Sunday Sermon: How to Know God
Audio Update here.
Many thanks to those that prayed for my preaching opportunity today. I sensed God’s grace while preaching and my religious affections were quickened by the Word and Spirit. The congregation seemed to appreciate the message. As you can tell, I changed the sermon text and topic from Work: A Gospel-centered Perspective to How Do You Know God? (2 Cor 4.1-6). See the full manuscript below.
How Do You Know God?
This morning I am not going to give you three application points for the week. Instead, I want to us to reconsider a very basic question: “How is it that we know God?” No doubt many of you in this room believe in God. According to the very recent the Baylor Religion Survey published in 10/30 issue of Time, 85% of Americans believe in a Christian God. However, as the survey points out, this belief in God is incredibly diverse. 40% of this group believe in a God who is removed from the world, which by definition implies that there are a large percentage of Christians who do believe in God but do not know God.
What percentage of Americans really know God? What percentage of Christians really know God? It’s really impossible to know, so let’s make this personal—what percentage of you really know God? How do you know you know God? When you think of knowing God, what comes to mind? Knowing the Bible, having a daily devotional, or a worship experience? How is it that we know God?
In order to answer this question, I’d like us to examine a very familiar passage. 2 Cor 4.1-6 is about the gospel of Christ. It answers the question, “What does it mean to know God?” from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church. The Corinthians were pretty messed up people—far from perfect. They were arrogant, superspiritual, sexually perverse, doctrinaire, etc. and for all of them Paul had the same message, the gospel, the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” These verses get at the question, “What does it mean to know God.”
How do you know God?
Some of us would say that we know God by knowing the Bible. In our passage Paul places an emphasis on Scripture. Defending the gospel, he disdains “distorting the Word of God” and celebrates “manifesting the truth” and “proclaiming the gospel.” Paul presents the Bible as the very words of God, as THE truth, as a good message worthy of sharing with others. Clearly, knowing the Bible is important, but it isn’t all there is to knowing God.
I used to attend a church where knowing God was often associated with knowing Scripture. I can remember discussing the Bible with a mentor who told me that I should make it my goal to “palm the Bible…like a basketball.” Knowing God meant knowing the Bible, getting your theology down. About a year ago I was interviewed by a search committee comprised of several older believers. At one point they informed me that they didn’t need anyone to teach them more Scripture because they already knew the Bible! I guess this church learned to palm Scripture…
These kind of people equate knowing God with an intellectual grasp of God’s revelation to man, having your theology down. Call them doctrinalists. They spend years filing away knowledge about each book of the Bible, about Christology and Eschatology. These people feel more “Christian” because they possess more knowledge of God, not because they know God himself. Perhaps some of you view the knowledge of God like this? Perhaps you measure your knowledge of God based on you r knowledge of doctrine. Do you congratulate yourself for having a quiet time or remembering the right Scripture in a circumstance? Do you glow when you consider your bookshelf or when you know the answer in Sunday School? You are believing a half gospel.
Sure. Knowing the Bible is very important, but possessing the truths of Scripture shouldn’t be mistaken for knowing God. There will be many on judgment day who will say to Jesus, “We quoted verses in your name, memorized books of the Bible, taught Sunday School and even in seminaries,” to whom Christ will say, “Depart from me I never knew you.”
Others of us base our knowledge of God on our experience. 2 Cor 4 is the result of an experience, Paul’s experience of God. In fact, the passage echoes with Paul’s encounter of Christ on the Damascus road, where he saw and experienced glorious light, heard the voice of God in Christ, leading to an experience of blindness, fasting, prayer and healing. However, these things do not equal knowing God. Judas, one of the twelve disciples, also encountered Jesus and experienced his miracles, teaching, prayer, and healing. Knowing God cannot be reduced to the emotional or spiritual buzz of his presence. These kinds of people reduce knowing God to emotional or spiritual experiences. We’ll call them experientialists.
Experientialists think that knowing God is measured by emotional experience of Him, in worship or private devotion. How about you? How do you know God? Do you chase emotional experiences, moving from high to low, high to low? Do you get down on yourself when you fail to feel God’s presence? Do you glow when we consider how profound your prayer, devotion or worship experiences are? You are believing a half gospel.
If knowing God is not the way of the doctrinalist or the experientialist, of palming Scripture or pandering to emotion, how then are we to know God? What does God have to say on the matter? Does Paul think doctrine and experience are important? Yes, but he did not devote his ministry to just one or the other. In our passage, Paul calls our attention to knowing God in the gospel.
The Gospel: Jesus is Lord
In our text, Paul contrasts the T.V. evangelists of Corinth with his own ministry. The false evangelists offer a half-gospel and charge full price. Paul offers a full gospel at his own expense. Contrary to the televangelists, Paul’s gospel did not center upon his own philosophy, fame or fortune. He writes: “we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake.” If Paul’s preaching was not motivated by personal philosophy, fame or fortune what then was he motivated by? This text tell us he preached 1) for Jesus 2) as slaves to the Corinthians, slaves to their good. What then did he preach that obtained this dual outcome—our good and Jesus glory? He preached the gospel—Christ Jesus as Lord.
