Book Review: Knowing God

Knowing GodEven though I’ve been posting weekly summaries of my reading from Knowing God by J. I. Packer, I still wanted to do a general review, partly for those who did not want to keep up with the weekly readings, and partly for me to have a general review to link back to.

Even though this book has been considered a classic and has been in print for over 40 years, somehow I had never gotten around to reading it before, though I had heard of it and wanted to.

Packer says the most basic definition of a Christian is that he or she is a person who has God as Father. We are not all God’s children: we become His when we believe on Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

Packer begins with the virtues of studying about God as well as the warning not to stop with just the academics, but to use what we learn to get to know God personally.

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. We need to guard our hearts against such an attitude, and pray to be kept from it (p. 22).

The psalmist [of Psalm 119] was interested in truth and orthodoxy, in biblical teaching and theology, not as ends in themselves, but as means to the further ends of life and godliness. His ultimate concern was with the knowledge and service of the great God whose truth he sought to understand (pp. 22-23).

He talks about what it means to know God, how knowing Him differs from knowing others, the different analogies the Scriptures use to illustrate our relationship to Him.

John 17:3: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”

Knowing God is more than knowing about him; it is a matter of dealing with him as he opens up to you, and being dealt with by him as he takes knowledge of you. Knowing about him is a necessary precondition of trusting in him (‘how could they have faith in one they had never heard of?’ [Romans 10:4 NEB]), but the width of our knowledge about him is no gauge of the depth of our knowledge of him (pp. 39-40).

He discusses the need to know God as He truly is, not as our mental picture of Him is nor as He has been falsely portrayed by others.

All speculative theology, which rests on philosophical reasoning rather than biblical revelation, is at fault here [emphasis mine here]. Paul tells us where this sort of theology ends: “The world by wisdom knew not God” (1 Cor 1:21 KJV). To follow the imagination of one’s heart in the realm of theology is the way to remain ignorant of God, and to become an idol-worshipper, the idol in this case being a false mental image of God, made by one’s own speculation and imagination (p. 48).

He discusses what it means to believe that Jesus is God Incarnate and yet also fully man, the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit, the truth of the Bible, the need for and nature of propitiation, what the Bible means by adoption, how God guides us, why we still have trials if we know Him and He loves us, and His full adequacy to handle whatever He allows in our lives. He covers in great detail several of God’s attributes: His immutability (His unchanging nature), His majesty, wisdom, love, grace, judgment, wrath, goodness, severity, and jealousy. Each of those topics is the subject of a whole chapter, and it’s impossible to give an overview of them here, but they were quite beneficial and helpful.

As I said in one week’s summaries, sometimes in the middle of a given chapter, it was easy to get occupied with the individual topics or chapters and forget that they are there in connection with how we know God, so it helped me to stop periodically and remember to tie the individual chapters back to the main point of the book. They do all have that connection even though it might not seem like it from the titles.

Though I didn’t agree with every single little point, especially those emphasizing a Calvinistic viewpoint, I did benefit from and can highly recommend the book. I appreciate that it is not full of theologicalese – terminology that only an academic could understand. I wouldn’t call it simple reading: there were a few places that were a little hard to follow. But for the most part I think an average reader could handle it fairly easily.

I am glad I finally made time for this book and thoroughly understand why it is considered a Christian classic. There were multitudes of places I marked and many memorable and helpful quotes in the book, many more than I can possibly recount here. But I’ll close with this one:

In the New Testament, grace means God’s love in action toward people who merited the opposite of love. Grace means God moving heaven and earth to save sinners who could not lift a finger to save themselves. Grace means God sending his only Son to the cross to descend into hell so that we guilty ones might be reconciled to God and received into heaven (p. 249).

