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The triune God has made Himself known by revealing Himself in both nature and Scripture. In general revelation, God reveals Himself as the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. In special revelation, He reveals Himself as the Redeemer of His people in Jesus Christ. Although the knowledge of God and His eternal power is revealed in all mankind—by virtue of the fact that He has made them in His own image—all those who are fallen in Adam need the special revelation of God’s saving grace in Christ to come to a saving knowledge of Him. Additionally, we need the regenerating and illuminating work of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God to come to this saving knowledge of God. A true and saving knowledge of God involves union with Christ, communion with God, knowing God’s will for salvation, worship, work, rest, growth in grace, family relations, marriage, service, and giving. God has appointed means of grace by which His people may grow in their knowledge of Him.


In human relationships, one person cannot simply desire to know another. There must be a willingness on the part of another to open up about himself or herself. In the same way, God must reveal Himself to mankind in order for them to know Him. While God is incomprehensible and therefore cannot be known fully, He can be truly known by His image bearers by revealing Himself to them.

God has revealed His eternal power divine nature in creation so that all mankind—by virtue of being made in His image—possess an innate knowledge of God (Rom. 1:19–20). Theologians have called this innate knowledge the _sensus divinitatis _(the sense of deity). John Calvin explained the sense of deity when he wrote, “There exists in the human minds and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity . . . since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and occasionally enlarges, that all to a man being aware that there is a God, and that he is their Maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate their lives to his service” (Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.3.1).

Nevertheless, this knowledge of God is not sufficient to bring fallen sinners into a saving union with God since all people, by nature, suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18, 23). This leaves all people without excuse on judgment day (Rom. 1:20).

In his state of innocence, Adam needed special revelation from God. To know God truly, Adam needed a revelation of God’s will regarding himself, the creation ordinances, and His condescending arrangement concerning the covenant of works. Adam was not able to understand the full meaning of creation as the arena where he was to labor for the glory of the Lord apart from the word of God spoken to him by God in the garden. In other words, Adam could not fully comprehend natural revelation and what it told him about his duties before God without special revelation. Accordingly, Reformed theologians have stressed that the true knowledge of God comes only by means of the working together of natural and special revelation. Burk Parsons sums up the importance of the true knowledge of God in his article “The Salvation of Knowledge” when he writes, “True knowledge from God almighty, is the foundation of virtue, the establishment of love, and the means by which we are able to glorify God as He has revealed Himself.”

In Scripture, God reveals a diversity of truths about Himself so that people may come to a saving knowledge of Him (Rom. 10:14). God reveals His holy character through His law. The moral law of God reveals God’s will for His image bearers with respect to their ethical duties. With His names, God reveals aspects of His character and attributes to His people. By His promises, believers are brought to understand that God is gracious and merciful—a God who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin (Ex. 34:7; Num. 14:18; Mic. 7:18). Ultimately, Jesus is the full and final revelation of God (John 17:3; Heb. 1:1) who reveals the perfections of God to His people by His person and works. The biblical truths about the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, reign, and promised return of the Son of God teach believers about the character of God so that they may fully know and trust Him.

Throughout the medieval era of church history, many Christians promoted a mystical knowledge of God, an immediate saving knowledge by which God reveals Himself to the souls of His people. In the mystical scheme, man could attain the knowledge of God apart from any means. There were less extreme medieval mystic theologians—such as Bernard of Clairvaux—who limited experience with his strong commitment to Scripture. Bernard’s high view of Scripture led John Calvin to cite him throughout his Institutes.

By contrast, the Reformers rejected any claim of an immediate revelation of God while stressing the need for a supernatural illumination of the Word of God by the Spirit of God in the hearts of the people of God. Believers in the modern age often confuse revelation with illumination. Many in the Pentecostal and charismatic movements of the twentieth century fell into this error. Sinclair Ferguson explains why so many prefer an immediate revelation of God to the ongoing illumination of the word of God by the Spirit of God:

  1. It is more exciting to have direct revelation rather than Bible revelation. It seems more “spiritual,” more “divine.”
  2. For many people, it feels much more authoritative to be able to say, “God has revealed this to me” than to say, “The Bible tells me so.”
  3. Direct revelation relieves us of the need for painstaking Bible study and careful consideration of Christian doctrine to know the will of God. In comparison to immediate revelation, Bible study seems—to be frank—boring.

Despite the fact that many seek for immediate_ _revelation rather than for the illumination of the written revelation of God, Scripture is the complete and final revelation about the triune God (1 John 5:13; 2 Peter 1:19, Rev. 22:18–19). It is the God-appointed means for the salvation and sanctification of sinners through the knowledge of our God and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:2, 3, 8; 2:20; 3:8).


If we misunderstand the doctrine of God’s incomprehensibility, we can easily slide into two serious errors. The first error says that since God is incomprehensible, He must be utterly unknowable, and anything we say about God is gibberish. But Christianity affirms the rationality of God alongside the incomprehensibility of God. Our minds can go only so far in understanding God, and to know God we need His revelation. But that revelation is intelligible, not irrational. It is not gibberish. It is not nonsense. The incomprehensible God has revealed Himself truly.

R.C. Sproul

Divine Incomprehensibility

Tabletalk magazine

What makes life worthwhile is having a big enough objective, something which catches our imagination and lays hold of our allegiance; and this the Christian has in a way no other person has. For what higher, more exalted, and more compelling goal can there be than to know God?

J.I. Packer

Knowing God

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves . . . in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone . . . Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him . . . On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity.

John Calvin

Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.1.1