(Yesterday I introduced the idea of General and Special Revelation, and talked about the first kind of general revelation, that of God’s testimony to us in the things we can experience with our senses. Today we turn to inward modes of general revelation — the conscience and sense of the divine.)
Just a few verses later, in Romans 2:12-16, Paul introduces us to the second method of general revelation. “For when Gentiles […] do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves,” Paul says. “They show that the word of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness.” In other words, the human conscience, with its innate sense of right and wrong, reveals something about God. What, exactly, does it reveal? A moral code, of course, but also a coming day of judgment: “that day when […] God judges the secrets of men.” Unfortunately, although the consciences of men urge them to adhere to a moral code, they give faulty feedback: “Their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”
Moreover, in addition to an innate sense of right and wrong, man has an innate sense of the divine. From the remotest antiquity to the modern age man has, to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, a God-haunted history, replete with deities of every imaginable type, from Lucretius’s intangible pantheon to the bloodthirsty demon-gods of animism. Paul, standing before the Athenian altar to an unknown god, examines this knowledge of the divine. “I perceive,” he says, “that you are very religious.” (Acts 17:22) Throughout the Old Testament, indeed, no atheistic nation exists; each has its own gods, its own cult and rituals, its own rules for approaching its gods.
The third method or mode of general revelation is God’s providence, or the ways in which he cares for and guides the lives of all people. Jesus himself tells the crowds, in teaching them to do good to both friends and enemies, that the Father “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45) In an impromptu sermon in Lystra, Paul and Barnabas explain God’s providence: “He did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons.” (Acts 14:16-17).
And God’s providence is not merely the vaguely benevolent oversight envisioned by the deist. In the same breath, Paul adds that God’s providential care extends to “satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” (v. 17) The source, therefore, of ordinary joys and daily bread, even for the unbeliever, is the “living God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.” (v. 15) The ordering of world events and leaders also falls under the category of providential care. God casts down nations and kings, political and religious leaders (Psalm 56:7, Ezra 6:12, Lamentations 2:6). “The shields of earth” are in his control and he is exalted over them (Psalm 47:9). He raises up kings (1 Kings 11) and spiritual leaders (1 Samuel 2:35). He establishes the bounds of human authority and makes kings and politicians his servants (Romans 13:4).
Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the category of special revelation.