“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.
To recap in brief fashion: in my last post, I contended that being “known by God” refers to three overlapping realities in Scripture. First, to be known by God is to belong to Him. Second, God has set His love upon (i.e. chosen) all those whom He is said to know (think Adam knowing Eve!). Third, our adoption as God’s own children is closely linked with being known by the Lord in a number of passages. For evidence backing these claims up, see my previous posts.
However, having pondered what being known by God means in the biblical narrative, I now want to delve into the practical side of this discussion: how does being known by God function in the Christian life? Over the next few posts I’ll highlight a number of implications of being known by God, but I confess that this first implication is my favorite, by far.
The motif of being known by God is meant to deepen our awareness of the priority and primacy of grace in the divine/human relationship. The thing about grace, as A. W. Tozer never tired of reiterating, is that it’s always previous. Grace always precedes human response in the drama of creation and redemption. We love because God first loved us (I John 4:19). We did not choose Him first, He chose us (John 15:16). God did not set His affection upon Israel because they were more in number, or greater, or wiser, or more appealing or lovely; God loved His people simply because He loved them (Deuteronomy 7:6-8). In the same way, God’s act of taking knowledge of us in Christ precedes our knowledge of Him—precedes it, indeed, both chronologically and logically, both in time and in fundamental, causal importance. Our faith towards God in Christ can no more occur prior to His relentlessly pursuing grace than a naïve child can succeed in darting ahead of her own shadow on the sidewalk. Whenever a person turns away from petty, self-centered rebellion and towards the God who gives life, you can bank on the same reality every time: grace arrived on the scene first.
No more appropriate passage could be cited in defense of the primacy of grace than Galatians 4:8-9:
“Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?”
Throughout church history, Galatians has again and again opened the eyes of God’s people—perhaps more than any other biblical document—to the radical, dynamic nature of grace (cf. 1:3, 1:6, 1:15, 2:9, 2:21, 5:4, 6:18, and of course the concept shows up far more often than the mere word in this epistle). Salvation comes to us not through our own efforts or achievements, but through what God has done in Christ–with humble, self-forgetful faith the only feasible response to the decisive, once-for-all accomplishment. Having begun by the Spirit (that is, in full absolute reliance upon God’s saving activity in Jesus), we must not continue on in the flesh (that is, in dependence upon our own capacities, efforts, or ethnicity). Such a course of action would, in principle, spit in the face of grace and disparage (contradict, even) our earlier response to the proclamation of the gospel when we first believed. Grace reigns at the beginning of the Christian life, and in just that same way (this is the real message of Galatians, often missed) so it must reign every moment onwards until the finale.
Interestingly, the apparent backtracking that Paul does in 4:9—after mentioning the Galatians new knowledge of God, he reverses course to highlight God’s knowledge of them—includes an important grammatical feature. The phrase separating Paul’s dualing thoughts (“or rather” in the ESV) is mallon de in Greek, which communicates a point strikingly specific in its relevance:
“Following a positive expression it [i.e. mallon de] introduces an additional and more important fact or aspect of the matter, not thereby retracting what precedes…but so transferring the emphasis to the added fact or aspect as being of superior significance as in effect to displace the preceding thought.” (Ernest de Witt Burton, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, p. 229)
Paul uses the same expression in Romans 8:34: “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. The point in Galatians 4:9 is not to downgrade or deny the Galatians’ knowledge of God, anymore than Paul’s intention is to empty the cross of Christ of its power and importance in Romans 8:34. Nonetheless, just as the resurrection is ultimately more crucial in Paul’s mind than even (!) the death of the Son of God (at least, when the ongoing experience of favor and vindication before the heavenly court is in view), so God’s knowledge of us is far more worthy of contemplation and attention than our knowledge of Him—yet, without actually denying either the importance or the validity of our knowing Him! Galatians 4:9 fits perfectly with the overall theme of the letter. Not law, Christ. Not works, faith. Not flesh, Spirit. Not your knowledge, God’s knowledge. The power and relevance of the gospel isn’t you, but Christ. Apparently, that’s how you end up thinking and speaking and writing once you’ve been soaked in grace.
(C. S. Lewis, by the way, has a scene in his Chronicles of Narnia that would appear to allude to Paul’s statement in Galatians 4:9: “But who is Aslan? Do you know him?” asked Eutace. “Well, he knows me,” said Edmund. “He is the great Lion, the son of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea, who saved me and saved Narnia.” (The Voyage of the Dawntreader, p. 87)
What would it look like if our perspective became, holistically, attuned to the priority and primacy of grace? As a moral sluggard who is nowhere near where I ought to be in my adoration of and amazement at grace, for the most part I can only imagine. But perhaps, after happening upon a quote like the following from A. W. Tozer, we might dissent and protest with the same zeal for grace that is shown by C. S. Lewis, who would seem to be responding to Tozer (though I haven’t been able to confirm this):
“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God. Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God. For this reason the gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like. We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God. This is true not only of the individual Christian, but of the company of Christians that composes the Church. Always the most revealing thing about the Church is her idea of God.” (A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, p. 1)
I’ve heard and read this gem a number of times over the years, and a hearty “amen” (even if only to myself) is never far behind. Great was my puzzlement, then, when I stumbled upon Lewis’ disagreement with Tozer—a puzzlement that morphed, eventually, into stunned agreement:
“In the end that Face which is the delight or the terror of the universe must be turned upon each of us either with one expression or with the other, either conferring glory inexpressible or inflicting shame that can never be cured or disguised. I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except in so far as it is related to how He thinks of us. It is written that we shall “stand before” Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.” (C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”)
Everything Tozer writes is true. But Lewis’ indignation, if I may speak crudely, rings even more true. Tozer highlights our response to God, while Lewis captures the primacy and priority of grace. Perhaps these two citations should be connected with mallon de, then?