Theology: The Doctrine of God
The Knowledge of God from Nature
The title of this book, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, has been derived from Romans 12:1, “… which is your reasonable service.” Religion consists of four matters: 1) its foundation or basis, 2) its form or essence, 3) its regulative principle, and 4) its practical manifestation.
The Foundation of Religion
First, the foundation of religion is the character of God. The works of His omnipotence and benevolence are indeed reasons to stimulate man to serve God; however, they are not the basis for such service. This foundation is the very character of God. God possesses within Himself all glory and worthiness to be served, even if there were no creature. No creature could have its existence, except it be of Him and through Him. By its very existence the creature is obligated to God’s majesty to exist for the purpose of serving God, having its origin in Him and existing by virtue of His influence.
If this creature is rational, then God, because He is God, obligates him who has been placed directly under his Creator to honor and serve God and devote his entire existence to Him. The character of God eternally obligates the creature, and therefore also man, to this. “Who would not fear Thee, O King of nations? For to Thee doth it appertain” (Jer. 10:7); “Thou hast established the earth, and it abideth. They continue this day according to Thine ordinances: for all are Thy servants” (Psa. 119:90–91).
The Form or Essence of Religion
Secondly, the form or essence of religion consists of man’s knowledge, recognition, and heart-felt endorsement of this binding obligation, which is to live unto God at all times and in all things with all that he is and is capable of performing. This is so because He is God and by virtue of His nature this is His worthy due. For this reason he willingly devotes and sacrifices himself unto God, surrendering himself to the service of God. He does so because He is his God, it is his obligation, and it constitutes his felicity. “O Lord, truly I am Thy servant; I am Thy servant” (Psa. 116:16); “One shall say, I am the LORD’s; and another shall subscribe with his hand unto the LORD” (Isa. 44:5).
The Regulative Principle of Religion
Thirdly, essential to religion is the revelation of God’s will as the regulative principle according to which man, as a servant, must engage himself. It has not been left to man to determine the manner in which he would serve God, for then he would stand above God. Anyone who engages himself in this way exalts himself above God and displeases the Lord in all his activity. “But in vain they do worship Me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Mat. 15:9).
Rather, the Lord Himself establishes for and reveals to man the regulative principle, indicating what He requires man to do and in which manner He wishes this to be accomplished. “Should not a people seek unto their God?… To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this Word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa. 8:19–20); “That ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Rom. 12:2).
The Practice of Religion
Fourthly, the essence of religion consists in an active agreement with, and execution of the will of God. All that God wills, the servant of God also wills, because the will of God is the object of his desire and delight. He rejoices that God desires something from him and that God reveals to him what He wishes to have done. This motivates him to perform it whole-heartedly as the Lord’s will. “Doing the will of God from the heart” (Eph. 6:6).
As we consider the subject of religion, we shall not only discuss these four matters, but shall do so in the order which we have established. In the first place we must show that God is the foundation of religion, considering both His existence and the purpose for His existence. If man is to make God the foundation of his religion, recognizing his obligation towards Him, then he must know God. This makes it necessary first to demonstrate from which source the right knowledge of God must be derived.
God has decreed within Himself what He desires to reveal of Himself and the extent of this revelation of Himself. This knowledge of God is referred to as Θεολογία άρχέτυπα πρωτότυπα Theologia archetypa, protypa (Original and essential revelation). The knowledge in the rational creature which corresponds with this is referred to as Θεολογία ἒκτυπα Theologia ectypa (conferred revelation).
The manner by which this certain knowledge is instilled or granted to creatures varies according to the differences among rational creatures. The angels know God by an immediate beholding of the countenance of God. “Their angels do always behold the face of My Father which is in heaven” (Mat. 18:10). Such already is, and shall be, the knowledge of the elect in the state of glory. “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7); “For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).
Christ according to His human nature knows God by virtue of His union with the Godhead as the Son of God, and thus in a more excellent way than can be comprehended by angels and men. “For in Him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9); “God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto Him” (John 3:34).
Man upon earth knows God by revelation. “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him” (John 1:18). This revelation occurs either by means of nature in all men, or also by means of the Holy Scriptures, which the Lord grants only to some.
The Innate Knowledge of God
God has created within all men an innate knowledge that God is, that is, an acknowledgement that God exists. This does not mean that man, in his existence, is immediately conscious of God; rather this consciousness comes gradually with an increase of age. Such knowledge is innate in man as reason is innate—which man also does not initially exercise. As time progresses, however, he begins to reason about matters which confront him. Both reality and mental exercises concerning the knowledge of God spontaneously proceed from his own nature, without external stimulation by means of instruction.
