The Knowledge of God

The Knowledge of God

by Herman Bavinck

God as the highest good for mankind is the testimony of all Scripture.

The sacred narrative begins with the account of God creating man in His own image and likeness, that man might know his Creator, love Him with all his heart, and live in eternal communion with Him. It culminates in the vision of the New Jerusalem, where the redeemed will see God’s face, and His name will be upon their foreheads.

Between these bookends lies the grand revelation of God, spanning its length and breadth, encapsulated in the all-encompassing promise of the covenant of grace: "I will be your God, and you shall be My people." This promise reaches its zenith in Emmanuel, "God with us." In the interplay of promise and fulfillment, the Word of God serves as the concept, the seed, and the germ of action, coming to fruition in the fullness of time. Just as God brought creation into being through His Word, so through the Word of promise, He will bring forth a new heaven and a new earth, where God will dwell with mankind.

Thus, Christ, in whom the Word became flesh, is described by John as "full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).

Christ is the Word, who was with God in the beginning and was God Himself, the life and light of men. In Him, the Father imparts His life and reveals His thoughts, manifesting the full essence of God. Christ not only declares the Father and reveals His name, but He also embodies and imparts the Father to us. He is God given and God revealed, full of grace and truth. From the first utterance of the promise, "I will be your God," it is fulfilled as "I am your God." God gives Himself to His people, that they may wholly belong to Him.

Scripture continually reaffirms this: "I am your God." From the mother promise in Genesis 3:15, through the lives of the patriarchs, the history of Israel, and the New Testament church, this rich promise is reiterated. Throughout the ages, the congregation responds with faith's grateful praise: "You are our God, and we are Your people, the sheep of Your pasture."

This declaration is not a mere rational doctrine or an imitated unity but the confession of a deeply felt reality, experienced in the fabric of life itself. The prophets, apostles, and the faithful depicted in the Old and New Testaments, and later in the Church of Christ, did not theorize about God in abstract terms. They confessed what God meant to them and their lived experiences with Him in all life's circumstances. For them, God was not a cold concept to be dissected intellectually but a living, personal reality, infinitely more essential than the world around them—the one, eternal, and adorable Being. They lived in His presence, walked before Him, served in His courts, and worshipped in His sanctuary.

The authenticity and depth of their experience are manifest in the language they employ to articulate what God is to them. Their words flow effortlessly, for their mouths overflow with what fills their hearts, and the world and nature furnish them with images for their thoughts. To them, God is a King, a Lord, a Hero, a Guide, a Shepherd, a Savior, a Redeemer, a Helper, a Physician, a Husbandman, a Father. All their salvation and bliss, truth and righteousness, life and mercy, strength and power, peace and rest are found in Him. He is to them a sun and a shield, a compass and a buckler, a light and a fire, a fountain and a spring, a rock and a shelter, a high tower, a reward and a shadow, a city and a temple. All that the world contains, scattered and divided, is but a parable of the unsearchable fullness of salvation found in God for His people. This is why David in Psalm 16:2 (in a more accurate translation) declares to Jehovah: "You are my Lord, I have no higher good than You," and Asaph in Psalm 73 sings: "Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever." For the pious, heaven with all its bliss and glory is empty and desolate without God; and if they live in fellowship with God, they desire nothing else on earth, for the love of God surpasses all other goods.

This is the experience of God's children, made real to them because God Himself has given Himself to them to enjoy in the Son of His love. Christ declares that eternal life, the entirety of salvation, consists in knowing the one and only true God and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent.

It was a solemn hour when Christ spoke these words. He was about to enter the Garden of Gethsemane, crossing the Kidron Valley, to engage in the final battle of His soul. Before doing so, He, as our High Priest, prepared Himself for His suffering and death, and prayed to the Father that He might be glorified through and after His suffering, so that the Son might glorify the Father in the distribution of all the benefits He was about to acquire through His obedience unto death. When the Son prays in this manner, He desires nothing other than the Father's own will and pleasure. The Father has granted Him authority over all flesh, that He might give eternal life to all whom the Father has given Him. And that eternal life consists of knowing the one true God and Jesus Christ, the Sent One (John 17:1-3).

The knowledge to which Jesus refers here bears a unique character. It differs from all other knowledge that man can acquire, not in degree, but in principle and essence. This is clearly evident when we compare the two types of knowledge. The knowledge of God, as mentioned by Jesus, differs from the knowledge of created things in origin and object, in essence and fruit.

