Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in June 2017.
“Knowing God,” one of the most influential Christian books of the past century, was written 45 years ago. It remains in print and continues to change lives and equip thousands of God’s people. In late March, we had the opportunity to speak with J.I. Packer about his groundbreaking book. We talked specifically about a few of the book’s basic themes and their relevance to evangelical Christians in the 21st century. J.I. Packer is inarguably one of the most significant Christian writers and theologians of our era. More than a decade ago, Time magazine listed Packer among the world’s 25 most influential evangelicals. One of his key roles, the magazine said, was “theological traffic cop.” According to Time’s writer, “The Oxford-trained theologian claimed the role informally with his 1973 book, ‘Knowing God,’ which outlined a conservative Christian theology deeper and more embracing than many Americans had encountered.”
The book, according to Time, spoke honestly about hard topics such as suffering and grace. At the time Michael Cromartie, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said, “Conservative Methodists and Presbyterians and Baptists could all look at it and say, ‘This sums it all up for us.’”
Packer, of course, has written hundreds of books, articles, and essays. Among his best-known works are “‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God,” “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God,” “Growing in Christ,” “God Has Spoken,” and “Beyond the Battle for the Bible.” More recently, Packer has authored “Life in the Spirit,” “A Grief Sanctified,” “Truth & Power,” and “Knowing and Doing the Will of God.”
In addition, J.I. Packer was a member of the Editorial Council of Christianity Today and the general editor of the English Standard Version of the Bible, published in 2001.
But he will always be best remembered for “Knowing God.”
“When we disregard the study of God, we sentence ourselves to stumble through life blindfolded, with no sense of direction and no understanding of our surroundings.”
Packer turns 91 in July. In one of his more recent books, “Finishing Our Course with Joy,” he talked about old age. “The common assumption,” he wrote, “is that it is mainly a process of loss, whereby strength is drained from both mind and body and the capacity to look forward and move forward in life’s various departments is reduced to nothing. … But here,” Packer says, “the Bible breaks in, highlighting the further thought that spiritual ripeness is worth far more than material wealth in any form, and that spiritual ripeness should continue to increase as one gets older.”
In our conversation with him, we found a theologian who is “spiritually ripe.” At 90, Packer, though hampered by macular degeneration, is quick thinking, opinionated, deeply thoughtful, and more gracious than ever.
In Every Generation, to Understand Yourself, You Must Study God
We began our conversation by asking Packer about one of the early arguments in “Knowing God” — that if people want to understand themselves, they must first study God. How, we wondered, would that make sense to a 21st-century millennial?
The question today, Packer believes, is much the same as it was 45 years ago. Now, as then, the question “clearly assumes that a study of the nature and character of God will be impractical and irrelevant for life.” But in fact, it remains “the most practical project anyone can engage in.”
As he explained to his original readers, Packer insists today, “I would tell them straight out that we’re dependent. We are dependent on circumstances, other people, the furnishings of the rooms we’re in. In all sorts of ways, we’re dependent, and if we think of ourselves as independent, that — though bold, perhaps — is shallow. When we recognize that we’re dependent, then we’re able to face up to the fact that we’re dependent on God.”
That means, of course, that knowing God is essential. No one thrives or flourishes apart from Him. In his seminal book, Packer used this illustration: It would be cruel, he said, to transport someone from the Amazonian jungle to London, put him down in Trafalgar Square with no explanation, and leave him to fend for himself. The man wouldn’t know the language, customs, laws, or local practices. He wouldn’t have the education, background, and experience to “get along” in so strange a culture. In the same way, Packer explains, “We are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God who created it and 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.”
We’re much like the Amazonian, he says, if we fail to realize, “If it wasn’t for God bringing us into being and keeping us in being, we wouldn’t be here. There’d be nothing at all. So, the first thing to get clear on is that we are entirely dependent on God for our existence, our options, and the possibilities of our life. When we disregard the study of God, we sentence ourselves to stumble through life blindfolded, with no sense of direction and no understanding of our surroundings. We aren’t being realistic about things until we acknowledge Him.”
