The Significance Of General Revelation
In previous articles, we observed the means God uses to reveal His truth to all mankind in general. This article examines the significance of general revelation.
The Significance for the Unsaved
General revelation has a threefold significance for the unsaved. First, it explains the religious nature of most people in the world. All over the world, there are people who worship some being or thing. The Scriptures indicate that false religions are the result of the unsaved reaction to and perversion of general revelation.
As noted in an earlier article, in Romans 1 the Apostle Paul discussed unsaved people who willfully reject the reality of God’s existence, which is clearly revealed through general revelation to all mankind. They do not want to accept His existence because of the practical implications it will have on their unrighteous philosophy of life, values, and lifestyle. In other words, they do this, not because intellectually they cannot believe in God’s existence, but because volitionally they do not want to accept it (vv. 18–21). In spite of this, they try to make it appear that they must reject God’s existence for intellectual reasons. Thus, they assert that they are wise to reject the reality that is clearly revealed through general revelation (v. 22).
The rejection of reality is the pinnacle of stupidity, not wisdom, and it incites foolish actions (vv. 21–22). It prompts people to invent the lie that their existence and well-being are dependent upon parts of creation rather than the true Creator God. As a result, they mistakenly worship and serve different parts of creation instead of the God who created it (v. 25). In other words, they develop false religions.
Paul gave two examples of this foolishness—religions (such as those of ancient Greece and Rome) that worship images human in form, and religions (such as those of ancient Egypt) that worship images of animals (v. 23). The current trends toward pantheism, nature worship, and the deification of man are other examples of false religions developing as the result of the unsaved reaction to and willful perversion of the knowledge concerning God revealed through general revelation.
Second, general revelation gives the unsaved enough knowledge to prompt them to seek the true God, but not enough to know Him personally or be saved. Paul indicated this in his address to the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17. After talking about the Creator God and significant things that He has done for all mankind in general (vv. 24–26), Paul stated that God did these things so “That they should seek the Lord” (v. 27).
The fact that general revelation by itself does not give the unsaved enough knowledge to know God personally or be saved is evident from several biblical statements. Jesus declared, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (Jn. 14:6). Peter said concerning Jesus: “Neither is there salvation in any other; for there is no other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Paul clearly taught that, regardless of background, the only way a person can know the true God personally or be saved is through faith in Jesus Christ. In order to place faith in Him, a person must hear the truth about Him (Rom. 10:9–15).
These statements strongly assert two truths. First, Jesus Christ is the only way to a personal, saving relationship with the only true God. He is not one of several ways. Second, unless people hear the truth about Jesus Christ and believe in Him, they cannot know the true God personally or be saved.
Although general revelation is given to all mankind, it does not contain or communicate the truth concerning Jesus Christ; therefore, by itself it does not give enough knowledge for the unsaved to know God personally or be saved. The knowledge necessary for salvation is part of another kind of revelation (special revelation, which is God’s uncovering of knowledge through special means not always available to all mankind in general).
What can be said, then, about people who never hear about Christ? Are they really lost? Can God hold them responsible for their unbelief if they never receive the truth necessary for salvation?
It is my understanding that the answer to these questions is found in a principle derived from two incidents recorded in Acts. The first incident involved the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8). It is apparent that this man had been exposed to more than general revelation. The fact that he traveled from Africa to Jerusalem to worship indicates that he had accepted Israel’s God as the true God (v. 27). It also is apparent that he was responding properly to the revelation he had—he was seeking God even more by reading the Scriptures while returning home (v. 28). It should be noted, however, that this man had not heard the truth about Jesus Christ and, therefore, had not believed in Him for salvation (vv. 32–35).
Because this person was responding properly to the revelation he had by genuinely seeking the true God, God responded by commanding Philip to travel to Gaza—a long distance from where he was conducting a successful evangelistic ministry in Samaria—to meet with this one man (vv. 26–29). Philip preached to him the truth concerning Jesus, and the man believed in Jesus and was baptized (vv. 35–38).
