The Light of Nature: Westminster Larger Catechism Question 2.
By Richard Bacon.
Copyright 1997 © First Presbyterian Church of Rowlett

Question two of the Westminster Larger Catechism is, "How doth it appear that there is a God?" The answer that the catechism gives is, "The very light of nature in man, and the works of God, declare plainly that there is a God; but his Word and Spirit only do sufficiently and effectually revealed him unto men for their salvation." We will deal with this question into two parts. First, we will deal with God's revelation which is insufficient for salvation and yet sufficient to leave us without excuse. Secondly, we will deal with God's Word and Spirit sufficiently and effectually revealing him to us for our salvation.

God's revelation leaves man without excuse

In Romans 1:16-20, Paul makes a statement that we might regard as the theme of the book of Romans. Paul says, "For I am not ashamed for the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one who believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;" — We would say, "who suppress the truth in unrighteousness," — "Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them. 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; so that they are without excuse." Paul is saying here that the gospel reveals two things. It reveals the righteousness of God being imputed to those who are believers. The other thing that it reveals is the wrath of God being poured out upon those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.

The light of nature and the works of God are sufficient for revealing to us that there is a God. The question asks, "How do we know that there is a God? How does it appear that there is a God?" When the question asks, "How does it appear that there is a God?" the contrast is not being made between that which is apparent and that which is real; rather, it is asking how is it made manifest or how does it become obvious to us, that there is a God.

The Larger Catechism answers two ways: one, God is known by the light of nature in man (what is sometimes called the image of God), and second, God is known by his works. I do not mean to give you the idea that these two things can be divorced or separated, as though the image of God in man were something that exists apart from God's works. In fact, it is a part of God's work: man is a part of creation. Nor would God's works make any impression on us if we were not the image of God. The two things are not separate and cannot be separated; yet for the purpose of discussing them, we can regard the image of God, the Imago Dei, in man, (the light of nature in man) as being one thing and the works of God outside of man as being another.

Light of Nature

What do we mean by the light of nature? We mean something that man has that the rest of creation does not have. When the Catechism and Scripture refer to the light of nature or the image of God in man, it is referring to something that trees do not have, that the animals do not have, that the water you see in a lake does not have. Man has something that is unique to man, and that is the image of God, the light of reason, the ability to apply moral laws, the ability to understand a logical argument, the ability to perform math. All of these things have to do with the image of God. The fact that we take dominion over the rest of creation is a part of the image of God. We have a responsibility as God's vice-regents on earth, not only to take dominion over the earth, but to do it in a manner that brings glory to God.

In Romans 2:13-15 we read, "For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. For when the Gentiles which have not the law, do by nature the thing contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which show the works of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another." Paul is saying we are moral creatures; that we do know the difference between right and wrong. Even though we may not have the ten commandments, we may not have the Old Testament, we may not have any of the Word of God as the oracles of God; nevertheless, God has left himself a witness within us; both in our ability to apply the moral law and in the fact that we do apply the moral law.

What kind of society would be possible, if we did not apply the moral law to one degree or another? No society would be possible at all. The world would, in fact, be a jungle: animal against animal, beast against beast. It is because we do have an understanding of the moral law that God wrote in our hearts, that we are able to live peacefully among ourselves.

When God commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply — and commanded us, by way of implication, as their descendants — they were also told to take dominion. How? As the peak of creation! As that which was created last! As that which was created in the image of God, who would know how to make moral decisions. It is not just a question of power; it is not just a question of being at the top of the food chain; it is a question of moral dominion: of knowing what to do and when to do it because we have instructions from God.

We are moral creatures. When God set Adam in the garden, he gave him certain commandments. He said, "Guard the garden and till the ground." We believe Adam also was given the institution of the Sabbath, because God rested on the seventh day. We believe, also, he had the institution of family and marriage because the woman had been brought to him as a helper. All these things were available to him, yet God gave him one further revelation. He was not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There is no reason to think that there was poison in the apple. There is no reason to think it was anything other than as Eve described it. She describe it as pleasant to the eyes and good to eat and good to make her wise! What was the fruit's appeal? Lust of the flesh, lust of the eye, pride of life! There is no reason to think that the fruit did not really appeal to those things. Why, then, was it wrong for them to eat the fruit? Because God said not to! From the very beginning, man was given a moral mandate, as well as a dominion mandate. We are not simply to take dominion over creation but to take dominion morally. For example, we find in the book of Deuteronomy, when a country makes war, is it not allowed to "raze" the trees — bring the trees down because they happen to be in the way or because they are needed by them for fuel. We cannot make war against the earth. We are to take dominion, but we are not to make war against the earth. That is an important distinction because Scripture gives us not only physical dominion, but moral dominion as well. We are to take dominion in accordance with God's revelation.

