The Contemplation of God

Part 1

Protestants trace our theological and historical roots to the sixteenth century when the pure teaching of the Word of God was rediscovered, as it were, and expressed in a movement known as the Reformation. We stand today in the line of those who returned to the doctrines of the apostles; we stand today as descendants of those who rejected a system of theology that robbed God of His glory. We are Reformed Protestants, and we are thankful for the mercy God has manifested toward us by including us in this great theological legacy.

We cherish our system of theology, a system distinguished by many emphases, and a system in which one specific emphasis stands above the rest. In our Reformed system of theology, knowledge of God serves as the foundation upon which we rest; knowledge of God serves as the touchstone by which all other doctrines are kept true and pure. In no system ever devised has knowledge of God played such an essential role as is true in Reformed theology. When I speak of knowledge of God, I am referring to what God has revealed about Himself to us. In our tradition, that knowledge has been centrally significant in the formulations of our beliefs and practices.

John Calvin wrote: “ … it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.” (Institutes, vol. I, 37) This quote encapsulates one of the most important principles in our system of theology. That principle is that we know ourselves truly only in relation to our knowledge of God. Unless we know Him, we cannot really know ourselves; unless we know Him, we cannot really understand ourselves.

Knowledge of God is absolutely indispensable; knowledge of God—who He is and what He is like—must come before every other consideration. Knowledge of God moves us and directs us and corrects us and astonishes us and humbles us. Knowledge of God is a prerequisite for understanding anything about this world in which we live. Knowledge of God touches all aspects of our lives—in the church and at home and on the job. You must know God before you can understand why you exist. You must know God before you can understand your purpose. You must know God before you can understand anything about salvation.

If you really know God, you will not worship Him in a light-hearted or half-hearted manner. If you know God, you will not close your heart to those in need. If you know God, you will not be a lazy, unproductive person. If you know God, you will read His Word. If you know God, you will not entertain prideful thoughts about yourself. If you know God, you will not mistreat or gossip about those made in His image. If you know God, you will not harbor grudges or refuse to forgive. If you really know God, you will be quick to confess your sins in repentance. If you know God you will not tell lies or steal. If you know God, you will not spend His tithe money on other things. If you know God, you will not laugh at dirty jokes or watch risqué programs on television. If you know God, you will be struck by His majesty and overwhelmed by His mercy and tremble at the thought of His holiness. If you really know God, then your whole life will be affected and your whole life will demonstrate that you have looked upon God’s face and now, as Calvin said, scrutinize yourself in the light of His glory.

Do you get my point? Everything we think and say and do reflects our knowledge of God. As Reformed Christians, our legacy is one in which knowledge of God is predominant in the way we view everything else. But I regret to say that we live in a day when the knowledge of God, that knowledge that goes beyond a mere academic recitation of God’s attributes, is counted as unimportant. We live in a time when Christians assume it is enough to confess that there is a God and that He has done some good things for His people. We do not live in a time when Christians are distinguished by their knowledge of God; we do not live in a day when Christians manifest evidence that they have encountered the Triune God of the Bible; we do not live in a day when believers yearn to walk with God in intimate and peaceful fellowship.

How do I know this? I know this because our lives are loosely lived and our minds are polluted and we manifest, at best, a mild enthusiasm for the things of God. And I haven’t discovered these facts by meticulous and time-consuming investigation. All you have to do is look at the modern Church and all these characteristics are obvious. Those who know God manifest His holiness and goodness when they speak. Most Christians don’t really know God; we know about Him, but we don’t know Him. We don’t live and breathe God. We go to worship, but we don’t live lives of worship.

We concentrate on many matters in the Church today, but we don’t concentrate on knowing God. We teach our children many things these days and we want them to excel in many areas, but we don’t teach them to know God. What was once the defining characteristic of our system of theology and, consequently, of the lives of past generations, is not being preserved. We are in danger of reducing our faith to formulas of obedience or appearance or denominational affiliation and, consequently, losing the notion that a relationship with God is a relationship. In Christ Jesus, we are brought near to God and we walk with Him and we speak with Him and we wait for His guidance and we give thanks for His provisions and we trust our very souls to His care. We cry out to God when we are grieved and we raise hands of praise when we are blessed. We love Him because He first loved us; we serve Him because He rescued us from damnation. This is what it means to know God.

To be continued . . .

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