The Testimony of Creation

In making a distinction between general and special revelation, Herman Bavinck says that,

‘In the general revelation God makes use of the usual run of phenomena and the usual course of events; in the special revelation He often employs unusual means, appearances, prophecy, and miracle to make Himself known to man. The contents of the first kind are especially the attributes of power, wisdom, and goodness; those of the second kind are especially God’s holiness, and righteousness, compassion and grace. The first is directed to all men and, by means of common grace, serves to restrain the eruption of sin; the second comes to all those who live under the Gospel and has as its glory, by special grace, the forgiveness of sins and the renewal of life.’[1]

With this definition in mind, we can see that God has placed a specific type of knowledge of Himself within the created order. This serves as a sort of signature on His handiwork. Paul says in Romans 1 that God’s wrath is revealed against unbelieving for their suppression of this very truth (v. 18). He goes on to say that this is because ‘what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.’ (v. 19, italics mine). The term ‘plain’ (Greek phaneros) implies that this knowledge is kept intentionally apparent. Why is the knowledge of God intentionally apparent to all? Because God has chosen to show (Greek phaneroo) or manifest it in such a way. This is the reason why man is said to be without excuse in verse 20 when he suppresses the knowledge of God, for suppression implies intentional negligence of what God has revealed. It is taking hold of such truth and then purposefully casting it by the wayside. Thus, while God is intentionally revealing Himself through the means of creation, man, in his rebellion against God and in the hardness of his heart, is intentionally suppressing such revelation.

Regardless of man’s attempt in suppressing the truth, such revelation presents to him the undeniable proof of the Creator’s presence, and while it seems to be evident that the understanding of such revelation is subject to the individual’s own interpretation or acknowledgment (however biased or hardened it may be), there is no reason to suggest that man will be capable of claiming ignorance on the day of judgment.

In furthering this argument, Paul says in verse 20 that, ‘His (God’s) invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.’ God’s power can be seen in the raging of a storm (Nah. 1:3), His wisdom in the clothing of a flower with beauty (Mt. 6:29), and His goodness which makes the sun to shine on both the wicked and the just (Mt. 5:45). Granted, there is a valid appeal to the supremacy of special revelation (i.e., the Bible) in interpreting such works to us, but to say that the ‘book’ of creation is silent in terms of appealing to God’s existence, is to claim willful ignorance.

Psalm 19:1-2 specifically speaks to the way in which ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.’ Notice the usage of anthropomorphic language prescribed to creation. This is not intended to promote a pantheistic revealing of God as though He were somehow unified with creation and speaking through it. Rather, in a beautifully poetic way, God has given a distinct voice to nature, which proclaims His excellencies, or as Paul says, His ‘eternal power and divine nature.’ Surely, this is not a dialect we learn in primary school, yet it is still intelligible. It is meant to be heard and understood, for God has crafted the universe with such a purpose in mind.

The Testimony of Conscience

In the second place, through the means of conscience, God has placed within man a ‘moral compass’ of sorts, which testifies to the existence of an objective moral law. We call this the conscience. This reflection of the moral law upon our consciences coincides with the reality that we were made in the image of God, and have the unique purpose of bearing His image in the world. As a result of the fall, this image has indeed been decimated, yet not in such a way that has rendered it completely non-existent. Even in the vilest of mankind, there remains a reflection of our Creator’s image. For example, out of all creatures which God has made, we alone possess the ability to reason and appreciate beauty. We are able to logically contemplate between two varying decisions or opinions and choose that which we believe to be the best. This is quite a contrast to creatures in the animal kingdom who operate within the realm of instinct. Furthermore, we are able to appreciate beauty and have expressed such appreciation in the form of the arts and architecture. Certainly, creatures in the animal kingdom have the ability to create. We may consider a beaver constructing a dam or a bird building a nest. Yet these are done out of mere necessity, whereas man expresses creativity out of both necessity, as well as for the purpose of pleasure and aesthetics. Thus, our capacity to reason and creatively design provides a unique commonality between God and man which no other creature possesses. For God too is a rational and creative Being (and infinitely more so), and He has chosen to reflect this likeness through man, who is the crown of His creation.

