The Christian Faith in the Christian World

Topic: Revelation Type: Book Author: J. Gresham Machen 

Chapter 3


At the beginning of this little series of talks, I tried to tell you why you cannot postpone attention to an unseen world and to God. This world presents very pressing problems just now, but even the problems of this world cannot be solved aright if you neglect the other world and the great question of your relation to God. Then I began to tell you how you can come into relations with that unseen world; I tried to begin to tell you how God may be known. He may be known, I said, through the universe that He has made: the existence of the world shows that there is a Maker and Ruler of the world.

That revelation of God through nature, I said, is wonderfully confirmed by the Bible, but it does not come only from the Bible. It is spread out before men so that all might be expected to see.

But in the last of these talks I was not able to finish, even in bare outline, what ought to be said about that general revelation of God which is given to us outside of the Bible. I spoke of the way in which God has spoken to us through the majesty and beauty of the world that He has made. But there is another way, still apart from the Bible, in which God has spoken to His creatures. He has not only in the wonders of the world outside of us but also through His voice within. He has planted His laws in our hearts. He speaks to all men through the voice of conscience. He speaks through the majestic words which all but the most degraded men utter, the words: "I ought." He speaks through the majesty of the moral law. A law implies a lawgiver. Conscience testifies of God.

There are some people, even people who are not Christians, to whom that revelation seems particularly to appeal. Some years ago I remember hearing an informal lecture by a well-known professor of philosophy. The speaker told us about the present state of philosophical opinion. It was, he said, overwhelmingly in favor of naturalism—that is, very few philosophers believed in any reality beyond and above the universe in which we live. He himself, the speaker said, disagreed with this naturalism. He did believe in a transcendent reality. Why? He believed in it, he said, because he observed that certain people sacrifice their own interests for the sake of other people or for the sake of duty. What could possibly lead them to act so if there is no transcendent principle of right? How could they possibly act in a way so contrary to all worldly interests unless there is a reality beyond this world?

The Bible sets the stamp of its approval upon that revelation of God through conscience, as we have seen that it sets the stamp of its approval upon the revelation that comes through the external world. Paul says, for example, in the second chapter of the Epistle to the Romans: For when the Gentiles, who have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.... [ROM 2:14, 15]. Here the Apostle does seem clearly to teach that the voice of conscience, which speaks in the very constitution of man’s nature, is the voice of God. He does not mean that men really obey that law as it ought to be obeyed. On the contrary, he is very clear indeed in teaching that all have disobeyed. They have disobeyed the law, but at least the law is there, in their hearts. Because of their disobedience they are under the condemnation of the law; the law can therefore of itself never give them any hope. But that is not the fault of the law; the moral law is written in the very constitution of their being, and if they do not heed it they are without excuse.

Thus God the great lawgiver is revealed in the voice of conscience as He is in the wonders of the world without. These two may be grouped together as constituting the revelation of God through nature, if nature be taken to include the nature of man. The philosopher Immanuel Kant is said to have summed it up when he spoke of the starry heavens above and the moral law within as being the two things which fill the heart of man with awe. I do not mean that those two things gave to Immanuel Kant a true knowledge of God: I do not mean even that he had a true notion of what knowledge itself is. But what I mean is that he made a correct summary of those things which apart from the Bible ought to give us a knowledge of God. The wonders of the universe without and the moral law within—those are the two great elements in God’s revelation of Himself through nature.

But He has not only revealed Himself through nature; He has also revealed Himself in an entirely different way. That other revelation of God, different from His revelation of Himself through nature, is not natural but supernatural.

When we say "supernatural," we are not speaking about something contrary to nature. Nothing that is contrary to nature could possibly come from God; for God is the author of nature, and He cannot contradict Himself.

But when we say that anything is "supernatural" we are saying that it is "above nature."

There is a really existing order of nature; the order of nature does not consist merely in our observation of certain regularities in God’s working, but it is something that truly exists.

That does not mean that nature exists apart from God. On the contrary, it would not continue to exist for one moment except by God’s will. God is not isolated from the world; He does everything that nature does and He says everything that nature says.

But what we mean is that God acts and speaks in two very different ways. In the first place He acts and speaks by means of the world that He has made; and in the second place He acts and speaks directly, without the use of means.

It was in this latter way that God acted when He first created the world, and it was in this latter way that He acted when He wrought the miracles recorded in the Bible and when He spoke to men in the supernatural revelation with which we are dealing just now.

Why was this supernatural revelation needed?