It differs first of all in origin, for it is due to Christ alone. All other knowledge we acquire through our own understanding and judgment, through our own efforts and research. But the knowledge of the one true God is imparted to us by Christ, and we must receive it as children. It is found nowhere else, neither in any academic institution nor among any renowned philosopher. Christ alone knows the Father. He was with God in the beginning, lying in His bosom and seeing Him face to face. He is God Himself, the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His being, the Father's own, only begotten, beloved Son, in whom He is well pleased (Matthew 3:17; John 1:14; Romans 8:12; Hebrews 1:3). Nothing in the nature of the Father is hidden from the Son, for He shares the same nature, attributes, and knowledge. No one knows the Father except the Son (Matthew 11:27).

And this Son has come unto us and declared unto us the Father. He has revealed the name of His Father to man; therefore He became flesh and appeared on earth, that He might make known to us the Truthful One (1 John 5:20). We did not know God, nor did we delight in the knowledge of His ways. But Christ has made the Father known to us. He was not a philosopher, a scientist, or an artisan; His mission was to reveal the Father's name to us. And this He accomplished fully, through His words, works, life, death, person, and entire being.

In His every act, He never spoke or did anything except what He saw the Father doing. His sustenance was to accomplish His Father’s will. Whoever saw Him, saw the Father (John 4:34; 8:26, 28; 12:50; 14:9).

He received the name Jesus from God Himself, for He was to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). He is called Christ, the Anointed One, chosen and appointed by God Himself to fulfill all His offices (Isaiah 42:1; Matthew 3:16). And He is the Anointed One because He did not come in His own name like so many false prophets and priests. He did not exalt Himself or seek honor for Himself; rather, the Father, in His great love for the world, gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

Those who accept Him are given the right and authority to be called children of God (John 1:12). They are born of God, partakers of the divine nature, and know God in the face of Christ, His Son. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son wills to reveal Him (Matthew 11:27).

The knowledge of God also differs from all other knowledge in its object. While human knowledge, especially in recent times, may have expanded, it remains confined to the creature and does not touch the infinite. There is indeed a revelation of God's eternal power and divinity in the works of nature. Yet, the knowledge of God derived from nature is limited, obscured, mixed with error, and often unappreciated. For though men knew God by nature, they neither glorified Him nor gave thanks to Him as God, but became futile in their thinking and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for images resembling the creature (Romans 1:20-23).

But here, in the high-priestly prayer, stands One who transcends all finite things and speaks of the knowledge of God! God as the object of human knowledge—who can fathom that? God, the Infinite and Incomprehensible One, who is beyond the measure of time or eternity, before whom angels veil their faces, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see! He, the object of human knowledge, for man, whose breath is in his nostrils, who is less than nothing and more than vanity! He would know God, whose entire knowledge is fragmentary! For all his knowledge, what does he truly understand? What does he grasp in his ear, in his being, in his purpose? Is he not perpetually surrounded by mystery? Does he not always stand at the edge of the unknown? And this man, a frail, weak, wandering, and darkened creature, would know God, the high, holy, only, omnipotent God!

It surpasses our understanding, but Christ, who has seen the Father and revealed Him to us, speaks of it. We can trust Him, for His testimony is true and worthy of all acceptance. If you desire to know who God is, do not seek out the wise, the scholars, or the researchers of this age. Instead, look to Christ and listen to His word. Do not say in your heart, "Who will ascend into heaven?" or "Who will descend into the abyss?" For the word that Christ preaches is near you. He Himself is the Word, the perfect revelation of the Father. As He is, so is the Father—equally just and holy, yet also full of grace and truth. At His cross, the fullness of the faith of the Old Covenant is revealed: "The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will He keep His anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear Him" (Psalm 103:8-13). Beholding the glory of Christ in the mirror of His word, we joyfully exclaim: "We know Him because we are known by Him; we love Him because He first loved us" (1 John 4:19).

Furthermore, the origin and content determine the essence of the knowledge of God in its uniqueness.

In the High Priestly Prayer, Jesus speaks not merely of knowing, but of knowing God. The distinction between these two is profound. To know much about a creature, plant, animal, human being, country, or people from books is entirely different from knowing it through personal observation. To know involves descriptions provided by others; to know involves the object itself. Knowing is an intellectual activity; knowing involves personal interest and the engagement of the heart.

Because the knowledge of God given by Christ is described in His Word, it is possible to have a type of knowledge that differs essentially from the knowledge intended by Jesus. There is a knowing of the Lord’s will without a willingness of the heart to do that will (Luke 12:47-48). There is a calling of "Lord, Lord" that does not open the entrance to the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:21). There is a faith, like that of the devils, which produces not love, but fear and trembling (James 2:19). There are hearers of the word who do not wish to be doers and therefore will face greater judgment (James 1:23).

When Jesus speaks of knowing God, He refers to a knowledge akin to His own. He was not a theologian by profession, nor a doctor or professor of divinity. He saw the Father everywhere—in nature, in His word, in His service. He loved Him above all things and obeyed Him in everything, even unto death on the cross. His knowledge of the truth was united with His doing of the truth. His knowledge was inseparable from love.