For more information, my thoughts on a couple of chapters a week are as follows:

Chapters 1 and 2, “The Study of God” and “The People Who Know Their God”
Chapters 3 and 4, “Knowing and Being Known” and “The Only True God”
Chapters 5 and 6: “God Incarnate” and “He Shall Testify”
Chapters 7 and 8: “God Unchanging” and “The Majesty of God”
Chapters 9 and 10: “God Only Wise” and “God’s Wisdom and Ours”
Chapters 11 and 12: “Thy Word Is Truth” and “The Love of God”
Chapters 13 and 14: “The Grace of God” and “God the Judge”
Chapters 15 and 16: “The Wrath of God” and “Goodness and Severity”
Chapters 17 and 18: “The Jealous God” and “The Heart of the Gospel” (Propitiation)
Chapters 19 and 20: “Sons of God” and “Thou Our Guide”
Chapters 21 and 22: “These Inward Trials” and “The Adequacy of God”

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Knowing God, Chapters 21 and 22: Trials and God’s Adequacy

Knowing GodWe’re finishing Knowing God by J. I. Packer along with Tim Challies’ Reading Classics Together Series with chapters 21 and 22.

Chapter 21, “These Inward Trials,” discusses the problems of believing, or, worse yet, teaching, that the Christian life will be a “bed of roses,” when the Bible tells us repeatedly that we will have trials in this life. Thinking that there won’t be any more trouble after one becomes a Christian “is bound to lead sooner or later to bitter disillusionment” (p. 245). Either they will think they’ve been deceived, or they’ll think something is wrong with their faith or practice.

We still have our old nature within us and the devil and the world system opposed to us, not to mention potential conflicts with others, believers or not, who also still have a sin nature. We need Biblical understanding of sanctification, spiritual warfare, and growth in grace.

Packer’s definition of grace is one of the best I have ever seen: “God’s love in action toward people who have merited the opposite of love” (p. 249). God’s grace saves us, revives us, transforms us, and will some day raise our bodies to glory. The work of grace leads us to “an ever deeper knowledge of God, and an ever closer fellowship with Him. Grace is God drawing us sinners closer and closer to Himself” (p. 250).

How does God in grace prosecute this purpose? Not by shielding us from the assault of the world, the flesh and the devil, nor by protecting us from frustrating and burdensome circumstances, nor yet by shielding us from troubles created by our own temperament and psychology; but rather by exposing to us all these things, so as to overwhelm us with with a sense of our own inadequacy, and to drive us to cling to him more closely. This is the ultimate reason, from our standpoint , why God fills our lives with troubles and perplexities of one sort and another: it is to ensure that we shall learn to hold him fast. The reason why the Bible spends so much of its time reiterating that God is a strong rock, a firm defense, and a sure refuge and help for the weak, is that God spends so much of his time bringing home to us that we are weak, both mentally and morally, and dare not trust ourselves to find, or to follow the right road (p. 150).

Chapter 22 studies “The Adequacy of God” primarily from Romans, primarily from Romans 8. After the despair of Romans 7, Romans 8 encourages and edifies by pointing us to “the adequacy of the grace of God” to deal with a number of things and teaching us of “four gifts of God given to all who by faith are “in Christ Jesus”: righteousness (no condemnation), the Holy Spirit, adoption, and security (p. 258). Packer reminds us that “God is for us” and encourages us to “let evangelical thinking correct emotional thinking” (p. 260).

This is one of the longest chapters in the book with Packer unpacking many truths from Romans 8, but that will give you a little glimpse. There were a couple of paragraphs of a Calvinistic bent that I did not agree with, but otherwise it was very good. The last section of this chapter is called “Learning to Know God in Christ” and gives a nice overview of all that the book has discussed.

Overall I’ve much enjoyed the book and can see why it is considered a Christian classic. I am glad to have read it.

Knowing God, Chapters 19 and 20: Adoption and Guidance

Knowing GodWe’re nearing the end of reading Knowing God by J. I. Packer along with Tim Challies’ Reading Classics Together Series. This week we are in chapters 19 and 20, and there is only one more week to go in this particular reading group.

