“Knowing God” by J.I. Packer

  • April 27, 2009

Packer, J.I. Knowing God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973. 286 pp.

Knowing God was originally articles written for the Evangelical Magazine in an attempt to take Christians into a deeper understanding of God. In 1973 those articles were compiled, edited, and given the title Knowing God. What Packer considered to be a string of beads, at best, has become what R.C. Sproul calls a masterpiece and what others have called a Christian classic. Thirty-five years later, from its publication date, it is still considered to be the patriarch, among literary works, on the doctrines of God for the common man.
J. I. Packer attended Oxford University in England on a scholarship. It was there at Oxford that God placed him under the man who had the greatest impact on his life, Clive Staples Lewis. He received a Bachelor of Arts (1948), Master of Arts (1952), and Doctorate of Philosophy (1955) from Corpus Christi College. He has become one of the leading scholars of the Evangelicals. His accomplishments are many: writing, teaching, and lecturing, but his single passion has been to teach the world the deeper things of God in a way they can understand it.
That is the purpose of this book; to teach the church who God is, thereby dispelling from the church the ignorance about God that has crippled it for so long. Packer, with much clarity, takes the reader on a journey through theological truths that will have an eternal impact on their lives. The author breaks the book up into three sections. The first section is a call to know God. The second section covers many doctrines of who God is. And the last section shows the realities of knowing this high and holy God of the universe.
In part one Packer sets out with the task of convincing, or rather convicting, Christians that it is not only right, but our duty to seek the true and living God. Many there are that fumble through this life as Christians and do not know nor do they even want to know God. This section of the book is to awaken inside of the reader a passion to seek the living God in order to know Him. That is the reality of the whole book- to know God as He has revealed Himself in His Word. The author is not concerned for the reader just to know about God, but would have them know Him personally through the truths set forth in His Word.
In part two the author is determined to push aside the fog that skirts the mountain peaks of who God is. There are many people who look up from the bottom only to see a thick vapor covering the majestic beauty of who God is. Many Christians think there is still a veil keeping us from seeing Him face to face. This is what Packer is determined to do in this chapter- to push away this fog so people can see that there is no veil keeping them from God. With each chapter Packer pushes away a little more fog leaving the reader hungry for more. He covers the wisdom, majesty, and immutability of God in the first four chapter of section 2, leaving the reader in awe of such a mighty God. Then as one sits on the side of this majestic mountain feeling utterly unworthy to continue the climb, Packer in two chapters makes him drink to the bottom dregs of the love and mercy of God. This impassions the reader to jump back on his feet and continue the climb to the top. It is then that he is faced with the enormous chasm of the justice, jealousy, severity, and wrath of God; this is where the reader throws himself back on the ground and cries out with the psalmist “who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?”.
In section three the author comes back to the reader with the great reality of Christ. He, Christ, has ascended the hill of the Lord. He went through that deep abyss that lies between us and God. Christ bore the wrath of the Father in your stead. The Father crushed the Son, and meted out his justice on Him; so now you can cross the chasm on the back of Christ. It is here in this third section that all the realities of this book come together in the culmination of Christ our great High Priest.
Critical Evaluation
Most of the Christian literature that fills book shelves today is facile, and the result has been ignorance among the Christian community. Many have tried to correct this problem by writing; however, their scholasticism proved to be too much for the common man to wrap his mind around. Those books, though important for the theologians and preachers, left the common man to grovel in his ignorance. Knowing God is Packer’s answer to those pleading masses. He does not just throw them in without concern for whether they swim or drown, nor does he leave them in the shallow end splashing water with their feet. He meets them where they are and slowly takes them into the deep end of who God is. When he gets through they not only can swim; they can dive all by themselves into the deeper things of God.
In section one Packer goes into the shallow end to get people. This is one of the most amazing sections of the book. It is here that he approaches people who have remained in the shallow end for so many different reasons. Some were just content being in the shallow end, not desirous of any deeper understanding of God. Many others he finds in the deep end, but they will not take their floaters off. They are the ones who know the theological terms well enough to explain them to others, but they have never gone deep with God. Others were interested in what was in the deep end, but every time they ventured over the rope they felt themselves drowning in those deep murky waters of Christian jargon. However, most people sit paralyzed with fear in the shallow end. Just the thought of the deep end makes them anxious to even be in the shallow end. This is what makes Packer a literary giant in the world of Christianity.
He goes to those who are contented in the shallow end and shows them the great tragedy of living there. He says,
…so we are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God whose world it is and who runs it. The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God (19).
He explains that the most exciting, exalted, and glorious thing in this life is to know God. The reader feels the shame of his complacency and utter laziness. But Packer’s desire and motive for writing is not for them to wallow in their shame. He desires for them to get up from the bed of repentance with a new found passion to go into the deeper end and explore the depths of the great God of the universe.