This innate knowledge of God does not necessarily manifest itself in action. Prior to birth children are not capable of engaging in the activity of hearing, seeing, speaking, and thinking; they can do neither good nor evil (Rom. 9:11). They cannot commit actual sins after the similitude of Adam’s transgression (Rom. 5:14). Anyone who maintains the contrary does so without foundation. It is contrary to Scripture and experience.
Some, not being satisfied with ordinary expressions relative to the innate knowledge of God, wish to refer to it as a mental image. It is to be feared, however, that this notion is a cloak for strange sentiments. This would, for example, suggest that this uncreated mental image, as a mirror, would reveal to man all the perfections of God and His creatures, and that man passively, by mere observation or in response to this mental image, would be able to know all these perfections. What else does this suggest than that God is finite and the mental image within man infinite?
Thus, the knowledge of God would not be obtained by man as created objects from God’s revelations about Himself and His creatures, but from within ourselves, derived from this innate mental image. This is doing nothing else but attributing infallibility to every man. This would bring the infallibility of one person into direct conflict with the infallibility of the other by the opposing views they may have concerning this matter. From this it follows that all views concerning God are nothing but fantasies and waking dreams, which, to put it mildly, serve no other purpose than to generate confused and foolish ideas concerning this matter.
If, however, one understands this mental image to be nothing other than the innate ability to acknowledge God, that is, to perceive that God exists, is Creator and Ruler over all things, and is Lord over each person, such that each man is obligated to live according to His will and that whoever fails to do this must expect the just manifestation of His wrath notwithstanding that all this is impressed upon the conscience of every man—if such is the understanding, then this matter is viewed correctly.
One should, however, avoid this terminology of “mental image”; it may, in addition to that mentioned, generate images of God within the mind similar to the external images Roman Catholicism creates, both of which are prohibited in the second commandment.
The inner perception of the form and image of all things is not innate in man. Unless there would be proof to the contrary, this must be emphatically denied. Man does not acquire knowledge about matters from within himself but rather from his own observation with his five senses. What image or perception do we have concerning the form of animals which live in other parts of the world, which we have never seen or heard mentioned? It is as if they neither exist nor ever existed. Does a child prior to birth or at the time of birth have a mental image of a lion, dog, or cat, as well as of their physical stature and nature? Of course not.
To enable Adam to name the animals after their kind, the animals first had to be brought to Adam (Gen. 2:19). Man sees, hears, tastes, smells, and touches various objects from childhood on before he consciously takes notice of them. When he is accustomed to them, he will in time become knowledgeable concerning these things. The concept that he, without the conscious involvement of his five senses, acquires knowledge by means of innate imagery already being present prior to his birth, must be rejected as soon as it is formulated.
In similar fashion do we function within the realm of Christianity. From childhood on we observe the works of God in nature without reasoning about them or paying special attention to them. From childhood on we hear mention being made of God, which causes the innate knowledge of a god—or lest we be misunderstood, the acknowledgment of God—to be activated. It becomes reality and increases more and more, albeit unevenly, that is, in the one more than in the other. The idea that man, by observing the works of God, being instructed about God, or hearing about God, is able to develop this innate mental image of God, is irrational and entirely erroneous.
Man, having been gifted with innate knowledge and created with the ability to reason as well as to acknowledge God, is capable of knowing God in due season. This is the very reason why God reveals Himself as is evident from Romans 1:19–20. That which may be known of God (which is not the full essence of God, nor that which God reveals and makes known to angels, the saints on earth, and the glorified saints in heaven, but that which the heathen are capable of knowing from nature by observing the works of God) is not evident to the heathen by way of innate, mental images, but by virtue of God’s revelation to them. How? By means of mental images? No, but it is known to them from the works of God. “For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead” (Rom. 1:20).
Thus, in the absence of Holy Scripture, the heathen have had the knowledge of God, insomuch as they were able to obtain this from the light of nature. This consists of that which may be known of God in distinction to that which must be believed concerning God, according to the apostle’s testimony in Romans 1:16–17.
That man possesses such innate knowledge of God is evident in the following passage, “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law … 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 refers to people who do not possess the Holy Scriptures. He states that the law is written in their hearts and that they know by nature that they must live according to this law. Thus, they are a law unto themselves, their conscience the meanwhile accusing or excusing them in relation to whether or not they live according to the law written in their hearts. The knowledge of the Lawgiver is proportionate to the knowledge of the law. This knowledge obligates them to obedience and teaches that the Lawgiver will justly reward the obedient and punish the disobedient. This Lawgiver, not being a man, is therefore acknowledged to be God.
