J.I. Packer’s Knowing God is a modern Christian classic. In 500 years, people will still be reading Knowing God, whereas 99.9% of Christian books will be long forgotten.
I first read it as a freshman at Rice University, as a new Christian. Over 40 years later, I go through it again with delight. (I think it’s my tenth reading. I’m not sure, for in earlier years I did not write down the date of my readings.) I’ve worn out my original copy.
Stuart Briscoe once remarked: “As long as I am able to read I hope to read Knowing God by James I. Packer each year. It is so basic, scholarly, warm and reverent, I wonder how I managed without it for so long.”
Or Chuck Colson: “Few writings deserve to be called ‘Christian classics’ but this is surely one of them. With the heart of a pastor, the understanding of a theologian and passion of a prophet, J.I. Packer brings the reader face to face with the living God.”
So many of the thoughts and convictions that have shaped my view of God come from Knowing God. Probably more than I realize.
What is so powerful about this book? Packer has such insight into the meaning of Scripture, the real emphases of Scripture, and hence the nature of God and the nature of the spiritual life. There are 22 chapters, each a goldmine of wisdom and insight.
Now, to be clear, this is not quick and easy reading. You work. But the work pays abundant dividends. Many don’t make it through the first time. That was true of me. But persevere! Some of the grandest chapters come near the end. Read it in bite-sized chunks, perhaps a page or two a day.
Here is a summary of the 22 chapters:
1. The Study of God
Packer begins with a magnificent quote on God written by a twenty-year-old Charles Spurgeon. He talks about our view of God and why the study of God is so important.
He describes how to meditate on the Bible.
How are we to do this? How can we turn our knowledge about God into knowledge of God? The rule for doing this is simple but demanding. It is that we turn each truth that we learn about God into matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God ...
Meditation is the activity of calling to mind, and thinking over, and dwelling on, and applying to oneself, the various things that one knows about the works and ways and purposes and promises of God. It is an activity of holy thought, consciously performed in the presence of God, under the eye of God, by the help of God, as a means of communion with God. (page 23)
- The People Who Know Their God
From the book of Daniel, Packer gives four traits of those who know God.
- 1) Those who know God have great energy for God.
- 2) Those who know God have great thoughts of God.
- 3) Those who know God show great boldness for God.
- 4) Those who know God have great contentment in God.(from pages 27-31)
He includes this nugget: “People who know their God are before anything else people who pray, and the first point where their zeal and energy for God’s glory come to expression is in their prayers.” (page 28)
And this: If however, there is in us little energy for such prayer, and little consequent practice of it, this is a sure sign that as yet we scarcely know our God.” (page 29)
- Knowing and Being Known
Packer leads with this sublime section:What were we made for? To know God.
What aim should we set ourselves in life? To know God.
What is the “eternal life” that Jesus gives? Knowledge of God. “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3).
What is the best thing in life, bringing more joy, delight and contentment than anything else? Knowledge of God. “This is what the LORD says: ‘Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me’” (Jer 9:23-24).
What, of all the states God ever sees man in, gives God most pleasure? Knowledge of himself. “I desired ... the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings,” says God (Hos 6:6 KJV). (page 33)
This chapter, which focuses on the nature of knowing God, is one of the richest.
- The Only True GodPacker talks about the Second Commandment, showing the problem with images of God and the true nature of idolatry.
- God IncarnateThis chapter on the Incarnation is a treasure! He is superb on those two great Incarnation passages: John 1:1-18 and Philippians 2:5-11.
Here are two gems:
It is here, in the thing that happened at the first Christmas, that the profoundest and most unfathomable depths of the Christian revelation lie. “The Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14); God became man; the divine Son became a Jew; the Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless human baby, unable to do more than lie and stare and wriggle and make noises, needing to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child. And there was no illusion or deception in this: the babyhood of the Son of God was a reality. The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets. Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as is this truth of the Incarnation. (page 53)
The mystery of the Incarnation is unfathomable. We cannot explain it; we can only formulate it. Perhaps it has never been formulated better than in the words of the Athanasian Creed. “Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man ... perfect God, and perfect man ... who although he be God and man: yet he is not two, but one Christ; one, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the manhood into God.” Our minds cannot get beyond this. What we see in the manger is, in Charles Wesley’s words,
Our God contracted to a span;
Incomprehensibly made man.
