How can we know God?

This post is part of a series of posts on the basics of systematic theology.  Why do we need theology, and what are the essential truths to know about each doctrine?  All the posts are archived under the category “Theology 101.”


When children are first learning language and the margins of their world are beginning to expand beyond the walls of their home, they are often obsessed with the question, “why?”  Why did you do that daddy?  Why should I clean my room?  Why should I eat my vegetables?  Why is that man wearing a funny hat?  Why did that car stop by our house?  Why did you spank my sister?  Why?  Why?  Why?

There is a theological corollary to the why question from toddlers.  It is “how?”  As in, how can we know what we know about God?  It’s a good question.  How do you know what you know about God?  This is the doctrine of epistemology.  And there are two fundamental truths that we must keep in appropriate tension with this doctrine.

First, God is inconceivable and incomprehensible (Is. 40:18; 1 Tim. 6:15-16).  He is transcendent.  He is above and beyond us and we cannot know Him on our own.  (In fact, on our own, we don’t want to know Him.  See Rom. 3:10-18.)  To affirm this truth, Paul exclaims, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Rom. 11:33).  God is so grand and deep that His infinite knowledge is beyond our ability to plumb.  The more we learn and know and understand the more we grow in understanding that we have only the smallest comprehension of His grandeur.  We cannot comprehend Him.

But secondly,  God has revealed Himself to us and is thus knowable (Jn. 1:14, 18; Rom. 16:25-27).  No, we cannot know God, but God has revealed Himself to us, both in His Word and in the person of Jesus Christ.  So the unknowable One has become knowable.  So here is the great hope about knowing God — while we can never know everything there is to know about God, yet we can rejoice in the fact that we can know something about Him.  And we can know Him personally — as a son to a Father.

Now some might want to know, what good is it to know God?  It is good to know God because He is the source of all truth (Jn. 14:6; 17:17).  If we want to know truth, we must know Him.  And, if we want a sound mind to make wise decisions about life, we must see things as God sees them and define them as He does (Prov. 1:7; 9:10; Phil. 3:8-10).  Since God knows all things, we cannot hope to live well if we ignore His purposes and plans for life.

And that has led J. I. Packer to summarize that when we know God, we will have —

  • great energy for God
  • great thoughts of God
  • great boldness for God
  • great contentment in God

“…we must recognize how much we lack knowledge of God.  We must learn to measure ourselves, not by our knowledge about God, not by our gifts and responsibilities in the church, but by how we pray and what goes on in our hearts.  Many of us, I suspect, have no idea how impoverished we are at this level.  Let us ask the Lord to show us.” [Packer, Knowing God]

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