64 The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth MARCH/APRIL 2016 REVELATION | REV. JOHNNY SERAFINI Without Excuse What Does Nature Show? The Information of Natural Revelation MARCH/APRIL 2016 The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth 65 THE EVIDENCE
Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shown it unto them…. So that they are without excuse. —ROMANS 1:18–32 God has not left Himself without a witness. He has given to us, not only His Word, wherein we learn who He is and who we are, the need we have of a Savior as well as who the Savior is, but also, God has graciously given us natural revelation. Natural revelation has its limits in terms of what it reveals and what it accomplishes; however, being a gift of God, it must be embraced as such, for it serves the supreme purpose of revealing to us that there is a God. As the Belgic Confession says in Article 2, “We know Him by two means: first, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to contemplate the invisible things of God.” This article is based upon Romans 1:18–20, the classical reference to natural revelation. By studying this passage we learn four basic elements: 1) the revelation; 2) the location; 3) the evidence; and 4) the purpose. THE REVELATION Admittedly, natural revelation does not reveal all there is to be known about God, but it does reveal that there is a God as well as essential information about God. Romans 1:20 specifies His eternal power and Godhead as being manifested. In naming these, we must assume they also include, as John Owen says, “the essential properties” of God such as “infinite wisdom, goodness, righteousness, and the like.”1 We must not think that the totality of creation only has two things to teach us about God. Since God reveals His Godhead, which means His divinity or His divine nature, it means He reveals Himself, His Being, and the fact that He is. The phrase “eternal power” speaks of His eternality as well as His omnipotence. Frederic Godet sees these two expressions, “eternal power and Godhead,” as a summary of “the essence of God, and the manifold attributes which distinguish it.” He continues, “this power appears to [man’s] heart clothed with certain moral characteristics, and in particular, wisdom and goodness. He recognizes in the works of this power, in the infinite series of means and ends which are revealed in them, the undeniable traces of benevolence and intelligence.”2 What further substantiates the revelation of God’s goodness in natural revelation is Paul’s declaration to the Athenians. Speaking about God’s creation, Paul said, “[God] left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:15). Another summary statement is found in Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” The term “glory” refers to the totality of who God is. Although nature does not clearly delineate such attributes as God’s mercy, grace, and holiness, it does reveal the majesty of God which is comprised of the sum total of all His attributes. Thus, we could say that mankind is impacted by the mercy, grace, holiness, and patience of God, although all he is able to distinguish more clearly is the fact He exists, that He is eternal, wise and good. THE LOCATION In terms of its location, this revelation is to be found both within and outside of man. Romans 1:20 speaks of how the invisible things of God are clearly seen from the creation of the world “being understood by things that are made.” This refers to God’s creation, His nature, providence, and history. In verse 19 we read, “Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them.” This manifestation is “in them,” hence, inside man; it is in the heart and conscience. Later in Romans, speaking of the natural state of the Gentiles, Paul writes, “Which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another” (2:15). Calvin says, “There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity. This we take to be beyond controversy. To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty.”3 Therefore, mankind is not aware of God merely from the outside but also from the inside. In relation to man, this comprehends everywhere, inside and outside; the innermost recesses of his heart as well as the outermost corners of the cosmos. Man indeed “sees God in everything round about him…. The whole creation testifies with many voices that man is created in the image of God, and therefore cannot find rest except in God,”4 as Louis Berkhof remarks. We can say that we are surrounded and inundated with the awareness and manifestation of God. These verses also present a four-fold degree of evidence as to the clarity of this revelation. We apprehend it feebly due to our weakness and sinfulness, but God’s revelation has nothing weak about it. First, Paul says these “invisible things of him” are clearly seen. This means they can be perceived and discerned clearly. They are invisible, and yet not hidden. They cannot be seen with the human eye, yet are perceived clearly by the heart of man. This refers to sense perception. Secondly, Paul also says, they can be “understood by the things that are made.” Man thinks upon these things, he ponders upon them and understands them. This refers to mind perception. Furthermore, this is an affirmation. These invisible things of God are understood. It is an established fact. Man is not evaluating whether there is a God or not, but rather, he stands convicted by his own clear perception and understanding. The third degree of evidence as to the clarity of God’s revelation is in verse 21 where Paul says, “when they knew God.” Again, Scripture is establishing a fact, “when they came to learn of God, understood God, came to know Him.” He is known. This is the result of sense and mind perception; information is stored and settled in the mind in the form of knowledge. Fourthly, in verse 28 Paul speaks of their not liking to “retain God in their knowledge.” The word “retain” adds to the certainty of the knowledge of God in the mind of man. Man “holds” this knowledge, he possesses it. Although he may seek to lose this knowledge by ridding himself of it, he cannot. In summary, evaluating all four levels of clarity, we learn that God’s revelation is 1) perceived with the senses; 2) perceived with the mind; and therefore is 3) known and 4) impossible to be “un-known.” THE PURPOSE The simple expression, “so that they are without excuse,” is a purpose statement. God’s manifestation of His eternal power and Godhead has the express purpose of convicting man of the truth of God—that He is. God made us and desires us to know Him. It is a manifestation of His love, of His generosity to His creatures, especially knowing what we would have incurred in the fall. The fact that God desires us to know Him, that He is God, all powerful and divine, almighty and eternal, is akin to a father telling his lost children he is their legitimate father, so that they would acknowledge and come to him. What follows in Romans 1:21–32 is a sad declaration of what happens to those who do not acknowledge God by refusing and neglecting His natural revelation. The barrage of sins that cascade into greater and greater darkness manifest that a life of sinfulness is a life of judgment and of punishment for not having acknowledged God by faith and repentance. James Boyce says, “There is enough evidence of God in a flower to lead a child as well as a scientist to worship him. There is sufficient evidence in a tree, a pebble, a grain of sand, a fingerprint, to make us glorify God and thank him.”5 Thus, men are rendered without excuse. The revelation inside of us as well as outside of us is overpowering and resolute. For man to resist this he must be very active. It is not a matter of passivity, but one of great activity: actively suppressing the truth with unrighteousness. Sinning is the manner by which man seeks to diffuse, cover over, and suppress the truth within and without. For conversion, we need special revelation. How gracious God is to have given us special as well as natural revelation. We must always remember the preeminence of special over natural revelation. With both, the true believer is enabled to do as Berkhof says, “He reads God’s general revelation with the eye of faith and in the light of God’s Word and for that very reason is able to see God’s hand in nature, and his footsteps in history,”6 which will, in turn, enable us to give God the glory due to His name and have hearts full of gratitude.
Used with permission • The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth July/August 2019