Never Heard? [IVP, 1995], p. 67) identifies seven elements: (1) God exists; (2) this God created the physical universe; (3) this God is loving; (4) this God is personal, since love cannot characterize an impersonal deity; (5) this God is a moral being; (6) we have violated the moral law and thus are guilty; and (7) we have displeased the morally perfect God who is the source of the moral law. 

Bruce Demarest extends this by appealing to other texts as well. Scripture, he says (General Revelation, pp. 242-43), suggests that all human beings know more or less the following about God from the light of universal general revelation:

God exists (Ps. 19:1; Rom. 1:19); God is uncreated (Acts 17:24); God is Creator (Acts 14:15); God is Sustainer (Acts 14:16; 17:25); God is universal Lord (Acts 17:24); God is self-sufficient (Acts 17:25); transcendent (Acts 17:24); immanent (Acts 17:26-27); eternal (Ps. 93:2); great (Ps. 8:3-4); majestic (Ps. 29:4); powerful (Ps. 29:4; Rom. 1:20); wise (Ps. 104:24); good (Acts 14:17); righteous (Rom. 1:32); God has a sovereign will (Acts 17:26); God has standards of right and wrong (Rom. 2:15); God should be worshiped (Acts 14:15; 17:23); man should perform the good (Rom. 2:15); God will judge evil (Rom. 2:15-16).

(3) The truth of general revelation means that there is no such thing as an honest atheist! All people know God. We see this in Romans 1:21: Note well: “For although they knew God” (v. 21a). Again, “what can be known about God is plain to them” (v. 19; not hidden, obscure, uncertain, but disclosed, clear, and inescapable). There is a distinction, of course, between a cognitive apprehension of God, i.e., knowing that there is a God and that he is worthy of obedience, worship, gratitude, and a saving or redemptive knowledge of God. All people experience the former whereas only the redeemed experience the latter.  

(4) General revelation is sufficiently accessible and clear to render all mankind without excuse for the failure and refusal to believe: “So they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20b). No one will ever be able to justify their unbelief on the basis of a lack of revelation concerning the existence of God and their responsibility to worship and honor him.

(5) Although general revelation is sufficient to render all without excuse for not believing in God, for failing to “honor him as God” and “give thanks to him” (v. 21), it is not sufficient to bring a person into a saving relationship with God. The “insufficiency”, be it noted, is not due to a deficiency in God or in the manner in which he has made himself known but is entirely due to the depraved, hard-hearted, willful refusal of mankind to humbly acknowledge him as God and worship him. The God they truly and really know, they hate and refuse to honor. Their response, however, is not borne of ignorance but of willful rebellion and self-centered sinfulness.

The reference to unbelievers as “futile” and “foolish” (vv. 21-22) does not mean all pagans are stupid. It is not man’s intelligence that is in view but his disposition. The problem with the unsaved isn’t that he can’t think with his head. The problem is that he refuses to believe with his heart. The unsaved man is a fool not because he is of questionable intelligence. He is a fool because of his immoral refusal to acknowledge and bow to what he knows is true.

(6) The wrath of God revealed from heaven (Rom. 1:18) is grounded in the persistent repudiation by mankind of the revelation God has made of himself in the created order. In other words, there is a reason for God’s wrath. It is not capricious. God’s wrath has been deliberately and persistently provoked by man’s willful rejection of God as he has revealed himself.

(7) Paul describes the response to general revelation in Romans 1:21-23. What he has in mind involves a distortion or deliberate mutation when one substitutes something artificial or counterfeit for that which is genuine. Clearly, then, when man rejects God he does not cease to be religious. Indeed, he becomes religious in order to reject God. He substitutes for God a deity of his own making, often himself.

Thus, Paul does not say people began in darkness and futility and are slowly but surely groping their way toward the light. Rather, they began with the clear, inescapable light of the knowledge of God and regressed into darkness.

(8) The human conscience is also a modality of general revelation. By virtue of having been created in the image of God, even those who lack the special revelation of God’s will (Rom. 2:12) have the law “written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:15). Thus “their conscience also bears witness” (Rom. 2:15) to the revelation God has made to/in them. Calvin argued that there is within the mind of all people an “awareness of divinity” (divinitatis sensum or semen religionis). God has implanted this seed of religion in everyone. “Yet there is . . . no nation so barbarous, no people so savage, that they have not a deep-seated conviction that there is a God” (I, 3.1). Theoretical atheism, therefore, is impossible. Men may live as if there is no God, but they cannot deny his existence, “for the worm of conscience, sharper than any cauterizing iron, gnaws away within” (I, 3.3).

Paul’s point is that although Gentiles who do not have the Mosaic Law they are not completely without law. The basic moral principles revealed in the Law of God (obedience to parents, do not murder, do not lie, etc.) are inscribed on their hearts, indelibly embedded in their conscience by virtue of the fact that they are created in the image of God, no less than the Jews. Unsaved Gentiles, says Paul, manifest an innate awareness of God's moral demands, their conscience either accusing or acquitting them.  

(9) The revelation of God in creation and conscience is sufficient to render all men without excuse, sufficient to lead to their condemnation if they repudiate it, but not sufficient to save. No one will be saved solely because of their acknowledgment of God in nature, but many will be lost because of their refusal of him as revealed there. In other words, general revelation lacks redemptive content. It is epistemically adequate but soteriologically inadequate. It makes known that there is a God who punishes sin but not that he pardons it. “Any unbeliever who rightly understood it would be driven to despair. However clearly the content of general revelation was grasped, it would by itself provide no adequate basis for fellowship with God” (Packer, God Has Spoken, 55). 

(10) Some object to Christianity by arguing that it would be unjust of God to hold men accountable for not believing in a Jesus of whom they have never heard, about whom they have no divine revelation. That is true. But the so-called heathen are not condemned for rejecting Jesus, about whom they have heard nothing, but for rejecting the Father, about whom they have heard and seen much via general revelation.