We Can Know God, Even in a Rational, Science-Worshipping Culture
One difference between our culture today and the culture of 1973 is that we may be even more rational. Secular people today, it seems, insist on scientific proof for everything. They give little credence to that which can’t be seen, touched, and proved. How, then, can we explain that there are ways, beyond science, that people can know God?
“First of all,” Packer responded, “I believe we all have a sense of God’s reality deep down in our being. The people who deny God and who claim to be atheists — they are denying something very deep inside them.”
It’s not surprising, then, Packer continued, that in a science-oriented culture people want to know more; that there is, however deeply buried, a longing to know God. “The secret,” Packer insists, “is learning from the Bible. It’s all there, and God has put it there for us — to instruct us about how we’re to think of Him and how we’re to relate to Him. He’s told about what He has done, what He is doing, and will do.
“And I would say, quite strongly I think, that if you believe you can secure a knowledge of God without the Bible, you’re making a very grievous mistake. God doesn’t mean for you to. God does mean you to focus on the Scriptures and learn from Him via the Scriptures. That’s His appointed way.”
Upon reflection, Packer laments, “We in the church may have failed our society because we have not made a big deal of the fact that the Bible, in an amazing way, is a unity. That very fact gives you some initial sense that its credentials are serious.” The Bible itself tells us, Packer says, that all the circumstances and events in the world are determined by God’s Word — “the Creator’s omnipotent, ‘Let there be ….’” Therefore everything, Packer explains, from changes in the weather to the “rise and fall of nations,” occurs in fulfillment of God’s Word.
In “Knowing God,” Packer points out that the prophet Jeremiah was appointed “over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and plant” (Jeremiah 1:10). And yet Jeremiah wasn’t a statesman or “world potentate.” He was, however, God’s messenger. How, Packer rhetorically asks, could a man with no official position, whose only job was to talk, be a God-appointed ruler of the nations? The answer: He had the words of the Lord in his mouth, and any word that God gave him to speak about the destiny of nations would be fulfilled. God’s Word, Packer says, is His “executive instrument” in all human affairs. What He says goes — without fail.
There is something else different today, Packer believes. “Sometimes I find myself speaking with people who talk about [their disbelief] in an arrogant and boastful way. Often that prompts me to ask: Were you hurt by a professing Christian? And are you now trying to get back at them by denying that which is most fundamental and precious to them?
“I don’t say that in every case” Packer admits. “I wouldn’t have many happy conversations if I did. But I have seen this more and more; that people deny God and deny the possibility of being certain about God because that’s their way of getting back at Christians. It is why, too, I believe, they insist that science can make us more certain about things than any element of the Christian tradition can.”
Faith Has a Twofold Object
We also discussed how faith is needed to understand God’s Word. Packer pointed out that the word faith, broadly speaking, means trust. “It’s a purely Christian concept,” he said. “There’s no corresponding reality outside the Christian faith.”
He went on to explain that Christian faith is a twofold object. First, of course, there’s trust in “the risen, living, deathless Christ.” We trust in Him as our personal savior. We trust that He successfully atoned for our sin on the cross.
But there’s a second aspect of faith, Packer says. We must also trust in truth, and the truth in question “is the truth about God the Father, God the Son, and the third person of the divine unity, the Holy Spirit.
“In a very crude and oversimplified way,” Packer says, “one could say it like this: The Father is God above us and around us. The Son is God with us and beside us. And the Holy Spirit is God within us, empowering us.” There’s much more to say, Packer acknowledges, “but that’s the formula, trust in truth: the truth about God, about Jesus Christ, and about the Spirit whom Christ has sent to take over from Him — to empower and transform people’s lives.”
“The Bible is a big book, and it tells us a great deal about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If you’re going to get your thoughts rightly shaped,” Packer says, “you’ve got to know that stuff, at least in outline.”
Incredibly, God Knows Us
In “Knowing God,” Packer explains that not only can we know Him, but He knows us. And in the final analysis, that matters more than anything.