Man’s innate ability to reason enables him by way of research to become knowledgeable in various subjects as well as to increase in this acquired knowledge. Likewise the innate knowledge of God enables man, by observing the works of God in their created nobility, to increase in the knowledge of God and by means of the visible ascend to the invisible One. That which is visible could not possibly communicate to man that there is a God if prior to that he did not have an impression of God in his soul.
This internal knowledge of God can be increased by viewing the creatures and their experiences as being representative of the activities and government of God. This is therefore referred to as the external knowledge of God, it being derived from external matters (Rom. 1:19–20). Job testifies of this, “But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee: or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee: and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee. Who knoweth not in all these that the hand of the LORD hath wrought this?” (Job 12:7–9).
This is confirmed further in the following passages, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth His handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard” (Psa. 19:1–3); “… who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless He left not Himself without witness, in that He did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:16–17). From all this it becomes evident that man by nature possesses both an external and internal knowledge of God.
The most brilliant philosophers have made much progress in this knowledge as a result of the observation of creatures. One can increase in this knowledge in a threefold manner:
(1) by way of negation,
barring from God all imperfection, frailty, finality and insignificance, all of which are to be found in the creature;
(2) by way of excellence,
infinitely and perfectly ascribing to God all that can be observed as glorious, beautiful, and enjoyable in the creature, for the original cause will always excell that which is to be found in any created object;
(3) by way of causality,
ascending from a simple matter to its cause, from thence proceeding to the higher cause, thus finally arriving at the ultimate cause which is God, and from thence descending by way of various causes to the lowest of all creatures.
Is there such a knowledge of God in the natural man?
The Socinians deny all knowledge of God from nature and maintain that the knowledge of God has been passed on from generation to generation since the time of Noah or, by means of a special revelation of God, to certain individuals. Our response to this question, however, is positive.
First, it is evident from the texts previously referred to: Romans 2:14–15; Romans 1:19; Job 12:7–9; Psalm 19:1–3; Acts 14:16–17.
Secondly, it is evident from experience which teaches that there is not a nation under the sun which does not acknowledge a deity. The heathen themselves bear witness to this in their writings. Christians, who by virtue of maritime travel to Asia, Africa, and America have visited places where Christians have never been, have discovered that all nations, however savage they may have been, had an impression of a deity, albeit that some did not manifest any exercise of religion. Thus, the entire world exclaims: There is a God!
Thirdly, it is evident from man’s inclination to honor something that is tangible. The religious worship of such things gives evidence that there is an external impression of the existence of a god. The lofty affections of men could not be persuaded to honor a piece of wood or stone, unless they would consider it as containing a deity or to be representative of the immediate presence of a deity who would be pleased by such service.
Fourthly, it is evident from the fact that one can teach a savage heathen, even if he is deaf and dumb, by means of signs and gestures to have respect for God and to animate his conscience concerning sin and virtue. This could certainly not occur if he did not have some initial internal knowledge concerning a deity.
Fifthly, if the knowledge of God in man were not innate and he lacked the ability by way of the visible to ascend to the invisible God, then the heathen would be without sin. In the absence of a lawgiver there is also no law, and wherever there is no law there is no transgression; therefore, they could not be condemned. To hold to the latter is absurd, and thus it is certain that the heathen have knowledge of God.
All that comes naturally to man is to be found in all men at all times.
The knowledge of God, however, is not to be found in all, since in some heathen it has been observed that not the least trace of religion was found. Such knowledge of God is not always present, for David states, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” (Psa. 14:1). And Paul refers to ἄθεοι (atheoi) or atheists: “… without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).
(1) It is petitio principii: this is precisely the point of contention.
We maintain that the acknowledgement or impression of the existence of a god is at all times to be found in all, as we have proven in a five-fold manner. This is potentially true and also as far as man’s rationality is concerned.
(2) Even if there might be people who do not give the least evidence of any religion, it does not necessarily follow that there is no impression concerning a deity concealed in their heart. Our discussion does not concern itself with the practice of religion, but with the propensity toward the acknowledgment of a deity.
(3) David speaks of fools, of ungodly persons given over to themselves who testify by their behavior that they neither honor, fear, nor serve a deity. By means of their wickedness they seek to erase the impression they have concerning God and rashly desire to silence their disturbed conscience. David, however, does not here address the innate knowledge of God.
(4) Paul calls such individuals atheists who neither have God as their reconciled God, Benefactor, or Salvation, nor as their Hope for eternal felicity. This text obviously does not relate to this matter.
