The word revelation means to reveal or to uncover. In Christian theology, revelation is the act of God communicating to man. There is no way that we can know any truth without God actively revealing it to us.
“Because God is infinite, He cannot be fully comprehended by finite creatures. We are blinded to God’s truth by our sin. But even before sin entered the world, we needed God to tell us about Himself. God has always been a revealer of Himself both in His words and in His works.” ~ W. Robert Godfrey1
There are two classifications of revelation in Christian theology: general and special. Keith Mathison3 points out that the difference between these two types of revelation has to do with the extent and purpose of what is being communicated.
The Belgic Confession3, in Article Two, says:
“We know Him by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to see clearly the invisible things of God, even his everlasting power and divinity, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20. All which things are sufficient to convince men and leave them without excuse. Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to His glory and our salvation.” ~ Belgic Confession (Article 2)3
General revelation is both general in extent and purpose. It is general in extent in that this is the revelation that every person to ever live has been exposed to. It is general in purpose because it reveals a general message of God and does not reveal the specifics about Him.
Two types of general revelation
There are two types of general revelation: mediate (also called objective) and immediate (also called subjective). Mediate refers to the information being interpreted through another source. Much like how we obtain our new information through television, radio, or other type of media, this information is obtained though a secondary source. God uses creation to convey his message. Immediate refers to direct revelation. This is obtained by God having placed in every person in innate knowledge that He exists.
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.” (Romans 1:18-23)
The heavens are telling of the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. (Psalm 19:1)
Mediate revelation is what we see all around us. It is what we can determine to be true about God based on what we witness in nature. John Murray said it beautifully when he said, “…the visible creation as God’s handiwork makes manifest the invisible perfections of God as its Creator…” God is beyond our human minds. He is infinite. However, though creation, we can get a taste of some of those attributes that we cannot comprehend fully.
John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, said:
“…he not only sowed in men’s minds that seed of religion of which we have spoken, but revealed himself and daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe. As a consequence, men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him.” (Institutes, I.5.1)3
As the Romans 1 passage says, God’s existence is clearly seen in creation so that no person ever to have lived can deny His existence.
“This most beautiful system of sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.” ~ Isaac Newton9
Dominic Statham9 of Creation Ministries International points out that God continues to daily reveal His existence through His continuous care of His creation.
“Acts 14:17 makes clear that God testifies to Himself by providing rain, crops and seasons, enabling people to grow food and enjoy a reasonable standard of living.” ~ Dominic Statham9
Statham9 also points out that modern science, as opposed to many in the secular arena argue, actually supports the assertion of the existence of God rather than eroding that claim.
However, we know the claims of many secularists today. Many assert that science has proven the Bible wrong and that God does not exist. This should not surprise us. If we return to our passage in Romans we see that is says, “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.” (Romans 1:21-23)
The passage continues to expound on this exchange: “Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.” (Romans 1:24-25)
God’s Word tells us exactly what has happened to these people who reject God while pointing to creation. God has given them over to their own desires. They have willingly exchanged the truth God revealed in His creation, for a lie. They worship and serve creation and science rather than the Creator.
At one point in history, this truth manifested in people creating idols of creatures and bowing down to and offering sacrifices to them. Today, in western civilization, this looks like the atheist pointing to science and creation claiming it has disproven God. They make environmentalism and sustainability their worship of creation now. (I am not suggesting we shouldn’t care for our environment but this goes beyond that to the point of a religious devotion to creation itself rather than God.)
“since the Enlightenment, the natural sciences have typically studied creation not to know God but to know creation, and therefore are not focused on general revelation through creation.” ~ W. Robert Godfrey1
For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus. (Romans 2:14-16)
Here in Romans 2, we see that God has put within all man the knowledge of His existence and His Law.
“General Revelation is also mediated through conscience. According to the Apostle Paul, a basic knowledge of right and wrong is universal, because the requirements of God’s laws are written on people’s hearts (Rom. 2:14,15). Only by willfully suppressing this knowledge is the sense of conscience lost (Rom. 1:18).” ~ Dominic Statham9
John Calvin also referenced this innate understanding of God’s existence in his Institutes of the Christian Religion:
“There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity [divinitatis sensum]. This we take to be beyond controversy. To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty.”3
As I said above, many humans have willfully ignored the mediate and immediate revelation. Pride is a root sin within all humanity. It is what got Satan kicked out of heaven, what led to the fall, and what continues to infect all of humanity.
General revelation is undeniable however, it is not enough to redeem a person. There is nothing in creation that reveals Christ’s sacrifice and the way of salvation. General revelation is enough to condemn us all but not enough to save us. William Smith said, “Natural or general revelation shows that there is a God who made us. It cannot, however, reveal to sinners the way of salvation.”6
“General revelation preserves humankind in order that it can be found and healed by Christ and until it is. To that extent natural theology used to be correctly denominated a ‘preamble of faith,’ a divine preparation and education for Christianity. General revelation is the foundation on which special revelation builds itself up.” ~ Herman Bavinck5
“General revelation does not reveal Jesus Christ or His work of redemption for sinners. Thus there is a need for what is called “special revelation.” Special revelation is the revelation of the way of salvation.” ~ Keith Mathison3
Special revelation is narrow in extent and specific in purpose. This form of revelation we find within the pages of Scripture. Not every person on earth is privileged to hear of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross. The purpose of special revelation is to describe in more detail the truth of God, the plan of redemption, and how to live a holy life.