Those he finds in the deep end with their floaters tightly fastened and staring back at those in the shallow end with haughty faces, he plunges a sword, the word of God, deep into their hearts and lets it rip them asunder. The reader realizes from the outset that knowing all the jargon is not what Christianity is about, nor is the reason for which we venture out into the deep end. He says, “One can know a great deal about God and Godliness without much knowledge of him” (26). To the Calvinist, who are the most likely to fall into haughtiness, he says, “We may know as much about God as Calvin knew-indeed, if we study his works diligently, sooner or later we shall-and yet all the time (unlike Calvin, may I say) we may hardly know God at all” (26).
What about the masses though? They are the ones who sit paralyzed with fear. They feel knowing God is something they are neither worthy of, nor do they think knowing him is something they could attain even if they tried. Of these the different groups of people, these are the only commendable ones. However, you will not find Packer telling them it is alright to stay there in the shallow end shivering on the steps of insecurity. No he explains to them that knowing God is the reason for which they were made. Why should one be afraid to do what he was created to do? If a bird is not afraid of flying, why would a Christian be afraid of knowing God? The most glorious thing about being a bird is flying, and the most glorious thing about being a Christian is to know the one and true living God. We are not just to know about him, but to know him deeply and personally.
That is what makes Packer a profound author about knowing God. He has walked with God, and knows him. He is not a turkey telling a duck how to dive for fish in the lake. He is more like a mother whale teaching its pup. The mother whale will keep its young in the shallow water for a season, gradually taking it into the deeper waters of the Pacific. At first, though, the mother must, from time to time, push the pup up above the water so it can breathe. But with each new breath, the pup can go deeper and stay longer, exploring the glorious depths of the inexhaustible ocean. This is what makes Packer such a prolific author. He knows when to push his readers up for air, and just continues to nurture them until they are ready to go into the deep, inexhaustible waters of knowing God. Once the reader gets through section one he is ready to go with diligence into section two, the great doctrines of God.
Many theologians have struggled with what order to present the doctrines of God. Packers arrangement of doctrines is much different from those written through the centuries. For instance, Hodge begins with method, then theology, and goes from there to rationalism. B.B. Warfield starts with the Word of God, revelation, inspiration and truthfulness, then predestination, the person of Christ, and the Trinity. Louis Berkoff starts with dogma, religion, and revelation. Packer’s order of doctrines does not even fit the order of non reformed authors. Take R. A. Torrey, for instance. He starts with the history of higher criticism, moving to true mosaic authorship, then on to fallacies of higher criticism. Only the first few chapters of these historic books are listed to show that Packer’s arrangement is not consistent with any of them. Now someone could argue that all of the above listed authors are not current theologians. This is true but the same is the case with Wayne Grudem, Robert Reymond, John Frame, and Millard Erickson. However, there are good reasons for why Packer differs with all of them in regards of how he arranged the doctrines.
The first reason is simple. Packer’s purpose in writing was not to give an exhaustive list of the doctrines of God. Most of the books that were used in comparison were books considered to be Systematic Theologies. They all had a similar goal in writing their books, and that was that people would know more about God. These books would help them put together the doctrines of the Bible in a systematic way. Packer’s concern is to teach the doctrines of the Bible just like those systematic theologies listed; he wants people to be doctrinally sound in their theology. However, his end in writing Knowing God was not for people to know more about God, but that they might know Him deeply and intimately. Knowing God is not an exhaustive list of the doctrines of God compiled together for systematic purposes. No! It is a cry for Christians to go deeper with God, stay longer, and explore the glorious reefs of who God is. Once they surface they are filled with passion to boldly proclaim the greatness of what they have seen to world content, fearful, or haughty in the shallow end of ignorance.
Many times what happens to a Christian who has been deep into the doctrines of God is that they come back to the surface somber with their new found knowledge of God. Many seminary students go into the seminary with great zeal and passion for God; only to come out the other end dull, and dismal. Why is this? Because, as Packer says, they go into class desiring to know more about God instead of knowing God, and this results in a lifeless scholar of correct doctrine. They leave seminary and go into the churches with a correct systematic theology of God, but no passion and love for those doctrines, or the God of those doctrines.
Packer’s Knowing God is an attempt to save us from ignorance on the one side and dullness on the other. It is a must read for every Christian, especially those who have surrendered to the ministry and are entering seminary. In fact the very first duty of every new seminary student should be to read Packer’s Knowing God and write a review of it. This would inevitably save thousands of students from becoming cold and dead. When one dives into the depths of God just for knowledge, it is like diving into the depths of the Pacific where everything is dark and gloomy. The affect this has on a person is grave. Though their knowledge of God is vast and deep, it seems as if they are subdued by that knowledge.
However, those who dive into the depths to know God come up with a different demeanor about the same doctrines learned by the other guys. The difference is very noticeable, especially when listening to them preach about what they have seen. They are not like people who dove into the dark gloomy depths of the Pacific, but rather they are like people who dove down to explore the Great Barrier Reefs. They were so amazed by the colors and the life forms they can hardly contain themselves while explaining it to others. What an effect that difference has on the church where these men are sent to serve. For Packer’s Knowing God, I take my hat off for it is a work that is rightly called a Christian classic. It should be read over and over again by those who call themselves Christians.

Author of this paper is Toby Jenkins, senior pastor of First Baptist Church Henryville.

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