Installment 6 of 20, translated from the book Christ Is the Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Writings on the Basics of Faith and Doctrine. (Ed. Ari-Pekka Palola, SRK, 2018)
The most important matter in a person’s life is to know God. No one has ever seen God, nor can His existence be proven by observation or experiments. The human mind and reason do not easily accept God’s existence. Why would one believe in God if there is no sure evidence of Him?
People everywhere are interested in the same questions: why does something exist rather than nothing existing? How did life come to be? What is actually behind this visible reality? When pondering fundamental questions, a person inevitably encounters the question of God.
What Can We Know about God?
God’s existence cannot be scientifically proven – neither can it be proven that God does not exist. Scientific knowledge does not bring God into existence, neither does it negate His existence. At its best, science reveals the majesty of God. Nonetheless people desire to rise to God’s level or to surpass Him. People want to know everything. God-given reason easily becomes a stumbling block rather than a way to approach God. So it was in the beginning also.
According to Lutheran confessional writings, understanding is given by God, and therefore it is possible to a certain extent for humans to understand the good works of God. Human reason, however, is insufficient to know God fully. Reformation theologians nonetheless felt that reason is a tool for understanding Biblical writings. The Holy Spirit “opens the understanding and heart to understand the Scriptures” (Formula of Concord). Reason and understanding are gifts from God and He has intended them to be used in serving God and His creation.
Knowing the Mystery of God
It was difficult for the scholars in Jesus’ time to believe in God, even though they witnessed God’s miracles with their own eyes. God has seen fit to reveal Himself in a manner that the wise and prudent scorn, but which the childlike accept (Matt. 11:25). The wise and learned know of God, but only the Son knows the Father and reveals Him to us. There is a significant difference between the words “to know of” and “to know”. The former indicates objective knowledge while the latter signifies a personal relationship.
God never reveals Himself completely. The essence of God remains a mystery even when a person takes refuge in Him through faith. He is always more than we can know.
The Idea of Revelation
Revelation is a basic concept of the Bible, Christian faith and instruction. Revelation (from Latin revelatio) as a religious concept emphasizes the thought that a person can only learn to know God to the extent that God reveals Himself. Revelation means an action of God in which God reveals His essence, His plans and His will to people. On the other hand it also means knowledge of God which is relayed to a person through God’s actions.
Humans belong to the realm of this life and are bound to time and place. God, meanwhile, is beyond the boundaries of place and time (transcendental), omnipresent, existing in and of himself (Exod. 3:14). The subject of revelation is God. Humans are the object, the recipients of the revelation. God is the initiator even when people seek God. God has not left people in darkness, but rather reveals Himself and draws people unto Him through His everlasting love (Jer. 31:3).
The revelation has traditionally been divided into the general and special revelations. The concept “general revelation” (revelatio generalis) indicates that this form of revelation is known by all people. Special revelation (revelatio specialis)means God’s supernatural revelation which occurs through Christ and God’s Word. Special revelation can be divided into direct and indirect revelation. Direct revelation (inspiratio) means the revelation that the writers of the Bible had. The foundation of the indirect revelation is the written Word of God, the Bible.
In the general revelation, people see God’s work. Creation is proof that there exists a Creator of everything. Throughout time God has spoken to people in nature, fates of nations, phases of life and in their consciences (Christian Doctrine, item 4).
Creation in its entirety is a great miracle of God. It testifies of the Creator’s glory and magnitude. The miracle of creation is not only that something has been created, but that humans have been given the ability to observe it. For those who believe in God, creation is indisputable proof of God’s existence. Even though people do not see God, they see God’s works.
All people can sense the presence of God. The created being has awareness of its creator. According to Paul, God has revealed Himself in nature since the beginning of the world so His imprint should be obvious to all (Rom. 1:19–20). On the basis of the general revelation, however, we cannot get very far since God remains a mystery. Seeking God through the general revelation is mere fumbling around (Acts 17:27).
The general revelation does not lead a person to true knowledge of God or to salvation. At its best it can lead to superficial knowledge of God, but without the special revelation – the gospel – a person always remains in unbelief and hopelessness. The person’s conscience can be cleansed and freed only when God acts through the special revelation. Faith is born of the hearing of the gospel, when God in His grace, renews a person’s innermost. Therein the essence of God approaches a person and the person enters unity with God.
Without faith a person is a slave of God’s opponent, the enemy of souls. If the person does not realize this, he or she is unable to comprehend Christ’s grace. A person in his or her natural state has no saving knowledge of God. The person cannot by nature comprehend the speech of God’s Spirit because to his or her mind it is utter madness. He or she cannot comprehend it because it may be examined only through the Spirit.
God has revealed Himself especially in the Bible and in His Son Jesus Christ (Christian Doctrine, item 4). The culmination of this revelation is Christ who has become flesh. According to Luther, “God will and can be known in no other way than in and through Christ” (Commentary on Galatians).
