J.I. Packer’s Knowing God was published in 1973 and has sold over 1 million copies. It is one the most recommended books for Christians to read and it is worth adding one more recommendation for those who have not yet added this to their reading list.
Here are a few reasons you should consider making this your next read:
We Should Pursue Knowledge of God
In this work, Packer takes God as his subject. For a mere creature to examine its creator is a daunting task (he likens it to a clown yearning to play Hamlet). Even so, Packer provides a tremendous amount of insight into what it means for the believer to know God.
Says Packer, “The conviction behind the book is that ignorance of God—ignorance both of his ways and of the practice of communion with him—lies at the root of much of the church’s weakness today” (12).
This ignorance of God has contributed to two negative trends in the church:
1. Christians have been unduly influenced by modern ideas about God, which views Him as distant, small, and completely unknowable.
2. The second trend is that Christians have become confused as a result of their dealings with modern skepticism. Lacking a strong Biblical understanding of God, believers have become less certain about both God and His Word. The truth of Scripture is routinely questioned, and even the very concept of truth is itself been put up for debate.
It is clear that the trends which Packer identifies in Knowing God have not been corrected since he wrote this book. If anything, the pace of the decline has quickened and many Christians find themselves largely ignorant about God and His role in their lives.
The corrective to these trends, Packer suggests, is to give proper emphasis to the study of God. And so Knowing God was written for Christians who are missing this key component of having a vibrant faith.
“Disregard the study of God,” Packer says, “and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfolded, as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul” (19).
This is the context into which Packer writes, and he achieves his goal of drawing the heart and mind towards a better understanding of God. The book is divided into three main sections: “Know the Lord,” “Behold Your God,” and “If God Be For Us.”
We Should Study Theology Wisely
In the Know the Lord section, Packer established the importance of theological study and the pursuit of knowledge about God and His will as revealed in Scripture. In these first pages, however, there is also an important caution:
“To be preoccupied with getting theological knowledge as an end in itself, to approach Bible study with no higher a motive than a desire to know all the answers, is the direct route to a state of self-satisfied self-deception” (22).
Packer’s warning at the outset of the book serves to alter how we approach the rest of the book’s content and is also a necessary rebuke for those of us who find ourselves studying the things of God as we study any other subject.
Surely, we should all heed this warning and be more cautious of how we approach studying the Word. We should not approach theology as an end in itself. Instead, we should study theology as a means of drawing closer to God.
In these chapters, Packer also shows that there is an important distinction between knowing about God and knowing God. Whereas we can know a lot about God by reading Scripture and studying what theologians have to say on the topic, we can only know God by entering into a right relationship with Him through Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, those who truly know God as believers ought to know Him will exhibit a number of outward characteristics. These include having great energy for God, having great thoughts of God, showing great boldness for God, and having great contentment in God (27-31).
To know and be known by Him should be our lives’ greatest pursuit, and so we should not allow ourselves to be enticed by all that competes for our time and attention.
As Packer writes: “Once you become aware that the main business that you are here for is to know God, most of life’s problems fall into place of their own accord.”
This is one of the primary messages in this first section of Knowing God. If we focus first and foremost on knowing God through the reading of His Word, abiding in Christ, and relying on the Spirit’s work of sanctification all of the other concerns of this life will fall into their proper place.
We Should Develop a Greater Love for God
The ten chapters in the Behold Your God section make up the bulk of Packer’s book and are focused primarily on walking the reader through a better understanding of and appreciation for our Creator. Packer covers His attributes of wisdom, love, grace, truth, and goodness. He speaks to the trustworthiness of God’s Word, examines the wrath and judgment of God, and discusses what it means when Scripture says that He is a jealous God.
Packer also addresses the fact that God is “immutable,” which is a fancy seminary word for “doesn’t change” or “unchangeable.” This is a very helpful reminder for the Christian. There is not a discontinuity between God as He is revealed in the Old Testament and how He is revealed in the New. He is unchanging in His truth, in His ways, and His purposes (78-80).
If God was always changing in how He engaged with His creation, we would have reason to give up the task of knowing Him before we even began. But because He is unchanging, we can learn much about Him by examining His Word and discovering more about His will for our lives.
Here’s the main implication of an unchanging God:
Because God does not change, our fear and reverence for Him should not differ so greatly from those we read about in Scripture. I was challenged by the fact that since God is unchanging, we should take the positive examples of His followers as seen in Scripture as being not merely descriptive, but prescriptive. When they are revealed to be in fellowship with God, to rely on Him, to walk by faith, and to trust His promises we should be encouraged to do likewise.
When they are revealed to be in fellowship with God, to rely on Him, to walk by faith, and to trust His promises we should be encouraged to do likewise.
The God that brought the Israelites out of Egypt is the same God that we are privileged to call our Heavenly Father. Therefore, we must examine Scripture not only for knowledge about God, but for guidance on how I am to live a life pleasing to God.
Such instruction comes not only in the passages which give explicit instructions for the believer but in examining the examples set by godly men and women whose stories are recorded for us in Scripture.
It is remarkably easy to come to the absurd conclusion that the spiritual standards of conduct for first-century Christians are markedly different than they are for believers today. Such a view is likely the result of the negative trend which Packer notes at the beginning of the book, where we are overly influenced by the culture around us.
Additionally, the chapters focusing on specific attributes of God and those that focused on understanding how He has revealed Himself in Scripture were helpful reminders on the importance of meditating on the greatness of God.
The main takeaway from this second section was the need to be more attentive to the things of God. This means being more diligent in our spiritual duties of prayer and reading His Word, of course, but we also must be more aware of the blessings which come from His hand.
We Should Study How God Works in Our Lives
The final third of Knowing God, the If God Be For Us section, works out the logical implications of what it means to know God and be known by Him, as well as how we can navigate this life as a believer.
Packer takes up the topics of the Gospel, the nature of being an adopted son or daughter of God, and divine guidance from the Holy Spirit through the Word, trials, and the adequacy of God.
Packer explains how inward trials can be used by God to chastise us for sin, to guide us, and to draw us to fuller reliance on Him. Also, his exploration of the book of Romans as being among the most beneficial books of the Bible for an examination of doctrine, life, the church, and as a personal letter from God to His children is an encouragement to take up the book of Romans for a more in-depth and long-term study.
My biggest take away from this final section of Knowing God was found in the chapter titled “Thou Our Guide.” Here Packer discusses the nature of divine guidance and addresses some of the common misunderstandings of what it means to be guided by the Spirit.
As Packer helpfully points out, much of our questions about guidance come in the form of choices “between competing options, all of which in themselves appear lawful and good” (234).
Apart from trials, the seasons where we feel most in need of God have been when important decisions needed to be made.
Apart from trials, the seasons where we feel most in need of God have been when important decisions needed to be made. Questions about jobs, moving, family decisions, and other practical matters often can be times of anxiety and frustration as we try to discern God’s will.
Packer provides 6 common pitfalls that prevent us from understanding God’s guidance. This section alone is worth your time, as it addresses questions that we all have throughout our lives.
J.I. Packer’s Knowing God is as practical as it is insightful. By bringing the reader to an understanding that we must be about the business of knowing God, he addresses many issues common to the life of every believer.
I would enthusiastically recommend it to others and fully intend to revisit it myself in the future. This book is certainly worth being the next book you read.