Revelation

The Belgic Confession – Article 2 (General & Special Revelation)

We know Him by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to see clearly the invisible things of God, even his everlasting power and divinity, as the apostle Paul says (Romans 1:20). All which things are sufficient to convince men and leave them without excuse. Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to His glory and our salvation. (Belgic Confession, Article 2)

How is it possible for us to know God? What must happen in order for us (as creatures and as sinners) to know God?

Article 2 of the Confession speak of two “means” (or ways) by which we know God – the “most elegant book” of nature (i.e. God’s creation & providence), and the book of Scripture. These are often referred to as general and special revelation.

General Revelation

According to the Belgic Confession, there are two “books,” so to speak, by which we know God. The first is what is often referred to as “general revelation.” This consists of the universe itself, including (as the Confession puts it) its “creation, preservation, and government.”

The Confession holds that both Creation (See also Article 12.) and Providence (See also Article 13.) are means by which God reveals Himself to us. These things testify to God’s “everlasting power and divinity.” The Scriptures plainly teach this in both the Old and New Testaments:

  • “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. here is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world . . . .” (Psalm 19:1–4, ESV)
  • For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:18-20, ESV)

As Daniel Hyde notes,

“The Confession follows the apostle in saying that this knowledge of God in creation, providence, and governance is of God as our creator. The content, then, of general revelation is not of God as redeemer but simply as the wise, eternal, powerful, and creative God that he is.” (With Heart and Mouth, p.57)

So the knowledge of God that we have in that “most elegant book” of nature is sufficient to render all of mankind “without excuse” (Romans 1:20) for our sin and rebellion against our Creator. But the gospel is not found there. That is where the second book comes in – the Bible. This is often referred to as “special revelation” (as distinct from general revelation).

Special Revelation

Special revelation refers to God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture. The word “special” here is used in the sense of being more specific, clear, and explicit.

Note that the Belgic Confession states that God reveals Himself “more clearly and fully” in Scripture (“His holy and divine Word”), so the Scriptures are primary. The Scriptures are more clear (or perspicuous) and more complete in revealing God to us. Both are true, but Scripture must be primary. Our reading or understanding of God in the “book” of nature must be informed or guided by the book of the Scriptures.

And, most importantly, it is only in the Scriptures that God makes Himself known to us, not just as Creator, but also as Redeemer in Jesus Christ. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it:

“Q. 2. How does it appear that there is a God? A. The very light of nature in man, and the works of God, declare plainly that there is a God; but his word and Spirit only do sufficiently and effectually reveal him unto men for their salvation.”

The Scriptures, of course, bear this out:

  • “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” (1 Corinthians 1:20-21, ESV)
  • “and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:15-17, ESV)

Belgic Confession Articles 2-7 all basically deal with the doctrine of Scripture (i.e. what Scripture says about itself & how we are to view the Scriptures as the Word of God). Considering the fact that there are only 37 Articles (points of doctrine) in the Confession, we can see how important and foundational a right view of Scripture was thought to be in the life of every believer, and in the life of the church.

Not only that, but the Confession focuses our attention squarely on the doctrine of Scripture even before resuming its handling of the doctrine of God (including the doctrines of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the deity of the Holy Spirit, etc.) in Articles 8-13.

Clearly the writer of the Confession held that a firm grasp of the doctrine of Scripture (i.e. having a right view of the Scriptures as being the very Word of God), was (and still is) essential to a proper affirmation and grasp of a great many other doctrines taught in Scripture (such as the Trinity, for example). And so the Confession takes its time firmly establishing the doctrine of Scripture first, before dealing with anything else.

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Flawed Church or False Church? (THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH 25.5)

WCFThe Westminster Confession of Faith 25.4 basically deals with is often referred to as “the marks of the true church.” Those “marks” (although the Confession does not use the term there) are the things by which we are to distinguish or recognize whether or not a particular local church is truly a Christian church. (See here.)

Having dealt with the question of the true church in some detail (25.4), the Confession then goes on to speak of the false church:

“The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will.” (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.5)

The first thing that we should take note of there is that there is no such thing as a perfect church this side of heaven. The Confession plainly states there that “The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error . . . .” So in seeking to recognize the marks of the true church, we must be careful not to expect to find a perfect church. Even the very best of churches (like the godliest Christians) have faults, failures, shortcomings, and sins.

Mixture and error. That means that we can in this life expect to find false professors and hypocrites in the church. There is really no such thing as a church that always has a perfectly pure membership (i.e. that they are all genuine believers in Christ). And the membership of even the purest of churches consists entirely of sinners. Every last member. Saved sinners? Certainly. Justified sinners? Absolutely? Sanctified (and in the process of being sanctified)? Without a doubt. But sinners nonetheless.

Not only that, but that the best of churches are subject to “mixture and error” means that there is no such thing as a pastor or a church with perfect doctrine in all things (!). As the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:9-12,

“[9] For we know in part and we prophesy in part, [10] but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. [11] When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. [12] For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (ESV)

And so we must learn to tell the difference between, not just a true church and a false church, but also between a flawed church (which is a description of every true church under heaven) and a false church. Imperfection does not a false church make. The flawed church may be far from perfect, but it will still exhibit (even if imperfectly) the true preaching of the Word of God (“the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced” – 25.4), the right administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of church discipline (“ordinances administered – 25.4).