In a similar fashion, the conscience provides a link between man and God as well. God is a moral being. In the same way that He is infinitely rational and infinitely creative, we could also say that He is infinitely moral. ‘His Work is perfect, for all His ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is He.’ (Deut. 32:4). As being an image bearer, man displayed God’s perfect morality as well. Due to the repercussions of the fall, we clearly see that this is no longer the case. Man now falls short of the glory of God in all its perfections. Yet, in God’s great wisdom, He has left a testimony that such perfection exists through the means of the conscience.’

Our primary text for consideration on this subject is Romans 2:14-15. This follows our previously observed text in Romans 1, where Paul condemns man on the basis of creation’s testimony. Now in Chapter two, he takes it even further to define man’s condemnation as being evidenced through the conscience as well. He says, ‘When Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them…’

The first thing to notice is that those spoken of here ‘do not have the law.’ This would imply that the condemnation Paul is about to set forth finds validation even in the absence of special revelation. This provides further evidence to the legitimacy of natural revelation giving testimony to the existence of living God and, as we see here, His law as well. Second, is that such individuals operate on a moral plane of existence. The Gentile people who have not received the special revelation of God function within the realm of morality and, at times, obey certain elements of the objective moral law. Albeit, this is done imperfectly since anything done outside of faith is sin (Rom. 14:23). Yet, thirdly, this proves that the ‘work of the law is written on their hearts.’ This stands as a witness that their future condemnation will be just. In becoming ‘a law to themselves,’ they have proven the legitimacy of God’s perfect, moral law, and the burden of their conscience bears witness to the objective nature of morality which God has defined. Objective in that their standard of morality does not originate from themselves, nor from the pressures of society. It exists outside of them and stands as a witness against them that their works are evil.

In sum, we can say this; God is a perfectly moral and righteous being. In creating man in His likeness, He equipped man with various characteristics of His so as to shine forth His image in creation. Though man has fallen, he still bears a certain likeness to his Creator. One of the ways in which this likeness shows forth is through the conscience. The conscience serves the purpose of holding men accountable to God’s perfect moral standard. He has written His law upon our hearts in such a way that we are conscious that such standards exist, whether we acknowledge their origins or not. So while creation testifies of God’s existence, conscience testifies to His law.

The Testimony of Creation and Conscience, and Their Place in Evangelism

Although these two forms of general revelation can teach us much, they are impoverished in the way of providing us with salvific knowledge and forgiveness. Despite this, it is true that in our counseling of men outside the fold of Christ, our first priority should be to remind them of the natural means of revelation. Most men have spent their lives living as though God is non-existent and seek to keep Him out of their thoughts as much as possible. Thus, in bringing the self-evident truths of God’s existence to their attention (through creation and conscience), we are reminding them of that which they already know, yet have held in contempt. From there, the content of special revelation is most readily received. Once man has become aware of his accountability to the Creator, then we are able to further define the Creator through the language of special revelation, namely the Word of God.  Such is the approach of Paul in Athens. In a city full of false gods and idolatrous worship, he comes proclaiming the One True God who reigns over all of heaven and earth. These Athenians who were ‘in every way…very religious’ (Acts 17:22) had seen the craftsmanship and wisdom of God throughout creation, and yet, without the aid of special revelation, they had fabricated gods for themselves whom neither saw, heard, or spoke. So even though they had acknowledged God’s handiwork, they were still held guilty because they had not acknowledged His revealed person.

