Systematic Theology 10: The Knowability of God

How much of God can we actually know? If you are anything close to my age and have been around Churches in the last 10 years, you will likely remember a song by Chris Tomlin called: Indescribable.

The song worships God, not just for all His powerful acts and mighty works, but also for His mystery. When I was a teenager I read a book by Matt Redman who talked about “the Otherness of God”.

In this chapter, Grudem explores this theme, by answering the question: how much of God can we actually know?

Firstly, we see that in order for us know anything about God, He must first reveal Himself to us. To quote Matt Redman again, the pattern of worship: “He reveals, we respond”. We see Him reveal Himself through scripture, through nature, through the Son (Matthew 11:27), through wisdom etc…and yet our sin, and our sinful nature/tendencies blind us to His many revelations (Romans 1:18).

Secondly, even though God habitually and frequently reveals part of Himself, we must concede that human beings can never fully understand God. This flows not just from scriptures like the psalms that explain that He is ‘unsearchable’ (145:3), ‘beyond measure’ (147:5) and ‘too wonderful for me’ (139:6). But also from a logical point of view…how can the finite, ever fully grasp the ‘Infinite’.

One objection to this point is usually made in reference to 1 Corinthians 13:12 which says ‘now I know in part, then I shall understand fully’. However, as Grudem points out, the Greek for ‘understand fully’ means to ‘understand without error’ – not ‘know all things’. In the same way I can understand correctly how my coffee is brewed in the morning, I still do not know the full extent of the brewing process in all it’s complexities. (I’m no coffee expert).

The lack of ability to know God fully, isn’t just because of our sin – though it does play a role in blinding us – but it is also because of His infinite greatness.

Nevertheless, we can and still should seek to grow in increasing knowledge of God (Col 1:10).

Thirdly, despite our limited capacity to know God fully, we can still know God truly. We can know true things of God, because of Scripture. For example we know that He is love, that He is good, and that He is working all things together for our good and His glory. We can know God as a personal relationship, not just exhaustive facts about Him.

In fact, this is what God desires for us: Jeremiah 9:23-24, John 17:3, 1 John 2:13.

We may never know God fully, but we can and we should, seek Him with our entirety. It is a great comfort that we will never find out too much, that we may discover new things every day and still learn more for eternity.

Discussion: Does God’s Hidden Will make Him Duplicitous?

The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law. – Deuteronomy 29:29

Whilst I was studying systematic theology last year I came across a concept that I still spend some time thinking about randomly even today. It is the concept of God’s hidden will.

From my, albeit limited, understanding. God presents His will to us in two different ways. 1) By revealing it. 2) By hiding it. It is a concept that provides us with a framework and understanding for why evil happens, when there exists an all-powerful, all-good, and all-loving God. For example:

Revealed Will: You shall not murder
Hidden Will: People do murder, but I intend to turn it for my glory, the good of the Church and the salvation of the lost.

In this example we can see that God’s revealed will is that man should not murder each other. This is what God wants, just as He wants no man to perish in hell (2 Peter 3:9). Since this is not the case, men do murder each other and men do frequently reject the offer of eternal life, we must conclude that God has a Hidden will. Especially when we consider that all God’s plans do succeed (Isaiah 14:24), and that from a logical point of view, a god who could not accomplish his intentions would be no god.

Hence the concept of God’s hidden will.

Another way to understand it is:
Revealed will: how we should behave (e.g. make disciples, love our neighbours, turn the other cheek)
Hidden will: God’s ability to distribute grace when we fail.

We are not called to know or even act upon His hidden will. Rather we are called to have faith that His hidden will is also Good, Sovereign, Loving, and Powerful. We must believe without seeing. This requires faith.

  1. We know (Revealed will) that God desires no one to perish, and all to come to Him for salvation…and yet (Hidden will) God has predestined some chosen few to come to faith in Him. Since we do not know who, and it is not for us to know, we ought to be relentless in our obedience to Matthew 28’s great commission (to make disciples of all nations)
  2. To violate His revealed will in our actions is sin, and is therefore punishable. Even though His is powerful enough and intends to work it for His good.
  3. We should pray with sensitivity to His willingness, not His goodness, love or power, which He has revealed to us.

Therefore, God’s hidden will does not make Him duplicitous but rather:

  1. Demonstrates His graciousness towards us, who frequently disobey and fall short of even His revealed will.
  2. Demonstrates His sovereignty and power in the midst of legitimate free will and rebellion.
  3. Demonstrates His justice in His judgements, since He has told us exactly what He requires from us.

Why do I pursue God’s heart?

I’ve been taking a course online over the last month and a bit, and I hit a bit of a wall. In the course we are taught a little about The Dark Night of the Soul, a season in life where we find very little pleasure in pursuing God’s heart. We may be reading our Bible, praying, worshipping, going to Church and all of this, but to be frank it is: tough going.

