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The unsaved do not know God
The NT seems to say that the unsaved person does not know God. We see this in several places. Let us begin with Galatians 4:
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? (Galatians 4:8-9)
We are told that the Galatians once did not know God, and because of that they served false gods. But now they are known by God and therefore know God. Here Paul is plainly saying that there is a difference between those who know God, the saints, and those that do not know God, the lost or unregenerate.
Here is Ephesians 2:
Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. (Ephesians 2:12)
Paul says that the Gentiles, by which he means the pagan world, were once “without God in the world.” If they were without God it is hard to claim that they knew Him. This is Paul’s view also in 1 Thessalonians 4:5 (“like the Gentiles who do not know God”; cf. 2 Thess. 1:8).
From these texts it seems quite clear then that unregenerate people do not know God in any way, whereas saved people have been brought to a knowledge of God, and they are the only ones who truly do know God.
The unsaved do know God
Now, if the unsaved are ignorant of God then what does one do with Romans 1? Here Paul insists that the unsaved are aware of God. In fact, it is on account of this that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” How can this be? It is because of what the Apostle identifies as a suppression of the truth that their ignorance is willful (1:18). The suppression is driven from within; from the “default setting” of the sinner, who, as the truth comes to him as revealed truth, changes it into something different.
In Romans 1 Paul is speaking about General Revelation, not Scripture. And he says plainly that there are things that “can be known about God,” revealed things in creation (1:19-20). Paul surprises us, for he declares this revelation from and about God to be “plain to them” and “clearly perceived,” 1:20). Hence, he can be dogmatic; “they are without excuse.”
For 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. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images … (Romans 1:20-22)
The problem with man’s thinking does not stop with the exclusion of the revelation about God in the world. The mechanisms of thought are polluted or corrupted in their functioning. Having ignored General Revelation the human mind must fill in the gap and imagine a story in its place. Ironically, the sinner has a “God of the gaps” fallacy which effects their senses and their experiences. They claim to “know” but that “knowledge” is not justified true belief, it is foolishness.
Then what the passage does is make connections between the almost reflexive denial of God and the inevitable manufacture of idols to take His place, at least superficially (1:23-25), and the knock-on effect this has upon morals.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen… God gave them up to dishonorable passions…and since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done … Though they know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:24-26, 28, 32)
Here then, quite clearly we have Paul, the same Paul who said that the Gentiles do not know God, teaching quite clearly that in fact the Gentiles, the unsaved people, do know God and they know God because God has revealed Himself in their surroundings and also within them. Therefore, they are without excuse for their rejection of God and they are without excuse when they worship and serve idols. In fact we told in verse 25 that, “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie.” This lines up with Jesus’ words:
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God. (John 3:18-21)
Where Jesus speaks about the fact that men loved darkness rather than light (that is, in contrast to light), because their deeds were evil, so that they would not come to that light. There is some knowledge, some sense, and some acknowledgment of the light. Or to shift back to Paul’s wording, there is some knowledge of the reality of the Creator God. And yet they are said not to know God.
How can an unsaved person know God in one sense and not know God in another sense?
While this is difficult, the answer is basically that they are made in God’s image and they can never escape what they are deep down. And even though sin has so corrupted them that they cannot see the revelation of God for what it is—or in a case of Scripture, hear the revelation of God for what it truly is—unless the Holy Spirit works upon them, yet they are operating in God’s creation in unrighteousness and rebellion. They are doing it willfully. They are willingly exchanging the truth for a lie, they are willingly keeping in darkness rather than coming to the light, and this is what makes them culpable. They will not see!
It’s like some people that you confront about the fact that they treated a person badly, or though they acted foolishly, and they defend themselves even though they know that what you are saying is in fact true, but they don’t want to consider it.
It is like a divorced person who is told something nice about their former spouse and they will not believe it because of the torrid time that they had before, through, and after the divorce process.
It is self-deception. The sinner does not know God as Paul says in Galatians, Ephesians, and I Thessalonians, but they do not know Him because, as explained in Romans 1, they won’t acknowledge the revelation that God gives of Himself; that is, General Revelation.
Calvin comments with insight when he speaks of “searching for God when all the while each one clings to his own speculations” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I. 11. 1). In another place he writes,
Men of sound judgment will always be sure that a sense of divinity, [sensus divinitatis] which can never be effaced, is engraved upon men’s minds. Indeed the perversity of the impious, who though they struggle furiously are unable to extricate themselves from the fear of God, is abundant testimony that this conviction, namely that there is some God, is naturally inborn in all and is fixed deep within as it were in the very marrow. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion I. 3. 3)
Sticking to the Right Definition
The meaning of General Revelation hinges on the meaning of the word “general.” By “general” what theologians originally meant, and what they ought to mean today, is its “sphere of contact.” General Revelation comes to all men. Therefore, the word “general” refers to the audience to whom the revelation comes. It comes to all.
Unfortunately in the history of theology, but particularly in the last hundred years under the influence of natural theology from the Roman Catholic Church, many Protestant and evangelical theologians have used the term General Revelation to refer to the content of the revelation, and not the audience to whom the revelation comes. This switch changes the whole definition of General Revelation, bypassing the fact that revelation is already known by sinners.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.