There have always been atheists and those who utterly reject God.
In our day atheism is clearly breaking forth in France, in England, and to some extent also in the Netherlands, primarily by means of various sects. There are even some who cleverly introduce atheism, secretly or openly, by way of their speech, writing, and lifestyle. Their objective is to distort Scripture by establishing reason as the expositor of Holy Writ, and in doing so remove its divine authority as well as its infallibility.
In order not to be despised, they use the word “God”; however, they do not understand this to refer to the Creator, Sustainer, and Governor of creation and all that is contained in Him who is eternally self-existent, independent, and Wisdom personified—existing prior to the creation of creatures and the universe. They rather understand it to refer to the common nature of all things as if this were the origin and maintaining cause of all things, being governed in the same fashion as gears setting a clock in motion. Fortune and misfortune would then occur due to the motions of nature in specific objects, it being implied that one should be passive and quiet in response to these motions as they can neither be changed nor opposed.
Atheists acknowledge no law except the law of nature which they propose to be such as to endorse a pleasurable pursuit of their own lusts. They consider it sin when one does something contrary to his own interest and advantage; and they consider it a virtue if one engages himself in promoting the fulfillment of his lust. They consider salvation to consist merely in finding joy in eating, drinking, fornicating, boasting, indulging in pleasure, as well as yielding to one’s lusts. Lying and deceit are considered honorable means to obtain such bliss, or to enable them to avoid whatever would disturb them in their bliss. They know of no punishment except when damage and shame are experienced, and no damnation except for a restless and melancholy frame of mind.
Their motto is Ede, bibe, lude, post mortem nulla voluptas! that is, eat, drink, and play, for after death there is no pleasure. Irrespective of whether a man, horse, or any other creature dies, dead is dead. They ridicule the existence of a soul, angels, and devils and relegate them to the realm of fables. They are at peace with this conviction, having no acquaintance with a stirring and remorseful conscience. In this the wretched Jew, Baruch de Spinoza—born in December, 1633 and deceased in February, 1677 in The Hague—led the way. It is obvious that other atheists have borrowed sentiments from him.
It is thus evident that atheists do exist, and therefore there is no such thing as innate knowledge of a deity in the heart of man. If there were such innate knowledge, one would not be able to root it out as so many have done and currently are doing, or as many are attempting to learn how they may accomplish such a thing.
Such a conclusion is the consequence of establishing reason as the expositor of Holy Writ, as well as the arbiter in determining what to believe and what not to believe. How will those who hold to this principle be able to refute atheistical writings? The arrows fly back and they themselves will be wounded. These are the consequences of wresting and manipulating the Holy Scriptures, as well as the fruits of ridiculing the exercises of true godliness which are sneeringly referred to as lessons in morality. Those who do so are ignorant of the distinction between the virtues of the heathen, and those of Christians which proceed from faith in Christ, a knowledge of the truth, and are performed in love, godly fear, and obedience toward God.
The acknowledging of the truth is after godliness (Titus 1:1). These are the fruits of dishonoring God and of denying the generation of the Son and the procession of the Holy Ghost. First they propose the existence of three collateral persons—that is, existing side by side—which is followed by the notion of three gods, and eventually this culminates in denying the existence of God. These fruits proceed from a distaste for the old paths which are unknown to them and from a hankering for the promotion of that which is new. Such are the fruits of doubting the existence of God.
The objection itself has no validity, for we do not deny that those persons who labor to erase the impression of God from their hearts will be given over by God to a reprobate mind (Rom. 1:28), and that He sends them a strong delusion (2 Th. 2:11) so that the knowledge of God is fully suppressed. Consequently, a person can become completely oblivious to the existence of God; however, from this it does not follow that God did not create this knowledge and consciousness within man.
Is a person in a deep coma no longer a rational creature, even though reasoning itself is not evident? Is this person conscious of his ability to reason? When a person, due to a fall or a blow to the head, is deprived of his intellect, having neither knowledge, speech, nor his emotions—similar to a newborn child who shows signs of life in a limited sense—is he therefore without reason? Such is also the case with the ability to acknowledge the existence of a deity. In the absence of actually doing so, one cannot conclude that a person is without the propensity or the ability to do so.
Only by faith, and consequently not through nature, does one know that there is a God, which is evident from Hebrews 11:6, “He that cometh to God must believe that He is.”
This issue of faith can be viewed in various ways. Nature teaches that God is who He is by virtue of the maintenance and government of all things; Scripture teaches that God is who He is in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6). In Hebrews 11 the apostle refers to the latter, whereas in the previously quoted texts from Romans 1 and 2 he refers to the former. The recognition of the Godhead by faith does not exclude the knowledge of God from the realm of nature; rather, it includes and pre-supposes it.
