To love, or to know Christ: Which is central?

August 5, 2007 at 9:33 am 6 comments

marsden.gifOne of the points I still remember from reading Jonathan Edwards’ biography a couple years ago was a point Edwards made in one of his best-known works, the sermon series entitled Charity and Its Fruits.

The sermon text was 1 Corinthians 13:1-8, from the famous chapter on love. Edwards took the text to indicate the utter centrality of love in Christianity: “all that is distinguishing and saving and true Christianity [must] be summarily comprehended in love.”

From this, he deduced that the presence or absence of love was the truest measure by which “Christians may try their experience whether it be real Christian experience.”

In other words, the presence of love, thought Edwards, is the necessary element for genuine Christianity.

What interested me at the time–and what interests me for the purposes of this post–is that this test theoretically applies both to professed Christians and to those who have not professed Christianity. I have no idea whether Edwards meant this, but his statement carries the implication that, in theory at least, a non-Christian might give better evidence of “real Christian experience” than someone who actually professes the faith.

Contrast Edwards’ suggestion with a remark author and theologian John Piper made in January this year when I heard him speak. Commenting on whether or not those who don’t know Christ have any chance of salvation, Piper said the answer was no. Anyone wanting iloveyou.jpgsalvation must know Christ and know him by name.

Now, the book of 1 John—(don’t ask me how all the names mentioned in this post happened to be Johns)—repeatedly equates knowing love with knowing God, most explicitly in 4:7-8:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

So, I’m wondering. In order to experience genuine Christianity, is it true that one must know Christ (by name), or is it only necessary that one know love?

Or might these two in fact be the same thing, such that in learning to love, one necessarily comes to know and adopt something of the character of Christ, even without necessarily knowing his name?


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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Stephen (aka Q)  |  August 5, 2007 at 2:01 pm

    I think the construct, “knowing Christ”, is evangelical babble. Similarly, to “have a personal relationship with Christ”.

    To follow Christ is biblical; to believe in (or into) Christ is biblical. To profess “Jesus is Lord” is biblical.

    I’m inclined to emphasize the last construction:
    • “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Ro. 10:9);
    • “I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1Co. 12:3).

    I interpret “Jesus is Lord” as connoting allegiance to Christ. In my view, that’s the demand on which salvation pivots, according to the New Testament. It’s a reasonable way to reconcile the teaching of the epistles with the radical demands made by Jesus in the gospels. For example, to “take up your cross and follow” Jesus equates with a profession of Jesus as Lord.

    I certainly wouldn’t take a single text in 1 John out of context and make it normative as a description of what one must do to be saved.

  • 2. Jamie  |  August 5, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    I think the construct, “knowing Christ”, is evangelical babble. Similarly, to “have a personal relationship with Christ”.

    I think that may be a little harsh. Saying that as a blanket statement is a bit strong, especially since “knowing Christ” is biblical (Matt. 7:23, John 17:3, 1 Cor. 2:2, Eph. 4:13, 2 Tim. 2:19, 2 Pet. 2:20).

    While I don’t think it’s necessary to insult evangelicals on that point, I don’t particularly like the phrasing either because of its connotations, but I didn’t mean the phrase in the sense you’re taking it anyway.

    The question I meant to stress is this: Is it so important that we know God by a particular name (which rules out salvation for the masses of the world that have never heard of Christianity)? Or is it more important that we do his deeds–i.e. act in love? I meant to suggest that knowing love is, in a sense, knowing God (or knowing Christ, since the two are the same thing in the evangelical mind).

    Just for the record, I didn’t take the text in 1 John out of context. John makes that point repeatedly in the book, and it’s perfectly consistent with the Gospel of John as well, and with 1 Cor. 13, and with Gal. 5, etc.

    I’m not undermining the significance of acknowledging Jesus as Lord. But it’s easy to make a profession of allegiance to Christ. Who cares merely about the words?

  • 3. Jamie  |  August 5, 2007 at 9:12 pm

    P.S. I realized the original post was very unclear, so I have edited it for clarity.

  • 4. Nathan  |  August 6, 2007 at 1:22 am

    I would just add that in the Hebrew mind, “to know” means something more than head-knowledge (as in Matt 1:25, for example, where Joseph resolves not to know Mary yet). Also consider the numerous occurences where it is used like in Psalm 1:6, which says God knows the way of the righteous (if “know” means “to possess data” then does God not also know the way of the unrighteous?). In this passage, God knowing us is salvific. My best definition for “to know” might be “to be united with.” So I would not contrast this deeper sense of “knowledge” with “allegiance” or “doing his deeds” — In fact I don’t think they can be separated.

