Knowing God. A Reader’s Guide to a Christian ClassicMarch 21, 2022 1 Comment
[First published at www.desiringgod.org on March 19, 2022]
Article by Sam Storms
Theocentricity is a big and imposing word that simply means “God-centered.” To be theocentric means that God himself is the core of all you believe, and the governing, gravitational force of all you do. And in my judgment, no one in recent memory more readily embodied this perspective on life more than the late J.I. Packer (1926–2020), especially in his classic work, Knowing God.
James Inell Packer is justifiably known for much. His rigorous, thoroughly biblical articulation of penal substitutionary atonement, his unwavering defense of biblical inerrancy, and his penetrating insights into the contribution of the Puritans are just a few of the many qualities for which he is remembered. But when he himself was asked, “What is the best thing in life, bringing more joy, delight, and contentment than anything else?” he did not hesitate to answer: the knowledge of God (33).
Packer had little patience for those who would speak of the Christian life or spirituality without regard for the centrality of God. For there to be life-giving heat in the affections of the heart, there must first be biblical light imparted to the mind. This was Packer’s way of reminding us that a biblically informed, cognitive grasp of the revelation of God and his attributes is foundational to everything in Christianity. To allow God to “become remote,” said Packer, to “look at God, so to speak, through the wrong end of the telescope, so reducing him to pigmy proportions,” can only result in “pigmy Christians” who fail to grow up into the fullness of Christ Jesus (12).
Did Packer overstate his case? Is this little more than theological hyperbole? Hardly. Packer is spot on when he says,
“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. Disregard the study of God, 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).
Packer is always diligent to remind his readers that knowing God is not a means to some higher, more ultimate, more soul-satisfying end. We don’t pursue the knowledge of God “in order that . . .” — to be filled in with some lesser goal, such as a more robust sense of self-esteem or more power and respect in the local church or greater earthly wealth. Packer’s prayer for all who endeavored to read him is identical to that of the apostle Paul, who prayed that the Ephesians might receive “the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him” (Ephesians 1:17) — that is, in the knowledge of God and all that he is for us in Jesus Christ.
What exactly does knowing God mean and entail?
It begins, notes Packer, with listening to God’s written and infallible word as the Holy Spirit sheds light on the nature of our Creator and Redeemer. But listening is only the start. After listening follows the joyful and voluntary application of truths about God to how we live and think and to what we value and cherish.
Knowing God requires that we diligently explore the multifaceted ways in which God has revealed himself in Scripture. It involves a close, heartfelt study of God’s attributes and actions, which in turn bears the fruit of fellowship with God and passionate adoration and celebration of who he is and what he has done.
In no way does Packer suggest that we can, in this way, contribute to or supply God with a glory that he otherwise would lack. Rather,
“We celebrate his greatness and so exalt him and render him homage by our praise, by our direct obedience, and by always trying to do that which, of all the options open to us, we calculate will please him most. Thus we glorify him. The three notions meld into one: loving God, pleasing God and glorifying God, the composite goal of the Christian’s life” (Praying, 20).
Although Packer does not employ the explicit terminology of Christian Hedonism, he no doubt embraced its fundamental truths. The ultimate aim of God in all his activity is his own glory. God “does not exist for our sake, but we for his” (Hot Tub Religion, 36). We exist to glorify him by enjoying him forever. He goes on:
“If it is right for man to have the glory of God as his goal, can it be wrong for God to have the same goal? If man can have no higher purpose than God’s glory, how can God? If it is wrong for man to seek a lesser end than this, it would be wrong for God, too. The reason it cannot be right for man to live for himself, as if he were God, is because he is not God. However, it cannot be wrong for God to seek his own glory, simply because he is God. Those who insist that God should not seek his glory in all things are really asking that he cease to be God. And there is no greater blasphemy than to will God out of existence” (38).
Adoring His Attributes
No one book, nor all the books in the universe, could ever hope to identify and define every attribute of our infinite God. So, Packer limits himself to a focus on those characteristics of God that are especially highlighted in Scripture and are essential for every Christian seeking to mature in their knowledge of him.
He echoes, once again, the sentiments of Paul in Philippians 3:7–10, where the apostle says that he counts the things he lost as “rubbish” or “dung” (KJV). Packer reminds us that Paul’s intent is not merely to say that such things lack value, but that “he does not live with them constantly in his mind: what normal person spends his time nostalgically dreaming of manure? Yet this, in effect, is what many of us do. It shows how little we have in the way of true knowledge of God” (Knowing God, 25).
One laments the fact that for many professing Christians, certain of God’s attributes exert little practical influence on their daily lives. But for Packer, every truth about God is spiritually transformative. Thus, he directs our careful attention to such realities as divine immutability, the glorious and reassuring promise that God in his most fundamental character will always be who he eternally is. He devotes chapters to God’s majesty, his unfathomable wisdom, and the love and grace of God. God would not be God if he were not unswervingly just and holy. And although many today are inclined to empty God of his wrath, Packer believes that a God who is not angry at sin cannot be worthy of worship and devotion.
One of the more enlightening and counterintuitive of his chapters concerns divine jealousy. Why, you ask? Because God’s very name is “Jealous” (Exodus 34:14), which is God’s way of saying that “he demands from those whom he has loved and redeemed utter and absolute loyalty, and he will vindicate his claim by stern action against them if they betray his love by unfaithfulness” (171).
Seek His Face
Those who have not yet taken a deep dive into Knowing God should know that Packer never anticipated its effect on the Christian world. In the preface to the 1993 edition, he marvels that it had sold more than one million copies and had been translated into more than a dozen languages — and that nearly thirty years ago.
So much more could be said about this classic of the Christian faith, and even then, I could hardly do it justice. So let me close with the words with which Packer himself concludes his book.
“Thou hast said, ‘Seek ye my face.’ My heart says to thee, ‘Thy face, Lord, do I seek’” (Psalm 27:8 RSV). If this book moves any of its readers to identify more closely with the psalmist at this point, it will not have been written in vain” (279).