the following is an article i was asked to submit for a forthcoming web magazine (“just the simple truth- a newsletter for biblical discernment”) that will publish its first issue next month.(hence the capital letters and footnotes). i was going to write about the “top 50 christians” on here anyway, and the two seemed to merge as i was writing for the column. i’ll let you know when the webzine starts up. it should be a great resource.
-stephen

God, Revelation, and Dr. Phil

I just finished reading a publications list of the “Top 50 Most Influential Christians in America”[1]. Upon finishing the list, I wasn’t sure if I should laugh, cry, be angry, or drop to the floor in prayer. Probably a combination of all four. Among those chosen as top representatives of Christianity was a man who denies the Trinity, another who has publicly stated he doesn’t preach about sin, more than one who practices prayer to humans, and top television syndicated talk show host Dr. Phil, who I, myself, nor anyone I have asked, had even heard is a Christian before now. But apparently, he is the “50th” most influential Christian in America.

I had no idea.

Such lists come from varying publications on a regular basis, and thankfully, there are usually a few true representatives of our faith included. But overall, I am usually frustrated with these lists, because they are so misleading. I shudder to think of the casual reader who reads these lists, and assumes it is safe to believe and follow the teachings of those on it.
It is imperative that we let the Word of God be our guide as we wade through the overwhelming amount of speakers, preachers, writers, and cultural icons who either claim to be, or are pronounced by someone else as reliable sources of authority of truth. How can we know if a speaker, preacher, or author is speaking the truth? We measure him by what he believes about scripture, as well as comparing what he says to scripture. What God says is our ultimate source of truth. In order to know if someone is speaking truth, we must examine what God has revealed to us.
God has revealed Himself to us in two ways. General Revelation and Divine Revelation. The discussion and understanding of these separate types of revelation is necessary in order to clearly establish what we believe to be the means in which God reveals Himself, what He reveals, and the importance, necessity, and sufficiency of what is revealed.

General Revelation

General revelation can be defined as “that revelation of God by which one receives and is aware of as a result of being, living in, and observing the environment in which one is, and which was created by God.” Paul speaks of this revelation in Romans 1:18-21 and following:

18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20For 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. 21For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened…[2]

Simply by being a creation that is observing, receiving, acting, responding, and for all intents and purposes “living” in the environment of the Creator, there are characteristics of the Creator that are known. They are not simply available to be observed, but are inescapable. That God is creator (Acts 17:25), eternal (Rom. 1:20, Acts 17:25), invisible (Rom. 1:20), personal (Ps.104: 24), and is involved in His creation and sustainer of it (Acts 14:15-16; 17:24-28) are all things that are known to all man due to general revelation. Also known to all men is a basic moral code that is held by the conscience (Rom. 1:32), and their guilt (Rom.1:32 ; 2:14-16).
This knowledge as a result of general revelation is also a means of common grace granted by God to all mankind, believer or not. Imagine a world where murder, dishonesty, or even cowardice were not universal vices. However, this is not the case. In the fallen world in which we live, even a community of unregenerate thieves will feel wronged if they are stolen from, lied to, or physically harmed – by one of their own, or anyone else. These are the facts. Creation needs a Creator. Universal moral codes need a basis for its uniformity.

Special Revelation

What general revelation cannot reveal, however, is the way of salvation. Christ Himself stated in John 14:6 that no one could come to Father without coming through Him. Salvation comes from faith in Jesus Christ. Only faith in Christ can grant salvation. Not by good works, not by observing a moral code, not by sacrifices to appease the wrath of a deity. Only faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the propitiation for sins can bring salvation. This is where Romans 10 raises the importance, the essential need, for special revelation.
Paul says in his letter to the Romans:

“For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ 14But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching…
17So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
(Rom. 10:13-14,17)[3]

General revelation lacks the gospel. No one can know the gospel by observing the world in which they live. Mankind knows it is guilty, but what does one do to appease the “wrath of god”(Rom. 1:18)? On the basis of general revelation alone, mankind cannot be saved. More is needed.
Special revelation is the knowledge of God through His disclosing his direct word through prophets, Christ Himself, and the other writings that make up Scripture. The 1689 London Confession puts it this way.