In appealing to what they already knew of God through creation, Paul shines forth the light of special revelation as a means of further revealing the truth of this God, which they had suppressed in unrighteousness. He proclaims that the ‘The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth [who] does not live in temples made by man, nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything since He himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place…’ (v. 24-26). Four truths about God stand out in these two verses (certainly, there are more but for our purposes, we will limit to four). First is that God is the Creator omnipotent. He ‘made the world and everything in it.’ Second, He is omnipresent and self-sustaining. ‘being Lord of heaven and earth [who] does not live in temples made by man, nor is He served by human hands.’ Third, He is omnibenevolent. ‘He Himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.’ Fourth, He is sovereign Lord over all of His creation. ‘having determined…’

From this, we see that if man is to know the living God, then he must know Him on His terms. False ideas about God lead to false worship of God, and Paul begins by correcting such ideas.

In verses 29-31, he goes on to say, ‘Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom He has appointed; and of this He has given assurance to all by raising Him from the dead.’

Here Paul first condemns the idols crafted by these Athenians as being ‘formed by the…imagination of man.’ He utilizes the words of a Greek poet, Aratus, to prove his point (‘Being then God’s offspring). ‘If man is the offspring of God, as the Greek poet suggested, it is foolish to think that God could be nothing more than a man-made idol’[2] This is a stark rebuke of Athenian worship as it attributed the sum total of their religious lives to mere imagination. Yet in seeking to awaken man from his idolatrous slumber, we often must utilize such boldness. This holds relevance for us today as well. Although we do not encounter many who are indulged in the same sort of idol worship as the men of Athens, the basic principle holds true. The truth of God is evident to every man, and because of this, man has sought to define God on his own terms. So while we may not be confronting men who bow to statues of gold, silver, and stone, we do confront men who have created a false image of God within their own hearts and bow to the work of their own creation.

Second is the call for repentance. Repentance from what? In this case, it would be from the false ideologies and forms of worship that the Athenians had attributed to God. ‘God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth. (Jn. 4:24). To worship God in any other way than the one in which He Himself has defined is sin and must be repented of. This is not a suggestion, but as Paul says, God has commanded such repentance.

Third, repentance is necessary because judgment is imminent. The Lord has appointed ‘a day’ on which to judge, and ‘a man’ by whom such judgment on sin will come forth. This ‘man,’ although not explicitly named, is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ. It is He who will judge the world in perfect righteousness, thus condemning both the unbelieving and false worshippers together.

Fourth, judgment is imminent because the Son is risen. Not only does the resurrection signify the believer’s righteous standing before God, but it also provides assurance that the sinner will be righteously judged by God. This is the exclamation point on Paul’s sermon to the Athenians. They had been living in their own righteousness and worshipping God in their own way, with no thought of the judgment of God that is to come. But Paul, in an act of mercy, thunders forth the truth of God’s nature, the Gospel of His Son, and the immanent judgment against the unrighteous. He puts an end to their ignorance and demands repentance from their idolatrous ways.

This may seem like an unusual sermon because of the unusual vagueness that Paul uses in speaking about Christ, but I would argue that this was intentional on Paul’s part through the prompting of the Spirit. Just as the sermon began with a consideration of the altar to the unknown God, so it ends by proclaiming the Gospel of the unknown Son. Whatever the case may be, we learn in verse 34 that it was enough to cause some to believe. The terminology used (some men joined him and believed) could imply a succession, as in they joined him, heard the Gospel with more clarity, and then believed. Or it could be that they joined him simply because they believed. At any rate, I believe that this sermon is a wonderful example of how the natural order, and even the falsities of modern believism, can be used to shine forth the glory of the Gospel of grace. Certainly, the Athenians can serve as an example of all men who undoubtedly know of God through the works of creation and the testimony of conscience, yet suppress such truth in their unrighteousness. While Paul’s message of the truth of God, judgment against sin, the need for repentance, and the Lordship of Christ remains ever relevant for us today!

[1] Bavinck, Herman. The Wonderful Works of God: Instruction in the Christian Religion According to the Reformed Confession. Westminster Seminary Press, 2019, 21.

[2] MacArthur Study Bible. See note on Acts 17:29