The word revelation means disclosing or making known something previously unknown. In theology, revelation is God making Himself known to humanity. And this revelation is generally considered in a two-fold manner: (a) General revelation, and (b) Special revelation.
It is call General because this revelation is given to all people. In General revelation, God reveals Himself to all people inwardly, through creation, and by His works. The apostle Paul writes:
"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 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" (Rom. 1.18-20).
The judgment of God falls on those who "suppress the truth in unrighteousness." And this truth they suppressed, says Paul, was revealed both within them and by creation.
General revelation is universal, given to all. It reveals God's existence, glory, power, wisdom, and divine nature (Rom. 1:18-20; 2:14-15; Ps. 19:1-3; Acts 14.8-18). However, general revelation is limited because it does not reveal such attributes as God's saving grace, mercy, forgiveness, and electing love. Most important, general revelation cannot reveal God's plan of salvation. Despite these limitations, general revelation gives humanity knowledge of God's existence, and the obligation to worship Him. Therefore, all are without excuse for failing to worship the true and living God.
Special revelation is God revealing Himself directly to a person or persons. A few examples are: God speaking with Moses in the burning bush, God speaking in dreams, visions, through the Prophets, and even personal visitations (called theophanies, see Gen. 18). The greatest, however, of all God's special revelation is the incarnation of Jesus Christ: "If you had known Me," said Christ, "you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him and have seen Him" (Jn. 14.7). In contrast to General revelation, special revelation is not given to all.
In the past God used many different ways in revealing Himself individualistically. But with the writing of the New Testament God gave His final revelation regarding His plans, purposes, and will (Jude 3; 2 Tm 3:16; Heb 1:1-3). Nothing else is needed; nothing else is to be sought. While God continues to reveal Himself in nature and conscious, Special revelation has ceased:
"God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son" (Heb. 1:1-2).
Through the revelation of the Scriptures, God provides a clear description of who He is and what He is like, and reveals His plan of redemption in His Son Jesus Christ. Without this revelation, humanity could not have the necessary knowledge needed to be restored to fellowship with God. But with this knowledge, special revelation has ended.
Statements of Our Creeds:
The Belgic Confession of Faith, Article II
By What Means God Is Made Known unto Us:
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 see clearly the invisible things of God, even his everlasting power and divinity", as the apostle Paul says (Rom. 1:20). All which things are sufficient to convince men and leave them without excuse. Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to His glory and our salvation.
The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter I
Of the Holy Scripture:
Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.
- Rom. 1:19-20; 1:32-2:1; 2:14-15; Psa. 19:1-4
- John 17:3; I Cor. 1:21; 2:13-14
- Heb. 1:1-2
- Luke 1:3-4; Rom. 15:4; Matt. 4:4, 7, 10; Isa. 8:20
- II Tim. 3:15; II Peter 1:19
- John 20:31; I Cor. 10:11; 14:37; I John 5:13; Heb. 1:1-2; 2:2-4
- Q2: How doth it appear that there is a God?
- A2: The very light of nature in man, and the works of God, declare plainly that there is a God; but his word and Spirit only do sufficiently and effectually reveal him unto men for their salvation.
- Rom. 1:19-20; Psa. 19:1-3; Acts 17:28
- I Cor. 2:9-10; II Tim. 3:15-17; Isa 59:21