Article 2 - How God Makes Himself Known to Us
HOW GOD MAKES HIMSELF KNOWN TO US
We know Him by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most beautiful book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many letters leading us to perceive clearly the invisible things of God, namely, His eternal power and deity, as the apostle Paul says (Rom 1:20). All these things are sufficient to convict men and leave them without excuse. Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word as far as is necessary for us in this life, to His glory and our salvation.
DeBres confessed in Article 1 that there is only one God who is eternal, almighty, etc. That confession begs the question: how did deBres know this? Did he arrive at his convictions about God through a process of thought, or through examining his emotions, life experiences, or perhaps even nature? There are many who argue today that the answer is: Yes. In fact, if one insists that no God actually exists (as all consistent evolutionists must do), one must come with a natural explanation for why religion exists in this world. A natural explanation by definition must begin with man (for there is no God from where it could begin). Man may have certain fears of a fierce lightning storm, and then conclude that there must be a deity who displays his power and/or anger and/or justice. From further observations or experiences or thoughts man can construct what this god is like. So the History of Religions school insists that all religions are in the end nothing more than the thoughts and feelings of different peoples (in different cultures and times) about the divine. The pages of the Bible, then, record what many persons in the course of Judaic and/or Christian history thought or experienced about their god – just as the Koran would capture what Mohammed thought or experience about his god.
When deBres in Article 1, though, confessed that there was a God, and confessed too what this God was like, deBres did not anchor his confession in his own experiences or thoughts, nor in those of the learned who had gone before him. Instead, he anchored his confession in the living God Himself. For the living God, deBres knew, was pleased to tell people on earth about Himself. Human knowledge of God begins with the-God-who-is; this living God reveals Himself.
It cannot be otherwise. Shall the creature man, finite and mortal as he is, sinful and perverted as he is also, discover the Inhabitant of heaven (or even discover whether there is an Inhabitant) and then describe what He is like? Shall the creature man, finite and mortal as he is, and sinful and perverted also, first declare that heaven is empty and then explain all religions as being simply man’s thoughts and hopes and experiences about a heavenly being that, at the end of the day, simply does not exist? Let there be humility. Let man listen, and be open to whatever the God of heaven is pleased to reveal about Himself. This is the attitude of deBres as he speaks about God’s revelation in Article 2 and subsequent articles.
He says in sum: in order for man to know of God, God must take the initiative and reveal Himself to man. More, God must also open the eyes of man to see or hear God’s revelation – since man is dead in sin, and dead men neither see nor hear what is revealed to them. God through the Holy Spirit, then, must regenerate man. Further, God reveals Himself by two means: 1) by nature, which includes its creation, preservation, and government, and 2) by His Word, be it spoken or written.
GOD MAKES HIMSELF KNOWN THROUGH NATURE
DeBres was quick to acknowledge that “we know Him ... first, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe.” We observe three aspects of how God reveals Himself in nature around us.
There was no world. God spoke and the world was there (Psalm 33:6,9). The process through which God created this world through His Word is described in Genesis 1. There were no human witnesses present to observe God making the world, but there was a gallery of witnesses in heaven. And they, God tells Job, burst into songs of praise when they saw in God’s creating work something of His wisdom and His majesty and His glory (Job 38:6,7). We today see the effects of what God has made in the trees and flowers, the insects and animals, the galaxies and the ecosystems of the world in which we live. They all speak of the glory of God, and so reveal for our admiration something of what the Creator is like.
After God called the world into existence He caused it to continue to exist. This is His preservation. If God would withdraw His hand from the things He once made, they would collapse back into the nothingness they were before Genesis 1. The fact that the chair upon which I sit can hold me up is God’s work; it is He who keeps the steel (or timber) legs stiff. Equally, that flowers live and bloom, that birds fly and sing, is the ongoing work of God. David once stood outside and looked up at the stars of heaven (or perhaps the sun and clouds), and marveled at what he saw; this, he realized, displayed who God was. Said David: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).
Read what God tells us of Himself in Isaiah 40:12. The waters of the earth He measured in the hollow of His hand, including the countless waves and incredible depths of Lake Superior and the Pacific Ocean. He measured the infinite distances of outer space with the breadth of His hand, including the distance to the Milky Way and the distance between each star in that endless cluster. He held the dust of the earth in a basket, including the dust on your skirting boards today and the dust blown up in the Sahara yesterday. He weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in balances, including the mighty peaks of the Rockies. It was He who determined how much water there had to be on the face of the earth and how high the mountains had to be so that life might be possible on the face of this Planet. He determined the exact distances between stars and planets so that people and animals and plants might be able to live on planet Earth. “Who,” says Isaiah, “has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed Him as His counsellor?” (vs 13). In truth, by the way He created the world and upholds it day by day, God tells us something of Himself, and we can see it even today. His handiwork speaks, and continues to speak, of His glory. He spoke and it was all there, and what He made worked and continues to work! What a God this is!
