For this week’s Theology Thursday post, we’re going to tackle the issue of revelation – how God has revealed Himself to us.
Importance of Revelation
It is important to realize that God didn’t have to let us know anything about Himself. Everything that we know about God that is true has been given to us by Him. Our knowledge about God has come to us through two different means, but all of it comes from God Himself. It is within His ability to hide Himself completely, but our generous God has chosen to make Himself known to us.
The fact that God has made Himself known and knowable is itself an important bit of theology because without any ability to know God we would have no hope of salvation. The Bible is clear that Christians are those who know God (Jn 17:3; Phil 3:10; 2 Pet 3:18; 1 Jn 4:7) and that those who do not know God are not His (Gal 4:8).
There are two ways that God reveals Himself – through general and special revelation. General revelation is given to all people around the world. It comes to us through the created world and tells us basic things about God and His moral requirements. General revelation is the reason that most people in most times and places have held to many of the same moral ideas – for instance, that murder and theft are wrong.
The clearest passages on general revelation are both found in the book of Romans.
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.
This passage (Rom 1:18-20a) teaches that all men know about God through creation. God has revealed Himself in creation from the beginning of the world clearly enough that He holds men accountable for their refusal to understand what He has shown them about Himself.
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.
This passage (Rom 2:14-15) teaches that God has given men a basic morality. We may not be able to derive all the nuances of the Mosaic law from nature, but God has given each of us a conscience that knows right from wrong.
Special revelation is how God has revealed Himself to us through supernatural means. Miracles, healings, dreams, visions, prophets – all of these are special revelation. Special revelation is given to specific people or people groups at certain times.
The most important forms of special revelation are the person of Jesus Christ and God’s revelation of Himself through the Bible. Hebrews 1:1-2 reads:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
These verses teach that the ultimate form of special revelation comes through Jesus. Jesus is the One who shows us God as He is most clearly, to the point that if we know Jesus we also know the Father and have been given the gift of the Spirit (Jn 14:7; 15:26).
The Bible is the record of God’s dealings with man, His special revelation through part of history, and especially of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is inspired by God and was given to Christians for our good (1 Tim 3:16).
The Difference Between the Two
General and special revelation are similar in many ways. Both teach us about God. Both come from God. Both are infallible when correctly understood (source).
However, there is a major difference between the two. While both can inform us about God, only special revelation can give us enough information for salvation. General revelation teaches us general things about God – that He exists, that He is good, that there is a basic morality. Special revelation is what teaches us about everything needed for salvation – original sin and the fall, the person and work of Jesus, the need for faith in Him. That is why Jesus gave His followers the command to go and preach the gospel throughout the world. General revelation can ignite a person’s search for God, but only the Spirit working through the proclamation of the gospel can save (Rom 10:14).