Incomprehensibly. We shall be wise to remember this, to shun speculation and contentedly to adore. (page 58)
- He Shall Testify Packer considers the Holy Spirit, his person and his work.
- God UnchangingPacker considers the immutability of God and how this means that the God of the Bible is the same God we know and obey.
- The Majesty of God Packer describes the greatness of God. The highlight of the chapter is his treatment of the incomparable Isaiah 40.
- God Only WisePacker helps us appreciate God’s wisdom. The highlight is when he describes God’s wisdom seen in his dealings with Abraham, Jacob and Joseph.
- God’s Wisdom and OursThis is a second chapter on God’s wisdom, which is even better than the first. The main point is that wisdom does not mean that we understand why God does things or allows things. There is an excellent summary of Ecclesiastes, which call us to clear-eyed realism about life.
- Thy Word Is TruthPacker writes about the truth of God’s Word, underscoring the importance of specific promises in Scripture.
- The Love of GodThis is one of the strongest chapters, as he clarifies “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16) and “The love of God is poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5).
He defines God’s love with six statements:
- 1) God’s love is an exercise of his goodness.
- 2) God’s love is an exercise of his goodness toward sinners.
- 3) God’s love is an exercise of his goodness toward individual sinners.
- 4) God’s love to sinners involves his identifying himself with their welfare.
- 5) God’s love to sinners was expressed by the gift of his Son to be their Savior.
- 6) God’s love to sinners reaches its objective as it brings them to know and enjoy him in a covenant relation. (pages 123-126)
- The Grace of GodAnother strong chapter. He defines grace: “The grace of God is love freely shown toward guilty sinners, contrary to their merit and indeed in defiance of their demerit. It is God showing goodness to persons who deserve only severity and had no reason to expect anything but severity” (page 132).
He includes this diamond: “It has been said that in the New Testament doctrine is grace, and ethics is gratitude; and something is wrong with any form of Christianity in which, experimentally and practically, this saying is not being verified.” (page 137)
- God the Judge Packer’s superb treatment of God’s judgment and why it is so important
- The Wrath of God Packer clarifies the wrath of God. He includes this description:God’s wrath in the Bible is never the capricious, self-indulgent, irritable, morally ignoble thing that human anger so often is. It is, instead, a right and necessary reaction to objective moral evil. God is only angry where anger is called for. Even among humans, there is such a thing as righteous indignation, though it is, perhaps, rarely found. But all God’s indignation is righteous. Would a God who took as much pleasure in evil as he did in good be a good God? Would a God who did not react adversely to evil in his world be morally perfect? Surely not. But it is precisely this adverse reaction to evil, which is a necessary part of moral perfection, that the Bible has in view when it speaks of God’s wrath. (page 151)
- Goodness and SeverityPacker takes up Romans 11:22: “Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God.” The section on God’s goodness is especially insightful.
- The Jealous GodClearly Packer does not limit himself to the attributes of God that we are drawn to. But he shows why all of his attributes are good and necessary. One of the best quotes in the book comes here:
The classic description of zeal for God was given by Bishop J. C. Ryle. We quote it at length.
Zeal in religion is a burning desire to please God, to do His will, and to advance His glory in the world in every possible way. It is a desire which no man feels by nature – which the Spirit puts in the heart of every believer when he is converted – but which some believers feel so much more strongly than others that they alone deserve to be called ‘zealous’ men ...
