I grew up about 15 minutes from the ocean and I recall many times I was dazzled and overwhelmed by the vastness of the ocean. In vain I attempted to peer to the other side of the sea and was instead reminded not only how small I am, but also how great God must be.
The natural world has a way of grabbing our attention, reminding us that life is made up of more than work, grocery lists, and our busy schedules. This is because this world has been created by a God who, from the beginning, has been pleased to reveal himself in and through his mighty works. When we consider God’s self-disclosure in creation, we’re talking about what is typically called “general revelation.”
The External World Reveals God
The Psalmist helps us to understand nature’s message when he writes, “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” (Ps. 19:1–2). In other words, nature is not mute. The sun in its radiance, nourishing plant life; the moon with its cooling and calming presence; the wonder-evoking starry skies above—all of these things, in one way or another, “pours out speech,” or “reveals knowledge.” So, what does nature reveal? Well, it reveals God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth.
Every beautiful sunset, every blade of grass, every fruitful season, every living creature—including human beings—are sign-posts of sorts, pointing back to the goodness, power, and wisdom of God.
And if the earth is full of breathtaking beauty, consider how beautiful and glorious God himself must be! He is, after all, the source and chief architect of the universe in all of its manifold wonder. The things that have been made, that are visible, have a marvelous way of unveiling certain qualities of the eternal and invisible God (Rom. 1:20).
Our Inner World Reveals God
But it’s not just the external world that displays the power and wisdom of God. Our inner world—our capacities as image bearers—also testify to the same (Gen. 1:26–27; Ps. 139:14). The apostle Paul helps us understand part of what that looks like when he says, “For 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” (Rom. 2:14–15).
In other words, when God created us, he created us with a natural, inborn sense of good and evil, something so basic to our nature that we possess this moral sense even apart from any outside instruction. While this innate sense of moral duty is in many ways obscured by our remaining sinfulness, it still discloses the character of a God who is altogether righteous and just and holy. In fact, startlingly, Paul also says that by nature men and women also know that those who violate God’s righteous will “deserve to die” (1:32; cf. 6:23).
So, while we can perceive God’s moral beauty in the moral law within, we’re completely unable to remedy our problem. We’re left in the anxiety that follows from knowing we’re guilty of breaking that law. Nature, even with all its splendor, can’t impart grace.
Scripture Reveals God
So where does that leave us? If nature can’t provide the balm to heal our guilt-ridden consciences, what can? Or perhaps a better question is, who can?
Thankfully, God has revealed his will and works in another way—through Scripture. In the Bible we have the unique revelation of how God is merciful to us in his Son, Jesus Christ. This is what we call “special revelation.”
We could probe into the depths of the ocean, explore the mysteries of space, inspect the intricacies of the human mind, journey into the deepest recesses of the Amazon, and study all the writings of worldly philosophers. But even after all this, we still would know nothing of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus doesn’t offer deliverance through a timeless, universal principle known through reason or discovered by observing the natural world, but through the timely and historical good news of his incarnation, obedience, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension.
God’s general revelation can be perceived through our ordinary senses, but the special revelation concerning eternal life and union with Christ is only rightly perceived by faith. Faith is that God-given instrument through which we embrace God’s saving love to us (Eph. 2:8–10). By faith, rather than by sight, we know all our sins have been forgiven, finding rest in the certainty of his grace (2 Cor. 5:7).
The gospel—and, in fact, all of Scripture—enriches our experience and understanding of nature. Through God’s special revelation, we now know that the beautiful landscapes and delicious fruits from the earth come from our triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When we confront beauty and wonder in the world, let’s find encouragement in the truth that the God who reveals himself through all of creation is the same God who reveals his redemptive mercies in Jesus Christ.