How are we to know God who, as Paul declares, dwells “in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see” (1 Tim 6:16)? Clearly it is only possible by revelation, as God is pleased to make Himself known. And that revelation must be received by faith. John Owen, the great Puritan theologian, acknowledges, “We know little of God because it is faith alone whereby we know Him”. (1) And faith is what is lacking in everyone who is still in a natural state. Granted, many individuals have historical faith, a willingness to accept in an outward way the truth of God’s revelation, but they do not trust in God; they do not look to Him alone for salvation; there is no change in heart or life. Even where faith has been created in a human heart, it is weak. It gasps but little of the revelation God has given. But what a mercy if that faith, however weak, is real!
God has given a revelation of Himself in nature. He has shown His power in creation: in the force of the wind, for instance, and the force of the sea. And any unbiased mind, any mind uncorrupted by sin, would recognise, without any difficulty, the evidence in nature for God’s existence. If the angels had no other reason to believe in the existence of God, they would be firmly convinced of it by observing the wonders of creation. Their pure, holy minds would be powerfully impressed by the power and wisdom of the Creator displayed in nature.
But the limitations of natural revelation are clear; Owen quickly moves beyond it with the remarks: “I shall not now discourse about the remaining impressions on the heart of all men by nature that there is a God, nor what they may rationally be taught concerning that God from the works of His creation and providence, which they see and behold. It is confessedly, and that upon the woeful experience of all ages, so weak, low, dark, confused, that none ever on that account glorified God as they ought but, notwithstanding all their knowledge of God, were indeed ‘without God . . . in the world'” (p 67).
If we are to reach beyond that “weak, low, dark, confused” revelation of God in nature, we must turn to Scripture. God’s written revelation of Himself is summarised in the words of the Shorter Catechism: “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth”; and, “There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory”.
From our experience, we know something of the meaning of wisdom, power, and the like. We can appreciate that it is possible for these to exist in perfection, although in our finite world we can have no direct experience of perfection – nor of the infinite and the eternal. But the glorious doctrine of the Trinity is altogether beyond our experience. Yet it has been revealed; God has given this testimony concerning Himself in His Word. By faith we must receive it. He is truth itself; His testimony therefore is absolutely reliable – it is perfect truth. We may not be able to understand it; every human being is finite, with a limited understanding. So we cannot possibly expect to understand God to the full; our minds are far too small for that. In stressing this, Owen says, “He is not seen, not because He cannot be seen, but because we cannot bear the sight of Him. . . . We who cannot behold the sun in its glory are too weak to bear the beams of infinite greatness ” (p 66). Indeed a being whose existence and attributes we were able to understand thoroughly could not be God.
God might have revealed much more than He did, but in His wisdom He has given us no more than the 66 books of the Bible. This is a sufficient revelation in every way. In particular, we do not need to know any more than He has told us about Himself. Says Owen, the intention “of all gospel revelation is, not to unveil God’s essential glory, that we should see Him as He is, but merely to declare so much of Him as He knows is sufficient to be a bottom of our faith, love, obedience and coming to Him – that is, of the faith which here He expects from us, such services as beseem poor creatures in the midst of temptations” (p 69). God has revealed enough for us to get safely through this world and to enter into His presence in heaven at last.
In the light of the verse already quoted from 1 Timothy, Owen notes that “our further progress consists more in knowing what He is not than what He is” (p 66). Earlier in this Epistle, Paul uses two more negatives to describe the King of heaven: immortal and invisible (1:17). We may note also how the Shorter Catechism speaks in terms of what God “is not”: He is not finite and He is not changeable. So Samuel was instructed when he went to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as King over Israel: “The Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7).