The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience, although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and his will which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord at sundry times and in divers manners to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterward for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan, and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the Holy Scriptures to be most necessary, those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased…. Under the name of Holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all the books of the Old and New Testaments… All of which are given by the inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life[4]

With the special revelation of God, man can know the only way for salvation. Scripture alone is necessary for salvation, whether by reading, or by hearing it preached faithfully.
“…you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God;”(1 Peter 1:23)[5]

Not only does special revelation inform us of the way of salvation, but it also reveals to us the fullness and definite will of God. General revelation gives us notions of right and wrong, but special revelation is God’s deliberate act of bestowing his will in the lives of those who hear His word. (Deut. 29:29; Ps. 1:1-2, 119:1; John 14:15, Heb. 1:1; 1 John 5:3)

God’s word in the form of scripture gives us clear and distinct knowledge on every aspect he intends to address. Wayne Grudem states:“ … it can be argued that the Bible is necessary for [knowledge with certainty] about anything.”[6]
Since it is God alone who has supreme knowledge of everything, it is only by consulting His word that we can have confidence in what we do know, because the One with ultimate knowledge has told us. We can know with confidence the things that God has revealed through His word are true and necessary. As summed up by Paul in his second letter to Timothy:

“…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. 16All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 timothy 23:15-17)[7]

It is not enough for someone to call himself or herself “Christian”. Nor is it enough for them to be a pastor, a theologian, an author whose books are sold in Christian bookstores, or even a “Christian musician”. Before we place ourselves under anyone’s teachings or worldview in order to learn from them and apply their teachings and advice, we need to be well informed of what God says about the topic. Anytime the two teachings contradict each other, or do not agree, we absolutely must follow scripture.

We must be people of discernment. No one person is perfect. I do not know of anyone person that I agree with on every absolute detail of everything scripturaly, but I do know that there is a major distinction between matters of opinion and interpretation, and direct disagreement with scripture.

Of course this whole conversation assumes our own familiarity with scripture. It is no wonder that the health, wealth, and prosperity “gospel” is running rampant not only in our culture, but also in our churches. One of the biggest dangers facing us today is how quickly we are to trust someone just because they quote a passage of scripture. We need to wake up and realize that throughout the history of the Church some of the largest heresies and cults have quoted and quote passages from the Bible. Just because a guy in a suit has a Bible that he reads from does not at all mean that he is teaching the Bible properly. If we are not intimately acquainted with the scriptures, then we are less likely to notice error when we hear or read it coming from someone else, or even, ourselves.

So what do we do with all of this? This can put us in one of three places. First, we can choose ignorance, opting to blindly follow those with the biggest smiles, the catchiest phrases and mantras, and the biggest and most technologically savvy churches assuming that bigger, flashier, and newer is always better. In that same line, we can also choose to continue following the traditions and teachings of those we have always followed, never stopping to consider and test what we are hearing and reading by God’s word. There are indeed some practices that are thousands of years old that are either absent from scripture, or in complete rebellion to it, that are still practiced by millions under the name of “Christianity.”
We should always ask ourselves, “What is the ‘gospel’ this person is preaching?” If it is not salvation by faith alone in Christ alone, it is a false Gospel. Too many times, there is no “gospel” preached at all -just a lot of self-help and self-esteem psychobabble about how to have a better ________. The message of scripture will be used by the Holy Spirit to point us to Christ whose purpose should be all of ours… to glorify the Father.
If this is not the aim of the messenger, the message is not worthy of our time.

Second, we can choose paralyzing paranoia. We can become so paranoid of false teachings that we refuse to trust anyone about anything. This choice leaves little else to write about because, if this is the case, why am I still typing, and why are you still reading?

Or we can choose to place ourselves under the authority of those who make public their love of, and their desire to teach only what is in accordance with scripture. We can choose to spend time in the word ourselves, praying that the Lord will open our hearts to absorb and cherish and soak in His truth, and to be acquainted with it and Him in the most intimate way possible. We can hold our leaders and ourselves accountable to rightly handling God’s word, and not twisting it to meet our needs or agendas.

God alone can be our ultimate source of truth. He has revealed himself to us and has given us His Word so that we may know how to know Him, love Him, worship Him, and how to live a life of obedience to Him. Anything anyone, even one of the top fifty “Christians” in America says that does not correspond to the Word of God is to be avoided at all costs.

Sanctify them in Your truth, for Your word is truth. – John 17:17

Stephen Lee Cavness is a Master of Divinity student in the school of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He and his wife, Christi, attend LaGrange Baptist Church where he teaches for the Crossroads Young Adult Ministry.

[1] The Church Report – http://www.thechurchreport.com/content/view/823/32/
[2] English Standard Version – emphasis mine
[3] Ibid.
[4] The London Baptist Confession of Faith 1689
[5] Ibid.
[6] Wayne Grudem. Systematic Theology , Zondervan 1994, page 119
[7] ESV

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