Imagine accidentally showing up to a neurosurgeon’s office when you meant to see a plastic surgeon. The neurosurgeon wouldn’t be able to help you, not because he’s incompetent, but because his training wasn’t designed for it. Knowing the difference between plastic and neural surgery is helpful because it prepares you to expect certain things from each kind of doctor. This is as true in theology as it is in medicine. Theologians make a distinction between general and special revelation because they detect two different purposes behind these forms of divine communication. Just like a patient can expect unique treatments from plastic and neurosurgeons, a Christian can expect unique messages from general and special revelation.
General revelation has unique tools to communicate its message about God. The tools of general revelation are created things. According to Psalm 19, both “the heavens” (19:1) and “the law of the Lord” (19:7) reveal God’s character. In the first half of this poem, the heavens are depicted as a living art piece that announces God’s active presence in the world (19:1–6). The day-night pattern of creation is like a loud voice that applauds God’s fame (19:1–4). And the predictable rising then setting of the sun is a daily exhibition of God’s creative skill (19:5–6). Creation, in other words, is God’s masterpiece. The patterns and beauty embedded within it are clear strokes of a divine artist. Its message about God is simple yet profound—the Creator is wise and powerful.
If the “heavens” are the visual theater of God’s creative glory on a global scale, then the “law of the Lord” is the personal stage of God’s morally compelling character. God’s standards for right relationships cause the poet’s heart and soul in Psalm 19 to be renewed (19:7–8), his moral and emotional intelligence to soar (19:9), and seeking justice to be his life’s purpose (19:10–11). God’s moral law, in other words, is like a compass that centers the poet’s life by directing him back to the perfect lawgiver. He knows that God’s standards are simultaneously life-giving yet impossible for him to perform. That’s why the poet closes his song by recommitting his imperfect steps to God. Despite his flaws, he trusts God to declare him innocent (19:12). The message about God in the moral law is that God satisfies the demands of divine justice.
General revelation is important for everyday life because it teaches us that God has blended wisdom into every created thing. This infusion of patterns, beauty, and morality in the world not only makes the study of physics, art, and ethics possible, it also reflects the divine mind who made them. Though this panoramic message about God is compelling, notice what is left out. There is nothing about humanity’s rescue, the Trinity, the hope of resurrection life, or the renewal of creation. But that’s not the purpose of general revelation. It describes in broad terms who God is with respect to the world. It’s the purpose of special revelation, on the other hand, to describe who God is with respect to humanity as a fractured and rebellious people.
If general revelation depicts God as Creative Artist and Judge, special revelation portrays God as our Father. Rather than using creation as his tool, God uses Scripture to communicate this unique message. When the twelve apostles ask Jesus for a prayer lesson, he teaches them to address God as their Father because he’s always already listening to their concerns (Matt. 6:8–9). God isn’t a distracted, uninterested, or distant deity. Nor is he a harsh disciplinarian. Even when Christians experience setbacks because of sin, God corrects them as his children (Heb. 12:5–7). He never does this for the sake of mere punishment. Instead, God uses those opportunities to train his children to live like the royal sons and daughters he has called them to be (Heb. 12:11). Or in the apostle Paul’s words, God uses these moments to reset Christians. To set them on the right path and help them walk in the good works God has prepared for them (2 Tim. 3:15–17). Without special revelation, Christians could negatively interpret their experience of discipline, assuming God is out to get them because they sinned. But the voices of Jesus, Paul and others in Scripture remind us of God’s fatherly care for his children.
Special revelation also uniquely explains how God became our Father. In his famous high priestly prayer, Jesus summarizes his mission by saying that he came to make God known as the Father (John 17:26). He said this right before he was betrayed, illegally put on trial, and sentenced to a publicly shameful death on the cross. Though it’s counterintuitive, these events especially reveal God as Father, because God used Jesus’ death on the cross to give us new life (Isa. 25:8). Jesus’ death defeated death itself (Hos. 13:14), and our passport no longer says refugee or exile. Instead, it’s stamped with permanent citizenship in the kingdom of God (Eph. 2:19). After all, the promise of a future inheritance is guaranteed by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (1 Pet. 1:4). So we have open access to God as our Father as long as Jesus lives. This is an incredible hope that can only be known from special revelation.
When you want to celebrate God as Creator, explore his beautiful creation. Enjoy his captivating artistry. Wonder in the wisdom blended into the world. Appreciate the patterns and rhythms of it all. When you want to celebrate God as Father, read the Scriptures. Trust his promises. Long for the kingdom to come. Renew your hope in the risen Jesus. And pray for his goodness to be known by all.