  • 5. Stephen (aka Q)  |  August 6, 2007 at 4:36 pm

    I apologize, Jamie, I didn’t mean to say that you were taking the 1John text out of context. I was thinking that Jonathan Edwards was guilty of doing so, but now I see that he was utilizing 1Co. 13, not 1John.

    Anyway, I didn’t mean to be rude.

    Maybe I meant to be a little rude with respect to evangelicals …. I think there’s often a lot of arrogance at work where that phrase is used, suggesting that evangelicals (or, more narrowly, charismatics) “know” Christ but the rest of us don’t.

    Judging by some evangelical predilections (e.g. support for American militarism) I’m not sure who knows Christ and who doesn’t. Anyway, that’s off topic.

    I’ve had a quick look at the texts you mention. Offhand, I’d say they’re a mixed lot. Two of them (in Mt. 7 and 2 Tim.) speak of God / Christ knowing us, rather than the reverse. I don’t think that’s quite the same thing.

    The 2 Peter text, “the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” could be taken to refer to knowledge of a specific body of tradition about Jesus (e.g., crucifixion, burial, resurrection). Likewise the texts in 1 Cor. and Ephesians.

    That leaves us with only the one text in John 17, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” That plus the text in 1John you originally quoted.

    I think the Johannine books have a kind of mystical bent to them: they envision a spiritual union with Christ. Some have interpreted Paul along similar lines, arguing that salvation in the pauline texts comes from a mystical union with Christ. Most evangelicals don’t see that in the texts (since they work with an alternative, forensic model of salvation), but there’s more substance to it than you might think unless someone has walked you through the relevant texts.

    In any event, it seems that I missed the point of your post. Personally, I tend to agree with Edwards that one can be saved without knowing Christ by name. In part, I come to that conclusion because the Church is often such a poor witness to Christ.

    Always, God’s justice is the first consideration when it comes to the last judgement. Would it be just of God to condemn someone because the Church has presented Christ in such a disgraceful way? (In other words, condemn someone else for our failure.) I’m thinking of child abuse in various churches as the most recent example … but we could easily list a bunch more.

    The second consideration is God’s lovingkindness / grace toward all the people God has created. If there is a way to (justly) cover over their sins, God will do so.

    In my view, and even in the view of some evangelicals, the Bible doesn’t pronounce a final verdict on the topic. (Chris Tilling is an evangelical blogger who has considered universalism from time to time.)

    It may be, as you say, that love is evidence of knowing Christ (i.e., spiritual union with Christ), even in someone who is outside of the Church. In my view, we can at least hope it is the case.

    And that’s the typical evangelical line (among those who lean in this direction): we can’t know for certain that anyone can be saved outside of Christ, but the scripture leaves the door open to hope.

    Once again, I apologize for missing the point the first time around.

  • 6. Jamie  |  August 6, 2007 at 6:05 pm


    I agree, knowing Christ can’t be separated from allegiance to Christ or from doing his deeds. I do think, however, that knowing Christ by name may be irrelevant to truly “knowing Christ.” It might be completely possible to “know Christ” (as in, know and adopt his character) without having any idea of his name.


    The 2 Peter text, “the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” could be taken to refer to knowledge of a specific body of tradition about Jesus (e.g., crucifixion, burial, resurrection). Likewise the texts in 1 Cor. and Ephesians.

    That’s true; the texts could be taken that way. However, the theme of knowledge in a book like Ephesians is important (1:17ff, 3:17-19, 4:13, 4:17-24) and I can’t imagine it’s all referring solely to head knowledge or knowledge about Jesus. I tend to agree that Paul, like John, has a bent toward mystical union with Christ, and that the knowledge he envisions is, like Nathan suggested, a sort of unity or fellowship with Christ.

    At any rate, it’s a little hard to argue that “knowing Christ” isn’t important, although I agree with you that I don’t like the particular way evangelicals use the phrase.

    Personally, I tend to agree with Edwards that one can be saved without knowing Christ by name.

    Just to avoid misrepresenting Edwards, I sincerely doubt he held that belief himself. I was just drawing out an implication I saw in what he wrote, but I doubt he would agree with my argument in this post.

    If there is a way to (justly) cover over their sins, God will do so.

    I don’t know, isn’t speaking about “covering sin” another bit of evangelical babble? 😉 I know it’s a biblical metaphor, but it’s one that drives me batty!

    Once again, I apologize for missing the point the first time around.

    Thanks for the apology. However, I realized it was mostly my fault for not being clear in the original post.


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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

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