“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 the last post in Nick’s series on the “Syntax of Salvation,” click here.
In my previous outing, I pointed out the crucial distinction between God’s factual, metaphysical knowledge of all reality (omniscience) and His relational, covenantal “knowledge” of His redeemed people. This personal “acknowledgement” by God of those who are savingly identified with Him is, remarkably yet counter-intuitively, always perceived as a good thing in Scripture. Today I want to highlight three specific meanings of being “known by God” that seem to be entailed by the biblical narrative. These will go a long way towards justifying such a positive perception of being known by God. In this, I am closely following Brian Rosner’s pioneering scholarship (see previous post).
First, being “known by God” signifies belonging to Him. God has gracious ownership of all who are acknowledged by Him, in spite of their sin and weakness and failure. This is clearly seen in John 10:14-15, where Jesus’ “knows” his own just as the Father knows Jesus, and as a shepherd knows his sheep. It is fundamental in I Corinthians 8, where apparently not all believers have “knowledge”, but all are nonetheless “known by God”—and this, Paul contends, is what really counts when hard ethical decisions come to the forefront. Love trumps even being right, given the priority of God’s knowledge of us over our knowledge of Him. Belonging to God is also brought out in Exodus 33:12-13, Jeremiah 1:5 and Nahum 1:6-7. Such a meaning is indirectly assumed in Matthew 7:21-23, 25:12 and Luke 13:22-30, where Jesus’ denial that he knows certain people who insincerely profess His lordship communicates that they do not, in fact, belong to him at all. Of course, aligning God’s knowledge of His people with His gracious possession of them is not a novel insight. Walter Eichrodt put it this way, “God knows his people…that is to say, he has introduced them into a permanent relationship of the closest mutual belonging.” (Theology of the Old Testament, Vol. 2, p. 292). And Victor Paul Furnish contends that “to be ‘known’ by God means to be acknowledge and affirmed as God’s own.” (The Theology of the First Letter to the Corinthians, p. 73)
Second, being “known by God” refers to being loved and chosen by God. Two Old Testament passages, in particular, bring this meaning to the fore. In Genesis 18:19, God is said to have “known” Abraham, which in context provides the ground of God’s commitment to bless him and all nations through him. Tellingly, most translations (such as the NIV and ESV) translate the word “known” here simply as “chosen”, to (correctly) bring out the full force of the text. In Amos 3:2, the Lord speaks a word (through the prophet) of judgment to Israel; the rationale behind such punishment is that “you [i.e. Israel] only have I known of all the families of the earth.” Again God’s choice of Israel and faithful love to the nation are signified by the word “know.” Numbers 16:5 (which is cited in II Timothy 2:19) explicitly links God’s “knowing” and His choosing of people. Moving to the New Testament, in John 13:18, Jesus states that he “knows” those whom he has “chosen,” again bringing the two ideas together. Finally, it is arguable that to be “foreknown” in Romans 8:29 refers not so much to God factually knowing information ahead of time, but rather to His loving disposition towards believers even before they knew Him. F. F. Bruce comments about this passage, ‘For Paul there is no difference between being known by God and being chosen by him (Rom. 8:29).’ So, to be “known” by God means to be the special object of His affection (chosen) and delighted in by Him (loved) in a way that puts all of the emphasis on His initiative in the relationship. More on this next time.
Third, being “known by God” brings into view our adoption as God’s children. There are four great moments of “adoption” in the Bible: Israel is adopted by God during the exodus when He brings them out of Egypt; David (and all subsequent Israelite kings in his line) is adopted—that is, referred to as God’s own “son”—when he is enthroned; and Jesus is appointed the Son of God “in power” at His resurrection (of course, this case is somewhat different in that Jesus is, by very nature, God’s own unique Son). Finally, believers are likewise adopted insofar as they are “in Christ” and share in Jesus’ own sonship before the Father. Rosner helpfully points out that references to being “known” by God are given at all four events: Israel in Exodus 2:23-25 and Hosea 13:4-5, David in 2 Samuel 7:18-24, Jesus in many places (!), and believers in Galatians 4:8-11, where Paul in context is discussing their adoption as sons. Just as a young child is “known” by his or her parents before they can even “know” in return in any conscious way, so believers are “known” by God in a way that takes precedence even over their own response to God. We know, because He first knew us. John Calvin was correct, then, to say that “to be known by God…simply means to be counted among His sons.” (I Corinthians, on 8:3).
Much more could (and should) be said, but from this point on I intend to transition to the function of being “known by God” in the Christian life—that is, having discussed the meaning of our theme (i.e. what it is), it is time to focus on what being known by God does practically in the lives of believers. The last word today I leave to Rosner, who provides a succinct summary:
“Being known by God may be defined theologically as his gracious regarding of us as we are in Christ…being known by God arguably represents the most personal and comprehensive blessing of salvation.” (Brian Rosner, “Known By God”, p. 352)