It was needed for two reasons.

In the first place, God’s revelation of Himself through nature has been hidden from our eyes by sin. We saw in the last talk how that is the case with the revelation given by the wonders of the external world. Those wonders reveal the glory of God. But men are blinded so that they do not see. That is even more clearly true of the revelation of God through His voice within. Have you never experienced yourselves, my friends, the way in which conscience becomes blunted? Have you never first looked upon some foul thing with horror, and then slipped into that thing by insensible degrees, so that what seemed wrong to you before is now treated as a matter of course, until at some sad hour you come to yourself and see that you are already wallowing in the mire? Ah yes, the voice of conscience is silenced by a life of sin. We can detect that dreadful hardening process in ourselves, and very terribly is it set forth in the Bible as a punishment for sin. How terrible, too, are the perversions of the conscience among men! It is certainly true that the revelation of God through conscience has been hidden from men’s eyes by sin.

There is need of supernatural revelation, therefore, to show us again those things which sin has hidden from our eyes.

But is that all the supernatural revelation that there is? If it were, we should be of all men most miserable. Suppose we had had revealed to us the terrible majesty of God; suppose the voice of conscience had spoken to us with perfect clearness, of the justice of God and of our disobedience. How terrible that revelation would be!

No, thank God. He has also, in His supernatural revelation, told us other things. He has told us again in supernatural fashion things that we ought to have learned through nature, but then He has told us other things of which nature gives no slightest hint. He has told us, namely, of His grace. He has told us of the way in which sinners who have offended against His holy law and deserve nothing but His wrath have been made His children at infinite cost and will live as His children for evermore.

Where shall we find that supernatural revelation? I want to say very plainly that I think all that we can know of it now is found in the pages of one Book.

There have, indeed, been men in our day who have claimed to be the recipients of supernatural revelation, who have claimed to be prophets, who have said as they have come forward: "Thus says the Lord; God has spoken directly to me, and my voice therefore is the voice of God."

But those who have said that in our times are false prophets one and all; the real supernatural revelation that we know is recorded in one blessed book, the Bible.

It is no wonder that that is the case, because there is a marvelous symmetry and completeness in that revelation of God which the Bible records. I should love to speak to you about it if there were time. When sin came into the world, the Bible tells us that there was a revelation of salvation to come; the seed of the woman should bruise the serpent’s head. I should love to tell you of the unfolding of that promise. I should love to tell you of Abraham and of Moses. I should particularly love to tell you of the great prophets, because in their words we see so plainly what supernatural revelation is. They spoke of judgment; they spoke of the terror and the majesty of God. But they also spoke, very tenderly, of God’s grace. As when at some solemn sunset hour there are dark clouds above but low on the horizon a deep, clear, unearthly light, despair of every artist’s brush, so in the great prophets there are warnings of the day of vengeance of our God but mingled with the warnings strange gleams of a heavenly tenderness and peace. For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace [ISA 9:6]. Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel [ISA 7:14].

Only, our figure was not altogether right; those passages reveal to us not a sunset glow but the glory of a far-off dawn. Then, as we read the Bible, we see the dawn drawing nearer. It is like that solemn hour when all nature is hushed before the appearance of the day. Shepherds kept watch over their flocks by night. There came to them a heavenly word: Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord [LUK 2:11]. I should love to tell you of that Savior. He spoke as never man spoke. But I suppose His whole life can be called supernatural revelation. He was true man, but He was not only man, and He came into this world by a supernatural act of God, and in His death and resurrection He wrought a supernatural work. I should love to tell you of the way in which through the apostles supernatural revelation was gloriously continued after His saving work was done. I should love to tell you how by heeding the revelation contained in the Epistles of the New Testament you can have that glorious Savior as your Savior today. I should love to tell you of the last book of the Bible, with its promises of things to come, with its promises of the time when we shall see our Savior face to face.

Yes, there is a wonderful symmetry and completeness in the supernatural revelation recorded in the Bible.

But one question may trouble us. Have we a true record of that revelation? The revelation came to men of long ago. How do we know that the account which we have of it is true? And how do we know that those saving acts of God which went with the revelation really did happen? The revelation is one thing, it might be said, and the record of the revelation is another. How do we know that the record is true?

I want to talk to you about that question in the next one of these addresses. I want to talk to you about inspiration—the inspiration of the Book in which the revelation is recorded. I want to talk to you about the question just exactly what we mean when we say that the Bible is the Word of God.

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This Page Last Updated: 12/07/98 A. Allison Lewis