It is important for us to understand that man's rebellion against God is not merely a question of ignorance. We must understand the moral dimensions of the fall, taking dominion and of our holding down the truth, or suppressing the truth, in unrighteousness. Because the problem that we, as human beings, have with bending the knee to God, is not that we do not know who God is. Our problem is that we know who God is and do not like it. Our problem is not a problem of ignorance. Our problem is one of morality. It is an ethical problem. We are rebels. In the garden after he fell, after he had eaten the fruit, Adam did not want to meet with God as he ordinarily did; rather, he was trying to hide from God. That is what we are still trying to do! Intellectually, morally, and in every other aspect of our lives, we attempt to hide from God. We may put up intellectual smoke screens, but our problem is not that we are too stupid to understand who God is. The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us that God has set eternity in our hearts. Our problem is not that we cannot know God. Our problem is that we will not know God. We refuse to know who he is. Our rebellion should never be dismissed as ignorance. In fact, in Romans 1:18, the word "hold" there means suppress or hold down. The idea is that men hold down the truth in unrighteousness. Today we sometimes use the word "hold" to mean acknowledge. But Paul meant just the opposite. He was not saying that men acknowledge the truth. He was saying that men suppress the truth. They know what to do and actively suppress it.

Works of God

We can know certain things about a cause by the effects it produces. I am not saying we can know everything. In fact, our catechism at this point makes it very clear that we cannot know enough about God from creation in order to be saved. To be saved, we need his Word and his Spirit. However, we do know enough about God from his creation to be held inexcusable. We are without excuse. Let me give you an illustration that Scripture uses again and again. We can know certain things about a potter by the pots he makes. If nothing else, we can know he has hands. We can know that much about a potter. But we can know certain things about his character also. If he makes his pots a certain way, for example, if he paints them with certain colors, we can know things about his temperament; about what he likes and does not like. We can know some things about the potter based on his artifacts. That is what Paul claimed in Romans: there are some things that we can know about God by looking at creation. There are some limited things that we can know about the cause by looking at the effects.

In Psalm 104, the psalmist maintained that we can know something about God's wisdom from creation. In Psalm 104:24, the psalmist says, "O Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches." As the psalmist looked about him, he saw that things fit together. He saw that there is order in the universe: that certain causes always brought about certain effects. God made a covenant with creation. Because everything fits together the way it does, we know something about the wisdom of God: God does well at ordering things.

We can look at life lower than man: birds, depending upon where they live in the world, build their nests in a way that accords with the area in which they live. If they live in trees, they build their nests of leaves and twigs. If they live in the prairie, they build their nests of grass. Who taught them that? We call it instinct, but instinct means no one taught them. The Bible says God taught them! We do not know how to build nests like that, but birds know how to do it. God taught them how to do it! We can know something of God from the lower life forms, the fact that each animal has an art of its own.

How does the bee make his honey? It is a natural thing for him to do. He knows to go to different flowers and bring back nectar. As he does this, he moves from flower to flower, cross pollinating the flowers; but that is not his purpose. His purpose is to bring the nectar back to feed the hive. Who teaches them how to make honey? Who teaches them how to make the hive six-sided? Who teaches them the math to put together something like that? They simply know! God taught them how to build. How do they know where the flowers are that have the best nectar? They dance. When the bees who have discovered the flowers come back to the hive, they dance. Each dance is unique. Each dance has never been done before. The bee does a unique dance that tells where the flower is. Yet all the other bees who are watching the dance know from following the bee's body motions which direction and how far to fly to find the flower with the best nectar. Who taught the bees to dance? God taught them.

The Book of Proverbs tells us to consider the ant, not only because the ant is industrious but because no one tells her what to do. There is no ant in charge. They know what their job is and they do it. Even in the creatures below man, then, who have never been taught their art, their skills, their sciences, their dances; they are nevertheless able to do them.

These are the sorts of questions that have puzzled men for years. These are things that draw us into the study of creation. These are the things that cause us to know that there is an answer. As we examine science; as it opens up before our eyes, we should realize that to study God's creation is to study God's handiwork. Whatever area of life you pursue, one of the things you should remember, is that everything is here because God made it. Never lose this amazement for God's creation.

There is also evidence of the existence of God from our own immaterial nature. How can we explain personality? How do we explain the fact that each of us is different? Some of you from large families know that even among your family members, each person is unique. How do we explain that there are no two people exactly alike? We are all alike and yet, we are all different. When we frame ideas like beauty and justice, how does that happen? What purpose does beauty serve? What purpose does art serve? Only to show the glory of God!

Our knowledge of history shows the existence of God. Animals do not remember and they do not study history. They have no idea what happened before they were born. They do not even have such a concept as "before they were born." Yet we can think in terms of history. It is difficult for us even to imagine not thinking in terms of a succession of moments — of history. We not only can think about the past, we can also plan for the future. So our knowledge of history, our purpose of things to come, the fact that we can have purpose, ends, and goals, demonstrate that we are capable of moral judgment.

