Charnock and the Knowledge of God

In His glorious high priestly prayer (Jn. 17), Jesus reveals His heart for His followers. He earnestly asks that His glory might be made known to the elect. The reason? Such knowledge will strengthen their faith, allowing them to persevere in union with their Savior.

One of the central themes of this chapter is the connection between salvation in Christ and the proper knowledge of God. As Jesus said in John 17:3, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” Indeed, salvation in Christ and the knowledge of God are intrinsically linked to one another.

Stephen Charnock, recognizing the great truth contained in this verse, wrote two entire discourses on it. The first, A Discourse of the Knowledge of God, focuses on how God makes Himself known to His creation.

The beginning of the first Discourse concerns itself especially with understanding why Jesus prayed in the manner that He did. Before one can begin to truly grasp why the knowledge of God is so vital to the health of the Church and the believer, one must first understand that “The glory of Christ, and the glory of the Father in and by Christ, is the security of the glory of the church and every believer.”[1]

In the person of Jesus, God is most fully known, and in being made known to His creation, God is also most glorified. Afterall, Jesus is “The brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person,” (Heb. 1:3). As John earlier explained, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). One of the reasons, then, that Jesus became incarnate was to glorify Himself (the Triune God) through making Himself known. God, who is above all and transcendent, condescended to our low estate, through taking humanity upon Himself, so that we may perceive and understand Him as He truly is. Charnock explained:

“This knowledge of God is not only a knowledge of God and Christ in the theory, but such a knowledge which is saving, joined with ardent love to him, cordial trust in him, as 1 Cor, xiii. 12, ‘Then I shall know even as also I am known,’ i.e. I shall love and rejoice, as I am beloved and delighted in by God. It is not only a knowledge of God in his will, but a knowledge of God in his nature; both must go together; we must know him in his nature, we must be obedient to his will. The devil hath a greater knowledge of God’s being than any man upon earth, but since he is a rebel to his will, he is not happy by his knowledge. It must be such a knowledge as leads to eternal life, and hath a necessary and infallible connection with it, as the effect with the cause, which is not between a speculative knowledge and salvation. It must be therefore such a knowledge which descends from the head to the heart, which is light in the mind and heat in the affections; such a knowledge of God as includes faith in him.”[2]

To know Jesus in both head and heart, by faith, is to experience salvation, for the one who knows Him has first been known by Him (Gal. 4:9). This may be referred to as salvific knowledge of God, and it is grasped through special (or divine) revelation—the Word of God. God makes Himself known in this way only to His elect through the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But there is another knowledge of God that is general and shared across the entirety of humanity, and it is grasped through “general” or “natural” revelation. There are “Natural principles in the soul, which conclude something of God, though nothing of Christ.”[3] Within every human being, God has imprinted something of His nature upon the soul. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). This sort of knowledge, which arrives through natural revelation and is common to all men, is described as “speculative” by Charnock. It is not without its value, for by it men do have some understanding of God. It may even be granted that, “A knowledge of God by creation many of the wiser sort of heathens had, who have discoursed excellently of the nature of God: Rom. i. 21, they are said to ‘know God.’”[4] Plato was one such ancient that Charnock likely had in mind. One need only read a bit about the “god” of Plato to recognize that, through natural revelation, the Greek Philosopher had managed to light upon some truths. But these truths were not enough to lead him to salvation, and without divine revelation they were only enough to damn him without excuse for his sins. Charnock explains that this sort of speculative knowledge,

“Is such a knowledge which men have of a beautiful picture, or a comely person with whom they have no acquaintance; or as an astronomer knows the stars without receiving any more special influence from them than other men, or the inanimate creatures.”[5]

Yes, there is even a sense in which natural revelation is known through the conscience, by which men may know that there is a God. “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another” (Rom. 2:14-15). Men may look to nature and see signs of intelligent design, or look inwardly and ponder what Lawmaker implanted such rules upon their conscience, but this merely speculative knowledge is like

“The knowledge of the nature of meat in the brain of a starved philosopher that hath not a bit of bread to put into his stomach. Speculations are often a torment without affections. No man could find a repose in the knowledge of God in heaven without love in his will, as well as light in his mind. Light without heat preserves not a man from chillness and shaking.”[6]

