What does it mean to have faith? If you are exercising faith, what are you really doing? How does having faith in God differ from having knowledge of God?
I think most would readily acknowledge that faith involves more than having knowledge. Bible teachers and seminary students, for example, know this experientially as they grow in knowledge and truth yet feel at times that they are less spiritual or godly than days when they knew less.
How is that possible? How is it that we can grow leaps and bounds in our knowledge of God in 2020 and yet potentially live less like Christ in 2021? Here is where knowing the difference between knowledge of God and faith in God is key in answering that question—and more importantly in helping prepare us to grow both in knowledge and in faith.
1. What does it mean to have knowledge of God?
Here are three verses that speak to the effect and potential of having knowledge about God. Each verse adds its own key component.
Knowledge Makes Possible A Godly Life
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” (2 Peter 1:3-4).
Peter is saying that there’s something in this “knowledge of him” through which we receive “all things” needed for a godly life—and, specifically, it’s through knowledge of His promises that we receive the “divine nature” that enables us to escape the corruption of the world. This passage opens the door to what a knowledge of God and His promises makes possible—namely, a godly life.
Knowledge Motivates A Godly Life
“Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
An important consideration is the relationship between these two phrases—the first about being steadfast, immovable, and always abounding in the work of the Lord and the second about knowing that God will reward that work. What seems evident is that the knowing is the means of the being. In other words, knowing that God is a rewarder of those who seek Him is what motivates or energizes this kind of steady, fruitful, godly living.
Knowledge Necessitates A Godly Life
“And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.” (1 John 2:3).
How do you know that you know God? The answer—you keep His commandments. There is such a close tie between having a knowledge of God and having a godly life that John almost draws a one-to-one connection between the two.
The summation of these three verses results in the conclusion that knowing God motivates, makes possible and necessitates a godly life. But the massive problem that comes to mind with that conclusion goes as follows: 1) Christians know God, 2) knowing God is supposed to result in a godly life, but 3) Christians still sin. Something is going to have to account for this gap between what our knowledge of God should be doing in our life and what is actually happening in our life.
2. What is the danger of only having knowledge of God?
How does the Bible describe a Christian who knows God but whose knowledge of God is not having its intended effect in their life? What does the Bible say about this discrepancy? The following verses are listed to bring attention to what can happen with knowledge.
- “being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:8).
- “so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten he was cleansed from his former sins.” (2 Peter 1:9).
- “the message they heard did not benefit them.” (Hebrews 4:2).
- “now that you have come to know God… how can you turn back again.” (Galatians 4:9).
- “today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart.” (Hebrews 3:15).
- “set your minds… not on things that are on the earth.” (Colossians 3:2).
These words are a shock of warning to those that know God. Constantly we are exhorted to rightly respond to our knowledge of God to avoid barrenness, ineffectiveness, blindness, forgetfulness, hardness of heart and distraction. These are all ever-present dangers in the life of a Christian.
The benefit of knowing God is that it has the incredible power to transform your life as you behold His glory, but the problem with that knowledge is that we can easily forget and live in contradiction to what we know to be true and glorious. And this is what leads to another important point—Christians need more than an offhand knowledge of God.
Knowledge of God is not enough, and the rest of what I am writing to you is to persuade you that this is exactly why we need faith in God.
3. What does it mean to have faith in God?
Hebrews 11 starts with a helpful description of faith. “Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6). What follows in the book of Hebrews is the fleshed out, real-life examples of this faith in action.
- Noah: “being warned of things not yet seen, in reverent fear constructed an ark…”
- Abraham: “obeyed when he was called to go out… for he looked for a city which has foundations.”
- Sarah: “received power to conceive… because she considered him faithful who had promised.”
- Abraham: “offered up Isaac… accounting that God was able to raise him up.”
- Moses: “choose rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin… because he esteemed the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward… He endured, as seeing him who is invisible.”
A general theme of faith becomes evident when reading through their stories. And towards the middle of Hebrews we get this somewhat of a summary statement about the faith at work in their lives. I believe here is where we see the various elements that are at work when someone is exercising faith.
“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” (Hebrews 11:13-16).
What is perhaps typical is to stop our understanding of faith with the first two phrases: 1) seeing something far off or invisible and 2) being persuaded of it. But how critical are the following verses of embracing, seeking and thinking about those things we believe! Verse 15 emphasizes the point that if these people had a knowledge of God’s promises but had been mindful or thinking about the land which they had gone out from, they may have gone back. In other words, they might not have obtained the promises if their minds were attached to the things God was pointing them away from. Exodus 14:11-13 exemplifies this well. It’s soon after God’s initial and triumphant deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt that they start complaining and wishing they could go back, saying things like “It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians.” That is exactly what we are warned against and what faith doesn’t do—taking our eyes off of the glorious and unshakable promises of God.
Faith is simply seeing and believing only if our understanding of seeing and believing includes elements of actively seeking and embracing, which result in desiring. Faith is at work when we are mindful of God and moving towards Him because of it. This means we have an answer for the discrepancy between what we know and how we live. Faith closes the gap between our knowledge of God and our life for God. Faith is what makes our knowledge of God effective, and it happens through actively considering, seeking and embracing those unseen truths.
Christian, use three eyes.
Until Christ returns, every Christian ultimately functions spiritually not by what they see but by faith. The very life of a Christian depends on it. “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6). Offhand knowledge of God may get you through a test in a Bible class, but it can’t get you through cancer with joy. Tests on paper assess your knowledge, but tests in life assess your faith. You won’t be able to persevere, counting suffering and death as joy, with just knowledge. It no doubt will require knowledge of the unseen. But it is precisely through seeking and setting your mind’s eye on those unseen glories that provides the strength needed to live in light of it.
Weigh this against your own experience. Why don’t you just take a break from devotions this year and rely on all the Bible reading and prayer you had last year? Why do you feel a great need to daily set aside time to focus your attention on God and His word? My guess is that it’s because you’ve felt the power of faith. There is nothing like the power and sweetness of truth that is fresh in your mind’s eye. And that is what I am arguing for—that faith in God is only effective when our mind’s eye is actively considering and embracing gospel truth.
Wholesome habits are great, and knowledge of God is helpful—but they can lack the most important thing: faith. A life that only relies on what is seen is not pleasing to God. The life of a Christian necessitates using three eyes.
“Without faith it is impossible to please God.” (Hebrews 11:6).
Part two will deal with the implications and application of this understanding of faith.
This article was coauthored with seminary student, Garrett Martin.