We just don’t feel like it.

One of the aims of the course is to explore the purpose of these seasons and help believers understand the work God is doing. So we can be encouraged and encourage others.

The course guides us to consider that God is weaning us of the ‘pursuit of spirituality for pleasure’s sake’.

It is here that I hit a wall. So I stopped reading and started thinking through why this troubled me.

It wasn’t long before I identified my main obstacle.

Belief 1 (from before the course): God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.
Belief 2 (from the course): Pursuing God for pleasure’s sake is immature.

So how can I reconcile these beliefs, are they compatible. Is one true and one wrong. What does wisdom say? Pen and paper out, Bible opened up.

I wrote down the beliefs more fully on a notepad:

Belief 1: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. Therefore, God promises pleasure to those who pursue Him (Psalm 16:11)
Belief 2: Pursuing God for pleasure’s sake is immature. Therefore, God uses seasons of “Desolation” to teach us to pursue Him for His sake rather than pleasure. (James 1:2-3)

Then I asked myself some questions: What motivates me to pursue God? What should motivate me? What do I want to motivate me? Is there scripture to back up these reasons.

  1. I pursue God for my sake and He is glorified in this (Exodus 33:12-19)
  2. I pursue God because it is Right and He has taught/convinced me of this (therefore I cannot boast!) (1 Corinthians 1:28-31)
  3. I pursue God for His Glory’s sake and His glory fills the earth (Isaiah 6:3-8)

Perhaps both beliefs are true, and yet, incomplete without each other. I would phrase slightly differently to demonstrate this:

Belief 1: God is glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him, He is gracious to fulfil His promises of pleasure to those who pursue Him.
Belief 2: Pursuing God for pleasure’s sake alone is immature, though it is not necessarily wrong. Oftentimes, God will uses seasons of desolation/dark night of the soul, to teach us to pursue Him for His glory’s sake.

I hope this helped. Why do you pursue God’s heart?

Why I will listen to Bethel Music

In-house, Christian-matters. I don’t usually agree to post Christian debate issues on my blog, because I don’t think it’s actually helpful or encouraging. In this case I will because 1) my blog’s not popular enough, 2) the debate is happening anyway, 3) I think I’m writing towards a peaceful resolution between the two sides. And 4) I have been asked about this several times by other Christians and find myself having to rethink it all again – it is much easier to have it written in one place.

There is a bit of a hot debate going around some Christian circles and websites at the moment. And it’s one I’ve had to give some thought to because of a particular preacher I listened to several times each week during my teenage years.

It’s a strain of the prosperity gospel (as defined that God wants to bless you, with health, wealth and happiness), which is based on faith. Most prosperity gospel have their roots in blatant legalism – “Do good, get good”.

This faith-based prosperity gospel, says – “believe and get good”. Implying, when bad happens, it’s because you don’t believe enough, or you’re not “claiming” it in faith. Also implying, it’s always God’s will to answer your prayers – provided you believe.

(Aside from the common obvious points that several of Jesus’ prayers were not answered with ‘yes’…”Father let this cup pass from me”, “Father I pray that the Church would be united in love, that they would be one as We are one”…. [For more read: God on Mute – Pete Greig]. )

Popular churches that seem to espouse this teaching include: Bethel, Hillsong and a lot of the GodTV cast. Since Bethel and Hillsong also write a large fraction of the worship music out there, a common response is to stop playing their music at churches etc.

The reason being 1) they don’t want to financially support ministries with false teaching, 2) they don’t want to encourage new believers to seek out false teachers 3) they want to protect their flock.

All pretty legit reasons.

Here are some of my counter thoughts though:

1) Jesus, when confronted by his disciples complaining about people casting out demons in His name, responded: “whoever is not against us is for us”. I do not honestly believe that the majority of people in these churches, are opposed to Christ. (Furthermore, I don’t think it is my job to determine that.) Matthew 12:30-42

2) Paul writes, that no one can claim (and mean that) Jesus is Lord without the help of the Holy Spirit. 1 Corinthians 12:3 . I know this is a loose application, and that there are false teachers who can claim this. But I think we may be underestimating the truth of this passage to dismiss such worship leaders so quickly.

3) God consistently uses crooked sticks to draw straight lines. Some of the people God has used throughout scripture and history, have had enormous doctrinal flaws. Consider the precious puritans and their slave ships. Consider Paul, the worst of sinners. Consider me!

4) Not all worship music, and not all prayer, needs to be doctrinally sound. A quick perusal through the Psalms reveal prayers and songs that were not “theologically correct”. Is it Psalm 137 that talks about the happy man being the one who dashes infants against rocks.