The core of the revelation that occurred in Jesus is the so-called theology of the cross. In the world God is hidden in His opposites. God’s love does not seek the good and pious but rather the sinful. Christ’s death on the cross becomes a victory in the resurrection. God is hidden, but He has revealed to people all that is necessary so that they can find Him and become His children.
According to Paul, it is possible to understand the special revelation only through the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2). The special revelation breaks down obstacles and enables a person to hear God and His will. One cannot deny the effect of general revelation on the birth of faith, but the general revelation can truly be understood and accepted only via the special revelation.
In Luther’s theology, the special revelation occurs by means of understanding the law and the gospel. In emphasizing God’s holiness and mercifulness, Luther created the concepts of the hidden God (Deus absconditus) and the revealed God (Deus revelatus) [Bondage of the Will]. The tool of the hidden God is the law, which “frightens” sinners. The tool of the revealed God is the gospel, which “makes alive and comforts” (Apology of Augsburg Confession).
The law reveals that God hates sin. The gospel, in turn, pronounces the forgiveness of sin. The law therefore condemns while the gospel uplifts. The law is God’s “alien work” (opus alienum), and the gospel is God’s “own, proper justifying work” (opus proprium). In this manner, God reveals to humankind both His holiness and His grace (Heidelberg Disputation).
The gospel is not only a word about God, but in the gospel God Himself becomes the Word. Through this Word faith is born. Faith that is born of the gospel owns the forgiveness of sins. Owning the grace of God and fellowship in God’s kingdom are based on the perfect merit of Christ.
The Bible: The Revelation of God’s Will
The Bible is God’s revelation to humankind. It carries the message of God to people of this time as well. For this reason the Bible is the highest authority of faith and life for an individual Christian and the congregation of God. The revelation is not dependent on individual words, but rather its content is in the complete message of the Bible. The purpose and meaning of life is revealed in the message of the Bible, which centers on Jesus Christ.
The revelation of God has existed before the Bible, but now the congregation of God is guided by the exhortation to adhere to the Scriptures. Paul stated that knowing the holy Scriptures helps one to believe and brings salvation in Jesus Christ (2 Tim. 3:15–16). A person will go astray if he or she does not know the Bible or the power of God (Mark 12:10, 24).
According to Luther, the central message of the Bible is the message of God’s grace. The written Word is not born of human will. It has been written by believing people inspired and guided by God’s Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21). The key to the Bible and its salvation message is the Spirit of God. All revelation, given at various times by prophetical inspiration, focuses on Christ. Revelation history begins on the first pages of the Bible. According to Luther, the first chapters of Genesis contain the entire Bible (Table Talk, 1533). In Genesis, God’s promises and His grace are present (Commentary on Genesis).
Lutheran teaching emphasizes the effectiveness of God’s Word. The Word not only tells of faith but creates faith by the power of the Holy Spirit. God’s congregation itself is not the revelation but the servant of the revelation. The congregation is a creation of the Word (creatio verbi). The power of the keys given to the congregation also rise from the revelation, and its authorizer, Christ, is Himself the Word.
In modern and postmodern theology, there is a desire to deny the authority of the Bible and to replace it with people’s divine experiences. The Bible is seen only as the product of certain people’s divine experiences, not as God’s revelation of Himself. In this case, the entire Christian concept of revelation is rejected and replaced by personal human experience.
Christ as the Revealer of God, the Fulfillment of Revelation
Christ revealed His Father’s will and told what God expects from people and what God gives to people. Christ joined with the Old Testament revelation (Matt. 5:17). The prophets’ promises were fulfilled; now the Son was speaking. He enlightened that which had been revealed before. Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue of Nazareth: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
God’s actual revelation is His work in Jesus Christ. Jesus of Nazareth was God revealed in human form. God is not only holy and righteous, but also a merciful and loving Father. The New Testament emphasizes God’s temporal being. Jesus is Immanuel, “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). Even though He has ascended to heaven, He is with us “always, unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20).
God’s kingdom is at the center of Christ’s revelation. It is the core of the revelation because the gospel is the gospel of the kingdom. In God’s kingdom, God’s will is fulfilled. God’s kingdom is eternal, but it has come near us in Jesus Christ. The goal of the revelation is that a person would go from sin to grace, into the fellowship of God’s kingdom. God wishes that all people would be saved and would come to know the truth (1 Tim. 2:4). Jesus’ work in this world continues as the work of the Holy Spirit (Christian Doctrine, item 44). The gospel is to be proclaimed to every creature (Mark 16:15). The centermost word of the revelation proclamation is the gospel.
The gospel contains the entire contents of Jesus’ life work. On that basis a person is able to call the holy and righteous God his or her Father. Receiving the gospel gives birth to faith, which is the work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s heart. When faith is born, the holy and secular meet one another – God’s reality is present in the human world. Heaven hears earth and the earth hears heaven (Hos. 2:21). When faith is born, a miracle of God occurs.