The Baptist Confession of Faith (1689)2 says of special revelation:
“…although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and His will which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord at sundry times and in diversified manners to reveal Himself, and to declare (that) His will unto His church; and afterward for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan, and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which makes the Holy Scriptures to be most necessary, those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people being now completed.”(I.1-3)2
All special revelation can be found in the 66 books of the canon of Scripture. As 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, Scripture God’s revelation to us and is useful in equipping us for His work.
Two avenues of special revelation
God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. (Hebrews 1:1-2)
God has seen fit to bring to us special revelation in two main avenues: through prophets and through Jesus.
A prophet was someone specially chosen to be the mouthpiece of God to people. This was a very exclusive role. Very few people in all of history have ever been chosen to be a true prophet of God.
“The Old Testament was produced by people like us, who, unlike us, were designated by God to be His spokesmen to His people.” ~ RC Sproul9
There have been many throughout history who have claimed to have this gift. However, they have often been shown to be false prophets.
“Israel’s biggest struggle was not with hostile nations but with false prophets in the camp or within the gates of the city. False prophets were known for teaching what people wanted to hear rather than true revelation from God.” ~ RC Sproul9
God took this very seriously. If someone was not a true prophet, the punishment in the Old Testament was death (Deuteronomy 18:20-22). A false prophet leads people astray, often leading them in a false sense of eternal security only to realize on Judgment Day, they will be cast into hell (Matthew 7:15-23).
“In the New Testament, the counterpart to the prophet was the Apostle. The prophets and the Apostles together form the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20). The chief mark of an Apostle was that he had received a direct call by Christ.” ~ RC Sproul9
We can trust what the Apostles wrote because they were specifically chosen, by Christ, to speak on His behalf.
“The author of Hebrews points out another dimension of special revelation, the supreme revelation, which is the incarnate Word. We have the written Word, which gives us special revelation, but we also have the Word of God incarnate, the One about whom the written Word speaks.” ~ RC Sproul9
Jesus Christ is the pinnacle of special revelation. The entire Bible points to Him.
John 14:9b-10 says, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works.”
Jesus claims to be not only a prophet speaking on behalf of God the Father but also to be God the Son, the second person of the Trinity.
“The chief of all Apostles, the One whom God chose as His ultimate vehicle of self-disclosure, is Christ Himself. In Christ we meet the fullness of the revelation of the Father, and it is only through Scripture that we meet Christ.” ~ RC Sproul9
It seems to be very common in churches today for people to be seeking extra-biblical revelation. All Christians desire to hear the audible voice of God. This is a good desire and one that will be fulfilled one day when we are standing before Him in heaven. However, until that day, we are privileged to have His inspired Word in the pages of Scripture. There is enough beautiful revelation within this book to keep us busy digging the truths out of it for eons. We do not need to seek elsewhere.
“Many people are looking for a revelation from God in our day. We do not need to go looking for new special revelation, however, for we have all the revelation for how to serve God available to us in Scripture. If we want to know the will of God for our salvation and for our lives, we must study and know the Old and New Testaments.” ~ Ligonier Ministries7
“Nature is not the 67th book of the Bible, but a signpost pointing to the existence and moral character of the Creator. The ‘book of nature’ should be studied and understood in the light of the ‘book of Scripture’, not the other way round.” ~ Dominic Statham9
We can use general revelation to point at as proof of the existence of God but it cannot save. We must preach the Gospel, God’s special revelation. As Romans 10:17 says, faith comes by hearing the word of Christ. General revelation is enough that no one has an excuse when they stand before God but it is only through special revelation that we learn of God’s redemptive plan.
“Christianity is not based on speculative philosophy; it stands or falls as a revealed faith. The fundamental assertion of the Christian faith is that the truth we embrace as Christians has come to us from God Himself. We cannot see Him with our eyes, but we can know Him by means of revelation, He has removed the veil that hides Him from us.” ~ RC Sproul9
- Godfrey, W. Robert. 2016. “General Revelation By W. Robert Godfrey”. Ligonier Ministries. http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/general-revelation/.
- “Historic Church Documents At Reformed.Org”. 2017. Reformed.Org. Accessed March 1. http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html.
- Mathison, Keith. 2012. “General And Special Revelation — A Reformed Approach To Science And Scripture”. Ligonier Ministries. http://www.ligonier.org/blog/general-and-special-revelation-reformed-approach-science-and-scripture/.
- Mathison, Keith. 2013. “The Reformed Doctrine Of General Revelation: What It Is And What It Isn’t”. Ligonier Ministries. http://www.ligonier.org/blog/reformed-doctrine-general-revelation-what-it-and-what-it-isnt/.
- Reinke, Tony. 2009. “On General Revelation”. Tony Reinke. https://tonyreinke.com/2009/09/24/herman-bavinck-on-general-revelation-nature-grace/.
- Smith, William. 2008. “A Summary Of God’s Way Of Revelation – Banner Of Truth”. Banner Of Truth. https://banneroftruth.org/us/resources/articles/2008/a-summary-of-gods-way-of-revelation/.
- “Special Revelation”. 2017. Ligonier Ministries. Accessed March 1. http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/special-revelation/.
- Sproul, R. C. 2014. Everyone’s A Theologian. 1st ed. Stanford: Reformation Trust Publishing.
- Statham, Dominic. 2010. “General And Special Revelation – Creation.Com”. Creation.Com. http://creation.com/general-and-special-revelation.