Again, we talked about how such a notion plays in this generation where there is less deep appreciation for the concept of “being known” — especially by the invisible, intangible God.
Packer is certain that every human has “a sense of God in reality, in their environment.” Everyone, he believes “has this sense of the God who is there.” What’s more, “I think they sense that He takes notice of them. It’s a fundamental element of our sense of being alive.”
Packer further explains, “I can’t prove the existence of God, not the same way you can prove a theorem of geometry or a particular process or reaction in the world of science. But I can witness to it.” When any spokesperson for God points to Scripture — to passages that expound and illustrate God’s love, compassion, provision, and grace — then everyone “will know a certain resonance in their heart, a deep-down resonance that says to you, in effect, this is something I ought to consider because there is reality here.”
The word reality looms large in Packer’s thinking. “God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is reality,” he says. “They are here. Each is reality. Their cooperation is reality. And this is the real environment in which we live.” It’s important, he believes, that we simply ask unbelievers: “Can you recognize that there might be something in that? That there are good reasons to take it seriously?”
In the final analysis Packer writes, “What matters supremely is not that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies that knowledge: He knows me.”
Such knowledge, when thoroughly explored, appears tailor-made for the current generation. Consider, Packer writes, that “I am graven on the palms of His hands, that I am never out of His mind, that He knows me as a friend, that He loves me and has His eye on me, and therefore His care can never falter.
“This is momentous knowledge,” he writes, that “God is watching over me for my good.”
There is, then, in this generation, great incentive to worship and love God. “For some unfathomable reason,” Packer says, “He wants me as His friend and desires to be my friend and has given His Son to die for me in order to realize this purpose. So yes, if we present that truth, the current generation may be open to it.”
Knowing God vs. Knowing About God
We talked about living in the internet age and how it appears that many people seem less concerned with building and having command of a body of knowledge. These days, when someone needs to know something, they Google it. Does it still make sense, then, to create a distinction between knowing God and knowing things about Him?
In our conversation, and in “Knowing God,” Packer draws a parallel to meeting the president of the United States or the queen of England (he was born in England). We’d like to get to know these people, Packer says. It would be fascinating to spend time with them. But if such a meeting took place, we would let them take the initiative, and if they filled the time with no more than small talk and social pleasantries, we wouldn’t complain.
But, if the president inexplicably took us into his confidence; if, for example, he took us behind the scenes of debatable legislation; if he told us everything he knows about the scandals and controversies, we’d scoot our chairs closer. Our relationship would change. Should the president seem eager to hear our thoughts, we’d probably think of him differently. And should the president ask for our cell number so he could stay in touch, that would change our perspective.
Prior to such a meeting, we may have thought of ourselves as ordinary people living humdrum lives, Packer says. Afterward, we’d have a different view. When the most powerful man in the world wants to know us and hear from us, and when he cares about our thoughts and feelings, we know we’re special. We have something to live up to.
Here’s the reality, Packer says: The God of the universe “before whom the nations are as a drop in a bucket, comes to you and begins to talk to you through the words and truths of Holy Scripture.”
Right now, Packer insists, “God is actually speaking to you.” At first, Packer cautions, the conversation might be discouraging. Initially, God talks with you about your “sin, guilt, weakness, and blindness.” The conversation might be depressing, he says, because it “forces you to see that you are hopeless and helpless, and in terrible need.” But as you listen, you realize that God is “opening His heart to you, making friends with you, and enlisting you as a partner.” That is staggering, Packer writes, and it is true.
It’s as if God puts us “on His staff,” Packer says. We become insiders, fellow workers (1 Corinthians 3:9), and personal friends. Which means, of course, that when we strive to achieve His plan and purpose, we suddenly find ourselves with considerable pull.
There can be no doubt, therefore, that this generation will want to know God, and not just random facts about Him.
By God’s providence there is a book, written 45 years ago, that can introduce them to Him.
Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith magazine. John Robertson is the PCA business adminstrator.