Monday, November 2, 2009

God's Wrath shown to the Ungodly in Creation (22)

Dear Forum members,

When I wrote the last letter I introduced the subject of general revelation and common grace. As you recall, I said that even though general revelation is a concept that has had its own place in Reformed theology for centuries, I expressed uneasiness with the whole idea. My main objection was the fact that revelation, by virtue of the term itself, implies grace, and general revelation implies general or common grace. The major question is not one of terminology; nor am I interested in objecting to general revelation because some use it as proof of common grace: that latter reason would not be a valid one. One may not object to a term because it has been used wrongly. But I did show that Scripture, while also connecting revelation with grace, always speaks of revelation as God’s self-disclosure, as part of the salvation of the elect. This assertion, I said, brings up some problems, the chief of which is the question: Does not God make Himself known also to the world in general? This, and related questions, is the one which I address in this letter. Our starting point is Romans 1:18ff.

* * * *

First of all, let it be established beyond any doubt that indeed God does make himself known to all men through creation. (See Article 2 of the Belgic Confession.). God makes Himself known to His people in the creation, but, as Calvin puts it, we cannot see God in creation without the spectacles of Scripture. We may certainly call God’s manifestation of Himself in creation to His people “revelation,” but only in connection with Scripture and Scripture’s power to convert the sinner and instill faith.

That God makes Himself known to the wicked in creation is clearly taught in Romans 1:19-21 and Romans 2:14, 15. (Romans 1:18ff. is too long a section to be quoted here; you are urged to take out your Bibles and follow in them.) But notice, in Romans 1:19 the expression “hath shewed” is used instead of the term “hath revealed.” The term revelation is used by the apostle in verse 17 of the same chapter when he is speaking of the righteousness of God imputed to His people. Further, the same term is used in verse 18, but there it is used as the revelation of God’s wrath, and grace cannot be found in God’s wrath.

The entire passage in Romans 1 from verse 18 to the end of the chapter is an important one. It is important because it does speak of God making Himself known to all men. It is also important because Dr. A. Kuyper used this very passage as proof of common grace. Kuyper’s argument (as Bavinck’s) was, however, rather oblique. He appealed to the statement in Romans 1:24, 26, “God gave them up”, as teaching common grace because, until such a time as God did give them up to their own lusts, He restrained their sin; and this restraint of sin is evidence of grace. But we wait with our discussion of this until we examine that aspect of common grace.

* * * *
We ought to notice first of all, that the theme of verses 18–32 is most emphatically not: the revelation of God’s grace to all; it is rather: the wrath of God revealed from heaven. The revelation of God’s wrath from heaven is really the title of the entire section from verse 18 to the end of the chapter. That immediately rules out this passage as proof for common grace. Furthermore, the reason why God makes Himself known to all men is not to reveal His grace to all men, but “that they may be without excuse” (1:20). The word “that” in the AV introduces a purpose clause: “. . . in order that they may be without excuse”.).

One may ask: Why is the word “revealed” used in verse 18? This is a fair question. But the answer is obvious. This term used here also refers to God’s self-disclosure. God reveals Himself as a God of great wrath against the wicked. He is indeed a God of love and mercy, but He is the holy God and reveals Himself as holy by the terrible wrath He has against all “ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness” (vs. 18). The whole passage talks of wrath.

It is this matter of holding the truth in unrighteousness, which is the apostle’s next concern. In order for one to hold the truth in unrighteousness, he must, in some sense, possess the truth.

How does a wicked man possess that truth that he holds in unrighteousness?

Before I answer that question from what the apostle says, I must say something about the wicked and their sin of holding the truth in unrighteousness. The word translated “hold” in the AV can be translated here, “suppress.” The wicked suppress the truth. And their suppression of the truth is because they are unrighteous and ungodly. Not only is the sin of suppressing the truth itself an unrighteous and ungodly act, but the wicked suppress the truth because they are unrighteous and ungodly. If their suppression of the truth takes place by means of their unrighteousness and ungodliness, they are an unrighteous and ungodly people to begin with. The former term, “unrighteous” refers to their deliberate and willing violation of what God commands them to do. They are to honor and keep the law of God who is their Creator and Lord. But they deliberately disobey. “Ungodliness” is a denial of God and a denial of the fact that God is their Creator and has every right to command them to obey Him. They deny that, deny any claim God may have upon them, and deny God’s right to tell them what to do.

