is God’s revelation of Himself and of right and wrong to all men everywhere but does not give enough to be saved. It opens the door to man seeing the need for additional information.
General revelation comes in different forms such as the majesty of creation
(Psalm 19:1-6, The heavens declare the glory of God
, or Romans 1:19-21, Since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes, eternal power, and divine nature have been clearly seen
). It also comes in the conscience through the eternal awareness
He gives all men (Ecclesiastes 3:11, He has set eternity in their hearts
). It includes their general awareness of their sin
(see Romans 1:18-25, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven”
and “men suppressed the truth”
and “although they knew God, they did not honor Him”
and “exchanged the glory of God”
). We also see this in Romans 2:14-16, “when Gentiles instinctively do the things of the law, these are a law unto themselves... they show the work of the law written on their hearts.”Special revelation
is God’s “more particular witness to particular people at particular times” (Rob Green, Faith Church, Lafayette, IN.), culminating in the scriptures. In times past, it took place in visions, dreams, appearances, and visits. Today, the only special revelation we have is the scriptures.1
Special revelation includes many things like God speaking to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:8-19, to Abraham in Genesis 12, 13, 15 and 17, to Moses in Exodus 3, Jonah speaking to the Ninevites, Gabriel speaking to Mary (Luke 1:26-38) and Zacharias (Luke 1:8-20), Simeon hearing from the Holy Spirit that He would not die until He saw the Lord’s Christ in Luke 2, Jesus showing the two men on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:27 how the Old Testament revealed Him, and Jesus speaking to Saul in Acts 9.
Apart from the kinds of stories indicated in footnote1, God’s special revelation ended with the closing of the canon around 90 AD. While some church fathers recognized and used most or all our 27 New Testament books before 200 AD, it was officially accepted by the Church at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD.
Just as Psalm 19:1-6 makes everyone aware of God’s majesty (general revelation), Psalm 19:7-13 make us aware of the sufficiency and superiority of the scripture (special revelation). It was superior because it is adequate to lead to life change (law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul
, Psalm 19:7), while general revelation only caused people to become aware that worship and fear were due a God who could make such a world and made them aware that they would deal with that God.
We see general and special revelation and their role in convicting and liberating man in both the Old and New Testaments. Romans 1:20 reminds us of His general revelation, (For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes... have been clearly seen... so they are without excuse
), so Romans 1:16- 17 (For in the gospel righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last...
) tells us the special revelation of the gospel. Likewise, in Psalm 19:1, we read of “the heavens declare the glory of God... and the work of His hands” (general), and in 19:7 that “the law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul” (special). While general revelation lets us know that there is a God and that we do not measure up, it requires special revelation of the Bible to know the righteousness of God alone comes by faith in Christ.
As Romans 10:14-17 reminds us, How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?... Consequently, faith comes from hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.
To summarize, through the widely available general revelation of nature and conscience, God gives us adequate information to see we need something outside ourselves to face eternity and a God who deserves to judge. However, because we are dead in sin and unable to know truth unless revealed to us by God through special revelation, we can only be saved by hearing and believing the word of God (Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God
, Romans 10:17). Furthermore, that Word of God must focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ, since being saved requires knowing Jesus Christ (There is salvation in no one else,
Acts 4:12) and as Romans 10:14 puts it, How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard?
1 There are many documented reports worldwide of a type of occasional special notification continuing today among unreached people groups. One such story was of an illiterate tribal people in Irian Jaya who after coming to faith in Christ, reported to the New Tribe missionaries that a teaching handed down from their forbearers for 100’s of years had prepared them. This “tale” was that one day, a man would come with a ‘speaking stick’ to tell them of water that lived. When the missionaries first read from the Bible, they explained that ‘paper’ was made of wood and had words on it. Words on paper (made of wood) was at first translated to them as ‘words on a stick’. When they heard John 4:10 and 7:38 and Jesus being ‘living water,’ the tribal people were thrilled – the Bible explained what their forbearers prepared them for. Notice that in this, the ‘revelations’ were not “new revelation” as in adding to the scripture, but a way to encourage the people to trust the Word.