Q.3: How may we know there is a God?
A. The light of nature in man and the works of God plainly declare there is a God;1 but His Word and Spirit only do it fully and effectually for the salvation of sinners.2
1Romans 1:19-20; Psalm 19:1-3; Acts 17:24
21 Corinthians 2:10; 2 Timothy 3:15-16
I have long taken issue with the use of the terms nature and natural in discussions of God’s divine revelation. To suggest that revelation can be natural is to suggest that it could be something other than divine in origin. Indeed, nothing about divine revelation is natural. What is meant by many theologians when they refer to natural revelation might best be rendered cosmic revelation.
When referring to natural revelation, what is meant is that which God reveals to us about Himself through His created order. However, post-Darwin, the term nature has come to mean something vastly different than what it once meant. Where the pre-moderns may have been referring to the created order when they referenced nature, Charles Darwin and his humanist predecessors have redefined nature as an undirected, impersonal, random order of events and laws in the vast universe. Thus, the Christian sojourning through a modernist society does himself and the Bible a great disservice to persist in the use of the term natural revelation.
The Baptist Catechism uses a similar term to describe one aspect of cosmic revelation (cosmos from ὁ κόσμος, or the created order): “The light of nature in man…” Another way to describe this is the internal witness. The catechism breaks up cosmic revelation into two categories. God’s existence is attested to us by (a) the internal witness of the conscience and (b) the external witness of God’s works of creation and providence.
“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,” (Romans 1:19-20; NASB).
Notice how Paul writes that what is known about God is evident within His human creatures. This line of reasoning refers to the internal witness of the conscience. Because men know right and wrong, and have an innate sense of justice, we can know that God must exist. We are confronted with this undeniable fact every time we read a news story about a child being victimized. Our hearts cry out for justice. We are aware, deep within ourselves, that love demands a verdict.
We also know that anyone who would pass such a judgment, loving though He may be, must be absolutely perfect in order to render such a verdict. As a result, we are struck with a dilemma. If God exists and loves that child enough to punish her abuser, He must in His infinite perfection punish me for the crimes I have committed against Him. Such an undeniable truth causes people to make all kinds of irrational claims.
The first is the outright denial of God’s existence. God cannot exist, goes the argument, or else I would have to be punished. The second is the denial of absolute truth in the realm of ethics and morality. We cannot rightly deny the existence of absolute truth in medicine or physics, because that would lead to utter insanity on those fields. Absolute truth cannot exist, goes the argument, or else there would be one universal standard of justice under which I must be punished.
All that is left is to outright deny justice or love, which only leads to nihilism and the pure futility of an unlivable life. These are all the mere suppressions of the internal witness to God’s existence. All that is within us screams to us that God exists, therefore absolute truth exists and, with it, love and justice.
“The heavens are telling the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.
Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
Their voice is not heard,” (Psalm 19:1-3; NASB).
Alongside the internal witness to God’s existence is the external witness. Yes, we live in a fallen world, but it is still a universe that undeniably declares the glory of God. The mere existence and grand design of the created order attests to His great work of creation. The perpetuity of the cosmos generally and of humanity specifically attests to God’s great work of providence. Yet, for all of the telling, for all of the declaring, for all of the pouring forth of speech, and for all the revelation of knowledge, there is no speech and there are no words, for their voice is not heard. Men, in our sin, suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness.
Paul argued for the existence of this great God in his sermon on Mars Hill. He did not waste time giving an over-abundance of evidence or trying to convince these Roman philosophers of the existence of God. Rather, He recognizes that they must know He exists: “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands,” (Acts 17:24; NASB). Paul assumes they have the “light of nature,” that internal witness. He assumes they have looked up at the stars and, perhaps, examined their immediate surroundings and have picked up on the undeniability of God.
Paul’s goal was not to try to argue from a neutral position of, “Perhaps you are right and the Christian God of the Bible does not exist,” to a more Christian position. Paul’s goal was to assert the authority and superiority of the Christian position and to defend that non-neutral position with gentleness and reverence (1Pt. 3:15). Paul understood that they had sufficient witness (both internal and external) to God’s existence. His goal was to remind them of what they already knew and stand firm on it.
Sinful men are accountable for their sinful, foolish denials of God. They are without excuse. What then does cosmic, or general, revelation accomplish? It renders men speechless and excuseless before an eternally holy and just God. This is why we do missions. Some say that men are saved from God’s wrath on the basis of what they do with the light they have been given. If they do not hear the gospel, they may be saved by virtue of the fact that they did not reject it. Were this the case, there would be no reason whatever to do missions.
Rather, the reason we do missions, the reason Christ came as the first Missionary, is because men see the glory and goodness of God in the internal and external witness but, apart from the preaching of the gospel, they cannot turn from their sin and receive the cleansing of the new birth with all that it entails.
“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?” (Rom. 10:14; NASB).
Men must then have not only the internal and external witness in order to be saved; they must also have the witness of the word of God and His Spirit. Where cosmic revelation falls on ears that cannot hear and eyes that cannot see, God’s word and Spirit open the ears and restore the sight. Where general revelation is only sufficient for the condemnation of men, His special revelation is fully sufficient to save him to the uttermost.
“and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness,” (2Tim. 3:15-16; NASB).
However, God’s word alone is not sufficient salvation in the strictest manner of speaking, because God Himself must also attest to it. He does so through His Spirit: “For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God,” (1 Corinthians 2:10; NASB). The word of God is merely words on page just like any other words on a page apart from the work of the Holy Spirit to illumine him who reads or hears it.