One of the most fundamental truths of Christian apologetics is that every person is born with a clear knowledge of God. I don’t mean that every person has knowledge of a God, but that each individual knows the God who created him. This idea seems counter-intuitive, for we all know or know of people who are atheistic, or at least agnostic, and would deny even belief in a God, let alone knowledge of one. Even many religious people would be hesitant to say that they know God. Yet Romans 1:18-21 tells us that God has revealed himself to every person, that such knowledge of God is plain because God has shown it to them, that the divine attributes are clearly perceived, and finally, that people know God, yet suppress that knowledge. We can conclude, therefore, that every person is either in a relationship of wrath with God, or a relationship of grace. Theologians call this knowledge of God the sensus divinitatis, or sense of divinity. This knowledge of God is implanted into every human being and confirmed by creation and providence.
So when we encounter someone who denies belief in God, or rejects knowing him through Christ, we are dealing with a person who is suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. This suppression takes many forms, from outright denial to bitterness against God; from false and pagan notions about God to pious attempts to make God in one’s own image. Yet, every day that clear and distinct knowledge of God bubbles up within the unbeliever, and to make it through the day, he must push down that rising sense of God.
John Calvin described it this way:
There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity. This we take to be beyond controversy. To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty. Ever renewing its memory, he repeatedly sheds fresh drops. Since, therefore, men one and all perceive that there is a God and that he is their Maker, they are condemned by their own testimony because they have failed to honor him and to consecrate their lives to his will. (Institutes, 1:3:1)
[God] not only sowed in men’s minds that seed of religion of which we have spoken, but revealed himself and daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe. As a consequence, men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him…wherever you cast your eyes, there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory. (Institutes, 1:5:1)
This truth has profound implications for the gospel. First, I do not need to prove the existence of God when speaking with an unbeliever. What I do need to do is discern ways that he is suppressing the knowledge of God in his life. Most unbelievers absolutely reek with suppression in some form. That is where I begin to shine the truth of the gospel. Second, although I need to understand the unbeliever’s belief system to some degree, ultimately every unbeliever shares some basic similarities regarding their need of the gospel. Third, although I may use different evangelistic and apologetic strategies in presenting the gospel, I can rest assured that the gospel, as simple as it may seem, is universal enough to be the one message that I will ultimately stress with any unbeliever.
I have found this truth to be liberating to my evangelism. I can approach any unbeliever confidently knowing that when I talk about God, I am telling him things that he already intuitively knows, even though he may reject it. Between this implanted knowledge of God and the perceived creation, he is a person in active rebellion against God. By presenting the gospel as revealed in Scripture, I am applying the one cure to his depraved heart. Though he may reject the gospel, I know that he knows it is the truth and that he needs it.
The sensus divinitatis reminds us that we are dwelling in a world of truth suppressors who desperately need the truth to be presented over and over again to them. With this truth firmly embedded in our hearts we can boldly share the gospel with anyone we meet. May God grant us a firm and unbending grasp of this truth!