He also governs the world He once made so that nothing happens apart from Him. God allows reproduction among living organisms so that an aging generation of koalas is replaced by a new generation. He is in full control of the tectonic plates upon which He built the continents – so that His hand moved the plates that triggered the powerful tsunami in the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004. It is equally His hand that stirred up hurricane Katrina and moved its trajectory in such a way that it hit New Orleans as it did (August 2005). This God remains at work, directing all events on Planet Earth and the galaxies of the universe in incomprehensible wisdom. All that happens reveals more of who the Lord God actually is.
READ THE BOOK OF NATURE
Who, though, is able to read this book of nature? Granted, all people should be able to read this book and, from what they see and hear and smell and taste and feel, distil what God is like. This is Paul’s point in Romans 1:20: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead.” In point of fact, though, countless people do not realize the significance of what they see and feel and hear and smell. Our fall into sin has left us blind and deaf to God’s revelation in creation. Yet, since sin is always our own fault (God holds us to the standards in which He created us in the beginning), our inability to read the book of Nature is no excuse before God. As Paul continues: “they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:20,21). To be able to understand what nature is really about, man needs to be regenerated, man needs faith. In Calvin’s analogy, man must put on the glasses of Scripture to be able to read the book of nature (Institutes, I.6.1).
That is why deBres in Article 2 speaks of we: “We know Him by two means”. By using the word ‘we’, deBres did not mean to say that all people know God by the two means mentioned in Art 2. Rather, deBres refers specifically to believers. I am privileged to be able to benefit from the book of nature, for God has opened my eyes and so enabled me to read it. That is to say, because of His regenerating work I am made able to appreciate the things He created, including the smells and textures of the flowers, the speed and agility of the mouse, the mosquito with wings that carry it though they’re so very thin, the way the birds find their food. By God’s grace I, in distinction from many other people still in their unbelief, am made able to see something of my Father’s greatness and glory. What a privilege it is to be made able to read the book of nature!
Since our God reveals Himself to us “first” in creation, we do well, in the midst of the concerns of daily life, to pause and look at nature’s display of God’s glory. In Matthew 6:26 we read of God feeding the birds: “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” By observing attentively the works of God in preserving and governing the creatures of our gardens, we get to know our God better – and so become the more convinced of His care for us, His children in Christ Jesus.
GOD MAKES HIMSELF KNOWN BY HIS WORD
In nature God reveals much concerning Himself. Yet, God wants us to know Him even better. His Word speaks of His mercy, His love, His grace which He displayed through Jesus Christ and the salvation obtained through Him. This is a topic about which the book of Nature does not speak. In His great mercy, God “makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word as far as is necessary for us in this life, to His glory and our salvation.” DeBres confesses the details of this means of God’s further self-disclosure in Article 3.
NOT A THIRD WAY
It is striking that deBres mentions two ways by which God makes Himself known, and not three. Over the centuries of church history, appeal has repeatedly be made to one’s personal experience as a means of coming to know about God. One needs to bear in mind, though, that one’s emotions, feelings, thoughts and conscience are warped as a result of the fall into sin. For that reason alone one can never appeal to personal experiences as a source of knowledge or accurate information about God.
This point is worth emphasizing, since all religions in the world today (except the Christian faith) come out of the mind or experiences of man. Other religions certainly do not come from God, for God does not contradict Himself. They do not come from other gods, for other gods do not ultimately exist. Satan would have people believe things about God which God has not revealed, or believe things about gods that are not real, and he does this by having people build their perceptions about God or the gods on their own thoughts or emotions or desires. Micaiah’s word to king supplies an example: “Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by, on His right hand and on His left. And the LORD said, ‘Who will persuade Ahab to go up, that he may fall at Ramoth Gilead?’ So one spoke in this manner, and another spoke in that manner. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, and said, ‘I will persuade him.’ The LORD said to him, ‘In what way?’ So he said, ‘I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And the LORD said, ‘You shall persuade him, and also prevail. Go out and do so.’ Therefore look! The LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these prophets of yours, and the LORD has declared disaster against you” (1 Kings 22:19-24).
Today’s pluralism may insist that every religion represents a valid way to serve God. This insistence assumes that God has revealed multiple truths about Himself, be it through nature, through the Bible, through a revelation to Mohammed, through the intellect of philosophers, etc. The church’s confession in Article 2 leaves no room for that sentiment.
Points for Discussion:
- What can you learn about God from a walk in nature? Does this make a periodic walk in nature advisable?
- What can you learn about God from reading the newspaper? Does this make following the news discouraging or advisable?
- Who can know God in the two ways expressed in Article 2? How come others cannot know God even from creation?
- Given the confession of Lord’s Day 2, should a Christian go out of his way to preserve the environment? Why?
- What role does experience play in knowing God? Why? How important, then, are your feelings and experiences?