Empty Knowledge or Life Changing Truth?
"Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know." (1Cor 8:1-2).
"Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence." (2Peter 1: 2-3).
"but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." (2 Peter 3:18).
The Scriptures clearly reveal to us that for everything which God has, a Satanic counterfeit exists. There is a genuine faith which all of Godís elect possess (2Peter 1:1); and there is a counterfeit or pseudo faith which closely resembles it but does not save its possessor (Luke 8:13). There are divine miracles and works of power and there are Satanic counterfeits (Exodus 7:10-11; 20-22; 2Thes 2:9). There is the genuine gospel of the kingdom and there is the pseudo gospel of the devil (2Cor 11:4). There are the true ministers of Christ and there are Satanís ministers masquerading as genuine ones (2Cor 11:13-15).
Then it should be no great leap of faith to realize that the Scriptures clearly teach that there exists two kinds of "knowledge". The first of these, the Satanic substitute, merely informs the mind, but leaves the will and the affections unmoved. It is best likened to light without heat. In other words, it does not fire the soul nor does it inflame the heart with love towards its great subject matter, namely our Lord Jesus. Rather than humbling the heart of its possessor and filling him or her with a sense of their own native unworthiness and sinfulness, it puffs up the mind and fills them with pride and a sense of superiority. It creates a Pharisee who is proud of their supposed grasp of the "things of God" but unable to see the self-indulgence, hypocrisy, and lawlessness that lurks within their own bosom (Matt 23:25-29). It is this kind of knowledge that the above quoted Scripture out of Paulís letter to the Corinthian church is addressing.
The latter of these different kinds of "knowledge" spoken of in Scripture is to be highly desired and sought after by all of Godís dear saints. The apostle Peterís letter makes this abundantly clear beyond all matter of dispute or controversy:
"Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge". (2Peter 1:5).
This kind of knowledge comes directly through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. He shines a divine light upon the Word of God revealing it to mind of the saint, but at the same time, stirring his affections and moving his will to obedience in those things which He has spoken in the pages of Holy Writ. Indeed this knowledge is promised to all of Godís elect by the Lord Jesus and is one of the promises of the New Covenant:
"It is written in the prophets, ĎAnd they shall all be taught of God.í Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to me." (John 6:45).
Paul was speaking of this kind of knowledge when he penned his letter to the Ephesians. In the fourth chapter he is giving us a classic commentary on the native depravity of the human condition. He describes the Gentile world and their condition by nature and then urges the saints to "put off" this type of behavior and attitude of heart. Listen to his words:
"This I say therefore, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart: and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality, for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus," (Eph 4:17-21).
Notice something extremely important in this passage. What marks the difference between the lost sinner and the saved Christian is a matter of knowledge. The unregenerate soul is ignorant of his true condition by nature, ignorant of Jesus Christ, ignorant of Godís true nature and character, ignorant of the wages of sin, etc, etc,. The Christian on the other hand has gained a type of knowledge which has shown him or her their true condition by nature, their need of a Savior, the true nature of God, the wages of sin, their need for the new birth, etc, etc. This divine knowledge, this heavenly instruction, is what God uses to regenerate His fallen elect and then bring them to ever- closer conformity to Jesus Christ. Without this kind of knowledge, no one could ever hope to be saved.
Unfortunately some who are ill informed in these matters, failing to distinguish between the two, foolishly use the particular text in 1Corinthians to rail against Christians gaining "knowledge" as if it were some sort of evil thing to be an informed and knowledgeable saint. Brethren, make no mistake in this matter. Ignorance may be bliss when it comes to mundane matters of this world, but rest assured, ignorance is misery in the realm of the Christian life. Not in vain did Hosea the prophet speak so long ago when he succinctly stated the cause behind the demise of the ancient people of God:
"My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge" (Hosea 4:6).
Without knowledge, how can a Christian learn to discern between truth and error? Without knowledge, how can a Christian give a defense for his faith? Without knowledge how can a Christian come to know God in Christ in truth? In short, without knowledge, how can a Christian ever hope to possess eternal life? Look at the Lord Jesusí own words in this matter and let this forever settle the issue of the importance of knowledge:
"And this is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent." (John 17:3).
With this instruction in mind, I would urge the reader to closely scrutinize the following article penned by John Newton. Newton was a former slave ship captain and the author of the great hymn, "Amazing Grace", whose life was radically changed by "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (2Cor 4:6). As a wise builder, he is careful to clearly distinguish between these two kinds of knowledge so that his readers might more clearly understand the nature of these things. "Take, eat and enjoy".
Yours in Christ Jesus,
On the Inefficacy of our Knowledge
by John Newton (1762)
To be enabled to form a clear, consistent, and
comprehensive judgment of the truths revealed in the Scripture, is a great
privilege; but they who possess it are exposed to the temptation of thinking too
highly of themselves, and too meanly of others, especially of those who not only
refuse to adopt their sentiments, but venture to oppose them. We see few
controversial writings, however excellent in other respects, but are tinctured
with this spirit of self-superiority; and they who arc not called to this
service (of writing). If they are attentive to what passes in their hearts, may
feel it working within them, upon a thousand occasions; though so far as it
prevails, it brings forcibly home to ourselves the charge of ignorance and
inconsistency which we are so ready to fix upon our opponents.
