“What counts is not so much our knowledge of God as God’s knowledge of us. That is the syntax of salvation.” (Richard Hays)
For Part 1 in Nick’s series on the “Syntax of Salvation,” click here.
What does it actually mean to be “known by God”? This is the first and most basic question that arises in view of the numerous biblical passages that allude to this reality. Let me start by pointing you to a pair of wonderful essays by Brian Rosner (a New Testament professor at Moore Theological in Australia) that I am directly dependent on for my understanding:
Brian Rosner, “Known by God: C. S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” Evangelical
Quarterly 77.4 (2005): 343-52
Brian Rosner, “‘Known by God’: The Meaning and Value of a Neglected Biblical
Concept,” Tyndale Bulletin 59.2 (2008): 207-30
As with most fields of inquiry, it is useful to begin our quest for a definition here by stating what being known by God is not: it does not refer to God’s mental awareness or meticulous comprehension of human beings (as, for instance, in Psalm 139). Here I would distinguish (somewhat artificially) between God’s factual knowledge—which is absolutely exhaustive, unlimited and total—and God’s relational knowledge, which is partial and limited in scope according to the witness of the Scriptures. It is into this second category that being known by God fits. To be known by God is to be connected to Him in a special, saving, unique way–and according to Jesus, this is not a condition that prevails universally among humans (Matthew 7:21-23; cf. Psalm 1:5-6, Amos 3:2).
Perhaps an appropriate comparison would be the distinction that Christian theologians have drawn with respect to how the Bible describes God’s presence. Not a few passages refer to what would traditionally be called God’s omnipresence: God is everywhere, all the time (again Psalm 139 comes to mind). There is no location in the space-time continuum in which God is absent. However, many other passages depict God’s presence as coming and going, descending and withdrawing, in large part dependent on the relative faithfulness or disobedience of His people. This is why the godly can pray “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence!” (Isaiah 64:1). It is not, one imagines, for the sake of mere redundancy that we read in the Genesis narrative the common refrain that God was “with” Joseph. God’s presence, in this latter sense, eventually took up (temporary) residence in the tabernacle and temple of old, and for Christians now resides (permanently) in the crucified and risen Jesus and, derivatively, in His worldwide Body of followers. And likewise this more specific, limited category of God’s presence is primarily relational in nature. Pentecostals and charismatics are wont to call it God’s “manifest presence”; the reformed tradition prefers to label it as God’s “covenantal presence.” Both suffice, and both make clear that God’s presence can often refer to a particular blessing that only the redeemed experience as they seek Him. Being known by God, then, refers to being “covenantally” known by God in intimacy and priviledged relationship, the spiritual counterpart to a husband’s exclusive “knowledge” of his wife in marriage (cf. Genesis 4:1, 17, 25; Matthew 1:25). It is no happenstance that references to being known by God in Scripture frequently appear in contexts where God’s “marriage” to His people is at the forefront (Hosea 13:4-6, for instance).
This insight goes a long way towards explaining a curious phenomenon that is rather easily missed. Being known by God is, without exception, always an unqualified good in the biblical narrative. Yet, for those of us who possess even the most rudimentary self-knowledge of our massive failings and sin, it is not at all obvious why being known by God should be celebrated as a blessing. Rosner perceptively asks:
“Why does being known by God lead to his unconditional acceptance? How can God know us and yet, given our sinfulness, not reject us?” (Brian Rosner, “Known By God,” p. 227)
I will assume that I am not unique in the admission that one of the great, recurring fears in my life—a fear that runs so deeply through my being that it often arises unconciously in nightmares—is to be “known” by others even (especially) in the very worst deeds and thoughts I have committed. Indeed, my only desire at the memory of the shameful realities that have been produced by my heart and carried out by my hands is the desire to hide them, the desire that they would remain unknown to all others. I would prefer even to forget them myself, to be ignorant of what I have done and been in my life. From the vantage point of this common experience, an experience that virtually all morally aware human beings participate in to some degree, why should being known by God not immediately cause us to run in the other direction, away from Him, as furiously as we can? I leave you with that question; few things seem more relevant to me. Nothing gets us closer to the heart of the gospel.
Next week I’ll further draw out the meaning of being “known by God” with a bit more specificity—this post has only sketched the outer edges so far. As for my concluding question, my answer to it could hardly best this classic confession:
“There is unspeakable comfort—the sort of comfort that energizes, be it said, not enervates—in knowing that God is constantly taking knowledge of me in love and watching over me for my good. There is tremendous relief in knowing that his love to me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench his determination to bless me. There is, certainly, great cause for humility in the thought that he sees all the twisted things about me that my fellow humans do not see (and am I glad!), and that he sees more corruption in me than that which I see in myself (which, in all conscience, is enough). There is, however, equally great incentive to worship and love God in the thought that, for some unfathomable reason, he wants me as his friend, and desires to be my friend, and has given his Son to die for me in order to realize this purpose.” (J. I. Packer, Knowing God, pp. 41-42)