Tomorrow marks the first day of September, and if all goes as planned, we will finish our sermon series on knowing God before the month is through. As we wrap up this series, I want to flesh out a vital distinction we mustn’t forget as we continue to pursue after an expanding, affectionate, and covenantal knowledge of our Triune God. The distinction is between theoretical, experiential, and practical knowledge.
In private worship, I’ve been working through 1 and 2 Kings. Both of the great prophets in this period of Israel’s history, Elijah and Elisha, give clear articulation to this vital differentiation.
- Elijah: “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand…” (1 Kings 17:1).
- Elisha: “As the LORD of hosts lives, before whom I stand…” (2 Kings 3:14).
You can hear their theoretical knowledge of God in their precise theological statements. The God who has covenanted with Israel (i.e., Yahweh) is the living God. He is not like the dead idols of Ahab (1 Kings 17) or Moab (2 Kings 3). Nor does He tremble before earthly kings and nations for He is the God of angel armies. When Elijah says, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives,” he is articulating profound doctrinal truth about God. So too when Elisha declares, “As the LORD of hosts lives.” It is vital for us to have a sound theoretical knowledge of God. We need to understand the truth of who God is through His self-revelation. After a year of grappling with the identity and attributes of God together (we began in September 2022!), I sincerely hope we have grown in our theological clarity and our ability to articulate that theology. For theoretical knowledge is vital if we would know God.
But even the devil and his host possess a theoretical knowledge of God. “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shutter!” (Jas. 2:19). The devil could pass a theology exam on the floor of presbytery. But he obviously isn’t any better for the knowledge. We need to know about God and to be growing in our understanding of theological truth, but if that is all we have, we fall short of truly knowing God.
These prophets exude a knowledge of the living Lord of hosts that is not merely theoretical but also experiential. You see that in their identical confessions of Yahweh as the One “before whom I stand.” That is a profound confession of the Latin phrase coram deo, meaning before God. These prophets didn’t just have heads filled with true information about God, but that truth had taken deep root in their hearts so that they lived before God’s face, conscious of the fact that they were in His presence and accountable to Him. It is one thing to know that God lives, but it is another thing entirely to live before the living God. We call it experiential knowledge because it is knowledge that pervades and transforms the way life is experienced. Have we merely grown in our ability to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity and to parse out God’s attributes? Or are these truths about God profoundly changing the way we view our moments and our days?
A knowledge of God that has taken root in the head theoretically and the heart experientially will always manifest itself practical with the hands. Read the riveting accounts of Elijah and Elisha, and you will see how knowing God radically changed the way these prophets walked and talked. What of us?
You see, to be a vibrant Christian is to have an expanding knowledge of God that is threefold – theoretical, experiential, and practical. For true knowledge of God reorients the entirety of our redeemed humanity – head, heart, and hands.
Oh that we would not fall short of this, but be ever growing to know God in the living and loving communion bond of the covenant of grace!
Yours in Christ,