I know nothing as a means more likely to correct this evil, than a serious consideration of the amazing difference between our acquired judgment, and our actual experience; or, in other words, how little influence our knowledge and judgment have upon our own conduct. This may confirm to us the truth and propriety of the apostleís observation, "If any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know." Not that we are bound to be insensible that the Lord has taught us what we were once ignorant of; nor is it possible that we should be so; yet because, if we estimate our knowledge by its effects, and value it no farther than it is experimental and operative (which is the proper standard whereby to try it), we shall find it so faint and feeble as hardly to deserve the name.
How firmly, for instance, are we persuaded,
that God is omnipresent! Great as the difficulties may be which attend our
conceptions of this point, the truth itself is controverted by few. It is
generally acknowledged by unawakened persons and I may add, too frequently known
even by believers, as if they knew it not. If the eyes of the Lord are in every
place, how strong a guard should this thought be upon the conduct of those who
profess to hear him! We know how we are often affected when in the presence of a
fellow-worm; if he is one on whom we depend, or who is considerably our superior
in life, how careful we are to compose our behaviour, and to avoid whatever
might be deemed improper or offensive! Is it not strange that those who have
taken their ideas of the divine majesty, holiness and purity, from the
Scriptures, and are not wholly insensible of their inexpressible obligations to
regulate all they say or do by his precepts, should upon many occasions be
betrayed into improprieties of behaviour from which the presence of a nobleman,
or prince, would have effectually restrained them, yea, sometimes perhaps even
the presence of a child? Even in the exercise of prayer, by which we profess to
draw near the Lord, the consideration that his eye is upon us has little power
to engage our attention, or prevent our thoughts from wandering like the foolís
eye, to the ends of the earth. What should we think of a person, who, being
admitted into the kingís presence, upon business of the greatest importance,
should break off in the midst of his address, to pursue a butterfly? Could such
an instance of weakness be met with, it would be but a faint emblem of the
inconsistencies which they who are acquainted with their own hearts, can often
charge themselves with in prayer. They are not wholly ignorant in what a frame
of spirit it becomes a needy dependent sinner to approach that God, before whom
the angels are represented as veiling their faces; yet, in defiance of their
better judgment, their attention is diverted from him with whom they have to do,
to the merest trifles. They are not able to realize that presence with which
they behave themselves to be surrounded, but speak as if they were speaking into
the air. Farther, if our sense that God is always present was in any good
measure answerable to the conviction of our judgment, would it not be an
effectual preservative from the many importunate though groundless fears with
which we are harassed! He says, "Fear not, I am with thee;" he
promises to be a shield and a guard to those who put their trust in him, yet
though we profess to believe his word, and to hope that he is our protector, we
seldom think ourselves safe, even in the path of duty a moment longer than
danger is kept out of our view. Little reason have we to value ourselves upon
our knowledge of this indisputable truth, when it has no more effective and
habitual influence upon our conduct.
The doctrine of Godís sovereignty likewise,
though not so generally owned as the former, is no less fully assented to by
those who are called Calvinists. We zealously contend for this point in our
debates with the Arminians; and are ready to wonder that any should be hardy
enough to dispute the Creatorís right to do what he will with his own. While
we are only engaged in defense of the election of grace, and have a comfortable
hope that we are ourselves of that number, we seem so convinced, by the
arguments the Scripture affords us in support of the truth, that we can hardly
forbear charging our adversaries with perverse obstinacy and pride, for opposing
it. Undoubtedly the ground of this opposition lies in the pride of the human
heart, but this evil principle is not confined to any party: and occasions
frequently arise, when they who contend for the divine sovereignty are little
more practically influenced by it than their opponents. This humiliating
doctrine concludes as strongly for submission to the will of God, under every
circumstance of life, as it does for our acquiescing in his purpose to have
mercy. But, alas! How often do we find ourselves utterly unable to apply it, so
as to reconcile our spirits to those afflictions which he is pleased to allot
us. So far as we are enabled to say, when we are exercised with poverty, or
heavy losses or crosses, ĎI was dumb and opened not my mouth, because thou
didst it," so far, and no farther, are we truly convinced, that God has a
sovereign right to dispose of us and all our concernments as he pleases. How
often, and how justly at such seasons, might the argument we offer to others, as
sufficient to silence all their objections, be retorted upon ourselves,
"Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing
formed say unto him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?" Plain
proof that our knowledge is more notional than experimental. What an
inconsistency, that while we think God is just and righteous in withholding from
others the things which pertain to their everlasting peace, we should find it so
hard to submit to his dispensations to ourselves in matters of unspeakably less
But the Lordís appointments, to those who
fear him, are not only sovereign, but wise and gracious. He has connected their
good with his own glory, and is engaged, by promise, to make all things work
together for their advantage. He chooses for his people better than they could
choose for themselves; if they are in Ďheaviness, there is a need-be for it,
and he withholds nothing from them but what upon the whole it is better they
should be without. Thus the Scriptures teach, and thus we profess to believe.