Relative to the natural knowledge of God the question must be posed: “Can man be saved by virtue of such knowledge?”
The Socinians answer this question in the affirmative. The Arminians and some within Roman Catholicism also lean in this direction. We deny this emphatically, however, as is verified by the following:
First, all natural knowledge of God, whatever its measure may be, is cognizant of God’s justice in punishing sin (Rom. 1:32), but is ignorant of the satisfaction of the justice of God and of the holiness with which one is able to stand in the just judgment of God. Without this satisfaction no one can be saved, as shall be shown comprehensively subsequent to this. Thus, for them God remains a God who will by no means clear the guilty, and who will recompense everyone according to his deeds.
Secondly, there is no salvation except in Christ and there is no other way unto salvation but by faith in Christ. “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me” (John 14:6); “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other Name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12); “But without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Heb. 11:6); “He that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the Name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:36).
It is certain that the knowledge of Christ and faith in Christ are entirely absent in the natural knowledge of God. He is revealed only in the gospel, a revelation to which the heathen are not privy. “Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations” (Col. 1:26). Faith can only be exercised in response to the declaration of the gospel. “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17). It is therefore incontrovertible that the natural knowledge of God cannot bring about salvation for man.
Thirdly, the heathen, one as well as the other, even the wisest and most virtuous among them, are called:
(1) fools, “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1:22);
(2) blind and dead, “Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart” (Eph. 4:18);
(3) atheists, without promise or hope, “… strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and Ἄθεοι ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ, atheists, without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).
Their condition is denominated as, “and the times of this ignorance” (Acts 17:30).
“Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them … so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:19–20).
On this basis the following conclusion is made: Since the heathen by the light of nature already know what is to be known of God, and they, not walking according to this light, are without excuse, then in following this light, this knowledge should lead them to salvation.
(1) The apostle does not say that they knew all that is to be known of God, but merely that which is to be known from nature, which the apostle limits to “His eternal power and Godhead.” It must be proved that such knowledge is sufficient unto salvation, for we deny it.
(2) That man is without excuse, because he is cognizant of God and his own duty, does not imply that he by the light of nature should be able to progress to such an extent that he should be without excuse, and therefore be able to come to salvation. It also does not imply that this light was fully sufficient, even if he had lived in accordance with it. The contrary must be inferred: the light of nature convicts man that God is just in condemning him, both because of the wickedness of his nature and because of his opposition to the light which is in him. Thus, this light has no other purpose than to convict him. Even if this light of nature were capable of excusing him in some measure, it should not be inferred that it would do so completely.
“… not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance” (Rom. 2:4); “That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after Him, and find Him, though He be not far from every one of us” (Acts 17:27).
These texts indicate that the knowledge of nature is adequate to bring about repentance, as well as to seek and find God. Salvation is promised upon repentance, and to find God is salvation itself. Thus, the knowledge of nature is sufficient unto salvation.
(1) In Romans 2:4 the apostle addresses those to whom he preached the gospel, Jews as well as Greeks, for he addresses them in the second person “thou,” which he continues to do in the remainder of the chapter. This text is therefore not applicable to this situation.
(2) Contingent upon the extent of natural light, the natural knowledge of God also does indeed convict of sin, and shows the desirability and necessity of conversion from sin to virtue. Such a conversion, however, is not true conversion which results in a radical external and internal change in man—a transformation from death to spiritual life, without which no salvation is to be expected.
(3) In Acts 17:27, the idolatrous heathen were addressed who, in addition to their idols of wood and stone, had an altar with this inscription: “To the unknown God,” whom they ignorantly served. The apostle declared them to be ignorant and taught that the light of nature did not direct them to depart from God in favor of idols; rather, God had given them this light of nature for the express purpose of instructing them concerning their duty, which was to seek God “if haply they might feel after Him, and find Him.” This communicates what man, having fallen away from God, must do, rather than what he is capable of doing, being guilty of having robbed himself of light and life.
Man is obligated to seek God, if haply he might feel after and find Him; however, without the wondrous light which God grants to His children in the moment of regeneration, they shall never “feel after Him, and find Him” unto reconciliation and salvation, even though the light of nature may bring them to the realization that God truly exists and wishes to be served in spirit and in truth. This feeling after and finding of God to which the apostle refers, differs infinitely from that feeling after and finding of God by and in which salvation is experienced.
