The Apostle Paul spent a lot of time teaching. He taught in the synagogues, in the streets, in the markets, with women by the river, at all night Bible studies where people fell out of windows, and from house to house. The center of his ministry was the proclamation and explanation of the truth about God.
As a teacher of truth, the apostle was an astute observer of the character and effects of knowledge. The church in Corinth was filled with people making great claims to great knowledge. To them, the apostle wrote a gentle rebuke: “We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God” (1 Cor. 8:1-3).
Paul could see that there is a worldly knowledge that puffs up or makes a man proud. That kind of knowledge assumes it knows all there is to know of something. The person with worldly knowledge hasn’t yet learned to be suspicious of their information and conclusions, to temper their judgments with the recognition that they are cognitively finite creatures. And so, they are swollen with pride.
But there is a superior knowledge, a superior truth. Knowledge of the truth about God, in contrast to worldly wisdom, is fueled by love, edifies, and humbles a man. The truth—and particularly the truth about God—humbles us for at least three reasons.
1. Truth teaches us that God is big and we are small.
When reading the scripture, one can’t escape the vastness of God. We are presented with the truth that God rules all things, and He rules them according to His own will and pleasure (Eph. 1:11). He even accomplishes the salvation of sinners in accord with His sovereign mercy (Rom. 9:14-18). There is no place that He is not (Ps. 139:7-8). And there is no being or happening that jeopardizes His rule (Rev. 19-20).
The Lord God leaps off the pages of scripture and we are confronted with this truth: He is the gigantic center of all things and humankind are but role players in the drama of redemption. We are not the main actors we imagine ourselves to be, not even in our salvation. God is the truly big One and we are small. An accurate apprehension of the truth helps us to see this and to humble ourselves accordingly.
2. Truth teaches us that God is holy and we are sinners.
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty!” That’s the heavenly song of the angels in the presence of God (Is. 6:2-3; Rev. 4:8). Stephen Charnock once remarked, “Power is God’s hand or arm, omniscience His eye, mercy His bowels, eternity His duration, but holiness is His beauty.”
When we learn the truth about God we are left awestruck by an unimaginable beauty and glory called holiness. Men are prone to project themselves onto God, to make God in our image, to imagine that the Lord is like us only more so. But it is His utter holiness that confounds this conceit. Here’s how A.W. Tozer puts it: “We cannot grasp the true meaning of the divine holiness by thinking of someone or something very pure and then raising the concept to the highest degree we are capable of. God’s holiness is not simply the best we know, infinitely better. We know nothing like the divine holiness. It stands apart, unique, unapproachable, incomprehensible and unattainable. Only the Spirit of the Holy One can impart to the human spirit the knowledge of the holy.”
And when the Spirit of God opens our eyes to see God’s holiness and the sinfulness of our sin in light of His holiness, bowing to the dust in humility is the only acceptable response. God is beautiful and we are not. God is beautiful in holiness and we are ugly in our sin. That truth works humility in us.
This is why the gospel humbles us. The gospel joins together the recognition that there is a holy God with the awareness that we are unlike Him and deserving of His holy wrath. And the fact that we don’t merit his love, grace or mercy—and yet receive it freely in Christ—keeps us lowly and meek before the Savior’s glorious face.
3. Truth teaches us that God is omniscient and we know partially.
The Apostle Paul points out that our knowledge is partial and passing (1 Cor. 13:8-9). “We all possess knowledge,” true enough. But it’s the possession of that partial knowledge that should remind us of how little we know. If we’re overconfident that we know something, we are destined for pride. The apostle writes, “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.” Such a man is puffed up.
When we recognize that God knows all things (1 Sam. 2:2-3), including the effects and end of sin (Gen. 3:5), the secrets of men’s hearts (Ps. 44:20-21; Luke 16:15), who really belongs to Him (2 Tim. 2:19), and what is hidden in His own secret counsels (Deut. 29:29), then the truth has its humbling effect. Our limited knowledge pales in comparison to the infinite knowledge of God Almighty. Who can boast of knowledge when the truth tells us at every point that we don’t know as we ought? Who can rightly engage the truth and emerge as a self-confident know-it-all? We can be sure that wherever our knowledge puffs us up, we’ve not even begun to know the truth as we ought.
One further thing to humble us. The God of all truth is said to know us. It isn’t finally that we know God, that we have some knowledge of the truth that makes us worthy before Him or grants us access to Him, it is that God knows the man who loves Him (1 Cor. 8:3). God is the Knower, and it is His foreknowledge of us that works our salvation. Our “personal relationship with God,” our “knowing Jesus as our personal Savior,” is really the outworking of God knowing us. The Apostle Paul is careful to clarify this for the Galatians when he writes, “now that you know God—or rather are known by God.”
What matters isn’t what we know or who we know. It’s Who knows us. And isn’t it a tremendous wonder that knowing the sinfulness of our sin, the smallness of our being, and the imperfection of our knowledge that God would condescend to know us? This is why truth, especially the truth about God, humbles the person who finds it.
Thabiti Anyabwile is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman and blogs regularly at Pure Church.