The chapters in this last section have been very long, so in a sense there is proportionally less that I can say about them. One thing that has helped me this week is to remember to tie the individual chapters back to the main point of the book: knowing God. It’s easy to get occupied with the individual topics or chapters and forget that they are there in connection with how we know God. Thus studying the attributes that we’ve discussed (God’s love, grace, wrath, goodness, jealousy, unchangeableness and majesty) are a part of getting to know Him better, His Word is the main means by which we learn about Him, His propitiation of our sins is what makes it possible for us to know Him, and once we do know Him by faith, we become His children, the topic of chapter 19, and then we can trust Him to guide us, the topic of chapter 20.

Chapter 19 is “Sons of God,” and Packers says the most basic definition of a Christian is that he or she is a person who has God as Father. We are not all God’s children: we become His when we believe on Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
 John 14:6

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. John 1:12.

This chapter traces through Scripture what it means when it says we are “adopted” by God. Adoption in Rome in Biblical times wasn’t so much the modern conception of taking in of a child not born into a family and making them, by legality and love, a child of that family. It was more the idea of taking in a male heir, usually at adulthood (interestingly, this same concept was being taught on the BBN radio station by Dr. Donald R. Hubbard as I was cleaning up the kitchen after dinner last night. I am not usually still in the kitchen when this program comes on.) “God has so loved those whom he redeemed on the cross that he has adopted them all as his heirs, to see and share the glory into which his only begotten Son has already come” (p. 201). What an inheritance!

Our sonship changes everything. The emphasis in the Old Testament is on God’s holiness and our unfitness to be in His presence because we are so far from holy. Now we can run into His arms as trusting children. God’s fatherhood implies authority, affection, fellowship, and honor (p. 205). It affects our conduct, prayer, and how we live our lives: by faith, trusting in His care and provision. It shows us His love, provides a basis for hope, helps us understand the Holy Spirit’s ministry to us (making “Christians realize with increasing clarity the meaning of their filial relationship with God in Christ, and to lead them into an ever deeper response to God in this relationship,” Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6 (p. 220), provides a different motivation for holiness (pleasing our Father), and is the basis for our assurance.

Chapter 20 is “Thou Our Guide.” Packer starts out by showing many instances in both Old and New Testaments that God had a specific plan for specific people at specific times. This is one of the main reasons I can’t subscribe to the idea that it doesn’t matter what we do (whom we marry, where we go to school, what our life’s work should be, even what our plans for the day should be). And the Bible in many places promises God’s guidance. But the main question then is how does God communicate that plan to us?

The first avenue is His Word. No, we won’t find the names of a future spouse or college or employer there. But we will get to know our Father and His character and preferences there and learn the many principles by which He wants us to live. Any seeming “leading” which contradicts a clear principle in His Word is not from Him.

When it comes to what Packer calls “vocational” decisions – the specifics about what God wants us to do, like marriage, etc. – he says, “The work of God in these cases is to incline first our judgment and then our whole being to the course which, of all the competing alternatives, he has marked our as best suited for us, and for His glory and the good of others through us” (p. 237).

As a personal illustration, I had a hard time coming to a decision about whether my husband was the man God wanted me to marry. My own parents had divorced, so I knew that just getting married didn’t insure a “happily ever after,” and I had been engaged before, in a relationship that had numerous red flags that I didn’t see until after it was broken off, so I knew it was possible to be deceived in matters of the heart. How to know if I was really on the right track? It was something I agonized over. Finally I reminded myself that I had asked God to guide me in this area, and when I told Him I didn’t want to play “dating games” any more and only wanted to date the guys He wanted me to date, Jim was the very next person to ask me out. There was no reason to doubt that he was God’s will for me. In making decisions about job changes and moves over the years, two verses that I especially relied on were Psalm 37:23 (The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord: and he delighted in his way – prayed this esocially for my husband as the main family decision-maker), and Jeremiah 10:23 (I know, O LORD, that a man’s way is not in himself, Nor is it in a man who walks to direct his steps.)

