A dear friend delivered a well-thought, grace-fueled jab to seminarians (like me) the other day, decrying their interest is too often about — to borrow his biting, but excellent phrase — “wading in the pool of Calvinistic academia” and not enough about actually sharing the gospel with those who need to hear it. Though that’s painting with a wide brush, I can’t disagree.
So, with that being said, I toyed with the idea of posting an essay I wrote for my Systematic Theology class. At first, I hesitated, fearing prideful intentions. But after a fair amount of prayer and reflection, I think it’s a worthwhile idea. After all, if I am too scared/prideful/weird to share what I’m learning with the world, then what’s the point?
But I digress.
The question we answered for class has to do with the relationship between general revelation (as described in Romans 1: creation and moral consciences) and special revelation (i.e. Jesus Christ and the Bible). We were supposed to detail each and explain how their interaction applies to different world religions and philosophical understandings. Also, we were asked to mention how special revelation and general revelation apply to our understanding of missions and evangelism. We wrote these impromptu, for our midterm, so there’s probably some rambly and half-baked moments. (Though I’ve lightly edited it to clean it up a bit.)
But anyways. That’s my motivation in sharing: to start a conversation that will more fully flesh out the answers to incredibly important questions. The comments section is there for a reason. Feel free to use it. Either way, thanks for reading. I appreciate your thoughts.
In short, general revelation is God’s way of unveiling Himself, in part, to His creation. This is done primarily in two ways: through creation and through each individual’s imprinted moral consciousness. More widely speaking, general revelation exists to point us to something else, or Someone Else — namely, God in Christ.
On the other hand, special revelation is God intervening to His creation in an effort to communicate His character in a clearer, more perceivable way. This intervention is important, even necessary because general revelation, at its best, is confusing and ultimately condemning. (More on that later.)
Put another way: special revelation exists as a filter, a lens through which we finally make sense of general revelation. The questions “How?” and “Why?” are never answered by nebulae in a telescope or atoms under a microscope because they cannot be. We are expecting something which they’re incapable to provide, at least to the extent we desire.
In Scripture, special revelation occurs in primarily seven different ways, most of which are obvious and self-explanatory:
1) God’s Acts — i.e. parting the Red Sea
2) Dreams — Joseph and the fat cows eating the skinny cows
3) Visions — Basically, dreams when you’re awake (Acts 10)
5) Personal Address — “Saul, saul, why do you persecute me…?“
6) The Bible
7) Jesus Christ
Now, that list in and of itself is unimpressive, perhaps even more confusing. However, when we understand that there is an implicit hierarchy there — a God-ordained hierarchy — things start to make sense. Types 1-5 are important. God uses them all in different times throughout salvation history. And, as recorded in Scripture, they are both infallible and important for us today.
But, it is through Scripture itself where special revelation sheds more light on general revelation and our experience of reality as a whole. Even more than that, Scripture must be rightly understood. It must not be seen as a set of moral musings or a series of grandiose fantasy narratives. No, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, it is a word from God — literally, a word from God about God.
More specifically, The Bible is a word about the true Word: Jesus Christ, God’s Son who came to take away the sins of the world. (John 1:1, 29). The person and work of Jesus Christ is — He must be — the hinge upon which all of Scripture turns. In the Old Testament, everything points forward; in the New Testament, everything points backward.
But what of general revelation? Is it useless? As I said earlier, general revelation — creation-at-large, our moral conscience, etc. — serves only to confuse and condemn. Paul, in Romans 1:20, mentions God’s “invisible attributes” being “clearly perceived” in creation. This, he argues, leaves “them” (in sum: everyone) “without excuse.” Later, in Romans 8:19-22, Paul even talks about creation itself “groaning,” implying a sense of restlessness, incompletion.
There’s the tension. General revelation, without proper interpretation, condemns us all. It may be “clearly perceived” but we are ultimately left “without excuse.” Looking at the mountains and saying, “Oh my, so pretty!” is never an equivalent to “Jesus is Lord.” This necessary interpretation is only offered in Christ; God only blesses the means which he ordains.
So, this seems kind of unfair, doesn’t it? That a loving, omnipotent Creator God would reveal Himself clearly on such a narrow platform — isn’t that kind of arbitrary? Doesn’t this leave so many people who want to be “saved” up the creek without a paddle? Here, we must biblically understand at least two things: the nature of man and the nature of salvation.
First, the nature of man. Romans 1-3 exists, in part, to essentially lay the theological groundwork that everyone is a sinner in need of a Savior — Jew, Gentile, whatever. After Romans 1:20, Paul admits that, sure, these people “knew” God, but… But what? What was their inexcusable sin? It was not a lack of knowledge, not a lack of intellectual assent, but a lack of worship. At its heart, all of our sin is rebellion against God — a peasant’s coup d’état against a divine King.
So, given that general revelation merely ascertains the hopeless fact that we are all idolaters, where does salvation fit in? If, in the deep caverns of our hearts, we genuinely don’t want to be “saved” — at least how Scripture defines it: submission, in faith, to the Lordship of Christ — if all that is true, where’s our hope?
Our hope, our only hope, lies in the special revelation of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Romans 10 speaks to this fact of salvation. What must we confess to be saved? It is not: “Oh, God Who Exists, I don’t know your name, but I love you and I’m sorry.” It is not: “I’ve tried my best to be good. It was hard, but I tried my best. Have mercy.”
No, it is “Jesus is Lord.” (Romans 10:9)
So, a man on an island who never sinned against anyone, who never hurt anyone, but sincerely wanted to be “saved” by whatever God he intuited to exist — he cannot be saved. Why? It’s not because God is a fickle curmudgeon who withholds what we really, really, really want. It’s because this man — and these sort of well-intentioned, but unevangelized men exist in droves — never confessed that Jesus is Lord. Philippians 2:1-11 provides another snapshot of this truth. Notice: eventually, every knee will bow. That’s not a vague universalism; it’s a victorious unveiling, where the “name above every name” finally receive the honor it deserves.
Believing this is absolutely crucial to a robust, biblically-faithful missiological method in our churches. If, in fact, there is another way for Tom Hanks in Cast Away to be saved — whether by a universalistic understanding of his own internal merit or an inclusivistic ethic that denigrates the uniqueness of Christ and champions tolerance over truth — then worldwide missions would be the height of foolishness. Evangelism would become a damning, well-intentioned death sentence. But clearly, given Matthew 28:18-20, this is not the case. The Great Commission is not The Great Condemnation.
Pluralism, the belief “all roads lead to heaven,” is a toxic and misguided idea. In the name of equality and kinship toward the brotherhood of man, it strips Christianity of its uniqueness. Yes, given the common grace of general revelation, we have common ground with everyone. But this common ground must never be overemphasized to the point where the discrepancies are rendered meaningless. Christianity must always guard against the prevailing cultural notions.
God’s gracious, merciful, special revelation culminated with His death on a cross. On that cross, Jesus Christ, the God-Man, conquered death, atoned for sin and acquired salvation for all those who repent and believe. Put simply: on that cross, Jesus lived up to His Name.