Furnished with these principles, we are at no loss to suggest motives of
patience and consolation to our brethren that are afflicted; we can assure them,
without hesitation, that if they are interested in the promises, their concerns
are in safe hands; that the things which at present are not joyous but grievous,
shall in due season yield the peaceful fruits of righteousness, and that their
trials are as certainly mercies as their comforts. We can prove to them, from
the history of Joseph, David, Job, and other instances recorded in Scriptures,
that, notwithstanding any present dark appearances, it shall certainly be well
with the righteous; that God can and will make crooked things straight; and that
he often produces the greatest good from those events which we are apt to look
upon as evil. From hence we can infer not only the sinfulness, but also the
folly of finding fault with any of his dispensations. We can tell them, that at
the worst the sufferings of the present life are not worthy to he compared with
the glory that shall be revealed; and that therefore, under, the greatest
pressures, they should so weep as those who expect in a little time to have all
their tears wiped away. But when the case is our own, when we are troubled on
every side, or touched in the tenderest part, how difficult it is to feel the
force of these reasonings, though we know they are true to a demonstration!
Then, unless we are endued with fresh strength from on high, we are as liable to
complain and despond as if we thought our afflictions sprang out of the ground,
and the Lord had forgotten to be gracious.
I might proceed to show the difference between our judgment when most enlightened, and our actual experience, with respect to every spiritual truth. We know there is no proportion between time and eternity, between God and the creature, the favour of the Lord and the favour or the frowns of men; and yet often, when these things are brought into close competition, we are sorely put to it to keep stead-fast in the path of duty; nay without new supplies of grace, we should certainly fail in the time of trial, and our knowledge would have no other effect than to render our guilt more inexcusable. We seem to be sure that we are weak, sinful, fallible creatures, as we are that we exist and yet we are prone to act as if we were wise and good. In a word, we cannot deny that a great part of our knowledge is, as I have described it, like the light of the moon, destitute of heat and influence; and yet we can hardly help thinking of ourselves too highly upon the account of it.
May we not say with the Psalmist, "Lord,
what is man!" yea, what Lord; he knows himself. His understanding is
enlightened to apprehend and contemplate the great mysteries of the gospel. He
has just ideas of the evil of sin, the vanity of the world, the beauties of
holiness, and the nature of true happiness. He was once "darkness, but now
he is light in the Lord." He has access to God by Jesus Christ; to whom he
is united, and in whom he lives by faith. While the principles he has received
are enlivened by the agency of the Holy Spirit, he can do all things. He is
humble, gentle, patient, watchful, faithful. He rejoices in afflictions,
triumphs over temptations, lives upon the foretastes of eternal glory, and
counts not his life dear, so he may glorify God his Saviour, and finish his
course with joy. But his strength is not his own; he is absolutely dependent,
and is still encompassed with infirmities and burdened with a depraved nature.
If the Lord withdraws his power, he becomes weak as another man, and drops, as a
stone sinks to the earth by its own weight. His inherent knowledge may be
compared to the windows of a house, which can transmit the light, but cannot
retain it. Without renewed and continual communications from the Spirit of
grace, he is unable to withstand the smallest temptation, to endure the
slightest trial, to perform the least service in a due manner, or even to think
a good thought. He knows this, and yet he too often forgets it. But the Lord
reminds him of it frequently, by suspending that assistance without which he can
do nothing. Then he feels what he is, and is easily prevailed upon to act in
contradiction to his better judgment. This repeated experience of his own
weakness teaches him by degrees where his strength lies; that it is not in any
thing he has already attained, or can call his own, but the grace, power, and
faithfulness of his Saviour. He learns to cease from his own understanding, to
be ashamed of his best endeavours, to abhor himself in dust and ashes, and to
glory only in the Lord.
From hence we may observe, that believers who
have most knowledge, are not therefore necessarily the most spiritual. Some may
and do walk more honorably and more comfortably with two talents, than others
with five. He who experimentally knows his own weakness, and depends simply upon
the Lord, will surely thrive, though his acquired attainments and abilities may
be but small; and he who has the greatest gifts, the clearest judgment, and the
most extensive knowledge, if he indulges high thoughts of his advantages, is in
imminent danger of mistaking, and falling at every step; for the Lord will
suffer none whom he loves to boast in themselves. He will guide the meek with
his eyes, and fill the hungry with good things; but the rich he sendeth empty
away. It is an invariable maxim in his kingdom, that whosoever exalteth himself,
shall be abased; but he that humbleth himself, shall be exalted.
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