It is this type of knowledge that Jesus refers to when He connects it to life. To know God does not consist in knowing much about Him but lies in having seen Him in the face of Christ, having encountered Him on our life’s path, and having personally become acquainted with His virtues, righteousness, holiness, mercy, and grace in the experience of our souls.

That is why this knowledge, as opposed to other sciences, is called the knowledge of faith. It is not the fruit of intellectual investigation and reflection but of childlike and simple faith, of that faith which is not only a sure knowledge but also a firm trust that not only others, but also I, have been granted forgiveness of sins, eternal righteousness, and salvation by God, through pure grace, solely for the merit of Christ's will. Only those who become like children will enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3). Only the pure in heart will see the face of God (Matthew 5:8). Only those born again of water and the Spirit can see God's kingdom (John 3:5). If any man wills to do the will of God, he shall know the doctrine of Christ, whether it is of God or whether it speaks of Himself (John 7:17). They that know His name shall put their trust in Him (Psalm 9:10); and to the same degree that God is known, He is loved.

If we understand the knowledge of God in this way, it is no wonder that its effect and fruit is no less than eternal life. Between knowledge and life, there seems to be little connection. Does not Ecclesiastes truthfully say, "In much wisdom is much sorrow; he who increases knowledge increases sorrow; of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh" (Ecclesiastes 1:18, 12:12)?

Knowledge is power—we grasp this to some extent. He who knows, rules. All knowledge is a triumph of the spirit over matter, a subjection of the earth to human dominion. But knowledge as life—who can understand that? And yet, even in the natural realm, knowledge enriches the depth and richness of life. The more comprehensive the consciousness, the more intense the life. Inanimate creatures do not know, and they do not live. When consciousness is awakened in animals, their lives gain in content and extent. Among humans, the richest life is that of the one who knows the most. What is the life of the ignorant, the simple, the undeveloped, compared to that of the thinker and poet? But however great the difference, it is only a difference of degree; the life itself does not change and ultimately ends in death, for it is sustained only by the finite sources of this world.

But here we speak of knowledge not of any creature, but of the one true God.

If the knowledge of visible things enriches life, how much more will the knowledge of God bring life to the dead? For God is not a God of the dead but of the living. All those whom He created in His image and restored to His fellowship are thereby raised above death and mortality. "He that believeth in me," saith Jesus, "though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die" (John 11:25-26). Knowing God in the face of Christ brings eternal life, immeasurable joy, and heavenly bliss. Not only does it result in these, but knowing God is itself life—new, eternal, and blissful life.

According to this teaching of Holy Scripture, the Christian Church has defined the character of that science which from time immemorial has borne the name of Theology or Divinity. It is the science that derives the knowledge of God from His revelation, contemplates it under the guidance of His Spirit, and seeks to describe it to His glory. A theologian, a true scholar of God, is one who speaks from God, through God, and about God, to His glory. Between scholars and the simple-minded, there is only a difference in degree. They share one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in all (Ephesians 4:5-6). But to each one of us, grace is given according to the measure of the gift of Christ (Ephesians 4:7).

In this spirit, Calvin introduced his Geneva Catechism with the question: What is the chief end of human life? And the answer was clear and powerful: That men may know the God by whom they were created. Similarly, the Westminster Catechism began its teaching with the question: What is the chief end of man? and provided this concise and profound answer: Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.

Study Questions for Reflection

  1. How does the Scripture's testimony of God as the highest good for mankind shape your understanding of your relationship with God?

  2. Reflect on the significance of God creating man in His image and likeness. How does this foundational truth impact your view of human dignity and purpose?

  3. What does the promise "I will be your God, and you shall be My people" mean to you personally? How do you see this promise fulfilled in your life and in the history of redemption?

  4. How does Christ, as the Word made flesh, reveal the fullness of God’s grace and truth? In what ways does Jesus embody and impart the Father to us?

  5. How do you differentiate between knowing about God and knowing God personally? Can you identify moments in your life where this personal knowledge of God was evident?

  6. Discuss the nature of the knowledge of faith as described. How does childlike faith lead to a deeper understanding and trust in God?

  7. Ecclesiastes speaks of the sorrow that can accompany increased knowledge. How does this contrast with the life-giving knowledge of God that Christ offers?

  8. According to John 17:3, eternal life is knowing the one true God and Jesus Christ. How does this definition of eternal life influence your daily walk and spiritual goals?

  9. What does it mean to be a true scholar of God? How does this calling influence your approach to studying and teaching theology?

  10. Reflect on the catechisms’ teachings that man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. How do these goals manifest in your personal life and community?