To suppress the truth is to know it, but to refuse to acknowledge it as truth, or even to allow it to enter one’s consciousness. We are all past-masters at this sort of thing. We know some truth that gives us great pain; some memory of some event; something so traumatic that has happened to us that we cannot bear to think about it. Because of the pain associated with it, we suppress it. That is, we refuse to allow ourselves to think about it. We drive it from our consciousness the moment it is present in our minds. We bury it somewhere where it will not intrude on our thinking.

We may suppress some obligation we have towards someone. We may owe a man $500.00, but we do not want to pay it for some reason. When it appears in our consciousness, we drive it away, because it bothers our conscience. We deliberately refuse to allow ourselves to be reminded of it, and when we are reminded of this debt by someone, we become angry and self-defensive.

So it is with God’s demands on man. He comes with the demands that men serve Him and obey His law, but man refuses. He will not even allow himself to think about it, for he is immediately troubled by an accusing conscience. And so he suppresses the thought and fights desperately to keep it from entering his thoughts. He knows that God is God and that God’s demands that men serve him are true. Everyone who has witnessed to an unbeliever has experienced that his word calling man to repent of sin and believe in Christ is rejected. The more often it is brought to a wicked person the more angry he becomes. Why is he so angry? Because he knows it is true, but refuses to forsake his sin and does not want to be reminded of his obligation towards God. Anger is the reaction of a guilty conscience. And it is well that we understand that we are the same way when confronted with sin in our lives.

But to suppress the truth of God the wicked must know that God is God and that He has every right to demand of men that they worship Him and obey Him. How do they know this? The apostle answers that question: “That which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shown it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead” (verses 19, 20).

Several points must be made in connection with these two verses. The first is that God is in Himself invisible. Man cannot see or know God apart from God’s own self-disclosure. The things of God are the invisible things of an invisible God. Man has no knowledge of God unless God makes Himself known to man in a way man can understand.

Second, Paul does not use here the word “to reveal,” for that would refer to revelation, always given in grace, as I said. The word used is quite different from the word “reveal.” It simply means “to make known to another.” Thus the apostle himself distinguishes here between revelation and a making known.

Third, God shows the things of Himself to man by means of the things that are made. God has showed the invisible things of Himself to the wicked so that the things of the invisible God are clearly seen and understood by means of the creation. Never is it possible for the wicked to plead ignorance. In the judgment day, they will not be able to say, “We did not serve you because we did not know you nor your demands on us.” God will say, “I clearly showed these things to you in my creation.” And they will have to admit that this is so.

Fourth, the apostle is even stronger. He says, “That which may be known of God is manifest in them.” That is strong language. It is true that the Greek word used here can also mean “among”. Then the meaning would be that this making Himself known is in the sphere where the heathen live. But the literal meaning of the preposition is “in,” and that is the translation I prefer. God personally sees to it that what He says concerning Himself is sealed clearly and unmistakably on their consciousness. This interpretation is confirmed by what Paul says in 2:15, where the Gentiles are said to “shew the work of the law written in their hearts.” To have the work of the law written in their hearts is the same as having God’s speech in creation impressed upon their consciousness.

No earthly teacher can ever do that. A teacher may make a math problem clear to her students and even use the blackboard to demonstrate it, but she cannot make the pupils pay attention, nor can she make the poor student, who never can figure out what math is all about, to see it and understand it. God puts the truth that He makes known into the consciousness of men so that they are fully aware of what He says and who He is. The sky filled with stars, the birds that greet the dawn with song, the rose bush arrayed in all its beauty, point not to themselves, as Augustine expressed it in his Confessions, but point beyond themselves and say, “Look not at me, but look to Him who made me.” This subjective Word of God that He seals upon the consciousness of every man is not the subjective bestowal of grace, as the text makes clear, but is instead the guarantee that the wicked indeed know God. And this work is undoubtedly accomplished by the Spirit of Christ who carries out all God’s purpose so that God alone, as the sovereign God, does all according to His counsel.

