Read Romans 1:18-32. Consult two scholarly New Testament commentaries. Using the materials from the commentaries, briefly construct your understanding of the doctrine of general revelation. What is the difference between general revelation and special revelation? How do you relate this doctrine to the status of unbelievers? What relevance does general revelation and the status of unbelievers have for missions?
Our God is a God who reveals himself to us. Theologians usually distinguish between two ways in which God reveals himself to humanity: general revelation and special revelation. What is general revelation? How does it differ from special revelation? How does this doctrine relate to the status of unbelievers? What relevance does general revelation and the status of unbelievers have for missions? Answering these questions helps us to gain a better comprehension of how God relates to his image bearers.
Romans 1:18-32 provides a good starting point in understanding general revelation. In this passage, Paul writes about the existence of God’s wrath against fallen humanity. He begins: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (v. 18). But how have people suppressed the truth in unrighteousness? Paul responds: “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” (vv. 19-20). In these verses, we see Paul describing general revelation. He writes of the invisible God reveling himself through his visible creation. As a result, people know about God. Specifically, humanity knows about his eternal power and divine nature. Since everyone knows God, they are held accountable for their rejection of him—they are without excuse. Therefore, God gives them over to their corruption and sin (vv. 21-32).
This revelation is different from the special revelation that God gives in Scripture. John Stott provides a helpful explanation of how general revelation differs from special revelation. First, it is universal (given to everybody everywhere), whereas special revelation is particular (given to particular people in particular places). Second, it is natural (made through the natural order), whereas special revelation is supernatural (involving the incarnation of the Son and the inspiration of Scripture). Third, it is continuous (ongoing since creation), whereas special revelation is final (finished in Christ and Scripture). Fourth, it is creational (revealing God’s glory through creation), whereas special revelation is salvific (revealing God’s grace in Christ). Consequently, distinguishing between general and special revelation proves helpful in appreciating the ways by which God reveals himself to humanity.
Nevertheless, since general revelation is universal, how does it relate to the status of unbelievers? The knowledge of God given through general revelation is not enough to save them, only to condemn them. As Paul states, “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” (v. 21). General revelation renders unbelievers guilty before God, but it does not provide any avenue of hope. Thomas Schreiner explains, “The knowledge of God described is hardly a saving knowledge. Paul’s purpose is to show that the knowledge of God that all people have through observing the created order is suppressed (v. 18) and distorted (vv. 21-23), so that all without exception have no excuse (v. 20). . . . The argument is not that most people are under the power of sin, but that all people, without exception, are under the dominion of sin.” There are no exceptions and no excuses. Every individual knows God, but he or she suppresses this truth in unrighteousness. As a result, God’s wrath abides on all.
Unbelievers stand condemned before God—their knowledge from general revelation condemning them. This truth should propel Christians to mission work. Apart from the gospel message of Jesus Christ, unbelievers face God’s wrath. Later in the book of Romans, Paul wrote: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, ‘HOW BEAUTIFUL ARE THE FEET OF THOSE WHO BRING GOOD NEWS OF GOOD THINGS!’” (10:14-15) God’s special revelation in Scripture has been entrusted to his people so that we can reach out to God’s fallen world with it, proclaiming the hope of restoration in Christ. God has given his people a tremendous responsibility, but he empowers us in our task as we seek to accomplish his will.
Our God is a revealing God. He reveals himself to humanity in two ways: general revelation and special revelation. While different, both complement each other. The first brings accountability and guilt, while the second brings hope and salvation. With this in mind, followers of Christ have been commissioned by our Savior to proclaim his good news to a world that desperately needs to hear it. Through humanity responding to his revelation, God is glorified.
John R.W. Stott, The Message of Romans, in The Bible Speaks Today, ed. John R.W. Stott (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press), 73.
Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, in Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Moisés Silva (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic), 85-86.