Some churches, however, “have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan” (25.5). In other words, sometimes true churches go beyond just being flawed (which all are) to the point of actually becoming false churches. When this happens (to use the words of the Confession), such churches “become no churches of Christ” at all. They may retain the name of “Christian,” but it is really in name only, rather than in any meaningful or true sense.

Sadly, this can be demonstrated over and over again in the history of the church. Churches and entire denominations that once started out so strong, can and do at times “degenerate” even to the point of blatant unbelief and wickedness.

Such things are spoken of (and warned against) in the book of Revelation. In what is often referred to as the seven letters to the seven churches (Revelation chapters 2-3) we read of the words of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself to the church in Ephesus:

“[2] I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. [3] I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. [4] But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. [5] Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Revelation 2:2-5, ESV, italics added)

There the Lord warns them that if they do not repent, He would come to them and remove their “lampstand” (v.5). Removing their lampstand is another way of saying that their light has been put out, and that they (the church at Ephesus) are no longer truly a member of Christ’s visible church. (In Matthew Henry’s commentary on this passage, he describes it as Christ unchurching that church!)

Thankfully, this section of the Confession’s chapter on the church ends on a much more encouraging note than that, when it says, “Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will.” The church will not fail. Some churches may become false churches, but the Lord Jesus Christ will always have His church on this earth. As He Himself has said, “. . . I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18, ESV).

Ultimately, the church cannot fail, because the risen, ascended, and reigning Lord Jesus Christ Himself is her owner and her builder. That is why even the very gates of hell can never hope to prevail against it!

“A Most Elegant Book” (The Belgic Confession on General Revelation)

The Belgic Confession (1561) is one of the confessional documents that comprise the “3 Forms of Unity” in the churches of the continental reformed tradition. This confession is the statement of faith, taking the reader through a brief but thorough (at least by today’s standards) treatment of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith.

Article 2 (of a total of 37 articles or heads of doctrine) deals with how God has made Himself known to us. It reads as follows:

“We know Him by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to see clearly the invisible things of God, even his everlasting power and divinity, as the apostle Paul says (Romans 1:20). All which things are sufficient to convince men and leave them without excuse. Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to His glory and our salvation.”

According to the Belgic Confession, there are two “books,” so to speak, by which we know God. The first is what is often referred to as “general revelation.” This consists of the universe itself, including (as the Confession puts it) its “creation, preservation, and government.” In a sense, then, the Confession holds that both Creation and Providence (which is often defined as God’s powerful preserving and governing of all things – see Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.11). These things testify to God’s “everlasting power and divinity,” as both Psalm 19:1-6 and Romans 1:20 attest.

In his book, With Heart and Mouth (which is an exposition of the Belgic Confession), Daniel Hyde notes the limits of general revelation:

“The Confession follows the apostle in saying that this knowledge of God in creation, providence, and governance is of God as our creator. The content, then, of general revelation is not of God as redeemer but simply as the wise, eternal, powerful, and creative God that he is.” (p.57)

So the knowledge of God that we have in that “most elegant book” of nature is sufficient to render all of mankind without excuse for our sin and rebellion against our Creator. But the gospel is not to be found there. That is where the second book comes in, which is an actual book – the Bible. This is often referred to as “special revelation” (as opposed to or distinct from general revelation).

God reveals Himself “more clearly and fully” in Scripture (“His holy and divine Word”), so the Scriptures are primary. Our reading or understanding of the “book” of nature must be informed or guided by the Scriptures. And, most importantly, it is only in the Scriptures that God makes Himself known to us, not just as Creator, but also as Redeemer in Jesus Christ.

Palm Sunday in Heaven

palm-leaf-233282_1280It’s easy for us in the church today to look around us and be discouraged. At times it seems like nothing much good is happening. At times it can seem like Jesus is not at work. Sometimes it even seems as if our Lord Jesus Christ is not in control. As Hebrews 2:8 says,

“Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.”

Everything really is now in subjection to King Jesus. Everything. But at present it doesn’t always look that way to us, does it? Sometimes it seems like evil is winning. Sometimes it seems as if the Lord is not blessing our witness to His gospel and working through it to save and transform sinners. But He is.

Even the original Palm Sunday seems like a failure in some ways, doesn’t it?. Upon closer inspection the triumphal entry doesn’t seem all that triumphant. After all, we know that the crowds didn’t actually understand who Jesus was and what He came to do; most of them didn’t actually believe, and many of those same people were probably among the crowds that within a week’s time would be shouting “crucify Him!” (John 19:15). Even His own disciples didn’t even understand until later (John 12:16)!

But in Revelation 7:9-12, John writes,

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.””

That is a picture of heaven. In a sense that is the real Palm Sunday. The triumphal entry of Jesus Christ was a preview of heaven. As Palm Sunday reminds us of the triumphal entry of Jesus Christ, it reminds us that the Lord Jesus Christ is even now at work in the world, gathering and defending His church. We may have trouble seeing it at times, but one day it will be clear as day that “the world has gone after him” (John 12:19) because the Lord Jesus was going after the world, seeking and saving a multitude of sinners so great in  number that no man will be able to begin to count them!