Packer does point out, however, that we can be deceived. It’s sadly possible to quench or grieve God’s Holy Spirit. If we are out of fellowship with God, we can’t trust our sense of His leading: we need to confess any known sin, be willing to submit to His leadership, and renew spending time in His Word. Packer then gives six pitfalls that hinder our discernment of God’s will, but I am going to try to recast them into positives:

  1. Be willing to think. “God made us thinking beings, and he guides our minds as in his presence we think things out–not otherwise” (p. 237).
  2. Be willing to think ahead and weigh the long-term consequences of alternative courses of actions. “O that they were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter end!” (Deuteronomy 32:9).
  3. Be willing to take advice. “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” (Proverbs 12:15).
  4. Be willing to suspect oneself. Sometimes we don’t realize we are being unrealistic or rationalizing. We have a tendency to be self-serving. We need to ask God to “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).
  5. Be willing to discount personal magnetism. Sometimes someone else’s personality or attraction (whether a personal friend or a teacher or leader) can pull us in certain directions. Some people use this magnetism on purpose to mislead: some do not but people idolize them. “Test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
  6. Be willing to wait. God does not often give guidance ahead of the time it is needed.

Even when we’ve prayerfully and carefully sought God’s guidance, “it does not follow that right guidance will be vindicated by a trouble-free course thereafter” (p. 239). Numerous examples in the Bible show people falling into trouble who were directly where God led them: the Israelites between Pharaoh and the Red Sea; the disciples in a boat in a storm, a boat that Jesus sent them off in; Paul in prison, Jesus Himself on the cross, just to name a few. An easy path doesn’t always mean we’re on the right road: a troubled path doesn’t necessarily mean we are on the wrong one.

Finally, Packer acknowledges that it is possible to miss the path sometimes, but we can trust our Father to let us know and to set us right again. “The Jesus who restored Peter after his denial and corrected his course more than once after that (see Acts 10; Gal. 2:11-14), is our Savior today and he has not changed” (p. 241).


Knowing God, Chapters 17 and 18: God’s Jealousy and Propitiation

Knowing GodWe’re continuing to read Knowing God by J. I. Packer along with Tim Challies’ Reading Classics Together Series. This week we are in chapters 17 and 18.

The word “jealousy” has a bad connotation: we usually picture a jealous person as one who is short-tempered, unreasonable, unnaturally possessive. But God is sinless and holy, so what does He mean when He proclaims Himself to be a jealous God?

Even among humans there is a right kind of jealousy which is a “zeal to protect a love relationship” and sets safeguards to do so. But “God’s jealousy is not a compound of frustration, envy, and spite, as human jealousy so often is, but appears instead as a (literally) praiseworthy zeal to preserve something supremely precious” (p. 170).

Even humans expect loyalty in certain relationships. God certainly does as well, and as absolutely perfect and holy, He “will vindicate his claim by stern action against them if they betray his love by unfaithfulness” (p. 171).

Christians’ proper response, Packer says, should be zealousness for Him and His name. This doesn’t mean we start wars with people who don’t believe as we do. But it does mean we should have “a burning desire to please God, to do His will, and to advance His glory in the world in every possible way” (p. 173).

Chapter 17 ended a section of chapters called “Behold Your God!” which talked about His attributes; Chapter 18 begins the final section of the book called “If God Be For Us.”

The title of this chapter is “The Heart of the Gospel,” and Packer asserts that heart is propitiation. Like many people, I think the average preacher and writer needs to use words accessible to the common man and not lapse into verbiage only a theology student would grasp, but propitiation is a word that we need to understand. Packer defines it as “averting God’s anger by an offering” (p. 180), yet it is different from offerings for the same purpose in pagan religions due to many factors. One is that God initiated the offering of His Son. There is nothing we could offer that would take away our sin.

