Theology: the quest to know God. In my view, there is no greater pursuit in this life. Some might speak of the priority of loving God or serving God, but these pursuits are empty in absence of proper theology. Theology is not separate from worship, but informs it. How can we worship a God we do not know? I get the opportunity to talk to a number of students who have not placed their faith in Jesus, and I’ve found that everyone has ideas about God. God is a concept that is explored quite significantly in our society’s music, media, art and philosophies. There are so many ideas about God that it seems our society has decided not to sort through the pile and pick one, but to accept everyone’s interpretation of God. Indeed, one defining feature of Christianity is the belief that there is an absolute truth about the nature of God and it can be known. Yet we are often content with knowing only the basics about God.
I can understand why theology is aversive to us: it can be difficult and complicated. Somewhere within all of us, we have this idea that God should be simple and innately recognized. Many scriptures do point to the Christian’s ability to know God, but the bible also speak of the need to study. Knowledge of God as revealed by the bible goes so much deeper than the truths needed for salvation. Yes God is perfect, but what does that mean? How is His perfection played out in different circumstances in my life? How does His perfection respond to my sinfulness after I become a Christian? Which is more important to God: His love or His justice? We will never completely know God in our lifetime, but getting to know Him more is vital to our growth as Christians.
I would like to explore John 17 to help us understand how knowing God helps us as Christians. In this chapter, Jesus prays for His disciples, present and future. I love this chapter because it gives a glimpse into Jesus’ heart for His followers and what He wants for us. The account of John puts this at the end of a long section of teaching Jesus gives the night He was betrayed. Knowing He was about to die, and being humanly terrified of what was coming, He wanted to comfort His disciples with these final words. The things Jesus taught in these four chapters (13-17) are the things Jesus felt would sustain them in His absence, first during His death and then after His ascension to heaven. There is so much I could focus on here, but I’ll highlight two main ideas: Knowledge of God is necessary for salvation, and knowledge of God is necessary for sanctification.
First, we need to know God to believe for salvation. “For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.” (Verse 8). I don’t want to belabor this point because many Christians will agree on this. The bible tells us we are saved by grace through faith. That means that God’s free gift of salvation- when we have earned only His anger and judgement through our sin- is received by believing in something. Paul, a first century convert to Christianity who wrote half of the New Testament, asks the church in Rome, “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” Knowledge of God is necessary for salvation.
This is why Christians need to tell people about Jesus. Jesus’ final words in Matthew are often called the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Mankind is given everything they need to know about God in nature, but through our sin, we suppress that knowledge. Our desire for things that are against God’s desire prevents us from seeing God in His creation. For this reason, we need to be taught about God and God’s primary vessel for getting that knowledge out is through people who have come to know Him. It’s a remarkable privilege to be used by God in this way, but also a heavy responsibility.
The second point from John 17 that I want to look at is that knowledge of God is necessary for sanctification. Sanctification is the process by which we are transformed by God’s Spirit into the image of His son. To put it simply, we are being brought on a journey towards perfection. But if the work is done by God’s Spirit, what need to we have of knowledge? Jesus prays here, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (Verse 17). God’s Word is one of the ways that He uses to sanctify us. Psalm 119:9 asks, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.” Again it says, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Verse 11). We need to know God to grow towards godliness.
How does God’s Word sanctify us? Immediately, two key ways come to mind. First, God’s Word teaches us to fear Him. Proverbs 1:7 teaches that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. Deuteronomy 6 begins a section of commands for the people of Israel going into the promised land. It begins with this admonition, “Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the rules—that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long.” The fear of the Lord is the beginning of obedience. The New Testament also teaches the fear of God. Hebrews 12:28,29 teach, “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” Many other commands are framed in light of fearing God (See 2 Corinthians 5:11, Ephesians 5:21, Hebrews 10:26,27).
Secondly, God’s Word paints a picture of righteousness for us. There are many commands in scripture that we are called to follow. The Word shows us what it means to live righteously. Entire chapters in the New Testament are devoted to instructions for righteous living (Romans 12, Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, 1 Thessalonians 5, James, to name a few). Are we to ignore these because the Holy Spirit is sanctifying us? Our primary aim as believers is not to obey a set of rules, but to live a life of worship to God. Unfortunately, our world does little to teach us what that looks like; God’s Word does. Legalism takes the commands and makes them the ultimate goal; worship looks at these commands as guide for responding to God’s grace. We don’t find our value or righteousness in fulfilling the law, but we obey the God who through Jesus has fulfilled it in us. Indeed, the Word is how the Holy Spirit reveals to us areas of sin in us that He is working on. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Knowing God through His word is necessary for sanctification.
So how do we go about knowing God through His Word? This is one area in my life where I’ve seen so much growth over my last three years in university. I’ve been surrounded my many men and women who have taught me a lot about who God is and how to see His nature through the scriptures. I suppose that would be the first piece of advice I would give. Hang out with mature believers who are able to see God’s heart in scripture. We as humans are always learning from those around us. If you are someone who is skilled at studying scripture, look for opportunities to serve younger believers who may need some help in developing this skill. Hebrews 10:24,25 encourages us, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Secondly, begin to ask questions as you read the bible: “Why is this detail provided? What is the purpose of this command? What is the context of this passage? Why is this instruction placed next to this other one? God is not afraid of our questions and the process of finding answers helps build our faith and knowledge of God. My final and most important advice is to pray. God delights in making Himself known to any who seeks after Him. Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7) James 1:5 tells us, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” If you want to know God, feel free to ask Him.
I want to end off with one final caution, and I will speak from my own experience. I remember when I first became interested in theology. Some friends of mine brought up a theological topic for debate and I found myself unable to keep up with the discussion. So I went home and began to study up on literature on the topic so that I could effectively debate my opinion using scripture. There are two main things wrong with that approach to theology. First, theology is all about learning about God, not defending your view of Him. I have changed my mind on a number of opinions I held about who God is because of things I’ve seen in scripture. I don’t inform theology, theology informs me. Secondly, theology is for the purpose of worshipping God, not glorifying ourselves through knowledge. Any theology that doesn’t result in deeper worship, I believe, is sinful pride. 1 Corinthians 8:1-3 teaches us that knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. Knowledge that isn’t centered on glorifying God will make us big in our own eyes. It makes us unpleasant to Christians and non-Christians in our lives, and it doesn’t please God.
For anyone who has come to know God through faith in Jesus, we need to pursue deeper knowledge of God. God has revealed Himself to us through His word. Let us be faithful to study it and learn how we are to live a life of worship to Him.