Merely natural revelation leads to a general knowledge of God and speculation about his nature, which, “Is also useful to the person that hath it; for without this he could never have a saving knowledge; it is the foundation of a spiritual: though a speculative might be without a spiritual, yet a spiritual cannot be without a speculative; a foundation may be without a superstructure, but a superstructure can never be without a foundation.”[7] Yet, “We must know God, the true God, as the gospel discovers him, in opposition to all false gods; that he is spiritual, just, powerful, merciful, faithful.”[8] While “All nature sings, and round me rings”[9] the glory of the King, it is not enough to reveal Christ as Savior in whom we must trust, nor that God is Triune as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Take, for example, Charnock’s point that:

“The knowledge of the Son is made a cause of eternal life, as well as the knowledge of the Father. It is not to be thought that the knowledge of any creature should be counted equally necessary to salvation with the knowledge of God; if our happiness consist in the knowledge of both, then both the Father and the Son are of the same nature. The term Father manifests it; God was the Father of Christ from eternity; Christ was with him before any creature was in being; if the Father were the eternal Father, the Son must be an eternal Son.”[10]

The structure of the universe, as a macrocosm, and the organization of the human body, as a microcosm, may reveal that there is an Architect behind the universe who made all things with divine intellect and wisdom, but this is not enough to reveal that this same Architect is the blessed Redeemer of men’s souls to trust in for salvation. For that, divine revelation is required, and it is only through a genuine knowledge of Christ that salvation is grasped through faith, according to the merciful grace of God.

Natural and divine revelation must then work together to reveal a genuine and salvific knowledge of God. First, speculative knowledge lays a foundation for the practical knowledge of God in Christ. These Charnock saw as essential for salvation. But, through divine revelation, the Christian may come to a greater understanding of God, leading to experimental knowledge (“To know God in the power of his grace”[11]), and interested knowledge (being genuinely concerned about the knowledge of God in relation to one’s salvation, sanctification, and life). Together, both natural and divine revelation feed these four knowledges of God so that the Christian experiences salvation and true happiness. Christ’s prayer is answered, as He is glorified and His elect are saved.

Charnock explained:

“Religion and true grace is called wisdom, in the Proverbs. Wisdom is the knowledge of the highest things. No wisdom without the knowledge of truth, therefore no wisdom without the knowledge of God, the prime truth, the chiefest good, whence all truth and goodness in other things flow. This is the portal. No happiness can be without truth and goodness; all religion consists of them, all felicity is composed of them: truth to be known, goodness to be embraced, by the creature, else no communication of happiness to it. Knowledge and love fit us for acquaintance with, and enjoyment of, God. We actually embrace him by love, after we perceive him fit for our embraces by knowledge. Knowledge imprints the similitude and idea of the object upon the understanding; love draws out the soul to close with the object so understood. By knowledge, God conveys himself in his glorious perfections to our view; by love, we give up ourselves to him. By knowledge, we see God; by love, we enjoy him. By knowledge, we see what is enjoyable, and worthy our affection and fruition; by love, we enjoy what we see.”[12]

Jacob Tanner is pastor of Mt. Bethel Church of McClure in Central Pennsylvania. He has spent time as a reporter, journalist, and editor, and has written for various Christian websites. He and his wife, Kayla, currently have one son, Josiah. He is completing his M.Div. through Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. 

Related Links

Review: "Puritanism and Natural Theology" by Bob McKelvey

"Is Natural Theology Reliable?" by John Hartley

"Nature and Apologetics" by Arthur Hunt

The Claims of Truth: John Owen's Trinitarian Theology by Carl Trueman

Insuppressible: Glory, Gospel, and The Design Of Life, with Derek Thomas, Gabriel Fluhrer, and Douglas Axe


[1] Stephen Charnock, A Discourse of the Knowledge of God, in The Works of Stephen Charnock, vol. 4, The Knowledge of God (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), 8.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] Ibid., 15.

[5] Ibid., 15-16.

[6] Ibid., 16.

[7] Ibid., 17.

[8] Ibid., 10-11.

[9] “This is My Father’s World,” Maltbie D. Babcock.

[10] Stephen Charnock, A Discourse of the Knowledge of God, in The Works of Stephen Charnock, vol. 4, The Knowledge of God (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), 13.

[11] Ibid., 19.

[12] Ibid., 23.

Jacob Tanner