In Romans 2:14–15, the apostle states that the heathen by nature do things contained in the law, being a law unto themselves, but have the work of the law written in their hearts and their conscience excuses them.
They in whom these things are found are doers of the law, and doers of the law shall be justified. Since these matters are to be discerned in the heathen who possess only the light of nature, they must be considered doers of the law, and therefore shall be justified. Thus, it must be inferred that the natural knowledge of God is sufficient to lead man to salvation.
To be a law unto one’s self, to have the law written upon the heart, and to do the things which are contained in the law, is nothing more than to be cognizant of the relationship between man and God, as well as to be aware of the will of God. To be cognizant of this is to know that the law commands, forbids, promises, threatens, and convicts. The law, but also the light of nature does this even without having the written law, so that it does not imply the fulfilling of the law but shows what the law requires. Therefore if a person does not walk according to this light, it will then accuse him, and if he does so, it will excuse him, albeit not altogether as if he had fully kept the entire law at all times, thus being justified by God as Judge. The reference is to a specific deed, and only then in proportion to the measure of light received.
If the knowledge of nature in and of itself is not sufficient unto salvation, it is nevertheless salvific by virtue of its result.
For example, if a man is faithful to the light of nature and lives accordingly, then God gives additional grace which is of such a nature that he can be saved according to this promise: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance” (Mat. 13:12). This is further confirmed by examples such as Job, the centurion (Mat. 8:5, 10), and Cornelius (Acts 10).
(1) No one uses the natural knowledge of God rightly, for in reference to all who are in the state of nature it is written, “There is none righteous, no not one: there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10–12). All the virtues of the heathen lack the true essence of virtue. They do not proceed from faith, are not in true harmony with the law, and are not performed to the honor of God. Rather, they are so beset with sinful qualities and circumstances that these virtues are nothing but glaring sins.
(2) Even if a heathen were to live in full accordance with this natural light, there is not a single promise that God will therefore grant such a person saving grace. God is so free that He is debtor to no one, and His justice is so pure that no performance of a child of wrath—which necessarily misses the mark even if it were to conform with the light of nature—would move Him to draw such a person to Himself and to be gracious to him.
(3) Matthew 13:12 is not applicable here, as it does not refer to the gifts of nature, but to the gifts of grace which the Lord bestows upon His children in granting them grace to improve grace received, thus honoring them with additional grace. “In keeping of them there is great reward” (Psa. 19:11).
(4) The examples indicated are not applicable in this context since these individuals had the gospel and lived under its administration.
Even though the natural knowledge of God is not salvific, it nevertheless serves a purpose and is useful for the following reasons:
(1) It teaches that God exists; that He is an invisible, spiritual Being; is infinite; is the first cause of all things; in His Being is infinitely exalted above all that exists; and is holy, omnipotent, good, and just.
(2) It teaches that God is the cause of all things (also of him who meditates about God), and thus is sovereign Lord over all. It teaches that by His influence He upholds, governs, and directs all things according to His will, so that no one can stay His hand or say, “What doest Thou?”
(3) It teaches that every human being is obligated to Him with an irrevocable obligation to do His will as expressed in His law, which is revealed to him by virtue of the light of nature.
(4) By this man can view his sin and guilt against the background of God’s justice.
(5) It also promotes the maintenance of human society.
(6) Man, by means of the revelation of Holy Writ, is a fit subject to be led in the way of true godliness by the Spirit of God.
The Origin of the Natural Knowledge of God and Morality
Where do the natural knowledge of God and morality originate?
They do not originate from a new gift which God bestowed upon man after he lost the image of God. There is not a word in Scripture to suggest this. Reason neither teaches this, nor does necessity require it. It is also not a remnant of the image of God in its narrower sense, which consists of spiritual knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. It is a remnant, however, of the image of God in its wider sense, as far as this refers to the subject or essence of the image of God itself. In order to understand this correctly one must consider what the image of God actually is as well as what belongs to it. At the appropriate place these matters shall be discussed more extensively.
(1) Man was not first created in puris naturalibus, that is, he was not created as a purely natural and rational person, having no more than the five senses along with the instant ability to reason, the image of God being impressed upon him subsequent to his creation. It is my opinion that man would not have been truly man if the consciousness of God had not been present from the very outset. Rather, man was created in, and in possession of, the image of God. God, in creating man, created him in His image, generating this image in the very act of creating (Gen. 1:27). The existence of sensitivity as well as the capability for growth, both of which are inherent in the life of animals and vegetation, do not function as components united within a larger entity, but virtualiter et efficaciter, that is, by virtue of innate ability and propensity.
