The Role of General Revelation
General revelation is what God reveals about Himself through nature and through the human conscience. In all creation, there is abundant evidence that a God made and designed everything. From the amazing beauty and complexity of plants and animals to the towering heights of mountains to the myriad vastness of the heavens, creation testifies and declares the glory of God (Psalm 19).
Furthermore, God has placed the knowledge of Himself inside the human heart. As they look at creation, people instinctively know that there is something bigger than them out there; they are aware of the general principles of God’s Law such as the wrongness of murder and the rightness of telling the truth (Romans 1:19-20).
Yet general revelation is in itself insufficient to instruct the person about God and even about how to live rightly. Why? Because sin has come into the world and drawn a heavy veil over the eyes of humans, so that they no longer can rightly perceive truth or fully follow it. At best, thanks to God’s restraining common grace, they can incompletely understand certain aspects of creation or even delight in the beautiful things that God has placed in this world. However, they do not delight in the Creator who made these things, but rather twist them to their own selfish ends.
For example, a very common view among people who are outdoors a lot is that being in the beautiful wild country (like that around Missoula) is in itself a religious experience, sufficient to create peace and contentment in their hearts. “This is my church!” exclaimed a friend of mine on a recent hike, waving his hands towards the majestic Bitterroot Mountains. The renowned naturalist John Muir also expressed similar sentiments about Yosemite Valley (back in the days before it became commercialized), calling it a “cathedral not made with human hands.”
But there is something sorely lacking here in general revelation, even if we discount the blindness of the sinful human heart. At best, general revelation can only show how magnificent and powerful God is; it does not tell us anything about God’s plan of salvation or how to have fellowship with Him. The human heart, being sinful, then makes up subjective ideas about how to “get in tune” with “spirituality.” It sees something wonderful, yet is unable to properly interpret it.
This is where special revelation comes in, which God gave to His people through prophets and apostles and is now written down in the Bible. Special revelation clarifies and encapsulates general revelation within its proper context. It shows mankind how to properly relate to God; that men need to trust in Jesus Christ to be saved from their terrible sin which so distorts their understanding and perception of all the glorious and beautiful things around them. Both types of revelation fit together as hand in glove.
General revelation, thus, is intended to show all humanity the splendor, majesty, and justice of God. It is not meant to be embraced apart from special revelation, but joins together with it to show humans how amazing their Creator is. By itself, it is sufficient to convict people of the fact that there is a God and that He has standards which they cannot measure up to. In other words, it is entirely law and contains no gospel. General revelation is an amazing and good law, but people who depend only on it cannot be saved from their sins. Rather, the gospel which special revelation brings enables one to fully appreciate general revelation for what it is – a witness of the glory of God which He lavishly showers across the whole universe, enjoyed and revered by His redeemed people.
For more reading see Belgic Confession, Article 2, and the first six chapters of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.