Pop quiz: Which of these is the primary cause of our salvation: our intellect, our emotions, or our will? How are they related? Which one should we appeal to in evangelism? William Hendriksen, commenting on John 7:17, answers this question with a profound analysis of these human experiences of knowledge/love/obedience. The quote is a little long, but it is rich and rewarding.
Jesus says in John 7:17, “If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself.”
If there be no true desire to obey the will of God as expressed in his Word, true knowledge (both intellectual and experiential) will not be found. This introduces the interesting question: Just how are the various elements of Christian experience related to each other? In general it may be said that according to the teaching of Christ and the apostles, knowledge (concerning Christ and the facts of redemption: implying, of course, a knowledge of misery) comes first. When we try to trace our love for God in Christ to its source, we discover that it resulted from the contemplation of the facts of the Gospel and from our interpretation of the significance of these facts. Nevertheless, we hasten to add: knowledge as such never produces love. It results in love when the Holy Spirit applies this knowledge to the heart; i.e., when he created in the heart a response to the love of Christ, the knowledge of which is already present in the mind. Now this love, in turn, expresses itself in deeds of obedience: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” The fundamental relation between the three is, therefore: a) knowledge, b) love, c) obedience. Cf. John 17:26; 14:15.
Yet, this representation is in need of qualification. Each of the elements (knowledge, love, obedience), once present in any slight degree, enriches, intensifies, deepens the others. There is a constant interaction, each influencing the other two. In fact, the three are so closely related that none is complete in and by itself alone. Thus, not only does knowledge, applied by the Holy Spirit, lead to love; but love, in turn, is the indispensable prerequisite of full-grown knowledge. Hence, at times we find the opposite order: instead of knowledge…love, we find love…knowledge. Cf. Eph. 3:17. Similarly, instead of the order according to which obedience is last (as in John 14:15), we also find the order in which it is first. This, of course, is the way in which the sequence is expressed in the passage which we are now studying (7:17): “If anyone is willing to do his will, he shall know concerning the teaching whether it is of God or whether I am (merely) expressing my own views.” Here we have: 1. obedience (willingness to do God’s will) and 2. knowledge.
The only logical conclusion, in view of these various and (at first glance) seemingly (though never really) conflicting representations, is this: when we speak of knowledge, love and obedience, we are not thinking of three altogether separate experiences, but of one single, comprehensive experience in which the three are united in such a manner that each contributes its share, and all cooperate unto man’s salvation and God’s glory. This experience is personal in character. Hence, we can no longer speak of the primacy of the intellect or of the primacy of the emotions or of the primacy of the will, but of the primacy of the sovereign grace of God influencing and transforming the entire personality for the Glory of God. (William Hendriksen, The New Testament Commentary on John, Vol. 2, pp. 6-7)