The rational soul is also similarly capable of reasoning. Thus, in a similar manner the image of God contains within itself both the natural knowledge of God and morality. These are not individual entities; neither do they coexist as components of a larger entity, as if in Adam there were a distinction between a knowledge of God and morality which would be of a natural sort, and a spiritual knowledge of the same which would be the image of God. Adam possessed these by virtue of innate ability and propensity. The image of God permeated everything and energized all faculties and motions of the soul; hence all that was within him and was performed by him was spiritual and holy in nature.
(2) Even though the image of God in Adam was indivisible, one can nevertheless distinguish three matters by way of intellectual deduction: 1) its basis or focal point, 2) its nature or essence, and 3) its consequence or purpose.
The focal point of the image of God was the soul which is an invisible, immortal spirit, endowed with intellect, a will, and affections. The essence was spiritual knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. The consequence or purpose of the image of God was his glorious position and his exercise of dominion over the animal kingdom.
In reference to the focal point the following must be noted, which when properly understood will answer the initial question and eliminate much confusion concerning this matter. An artist cannot impress someone’s image upon water or sand. To accomplish this he must have the appropriate base or medium. Similarly, the image of God could not have been impressed upon wood, stone, or an irrational creature. It required an intelligent, willing, rational soul, and a consciousness of God. The soul in Adam could not be separated from the image of God in its narrow sense, as the image of God permeated and energized the entire soul.
We are merely making an intellectual deduction here. As a result of Adam’s fall, the image of God in its narrow sense, consisting of spiritual knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, has been entirely removed from all the faculties and propensities of the soul. Nevertheless, Adam did not lose his human nature. He retained the soul in its essence and propensity, consisting of intelligence, will, disposition, reason, and consciousness of God. The consciousness of God is as natural to man as his ability to reason.
This ability is at all times common to man, and to man only. One can therefore state this in reverse: every human being is conscious of a deity, and a being which is conscious of a deity is necessarily a human being. Yes, by virtue of his consciousness of God man distinguishes himself even further and more clearly from animals than by his ability to reason. In some animals one can discern a trace or semblance of the ability to reason, although such animals are not consciously aware of their activity. The impression of the existence of a deity is entirely absent and cannot be taught. Man’s consciousness of God is innate, however. Even if someone no longer manifests any evidence of this, it does not require many hours, for example, to bring the most savage heathen to an acknowledgement of it, which proves that such is his natural propensity.
The consciousness of deity, viewed here as a propensity rather than the act itself, is not a remnant of the image of God in its narrower sense which consists of spiritual knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. To insist otherwise would create unsolvable difficulties. It is, however, possible to state that it is a remnant of the image of God in its wider sense, which includes the previously mentioned faculties of the soul, and those only. It therefore belongs to the essential nature of man, so that the natural consciousness of God, as well as the natural morality which proceeds from it, do not merely differ in degree from the essential elements of the image of God—that is, spiritual knowledge, righteousness, and holiness—but they differ in their very nature. This becomes evident from the following:
First, he who still possesses a remnant of the image of God [that is, in its narrow sense], or a measure thereof, is neither spiritually blind nor spiritually dead, for spiritual life consists in the possession of the image of God.
A part is of the same nature as the whole; a drop is as truly water as is the entire ocean. Man however, possessing both the natural knowledge of God as well as morality, is entirely blind and dead. For verification of this blindness turn to Galatians 4:8, Ephesians 4:18, and 1 Corinthians 15:34. For verification of spiritual death turn to Ephesians 2:1–12. Consequently, there is neither a remnant nor a certain degree of the image of God in natural man. It is therefore evident that both natural knowledge and morality do not differ from the image of God in its narrow sense in degree, but in essence.
Secondly, if the natural knowledge of God were identical to the image of God in its narrow sense, and merely differed in degree, then man would be able to convert himself.
A man in the state of nature is obviously capable, by virtue of his natural abilities, to progress very significantly in self-manufactured knowledge and virtue, thereby in some areas excelling the truly regenerate. Man, however, is not able to convert himself—a truth which we will consider more extensively at the appropriate place. Therefore, natural knowledge and morality are not synonymous with the image of God, merely differing in degree, but the image of God is of an entirely different nature.