Prayer and worship is about coming honestly before God with our true selves, bringing it before Him knowing we are loved and accepted. If we start censoring songs and prayers, don’t we encourage people to only present their “best self” to God. Isn’t this one of those things that Jesus came to set us free from?

5) Paul writes in Philippians, “it is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love…the former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble…But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, CHRIST IS PREACHED. And because of this I rejoice.” (2:15-18)

I’m not fussed if Hillsong and Bethel are making a lot of money, or even if this is their primary motive, IF their songs lead people to Christ. I rejoice. Personally, I have encountered God’s presence whilst listening to their music, and I know many have been encouraged to the Father’s arms via “Mighty to Save”, “Oceans”, “No longer a slave to fear”…

6) Linked to this is, my lack of concern about money going to these mega churches, that have dodgy teaching. All money belongs to God, He can reduce empires and build them up. As a matter of interest, do the Christian who refuse to listen to bethel, also refuse to buy clothes made in sweatshops, coffee that isn’t fair trade, computers from large tech companies. Micah 6. It seems a little showy and divisive to make a stand only in regards to music.

Furthermore, since God owns all the money, and gives all the authority and platforms…(see Jesus when He tells Pilate that the authority he has is only from God). Do we trust Him.

7) There is a measurement of conscience, love and faith in this. See 1 Cor 8 and Romans 14. In short, (I’ve explored in another blog post), Paul talks about how knowledge can be used to puff up, or can be used in love. He talks about eating meat offered to idols, and how it may be right for some to eat, and it may be right for some to abstain…depending on their conscience, faith and love.

There is a cutting line here: “Whatever is not from faith is sin”. If we can’t eat meat offered to idols, listen to music produced by Bethel with a clear conscience then we shouldn’t. If we can’t listen to Hillsong’s songs, without causing our fellow believers to stumble than we should abstain. Will we let love and conscience impact how we carry out our faith.

8) Jesus said “my sheep know my voice”. Do we trust that this is true? Yes, there is a place for warning against the wolf-like false teachers. But there is also a place for trust that those who are God’s children can recognise His voice.

9) Jesus said, “I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it”. Do we trust that this is true? When it comes to false teaching and heresy and people’s faith, we often work ourselves into a state where fool ourselves into believing we care more about this all than God does. No, God cares, and He hates lies. I don’t mean to belittle the impact of false teaching and lies. I love scripture and God’s truth, it is my life!

Just as the prophet declared about the early Church… “Therefore in the present case I advise you: leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” Acts 5:38-39

Systematic Theology 8: The Four Characteristics of Scripture (4): Sufficiency

The Sufficiency of Scripture means that Scripture contained all the words of God He intended His people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting Him perfectly and for obeying Him perfectly.

Throughout the Bible we see that the Scriptures provide everything we need to hear in order to bring us to Salvation. There is nothing more, no secret knowledge we need to stumble upon, than that is provided in the Bible (see 2 Timothy 3:15, James 1:18 and 1 Peter 1:23).

The Bible also contains everything we need to hear to equip us for living the Christian life (see 2 Timothy 3:16 and Psalm 119:1).

In these senses the Bible is sufficient.

There is an interesting discussion about the amount of scripture slowly increasing at each stage of redemptive history. Wayne Grudem argues that at each stage the amount of scripture available was sufficient.

This is why commands such as “you shall not add to these words” were able to be said by God as early as Deuteronomy 4:2). Of course, God has added to it as He has seen fit.

The sufficiency of Scripture also can encourage us to know that God has not spoken anything more that we need to believe, think or do, that is not already in the Bible.

Interestingly, our tendency to create additional rules for ourselves are met with failure and a lack of follow through, because the Holy Spirit does not empower us to fulfils our man-made rules. This was a problem Jesus addressed with the Pharisees (Matthew 15:3-7), but it is an issue we also must address in our own lives. The tendency to put ourselves under additional laws is very great.

Paul writes: “why…do you submit to it’s [additional] rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These rules…are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” (Col 2:20-23).

In my notes below I have also listed seven additional practical applications from this doctrine:

Systematic Theology 3: The Canon of Scripture

Please find below, my notes for Systematic Theology Chapter 3: The Canon of Scripture. This chapter gives a historical account of the formation of the Bible.

It starts with the story of how the Old Testament was constructed, who came up with the idea to write God’s words down. Why it didn’t stop with the 10 commandments and has been expanded into the Law, Prophets, Songs and History books.

It then goes on to explain how the New Testament was compiled, that each author was essentially an apostle (or had close association with one of the apostles), they claim to have been written with the authority of God and remain consistent with the rest of Scripture.

Finally this chapter then examined the various candidates for addition or removal of other books.