Basic Reformed Stuff 1: “Religion” and its Universality

Open Book!

As I continue to work through my series on Racial Reconciliation, I’ve decided to keep up with some more basic theological content in the meantime. I hope to get at least one of these up per week.

“Religion” has become a bad word in much of modern evangelicalism. We are told that “religion” disrupts relationship with God, or that “religion” is man’s creation and therefore is somehow man-centered and not God-centered. On the other hand, the Reformed have always contended that religion is itself inescapable; all men are religious, whether they like it or not. That is, religion is universal. It is very much a part of being human, being made in the image of God. Further, I will argue that “pure religion and undefiled before God” (Jas. 1:27) is neither purely intellectual nor purely practical, but brings both together in one life of belief in, worship of, and love toward our Triune God. As such, “religion” is what I propose we study in this series, rather than bare doctrine. “Basic Reformed stuff” needs to be a theology in practice, especially if it’s going to accurately reflect the work of our early Reformed forebears. (I am Three Forms after all.)

Theologians have traditionally written of the semen religionis, or the “seed of religion,” and the sensus divinitatis, or “sense of divinity,” found in the heart of all men, by our very created nature. We read in Genesis 1:26-27 that God declared, “Let us make man in our own image,” thereby imprinting in the very being of man a coordination with the divine. The seed of religion is planted by the very construction of the body and soul of man and woman. Outside of the body, we read that all creation likewise declares the glory of God, teaching about Him without ceasing (Ps. 19:1-16). Further, we read that even among unbelievers, God “did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17) and that,

He has made from one every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him. (Acts 17:26-27)

So convincing is this seed of religion and sense of the divine that the Apostle Paul can conclude of all mankind that,

…what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse. (Rom. 1:19-20)

And the Apostle further declares that God is pouring out His wrath on mankind, not because they are non-religious, but because they “exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (v. 25). Again, man is by nature religious. And not only does man inevitably worship—whether it be the creature or the Creator—he even “accuses or else excuses” actions, showing God’s ethical requirements written on his heart (see Rom. 2:12-15)

Is then the semen religionis sufficient in itself to lead men to communion with the true God? The Bible tells us what this seed of religion and sense of the divine is in fact sufficient for:

  1. It is sufficient to declare His own glory and handywork: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork” (see Ps. 19:1-16).
  2. It is sufficient to leave Himself a witness to fallen mankind: “Nevertheless he left not himself without witness” (see Acts 14:13-17).
  3. It is sufficient for men to seek Him: “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” (see Acts 17:22-28).

But the Bible also tells what the seed of religion and sense of the divine actually accomplish for fallen Mankind:

  1. It leaves men without excuse: “…so that they are without excuse” (see Rom. 1:18-23).
  2. It leaves them responsible in the last judgement: “For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law” (see Rom. 2:12-15; 3:10-19; Jas. 2:10).

Therefore, we can conclude with the Apostle:

[S]ince, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. (1 Cor. 1:21)

In other words, no—the semen religionis is not sufficient to lead fallen men to the eternal blessedness of communion with the true God. True religion is the revealed religion, the preached religion. It is “ the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations” and is a religion which “we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom” (Col. 1:26,28). It is in fact the revealing and preaching of Jesus Christ, in both Old and New Testaments, for “there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

This is all made very clear in Paul’s lecture to the Areopagites, referenced a couple times above:

Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:


Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” (Acts 17:22-31).

So, what do we see here? First, Paul is addressing the intellectuals of Athens and we see that they are very religious; as we have said, all men are by nature religious. Next, Paul argues that God has revealed Himself to through their very creation and has always been near—all men are in Him, living and moving—such that men might feel after Him and find Him. Nevertheless, they have not found Him in their fallen state. But Paul declares to them the God that is unknown to them, rebukes their idolatrous worship, and declares to them the worship of the true God in the man Jesus Christ. Here is found all the elements we discussed above. We see the semen religionis, the sensus divinitatis, the revelation of God in both man and in His creation. We see that this is designed that man might find God and know Him, but they do not and cannot, except through divine revelation, chiefly in His Son Jesus Christ.

In our NEXT POST, we will discuss the nature of religion, whether it is primarily intellectual or primarily practical, and will thereby be able to offer a working definition for moving forward to more juicy topics.


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