A zealous man in religion is pre-eminently a man of one thing. It is not enough to say that he is earnest, hearty, uncompromising, thorough-going, whole-hearted, fervent in spirit. He only sees one thing, he cares for one thing, he lives for one thing, he is swallowed up in one thing; and that one thing is to please God. Whether he lives, or whether he dies – whether he has health, or whether he has sickness – whether he is rich, or whether he is poor – whether he pleases man, or whether he gives offence – whether he is thought wise, or whether he is thought foolish – whether he gets blame, or whether he gets praise – whether he gets honour, or whether he gets shame – for all this the zealous man cares nothing at all. He burns for one thing; and that one thing is to please God, and to advance God’s glory. If he is consumed in the very burning, he cares not for it – he is content. He feels that, like a lamp, he is made to burn; and if consumed in burning, he has but done the work for which God appointed him. Such a one will always find a sphere for his zeal. If he cannot preach, work, and give money, he will cry, and sigh, and pray ... If he cannot fight in the valley with Joshua, he will do the work of Moses, Aaron, and Hur, on the hill (Exodus 17:9-13). If he is cut off from working himself, he will give the Lord no rest till help is raised up from another quarter, and the work is done. This is what I mean when I speak of ‘zeal’ in religion. (Practical Religion, 1959 ed., p. 130) (page 173)
- The Heart of the GospelThis is one of the best chapters. He argues that the heart of the gospel is propitiation. He writes that the term occurs four times in the New Testament but the concept is pervasive. He defines it:
The doctrine of the propitiation is precisely this: that God loved the objects of His wrath so much that He gave His own Son to the end that He by His blood should make provision for the removal of His wrath. It was Christ’s so to deal with the wrath that the loved would no longer be the objects of wrath, and love would achieve its aim of making the children of wrath the children of God’s good pleasure (John Murray, The Atonement, p. 15). (page 185)
It is only from understanding the New Testament truth of propitiation that we can fully grasp other vital truths, such as the driving force in Jesus’ life, the nature of hell, God’s gift of peace, the extent of God’s love, and the meaning of God’s glory.
- Sons of God This chapter on God’s Fatherhood and our adoption may be the best chapter in the book. For example:You sum up the whole of New Testament teaching in a single phrase, if you speak of it as a revelation of the Fatherhood of the holy Creator. In the same way, you sum up the whole of New Testament religion if you describe it as the knowledge of God as one’s
holy Father. If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all. For everything that Christ taught, everything that makes the New Testament new, and better than the Old, everything that is distinctively Christian as opposed to merely Jewish, is summed up in the knowledge of the Fatherhood of God. “Father” is the Christian name for God. (page 201)
But this is not to say that justification is the highest blessing of the gospel. Adoption is higher, because of the richer relationship with God that is involves. Some textbooks on Christian doctrine – Berkhof’s, for instance – treat adoption as a mere subsection of justification, but this is inadequate. The two ideas are distinct, and adoption is the more exalted. Justification is a forensic idea, conceived in terms of law, and viewing God as judge. In justification, God declares of penitent believers that they are not, and never will be, liable to the death that their sins deserve, because Jesus Christ, their substitute and sacrifice, tasted death in their place on the cross.
But contrast this, now, with adoption. Adoption is a family idea, conceived in terms of love, and viewing God as father. In adoption, God takes us into his family and fellowship – he establishes us as his children and heirs. Closeness, affection and generosity are at the heart of the relationship. To be right with God the Judge is a great thing. But to be loved and cared for by God the Father is a greater.
(page 207) Another:
In an earlier chapter, we saw that the thought of propitiation, which appears verbally only four times in the New Testament, is nonetheless fundamentally important, as being the nucleus and focal point of the whole New Testament view of the saving work of Christ. Something similar is true here. The word adoption (the Greek means “instating as a son”) appears only five times, and of these occurrences only three refer to the Christian’s present relationship to God in Christ (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:5; Eph 1:5). Yet the thought itself is the nucleus and focal point of the whole New Testament teaching on the Christian life. These two concepts, indeed, link together; were I asked to focus the New Testament message in three words, my proposal would be adoption through propitiation, and I do not expect ever to meet a richer or more pregnant summary of the gospel than that. (pages 213-214)
He summarizes our identity as Christians:
I am a child of God. God is my Father; heaven is my home; every day is one day nearer. My Savior is my brother; every Christian is my brother too. (page 228)
- Thou Our Guide Packer summarizes how God guides us in decisions, warning us against common pitfalls.
- These Inward TrialsThis is a rather unusual chapter, as he warns against a false view of the spiritual life as a problem-free life. (This chapter is probably informed by his painful experience of Keswick’s Second Blessing Theology, which taught that you could reach a state of continual victory through surrender.)
- The Adequacy of GodAnother superb chapter, Packer gives an overview of Romans before he deftly analyzes the high point (8:31-39). The greatest chapter (chapter 8) of the most important book (Romans) in the Bible.
He describes God’s unquenchable love for us in Romans 8:31-39, when Paul raises four questions:
- 1) If God is for us, who is against us?
- 2) He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
- 3) Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?
- 4) Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?
Life is too short to read mediocre books, or even good books. Read the great books. Knowing
God is one of the greats.
If you have never read it, or if it has been a few years since your last reading, let J.I. Packer’s Knowing God disciple you into a closer relationship with God.