But now…you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God. (Gal. 4:9)
Positively stated, then, let me say this. You ask what the knowledge of God is, as Reformed people understand it, as the Scriptures present it. Well, I’ll give you a formula for it. Knowledge of God is apprehension plus application plus adoration. It is apprehending God as he discloses himself in the gospel of Christ. It is applying the promise of the gospel to our lives. And it is adoring the God who has thus come to us and become our God and our Savior. Let Calvin put it in his way: “The knowledge of God, as I understand it, is that by which we not only conceive that there is a God, but also grasp what benefits us and makes for his glory; what, in short, brings profit.” Calvin means, then, that in knowing God, we grasp his grace. “Nor shall we say, but God strictly speaking is known, where there is no religion or godliness,” he says again. There it is: apprehension, application, and adoration. There’s religion or godliness. Or again, Calvin says, “We are called to a knowledge of God, which doesn’t just flit about in the brain content with empty speculation, but which, if we rightly grasp it and it takes root in our hearts, will be solid and fruitful.” And again, another quote: “Knowledge of God is not identified with cold speculation, but it brings with it worship of him.”
The total notion of knowing God, which emerges in Calvin’s Institutes, includes all this: acknowledging God as he reveals himself in Scripture; giving him honor and thanks for all things; humbling oneself before him as a needy sinner and learning of him as he speaks of salvation; believing on the Christ whom he sets forth as our Savior; then loving the Father and the Son with a love that answers the love that they have shown to us; living by faith in the promises of mercy that are given us in Christ; cherishing the hope of resurrection; obeying God’s law; and seeking his glory in all relationships and all commerce with created things. So, you see, knowledge of God thus embraces both true theology and true religion: apprehension, application, adoration of God as he comes to us in Christ.
Knowing God through the Bible
But how is God to be known? What are the means of knowing God? Now, the usual Reformed answer to that question has been to say that the knowledge of God depends on God’s revelation of himself. Yet I believe that the thrust of this confession will be clearer and more vivid to our minds if, in place of revelation, we substitute (just for a moment) the word communication.
Why do I suggest this substitution? It seems to me that the word revelation might suggest no more than the general display of something that is there to be inspected, if you like. When a monument is unveiled, the statue is revealed and then you can go and admire it. You don’t have to, but it’s there for you to go and inspect if you want to. I believe that the word revelation doesn’t always signify to people’s minds more than this; it is not as good a word as the word communication for conveying what, as scriptural Christians, we should be concerned to say about the way that knowledge of God comes. That word communication, it seems to me, has all the right vibrations. It conveys the thoughts of someone, in this case God approaching us, telling us something, presenting himself to us, asking us for our attention, actually giving us something. The word communicate naturally suggests all that.
And that is what God does. Remember, as Scripture reveals the human situation, it is showing us that man—and that means us—is made for loving fellowship with God. Actually, man apart from God is in a state of having turned his back on God, having turned away from God through sin, being set character-wise in the shape of the first sin that Adam and Eve committed in the garden. And what does man do in sin? Why, he does what Adam and Eve did. He plays God. He behaves as if he were the center of the universe and everything were there for him. Adam and Eve yielded to the temptation to be wise and to know good and evil without reference to God. They didn’t want to depend on God anymore; that was the heart of their original sin: man plays God, and in playing God he has to fight God. He has to defy God. He has to deny God’s claim on him. He has to say to God, “No, I’ll not do what you say. I want to do what I think.” And that’s been the analysis and nature of sin ever since the garden of Eden.
Well, men and women—all of us—are under the power of sin by nature, alienated from God because of this wretched power. Our backs are turned to God, meaning there is no communication. If someone turns his back to you, that isn’t a communication posture, is it? If you have your back turned to someone, it means that you don’t want to talk to that person. But that’s exactly what man is like in sin: man has his back turned to God. But God the Creator, in his mercy, does not give up on us. He still wants to have sinful men in fellowship with himself, so though man has ceased to communicate with God, God still communicates with man.
Three Stages of Communication
There is, as I said at the beginning, this general communication of God, this inescapable awareness of God, which comes to all men simply by virtue of being alive in God’s world. Men reject it. They claim they don’t know God simply because they’ve suppressed what they do know of God. So general revelation, the heavens declaring the glory of God, the firmament showing his handiwork, the invisible things of the Creator being known from the things that are made, that communication from God to men, produces no results. Men don’t respond.
So God does more. What does he do? He gives us special communication. We call it special revelation. In this special communication from God, there are three stages. Stage 1 we will call redemption in history. By words and works, God makes himself known on the stage of history as the Savior of man. There was a typical salvation of Israel from Egypt. And then there was the great antitype, the final spiritual salvation, the glorious salvation wrought by Jesus Christ. God teaches us here about redemption in history, about redemption for a lost world. And then comes stage 2 in the process of divine communication, which we will call records and writing. God inspires what Calvin called public records of the things that he’d done in history so that all men in every age might know what God had done and so come to benefit from what God had done. And we have those records in the Scriptures. The Bible is God’s own interpretive account of what he has done in history for man’s salvation and how it applies to life and how it applies to us.