God does not have to be proven nor does one need to think about Him beyond what is revealed because He is active. He speaks and listens and is a Father to His children. We know God when we know the content of His revelation. Christ is the core content of this revelation, “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). True knowledge of God can occur only in Jesus Christ, who has taught us to know Him (John 1:18). Jesus is the way, truth and life: “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Understanding Special Revelation
At the center of God’s special revelation is the proclamation of His holy, righteous and saving love and its fulfillment. The revelation winds through the holy Scriptures as a unified message and its center is Christ. That is why the holy Scriptures must be examined through Christ. For an individual person, the purpose of this revelation is that the person can become a partaker of God’s righteousness. This happens in faith of the heart in the fellowship of God’s kingdom.
The special revelation does not open to human understanding. The birth of faith is always the work of the Holy Spirit. “I believe that I cannot of my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me by His gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith, even as He calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the true faith” (Luther’s Small Catechism, 3rd Article of Creed). A person cannot become convinced of God and His grace using his or her own rational mind. The birth of faith is a miracle of new birth that surpasses understanding; it is caused by the Holy Spirit.
Revelation and faith belong together. The God of revelation comes at a special moment in history, when the old vanishes and the new begins. When God’s grace encounters the human heart, the person begins to live a new life following the Lord and His own. God’s kingdom and its fellowship become important to him or her.
For Martin Luther, faith was the cornerstone of spiritual life and teaching. The correct relationship with God is a relationship of faith (Gen. 15:6), because only by believing are we able to live the way God intends (Luther’s Commentary on Galatians). Saving faith is trusting that Christ was born for me and His salvation work affects me personally. Faith is not dependent on how strong our faith is but rather on how great God is. In faith, Christ is present.
Will the Revelation Continue?
In terms of its contents, the revelation of God is perfect in Christ and His atonement work. Jesus was the fulfillment of the revelation. Did the revelation end in Him or does it continue, and if so, how? According to the Roman Catholic understanding, the revelation continues in the form of church tradition. The Lutheran understanding, however, is that God’s Word contains within it the fulfilled revelation. The revelation no longer continues.
The New Testament congregation lives by the given revelation. No new revelation will be given. The message does not change. It is valid always and everywhere. On the basis of the completed revelation the congregation of God proclaims the message of God’s grace to all creation. Jesus proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom with the mandate His father gave Him. The mandate the disciples received was given by Jesus (John 20:21–23). It is sufficient. We preach the Word without adding anything to it or taking anything from it (Rev. 22:18–19).
The Bible clearly differentiates between the revelation of God and the work of the Holy Spirit, which continues in God’s congregation. The Holy Spirit opens God’s Word according to His will and the need of the congregation. When the Holy Spirit enlightens the Word in the congregation, the Word opens to a person. This is not, however, a question of a new revelation, but rather of the Holy Spirit assisting one in possessing the revelation. Part of the essence of the congregation is to ask for the Lord to speak such that the servant hears. When the Holy Spirit guides God’s congregation, its understanding and teaching are preserved on the solid rock foundation of God’s Word.
The idea of a continuing revelation leads to relativism, a world view in which all truths and values are relative. According to the Bible, the fulness of the Godhead was in Christ (Col. 1:19). If one demands more than this, the person does not understand that Christ is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15). He is God’s perfect revelation.
Faith in Christ is faith in the unique revelation of God. The revelation of God was fulfilled in Christ, and from Him shines the light of the revelation into the world. No proclamation, song, prayer, form of spiritual life or custom represents the divine revelation beyond that which has been revealed in Jesus Christ. After Him no new revelation has been given. Even Luther did not attain the position of the bearer of a new revelation, even though he spoke so clearly about justification by faith.
The revelation gives us the image and the knowledge that God is holy (Exod. 3:14). God is present in the essence of Christ (John 17:11). In order to own this essence, no human resources are needed. To all that receive the word of revelation, God gives the power to become His child (John 1:12). The grace of God cannot be earned, but one can own it. In this way, God reveals Himself and enlightens His existence to people. The fulfillment of God’s revelation – the Word – occupies a person and joins him or her to the congregation. This way of receiving the revelation leads to becoming assured by the revelation.
- Apology of Augsburg Confession.
- Augsburg Confession.
- Bondage of the Will. Original work ”De servo arbitrio” 1525.
- Book of Concord.
- Christian Doctrine. Evangelical Church of Finland 1948.
- Commentary on Galatians. Original work ”In epistolam S. Pauli ad Galatas commentarius ex praelectione D. Martini Lutheri collectus” 1535.
- Commentary on Genesis. Original work ”In primum librum Mose enarrationes” 1535–.
- Heidelberg Disputation. Original work ”Disputatio Heidelbergae habita” 1518.
- Large Catechism.
- Small Catechism.
- Table Talk. Original work ”Tischreden. Weit Dietrichs Nachschriften. Frühjahr 1533.”