What we know about God, we know on the basis of the testimony He bears to Himself. That testimony we are duty-bound to believe. “Faith”, says Owen, “receives all upon His testimony, whom it receives to be [that is, to exist] only on His own testimony. As to its nature, it is an assent upon testimony, not an evidence upon demonstration; and the object of it is, as was said before, above us. Hence our faith, as was formerly observed, is called a seeing, “through a glass, darkly'” (p 68). What believers know of God is limited, extremely limited, for what they see of Him is the result of looking, as it were, at a reflection in a very imperfect mirror. Yet how great a difference between believer and unbeliever! One has from the heart received God’s testimony; the other is rejecting it.
Owen comments: “The difference between believers and unbelievers as to knowledge is not so much in the matter of their knowledge as in the manner of knowing. Unbelievers, some of them, may know more and be able to say more of God, His perfections and His will, than many believers; but they know nothing as they ought, nothing in a right manner, nothing spiritually and savingly, nothing with a holy, heavenly light. The excellency of the believer is, not that he hath a large apprehension of things, but that what he doth apprehend, which perhaps may be very little, he sees it in the light of the Spirit of God, in a saving, soul-transforming light; and this is that which gives us communion with God, and not prying thoughts” (p 69).
Our knowledge of God in this world is based on testimony, His own testimony, which He has given us in the Bible. This testimony is firmly rooted in the events of history. When God was to give Israel direction, in the systematic form of the Ten Commandments, He declared, “I am the Lord thy God” (Ex 20:2). And He immediately added, “Which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt”. He was giving them testimony concerning His will for them, but He spoke as the One who had worked for them in the events of the recent past.
The greatest revelation God has given of Himself was in His coming into the world in the person of His Son. And why did He come? The testimony of Scripture is: “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). And the Bible records the testimony which came directly from heaven at His transfiguration: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye Him” (Matt 17:5). Accordingly, we are to receive the testimony which He gave concerning Himself: “I came down from heaven, not to do Mine own will, but the will of Him that sent Me. . . . . And this is the will of Him that sent Me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on Him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:38,40). Here He bears testimony to the wondrous extent of that salvation He came to accomplish: that they who deserve eternal punishment because of their sinful rebellion against God are granted eternal life.
It is only through God the Son that we may know the Father; He came into the world to reveal the Father. He declared plainly: “Neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal Him” (Matt 11:27). That we might know the Father, we must believe in the Son. It is no mere matter of personal choice whether we believe in Christ or not, whether we know God or not. We are under obligation to do so. The testimony God has given to us in Scripture has divine authority. We reject it at our peril; indeed we neglect it at our peril. Christ solemnly warned, “If ye believe not that I am He, ye shall die in your sins” (John 8:24).
However, faith only comes when the testimony of Scripture is applied with divine power, the power of the Holy Spirit. Apart from that power, no one is willing to receive that testimony in a way that is fundamentally different from the faith of devils, who, we are told, “believe and tremble” (Jas 2:19). Manifestly, though the devils believe that God exists, and that He is, among other things, all-powerful, their knowledge of Him makes no difference to the way they live; it does nothing to subdue their wickedness. They tremble, but they go on in total opposition to God. How different when the Holy Spirit applies the testimony of Scripture with power to needy sinners! Then He implants new life in their souls, and this new life brings love with it. Accordingly the testimony God delivers to them in Scripture is not received coldly but in the spirit of worship. And that worship will continue to all eternity.
In this world, believers only begin to know God. So they are to heed the call: “Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 3:18). They may focus more on the need to grow in grace but, clearly, growth in grace and growth in knowledge go together. Yet how much more perfect their knowledge will be in heaven. As Owen points out, “when He calls us to eternal admiration and contemplation, without interruption, He will make a new manner of discovery of Himself, and the whole shape of things, as it now lies before us, will depart as a shadow” (p 69). In that state of eternal contemplation, God’s children will go on growing in knowledge of Him continually. There, free from sin, they will be will indeed be able to “give unto the Lord the glory due unto His name” (Ps 96:8), as they experience that “new manner of discovery” He will make of Himself.
1. Works, vol 6, p 67. All the other quotations from Owen which appear in this article are taken from this volume.