If we are to truly know God, we cannot bypass Jesus. Any religion or form of Christianity that offers knowledge of God apart from Christ offers false, incomplete knowledge. Christianity often offers a half-gospel. In American Christianity there is a tendency towards knowing God as half a Jesus. The doctrinalist claims Jesus as the Truth, the Word of God, reducing him to Bible verses and theology. The doctrinalist makes knowing God an intellectual exercise, which is only part of the gospel—A coherent message about the person of Jesus Christ. The experientialist claims Jesus as the Life and reduces him to a mystical experience, an emotional buzz, which is only part of the gospel—an affection-stimulating experience of the Messiah. Jesus transcends both theology and emotion. He is also the Way, radically altering our behavior in every aspect of life. To know God is not the way of doctrinalism or experientialism. To know God is to know Jesus. It is to see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” How then do we see this image, this Christ? In v. 5, Paul tells us it requires LIGHT, the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. To know God in his glory is to receive gospel light that enables us to stare intently into the face of Jesus.
Light of the Gospel
Paul uses the metaphor of light to explain how we know God in Christ. Through the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ AND the light of the knowledge of the glory of God. What does light do? Several things. First, light clarifies and illuminates. Whenever we walk into a dark room to get something, we have to turn on a light in order to find it. It shows us what we are looking for. If we have a shadowy photograph and we want to see it better, we lighten the photograph in order to more clearly see the picture. The light of gospel illuminates our minds and clarifies that Jesus is the image of God. For the experientialist, gospel light leads them away from the darkness of private emotionalism into truth-based joy, Christ-centered knowing.
Now, if Paul wanted us to interpret this as simple possession of facts—Jesus is God—then he would not have needed to use the word light. He could have said we know God through the information or knowledge of the gospel. But instead he alerts his readers to the revelatory nature of this knowledge. It is light in a dark heart, not just facts in an ignorant head. The light overcomes the darkness of doctrinalism and experientialism—half gospels—in order to illuminate, clarify, and warm the heart to the Jesus is Lord. Light illuminates the heart.
This brings us to the second meaning of light; it warms. Yesterday in Austin will convince anyone of that. After a week of cold, wet weather the sun broke through and people came pouring out of their houses to enjoy the warmth of the light. A blind man may not be able to see the light, but he can feel it. Paul tells us that the light of the gospel shines in our hearts to give us a knowledge of the glory of God. Light in a heart, not in a room, or in creation, but a heart. The gospel warms the cold affections of the doctrinalist to not only know God, but to enjoy him.
The light of the gospel warms the heart, it transforms the affections from loving self, theology or experience to loving Jesus. Like the sun, God reveals himself by clarifying who he is and warming us to him. When the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shines in our hearts, it doesn’t bypass the mind—it informs us that Jesus is God—but it also warms the affections, transforms the heart, leading us into an intimate knowledge of Jesus. Gospel light illuminates and warms the heart to love and live in the Light of the world. It takes the half-truth of the doctrinalist and the half-truth of the experientialist and puts them together for a whole gospel, well almost.
The Glory of God in the Gospel
Finally, the light of the gospel is pervasive. Like the light of the sun, it covers everything, chasing away shadows of doctrinalism and experientialism, to bathe us entirely in its glory. The Light points to itself. We are meant to trace the sunbeam to the Son, to see that the glory of the gospel is not facts or emotion but Jesus himself, the one who dealt with the darkness of our sin on the cross to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God. This light is not limited to what we know or feel, it is the glory of God in all things. The gospel sets us right with God, transforms our affections and our thoughts about everything. It changes how we live with people and culture, how we drive and eat, how we watch TV and how we work, how we relate to our spouses and children and how we respond to divorce and abortion, racism and every injustice. The light of the gospel changes everything.
My 16 month old son’s first word was “Light.” For months this was the only word he said. Whenever, he woke up in the morning the first thing he would do was point to a lamp and say “light.” In every room he would see and say the light. From his car seat we pass neon signs an Owen declares: “Light!” He still sees and says light incessantly. For Owen the light is everywhere…and so it is with the light of the gospel. The light of the gospel should illuminate our minds, warm our affections to Jesus as Lord in all things. The light of the gospel should compel us to know and purse God’s glory in all things.
How do we know God? Through the illuminating, heart-warming light of the gospel of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Where does the light shine? Not a room, or a study, but a heart. It transforms the heart, the affections, the entire person. Like its affect on Owen, it changes our disposition towards God and everything else. It makes us desire God and worship Christ because he is God. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe in the sun because by it I see everything else.”