“Knowing God” by J.I. Packer – Book Review

Packer, J.I. Knowing God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018. 287 pp. $9.99

Christians have adopted a limited view of the deity of God by inadvertently diminishing their study of him. J.I. Packer aims to spur his reader to sharpen their mind and invigorate their spirit by plunging the depths of God. The study of God is needed to navigate the chaos of the world we live in. “So many have been distracted from what was, is, and always will be the true priority for every human being—that is, learning to know God in Christ” (278). A few truths are required before stepping out on the journey: God speaks to man through the Bible, he is King and Savior, the Godhead is three persons in one, and godliness is responding to his revelation in light of his Word. 

The study of God must deal with his powers (“his almightiness, his omniscience, his omnipresence”) and perfections (“his holiness, his love and mercy, his truthfulness…”) (20).  

Studying God in and of itself is not a bad thing, but one must ask the question “Why?” What is the motive behind learning about the character of God and all that he has done throughout scripture? There is danger in pursuing knowledge just for the sake of having the answers. Packer argues that the pursuit of understanding the things of God should be with the end goal of having a closer relationship with the heart of God. Bible study without a proper relationship leads to arrogance and emptiness. 

“Having known God” carries with it so much weight compared to “knowing about God” or as the evangelicals have coined it, those that “know God.” The former is a history of intimate knowledge while the latter is head knowledge or what is typically a simplified experiential account of a conversion. Packer uses the book of Daniel to explain how the intimate knowing of God spurs the believer to a possess an energy for God that accompanies great thoughts about God. Knowing him consumes our lives and minds and ultimately leads to a great boldness for and contentment in him.

The second commandment demands that man does not worship false images. Packer unpacks this further and explains to the reader how even worshiping images of members of the Trinity violate this commandment. Worshipping an image of the Creator does not fully convey his glory. An image, statue, or even the self-fabricated mental image is not able to properly convey the complete attributes of in all of the holiness, righteousness, and glory of God. Therefore, Packer writes, it misleads worshippers to a false understanding of God. Crucifixes and images of Jesus’ death subtly elevate his suffering, pain, and defeat while downplaying his strength, power, and victory. If the crucifix is the focus of worship, one begins to elevate that over the truth of Jesus’s omnipotence and Lordship over all. 

This truth should lead the worshipper to turn to the one place they are able to find proper descriptions of God: his Word. He reveals to his people what he wants them to know and does so through Scripture. The Bible should be the authority in communicating his attributes. 

The attributes and actions of the Holy Spirit are often overlooked by believers, whether it is the result of laziness, ignorance, or apathy. What is not known cannot be worshipped or even appropriately revered. Salvation is understood as a gift from Jesus, and the Father is credited with creating and sustaining everything. But what does the Holy Spirit do? There would be no gospel, nor New Testament, without the Holy Spirit revealing the Father’s truth through those that wrote scripture. Today, those that are blinded by their sin see the hope of salvation only because the Holy Spirit is “illuminating: opening blinded eyes, restoring spiritual vision, enabling sinners to see…” (71).

Since the day of Moses the culture, context, and time have changed. This makes it difficult for today’s reader to connect to the Bible. What has not changed is God. He is the bridge that connects the reader of today to the culture within Scripture. What he has said, done, and the reasons he has done so, have not changed. Neither has his majesty changed from how it was depicted in Genesis. There is nothing imaginable nor tangible that he can be compared to; therefore, man must quit thinking of God in attributes compared to men. The creation reflects the image of the Creator. The same is not reciprocal. 

God’s wisdom is something that he desires to pass along to man but the obstacle is man himself. One must learn to reverence God and receive his word by becoming humble and teachable, then “soaking… in the Scriptures” as Packer puts it (101) to begin growing in wisdom. That wisdom is not having all the answers to the world’s questions. It is knowing how to appropriately navigate all of the world’s obstacles that are unexplainable. 

The first three chapters of Genesis display the power of God’s word: it commands the inanimate (as seen in speaking creation into existence) and it engages the minds and hearts of humanity (speaking to Adam and Eve relationally, with commands, prohibitions, testimony and promises). This is carried over and reinforced throughout the rest of the Bible. Believers live under the word of God and hold fast to its truthfulness because God keeps His promises to His people.        

God’s love is something that resonates in and through every aspect of his being. His blessings, discipline, and silence are only a few of the ways a believer experiences his love. It is because of his love that he identifies with the welfare of individual sinners. Through the gift of his son he draws them unto himself for the purpose of a covenanted relationship. Along with God’s love, contemporary man fails to fully grasp the implications of God’s grace. It is not only the source of forgiveness, but it is the “motive of the plan of salvation” (134). His grace should lead his forgiven to a sustained faith that is lived out. 

            The wrath of God is something that is typically avoided in both the pulpits and pews of contemporary Christian churches. Maybe it is due to the ill-received anthropomorphic language in Scripture. It is important to understand that while God is described with human qualities, i.e. love and anger, He does not respond to those qualities like man. Man is created in His image. Those qualities originate with him, in his complete holiness and righteousness. Man is who stains our representations of our Creator. His love is holy and not impulsive. His wrath is righteous and just because He is righteous and just. The cross cannot be comprehended, nor can the history of God’s people and the promised judgment of humanity, if one does attempt to grasp God’s wrath, no matter how unfavorable it is.

            Packer writes there are two types of jealousy: one that “feeds and is fed by pride” (170) and one that aims to protect a marriage relationship and to keep the covenant intact. While many people may associate God’s jealousy with the former, the latter is the appropriate correlation. He is jealous out of his love for his bride and his zeal to keep the covenant intact. This should encourage His bride to be chaste and zealous for Him in how she worships and protects her marriage to Him.                        

            The goodness and patience of God should be appreciated. Blessings should be counted: the Bible, salvation, grace, His presence, and His patience are but a few manifestations of His goodness. 

            The word “propitiation” may only appear in the New Testament four times; nevertheless, the concept of propitiation is woven throughout Scripture. It was not an uncommon concept in pagan society, but God atoning for man’s sin by propitiating the life of his son was completely foreign to what humanity had seen. It was not the sacrifice of a created life to appease the angry gods, rather it was a laying down of the loving Savior’s life to appease his own wrath and save his creation. The death of Christ removes the sins of man and restores the broken relationship between man and God. 

            It is through this propitiation that the Father receives repentant sinners as adopted children. God’s fatherhood imparted his authority, affection, fellowship, and honor on Jesus. Through the adoption of believers those traits and blessings are passed on to Jesus’ coheirs. The privilege of adoption is even higher than that of justification “because of the richer relationship with God that it involves” (207). Through adoption, believers see God’s love and hope, begin to understand the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the meaning of “gospel holiness”, and are able to navigate the problem of assurance. 

            Through the paternal relationship, God provides guidance and wisdom to his children down the road of Scripture. Packer writes, “the Spirit leads within the limits which the Word sets, not beyond them” (237). It is the believer’s responsibility to listen, read, recognize the challenges in following, and ultimately go. Part of that guidance is trusting him through the darkness of life. He leads his children through the trials to reveal to them their own inadequacies and ensure that they learn to cling to him. That darkness comes in many forms: man’s opinions, circumstances, sickness, etc. The very God that rescued man from the pit of eternal darkness and damnation rescues him from the pit of temporal darkness and difficulties. 

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