God knows everything. For many Christians, this theological statement was part of our basic Sunday school training. But it also tends to be one of those doctrines we affirm without much thought about what it means for our everyday lives.
In the Bible, God’s omniscience has profound practical importance. It is not just an abstract truth, but a source of assurance, confidence, reward, and motivation. In 1 John 3:20, for instance, the apostle writes, “God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.” What else can we learn from this doctrine?
To provide help understanding God’s omniscience and its practical ramifications, I corresponded with Gregg Allison, professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, secretary of the Evangelical Theological Society, an elder of Sojourn Community Church, and a theological strategist for the Sojourn Network. Allison is the author of two major works, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Zondervan, 2011) and Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Crossway, 2012), with another book, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Crossway, 2014), to be released this month.
What is God’s omniscience, and where is it taught in the Bible?
Omniscience is the divine attribute of being all-knowing: God knows all things. The word itself comes from the Latin (omni, all; scientia, knowledge), indicating the all-encompassing nature of God’s knowledge. Such knowledge is affirmed throughout Scripture, being rehearsed poetically (Psa. 139:1-6) and portrayed narratively (Gen. 18:9-16), with the simplest expression being “God knows everything” (1 John 3:20).
Divine omniscience includes the following: First, God fully knows himself, his infinite knowledge encompassing his infinite being. As Scripture notes, the Father knows the Son, and the Son knows the Father (Matt. 11:27), and the Holy Spirit knows all the mysteries of the Godhead (1 Cor. 2:10). Second, God fully knows his own decree or eternal purpose, and all the events that transpire as the outworking of this sovereign will (Acts 15:18).
From a human, timed perspective, God fully knows the past, present, and future. Thus, third, he fully knows the past, which is as vivid to him as the present. Accordingly, God’s “forgetfulness” of our past sins refers to his commitment not to count them against us (Heb. 10:17). Fourth, he fully knows the present, from its loftiest realities (the number of the stars in the universe; Psa. 147:4) to its smallest details (the number of the hairs on one’s head and the death of a sparrow; Matt. 10:29-30). Fifth, God fully knows the future, even the free will decisions and actions of his creatures (for example, the future home of Israel in the promised land, the birth of Isaac to old Abram and barren Sarah; Gen. 15:16; 18:10).
Moreover, sixth, he fully knows all actual things, that is, people and events that actually exist and happen; and seventh, all possible things, that is, all people and events that could possibly exist and happen but never do (for example, the would-be response of people long gone if they had witnessed Jesus’s miracles centuries later; Matt. 11:20-22).
Throughout church history, what have Christians generally believed about God’s knowledge of the future? Are future events and possibilities included within his knowledge?
Rarely and sadly, some have deviated from the historical view I’ve outlined and embraced divine omniscience as excluding the free will decisions and actions of God’s creatures from his range of knowledge. This view, expressed in the 17th century by Socinianism and more recently by open theism, depends on the concepts of libertarian free will and indeterminism: The human will is free such that there are, and can be, no causal conditions (e.g., the divine decree, the work of the Holy Spirit) that decisively move it in one direction or another; therefore, with every decision and action, a person could have done differently.
Given this idea of freedom, proponents of this view deny that God can know these decision and actions that are still to come. For example, God cannot know with certainty what we will choose from the restaurant menu when we go out to eat ten weeks from now. This is not a defect in God: he does not know these matters because he cannot know them.
But such limitations on the omniscience of God contradict Scripture and go against the church’s historic position. God himself challenges rivals to his throne—so-called gods or idols—to prove that they are true gods: “tell us what is to happen . . . declare to us the things to come. Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods” (Isa. 41:22-23). A criterion for deity is possessing the ability to foretell the future. False gods and idols fail to meet the test, but Yahweh, who is omniscient, knows even the future free will decisions and actions of his creatures, thus demonstrating that he is the true God.
Suppose your skeptical friend says, “I don’t like the idea of someone knowing everything about me, even God. It leaves me with no privacy whatsoever.” How would you respond?
I would certainly agree that the omniscience of God lays us bare before him. To those who are oblivious to or comfortable with sin and want to live in it without interference from God, his omniscience leaves them with nowhere to hide. What a disturbing thought! But to those who are burdened by sin and want to escape its clutches, God’s omniscience means that he fully knows their repentant heart, their cries for forgiveness, and their commitment of their cause to him. Such relief dispels their perennial guilt and nagging shame.
In Scripture God is said to search the heart (Ps. 139:1-6, Jer. 7:12, Rom. 8:25). In what ways may God’s searching, penetrating knowledge of us be a source of comfort, as it was to David in Psalm 139?
Building on the previous answer, God’s omniscience comforts us in the following ways. When we worship God “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23), he knows our celebration and reverence and is honored. When we trust and obey God in our everyday life, God knows and takes joy in our faith and obedience, loving us deeply (John 14:23). When we walk in good deeds that God has established for us (Eph. 2:10), he knows our service and sacrifice and uses us powerfully and extensively.
How might meditation on God’s searching, relentless omniscience help us fight against secret sins? How might it encourage secret or misunderstood obedience?
Such meditation should prevent us from taking our secret sins lightly or deceiving ourselves that they escape God’s notice and displeasure. It should prompt us to crucify those secret wrong attitudes and sinful actions, breaking with them through God’s grace. Furthermore, it should propel us to repent of those sins and embrace the forgiveness that our omniscient God provides through Christ.
Additionally, such meditation should lead us to consider Christ’s future evaluation of us (2 Cor. 5:10) in which our secret thoughts, words, and actions (Luke 12:2-3) will come to light. If those hidden matters are exposed as sinful, we will lose potential rewards. But if those secret things are revealed as acts of obedience, even if no human being was aware of them or understood them, then the God who knows every secret deed will richly reward us (1 Cor. 3:12-15).