The Westminster Confession of Faith is one of the most important Protestant confessions, for it gave substantial definition to Reformed theology in the seventeenth century. It is often compared to similar confessions of faith, such as the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Scots Confession, and the Thirty-Nine Articles.
There was an internal debate as to where to begin a study of Reformed theology: with the doctrine of God or with the doctrine of Scripture. It is significant that the Westminster divines began their confessional statement with sacred Scripture. They were concerned about two principles. One, which is at the very heart of Christianity, is the concept of divine revelation. Christianity is a revealed religion, constructed not on the basis of speculative philosophy but in response to what God Himself has made manifest. Second is the principle of sola Scriptura, developed by the Reformers. It acknowledges that the final authority in all matters of theology and in all controversies of faith and life is not the decrees or traditions of the church but sacred Scripture itself. The Westminster Confession affirms the central importance and sufficiency of Scripture—a Reformational concept.
- 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.
The first sentence distinguishes between the divine revelation that is sufficient for salvation and the divine revelation that is not sufficient for salvation. The light of nature refers to Paul’s teaching about general revelation (Rom. 1). Classic Reformed theology distinguishes between general (or natural) revelation and special revelation.
God’s general revelation is His revelation of Himself principally through nature and also through history, through the ministry of His providence to His people, and through His works of creation. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). Paul teaches that all men, by nature, know something of the existence, character, power, and deity of God, because God so clearly manifests Himself in general revelation (Rom. 1:18–20).
God’s general revelation can be either “immediate” or “mediate.” Immediate means “direct, without any medium or intervening agency.” Paul talks about God’s revealing His law inwardly through the human heart, so that every person is born with a conscience (Rom. 2:14–15). God plants a sense of Himself immediately in the soul of His creatures. John Calvin calls this the sensus divinitatis, “the sense of the divine.” As fallen creatures, we suppress the knowledge of right and wrong that God plants within us. But try as we may, we can never extinguish it. It is still present in the soul. That is immediate general revelation.
Mediate general revelation has to do with the way in which God manifests Himself through creation itself. Nature points beyond itself to its Maker and Creator. Paul speaks of mediate revelation when he says that the invisible things of God, even His eternal power and divine nature, are understood through the created order. That knowledge also is squelched, repressed, and unacknowledged by fallen creatures. The indictment of the whole human race is that while we know God by virtue of general revelation, we refuse to honor Him as God and are not grateful to Him (Rom. 1:20–21).
It is no wonder that the Westminster divines wrestled over whether to begin the confession with the doctrine of revelation or with the doctrine of God—the two are intimately tied together. God is not only a God who exists but also a God who speaks. Communication is essential to His being. This is why, in turn, natural revelation quickly turns to natural theology. God has revealed through nature not only His law, by placing that law in our hearts, but also His nature. Natural theology encompasses all that is knowable about God apart from special revelation. Paul describes this as “his eternal power and divine nature” (Rom. 1:20). We not only can but do know that the creation requires a Creator and that the Creator must be sovereign over His creation, both in terms of His authority and His power.
General revelation, unlike special revelation, comes to us through nature and is called general for two reasons. First, the audience is general; God gives knowledge of Himself universally, so that every human has this revelation, which is built into nature. Second, the content of general revelation gives us a knowledge of God in general. It reveals that He is eternal; it reveals His power, deity, and holiness. General revelation, however, does not disclose God’s way of salvation. The stars do not reveal the ministry of Christ. In fact, general revelation reveals just enough knowledge of God to damn us, to render us without excuse. Christ came into a world that was already under the judgment of God because we had already rejected the Father. Revelation is general, then, in terms of both audience and content. Paul in Romans 1 explains that through creation we know enough about God and about ourselves to stand condemned before God. The word general here means that all men know this. The revelation includes the revelation of the wrath of God against us. Because of the depth of our sin, our response to the revelation of God is not gratitude and repentance but rebellion and suppression.
Editor’s Note: This post is an excerpt from Truths We Confess by Dr. R.C. Sproul and was originally published on January 27, 2020.