This inward sealing of the truth concerning God on the consciousness of man is sometimes called the semen religionis (seed of religion), or, sensus divinitatis (sense of divinity). It is a part of man’s created being. He knows he is dependent upon a power outside himself, that he is not autonomous, and that he cannot escape this complete dependence. He knows that he is a part of the creation and that the creation can be explained only in terms of God, the Creator who formed all things and who continues to uphold them. And, knowing this, he also knows that the Creator alone must be served and worshipped.

Fifth, this work of God in making Himself known is a work that is seen by all men. It is not a part of the gospel. It does not reveal Christ. It does not come with the promise of salvation to those who believe in Christ. It is God’s declaration that He alone is God. Thus Paul’s emphasis here is on those who, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, live outside the sphere of gospel preaching. Every man, woman and child, in every jungle and forest, in every isle of the sea, in every land under heaven, knows that God is God and must be served. No man is without that knowledge.

Finally, it is the knowledge given in creation itself: “the invisible things from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.” So clearly are they seen that every man, from the creation itself, is confronted with the truth concerning God. God’s reason for this is “so that they are without excuse” (vs. 20). The wicked go to hell because they did not obey God when they clearly knew Him through His own creation. They suppress the truth in unrighteousness.

It is sometimes argued that Christ must be made known if men are to be saved (which is true), and that, therefore, God does not give all men an opportunity to believe in Christ, because He does not bring the gospel to all men. Because the work of making Himself known is limited to the creation, it is unjust of God to send those to hell who have never heard the gospel. Or, so it is argued, God’s revelation in creation itself is enough to be saved if only men would believe it and not suppress it. But this is exactly not Paul’s point. Paul is insisting that God is just when he comes in His wrath against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of the wicked even though they never heard the gospel and never heard of Christ, the One through whom alone is salvation. They know that God is God and that He must be worshipped and served.

You may argue that they cannot worship and serve God, because they have had no chance to hear the gospel, and because their total depravity makes it impossible for them to be saved apart from the Christ, whom they do not know. But we must not forget that they themselves are to blame for their inability to serve and worship Him. They sinned in Adam and their total depravity is the punishment of God upon the sinner for his guilt in Adam. This is also true of us. We stand under the righteous judgment of God for our sin and guilt in Adam just as all men stand under penalty of death for Adam’s sin. The truth of original sin, both original guilt and original pollution, is part of the foundation of the whole of the Reformed faith. Though it is rarely taught in today’s theologically insipid church, and although it is even flatly denied by modern evangelicalism, it is part and parcel of the faith once delivered to the saints. It is clearly taught in Romans 5:12-14.

The gospel makes God’s way of salvation clear and the command goes out to all that all who hear the gospel must believe in Christ. When they who hear the gospel in turn refuse, their judgment is far greater than those in heathendom. It is more tolerable in the day of judgment for Sodom and Gomorrah than for Chorazin and Capernaum, for Chorazin and Capernaum heard the gospel proclaimed Christ Himself. But the fact is that also the heathen who knew not the gospel are responsible before God for their sins, for they were created good and able in every way to serve God. But they lost their gifts to serve God through their cooperation with Satan when Adam agreed to disobey God and join forces with Satan in his wicked purpose. This is the reason for what Paul says in verse 1 of chapter 2: “Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest.”

Although I went to a Christian school in my grade-school days, chapel speakers would often urge on us the calling to go to the heathen with the gospel because the only reason the heathen did not believe was because they had not heard of Christ. We were told that, if we did not go and tell them of Christ, we were responsible for the millions that perish, millions who longed to be delivered, whose only fault was that no one ever told them about Christ, whose salvation was certain if only someone would go to bring them Christ. Paul puts all that nonsense aside in these verses.

The question remains, What do the heathen do when they suppress the gospel?

I shall address that question in the next letter, God willing.

With warmest regards,

Prof Hanko

No comments:

Post a Comment