The second incident involved Cornelius, a Roman centurion who was stationed in Caesarea in Israel (Acts 10). It seems obvious that Cornelius had been exposed to some special revelation, no doubt through Jews in Israel, because, although he was an Italian Gentile, He had rejected the pagan worship of Rome and had become a devout worshiper of Israel’s God as the true God (vv. 1–2). It also is obvious that he was responding properly to the revelation he had, because he was seeking God by praying to Him “always” (v. 2). It should be noted, however, that Cornelius had not heard that the truth about Jesus Christ was for Gentiles; therefore, he had not believed in Him for salvation (11:13–14).
Because Cornelius was responding properly to the revelation he had by genuinely seeking God, God responded by sending an angel to instruct Cornelius to send for Peter, who would tell him how he could be saved (10:3–8; 11:13–14). Then God convinced Peter that he should go to this Gentile’s home (10:9–20). Peter began his message by declaring, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons,” indicating that the truth about Christ was for Gentiles as well as Jews (vv. 34–35). Then he preached the truth about Christ, and Cornelius believed in Jesus for salvation, as evidenced by the fact that he received the Holy Spirit and was baptized (vv. 36–48).
It appears that a significant principle by which God operates can be perceived through these incidents. If people respond properly to the revelation they have received (whether general or special) by acknowledging the existence of the one true Creator God and seeking a personal relationship with Him, God will provide them with the additional special revelation (the truth about Jesus Christ) necessary for salvation, so they can believe and become saved. This principle is in line with Hebrews 11:6, which declares, “he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.”
On the other hand, if people do not respond properly to the revelation they have received, God is not unjust or unfair if He does not provide to them the revelation necessary for salvation. This leads to the conclusion that if people never hear the gospel of Jesus Christ, it is because they have not responded properly to the revelation they already have.
This perceived principle has a definite relationship to the third significance of general revelation for the unsaved. It renders them without excuse. In Romans 1, after talking about the unsaved who willfully reject the reality of God’s existence clearly revealed through general revelation to all mankind, the Apostle Paul declared, “they are without excuse” (v. 20). Obviously this rejection by the unsaved is not a proper response to the revelation they have received; therefore, even if they never hear the truth about Jesus Christ, they have no valid excuse for their lack of salvation. Thus, the unsaved who never hear the message of salvation are just as lost as those who do hear it but never believe.
Since all people everywhere throughout history have been exposed to general revelation, that revelation has the same threefold significance for every person who has ever lived.
The Significance for God
General revelation has a twofold significance for God. First, it gives Him opportunity to bestow some aspects of His grace upon all mankind. Jesus declared that God “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt. 5:45). In Acts 14:15–17, Paul and Barnabas stated that the true Creator God gives evidence of His benevolent existence by doing good things for all people, including unsaved Gentiles, through nature—such things as giving them rain for their crops, fruitful seasons, abundant food, and gladness (see also Acts 17:24–28). Since these divine blessings through nature are common to all people, theologians have called these aspects of God’s grace “common grace.”
Second, general revelation further justifies God’s judgment of the unsaved who do not turn to Him. As noted earlier, the unsaved are without excuse if they do not respond properly to the general revelation given to them (Rom. 1:18–20).
The Significance for Christians
General revelation has a twofold significance for Christians. First, it gives them a point of contact or common ground with the unsaved when witnessing. Since all people have been exposed to general revelation, it is something that Christians and unbelievers have in common from God. Therefore, it provides believers with a good starting point for witness, especially with unsaved people who have never been exposed to any kind of special revelation, such as the Scriptures. Paul used general revelation as the starting point of his witness to unsaved Gentiles in Lystra (Acts 14:15–17) and Athens (Acts 17:23–31) who did not have the Scriptures.
Second, general revelation confirms the faith of Christians. It reassures them that they have not placed their faith in cunningly devised fables. Their faith is based upon reality and is, therefore, not in vain.
Because we are all privy to general revelation, we have no excuse not to seek more information about the Creator, and when we do, we will be provided with the revelation necessary for our salvation through Jesus Christ.