Thirdly, in view of this we must consider that both knowledge and morality
(1) proceed from different causes, one being the original, creative power of God, and the other being the regenerating power of God;
(2) function through different means, one being nature, and the other being the gospel;
(3) have different objects, one being that which is known of God by virtue of His revelation in the realm of nature, and the other being God’s revelation of Himself in the face of Christ;
4) have different results; the one renders man inexcusable, whereas the other results in salvation. Since there is a difference in all these aspects, there must also be a difference in essence rather than degree. If the restoration of the image of God does not consist in an increase of natural knowledge, but rather in a transformation resulting in knowledge and virtue, which are of an entirely different nature, then natural knowledge is not a remnant of the image of God in its narrow sense. This restoration does not consist in an increase of natural knowledge but in a transformation resulting in an entirely different sort of knowledge. Thus, natural knowledge is not a remnant of the image of God in its narrow sense, and differs with it not in degree, but in essence.
Even though these two are of a different nature, they are, however, not contradictory, just as one light does not clash with another type of light. His very nature makes man a qualified object to be the recipient of both spiritual and natural knowledge. Even though the natural propensity of man is confined to a limited realm of knowledge, and the spiritual is focused upon matters which are far loftier—they being viewed in another light and the subject under consideration being viewed with different eyes by the spiritual man who discerns other matters in it—it does not follow that natural and spiritual knowledge are therefore contradictory; instead, they complement each other.
Thus far we have demonstrated that all men have an impression of the existence of God. All that now remains is to answer the following concern.
May one, in order to become more steadfast in his knowledge that God exists, temporarily set aside all the revelations concerning God in both nature and Scripture, and consider them to be non-existent?
May one consider the inner conviction that God exists to be an advantage, thus enabling him to entertain the hypothesis that there is no God, so that by questioning everything and viewing the matter from all angles, he may with more steadfastness conclude that God exists? In sum, may one doubt whether God exists?
Since our intellect has been darkened, man is inclined to doubt whether a matter which presents itself is truly as it appears. This necessitates further research in order to be so conversant with the matter that all doubt is removed. Such, however, is not the case relative to the knowledge of the existence of God. This He has created in our nature and has further confirmed to every man by Holy Writ, so that one is not permitted to doubt the existence of God, for the following reasons:
(1) It is a rejection of God willingly to maintain that God does not exist as well as willingly doubt His existence.
(2) It is tantamount to challenging God face to face and declaring Him a liar. He reveals both in nature and Scripture that He exists, and this revelation is so clear that man in his conscience from the very outset cannot keep himself deaf to the voice of God.
(3) The person who maintains this, being desirous to doubt, knows that he is lying. When he initially tries to doubt, it is impossible to do so.
(4) Willful doubt will never result in more steadfastness, as a corrupt intellect and an ungodly heart—being granted more room and strength to function—are capable of transforming a doubter into an atheist as far as such is possible. Thus he would rob himself of salvation. God, in response to all this, will at times execute this very judgment.
(5) The proper way, however, to increase in the knowledge of God is to believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them who diligently seek Him. To do what is right is to do what one knows to be right, for if any man will do God’s will, he will know and confess that this doctrine is of God. The proper way is to seek the Lord, if haply one might seek after Him and find Him.
The knowledge of God in all men is so evident that even the most ungodly, as much as they may labor to do so, are entirely incapable of eradicating all knowledge and consciousness of God, even though they may temporarily succeed in rendering themselves insensitive to this consciousness, and thus become oblivious to the existence of God.
May this be to the conviction of many so-called Christians who in addition to nature have the Word of God but reckon so little with God; yes, who in the consciousness of God and the practice of virtue do not proceed as far as many heathen do through the light of nature. How such heathen shall arise in judgment in the last day against such so-called Christians, approving of their damnation! How dreadful shall their judgment be, when God shall appear, “In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power” (2 Th. 1:8–9).
May everyone therefore strive earnestly to acquire the knowledge of God, without which there can neither be faith, love, religion, nor salvation. Do not be satisfied with only a natural knowledge which cannot lead you to a saving knowledge of God, but rather strive to behold God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ. Likewise, strive for the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness.
From the foregoing, the godly may conclude that they are merely being tempted when they are troubled by atheistic thoughts. Their dismay concerning this is sufficient evidence that they know God and “believe that He is.” Do not yield to such thoughts, but resist them. Even if for some time you cannot rid yourself of these temptations, still hold to your inner conviction. As troublesome as it may be to you now, it shall make you more steadfast later. Persevere in reading God’s Word and join yourself to the godly in order to hear them speak about the delight they may have in God. Refrain from reading books authored by atheists or those who encourage atheism. Avoid interaction and disputation with confirmed atheists. Instead, turn to the Lord by continually engaging yourself in prayer; live in simplicity, knowing what the will of God is. In so doing you shall grow in the grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18).
Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, ed. Joel R. Beeke, (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 1992), 1:1–22.