How old does one have to be to know that there is a right and a wrong? Do you have to wait for your parents to tell you that certain things are right and wrong? No. How do we explain conscience? How do we explain the fact that even when we know that we will not be caught, there is still a nagging knowing that we did wrong. How do we explain that? There is a God who is the moral governor of the universe. Some things are right because they are right and some things are wrong because they are wrong. As our consciences relate to those facts, and we see ourselves doing wrong, our reaction is either to accuse or to excuse. Our consciences are distressed, even by things that no other person can know. When Paul was reasoning before Felix and as he preached of righteousness, temperance and judgment, what was Felix's response? The Bible says Felix trembled. His knees began to bang against one another! Conscience has an effect on our physical well being. As we know we have done wrong, we do have sleepless nights. We do have that gnawing feeling inside that we are not doing right. There is a fear of being of caught, not just because of the disapproval, or because we are going to be thrown into jail but because we know it is wrong. That is conscience. There is no explanation for conscience, apart from the fact that there is a moral governor of the universe. Belshazzar's experience in Daniel 5:27 reminds us of that fact. As the handwriting was on the wall, "Thou art weighted in the balances, and art found wanting," what was his response? Once again, the joints of his loins were loosed and his knees smote one another (Daniel 5:6).

We also have desires that can not be explained apart from the fact that there is a God. Not only do we have a desire for creature comforts, we have a desire for creature comforts beyond what we really need. How do we explain that? It really is inexplicable apart from the moral dimension. We have a desire also for greater good, for greater intelligence. We have a desire to be smarter. We have a desire to succeed. We have a desire for greater progress. In fact, a society without a desire for progress, without a desire for greater knowledge, without a desire for a greater expansiveness, does not just stagnate, it falls back.

Finally, the religious nature of man demonstrates the existence of God. Even though it is turned to idolatry, man nevertheless does have a religious nature. That religious nature witnesses, at least, to a previous time in which the worship was not an idolatrous worship but was worship of the living and true God. Some sort of religion seems to be universal. Whether we go to the most advanced civilizations or to the most stone-age civilization, religious activity seems to be universal. In fact, the most noble civilizations in the past have considered atheism to be criminal.


When we consider these several arguments, is any sufficient to prove that there is a God? No. Nor are all of them taken together sufficient. All of them taken together are not sufficient to save us. They are not sufficient to give us a knowledge of God that will save us from our sins. However, when we suppress the answers to these questions, why are we doing that? The Scripture tells us that we suppress the answers because they render us without excuse. When we understand that God has revealed himself to us in his works of creation and in manifesting himself in us by the light of nature in man, we are without excuse.

Can no objections be brought? Yes, not only can objections be brought, they are brought all the time. If belief in God is so universal; if it is so obvious; if it is so clear; then why are there atheists? The fact that there are atheists does not disprove the universal revelation of God to mankind, any more than the fact that there are some people who are born retarded disproves that man is universally rational. Man is a rational being. We have intelligence. We know how to reason. The fact that some are born without that ability does not disprove that man is rational: likewise, the fact that some are atheists does not disprove the fact that God has, in fact, revealed himself sufficiently for us to have some knowledge of him.

Even if an entire nation were atheistic what would that demonstrate according to Romans? It would demonstrate that the Lord has given them over to a reprobate mind; that they had refused to glorify God as God; that as they suppressed the truth in unrighteousness, because they refused to be thankful to God, God had given them over to a reprobate mind. The existence of atheism does not disprove that God has revealed himself sufficiently in nature to make man inexcusable.

Some have argued that religion was invented to preserve the social order. That is not an objection at all, but an accusation. We expect people to accuse or else excuse whenever they are confronted with the existence of God. We should expect that when people are confronted with God's existence that they will accuse or excuse their actions. We should understand that when someone says that religion was invented to preserve society, that is not an objection; that is an accusation. They are accusing somebody of willfully deceiving. Who are they accusing? That is their real difficulty. Either they are accusing one person or they are accusing a group of people. If they are accusing one person, who was it? Who was this person who made up this religion, so as to deceive all of humanity? They do not have any names! They do not have any history! The objection, in other words, falls flat.

If it was a group of men; if it were men working in concert, how in the world did they manage to keep such a deception secret? Do you know of any conspiracy of that nature that could be kept secret for five minutes, much less five millennia? The objection falls to the ground. It is absurd! Yet people are more willing to believe an absurdity; more willing to believe a lie, than they are the truth.

If we were to find such a thing as religion being perpetrated as a deceit, surely the perpetrators would have exempted themselves. They would have said that the poor unwashed mass ought to believe, but we do not have to believe. What example do we have in Scripture of the true religion being propagated and people being exempted from following it? None at all! So it is not simply a matter of holding society together, although it does that. Christianity holds society together because we are created together in God's image, because we are a community of people, and in order for us to exist as a community of people, we must follow certain moral laws that are built into the universe, as well as in God's Word.

But that does not mean that the purpose of religion is to hold society together. God does us good as a benefit of religion, but is not the purpose of religion. The purpose of religion is the glory of God.