Some dislike the word and its concept because they don’t like to think of God as angry over sin. But as we have seen in the chapter on God’s wrath, God has a righteous and just anger over sin.

Propitiation was accomplished by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, the OT sacrifices being a picture of that which was to come:

Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree (Galatians 3:13).

For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again…  To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, 19-21).

 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus (Romans 3:24-26).

And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).

In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:9-10).

This was a very long chapter and I am only feebly hitting a few of the highlights here, but Packer gives a very thorough looking into from various angles.

Knowing God, Chapters 15 and 16: God’s Wrath, Goodness, and Severity

Knowing GodWe’re continuing to read Knowing God by J. I. Packer along with Tim Challies’ Reading Classics Together Series. This week we are in chapters 15 and 16.

Chapter 16 deals with “The Wrath of God,” not the most popular subject today. As mentioned from a previous chapter, people like to think of God as grandfatherly and benign. But the Bible presents wrath as a part of God’s character, so it is wise to see what it has to say about it.

Packer defines terms and then sketches out some of the Biblical references, noting that there are more verses about God’s “anger, fury, and wrath than there are about His love and tenderness” (p. 149). “The Bible labors the point that just as God is good to those who trust Him, so He is terrible to those who do not” (p. 149).

Some object to God as displaying wrath because it seems “unworthy” of Him, or like a loss of control. But His wrath is not like human wrath. “God’s wrath in the Bible is never the capricious, self-indulgent, irritable, morally ignoble thing that human anger so often is. It is, instead, a right and necessary reaction to objective moral evil. God is only angry when anger is called for…Would a God who took as much pleasure in evil as He did in good be a good God? Would a God who did not react adversely to evil in His world be morally perfect?” (p. 151).

“God’s wrath in the Bible is always judicial–that is, it is the wrath of the Judge, administering justice” (p. 151). It isn’t arbitrary or capricious. It’s also “something which people choose for themselves. Before hell is an experience inflicted by God, it is a state for which a person opts by retreating from the light which God shines in his heart to lead him to Himself…(John 3:18-19)” (p. 152).

Packer then traces the wrath of God through the book of Romans, discussing the meaning and revelation of it as well as deliverance from it. Thankfully God has made provision for us to be delivered from His wrath by repenting of our sins and trusting in Christ, who took our sins on Himself at the cross, for salvation. “Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him” (Romans 5:9).

The title of Chapter 16 comes from Romans 11:22a: “Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God.” Packer begins by discussing how some of the “muddle-headedness” about God and what it means to have faith in Him have come about: people follow their own ideas instead of seeking what God reveals in His Word; people think all religions are equal and “draw their ideas about God from pagan as well as Christian sources” (p. 159); personal sinfulness has been downplayed, so people don’t see the need and aren’t open to correction; and, as has been mentioned on the chapters dealing with God’s justice and wrath, people “disassociate the thought of God’s goodness from that of His severity” (p. 159).

Packer then does one of the things I believe he is best at: presenting in distilled form an overview of of both God’s goodness and severity, which I could not begin to reproduce here without quoting half the chapter. But he says God’s severity “denotes God’s decisive withdrawal of His goodness from those who have spurned it (p. 163). “But God is not impatient in His severity; just the reverse. He is ‘slow to anger’… and ‘longsuffering'” patient and forbearing (p. 165). And he has done everything possible to bring people to Himself: “The Bible shows you a Savior who suffered and died in order that we sinners might be reconciled to God; Calvary is the measure of the goodness of God” (p. 165).

Knowing God, Chapters 13 and 14: God’s Grace and His Judgment

Knowing GodWe’re continuing to read Knowing God by J. I. Packer along with Tim Challies’ Reading Classics Together Series. This week we are in chapters 13 and 14.

Chapter 13, “The Grace of God,” and chapter 14, “God the Judge,” would seem at first glance like an odd pairing. In fact, many people seem to think that judgment belongs to the Old Testament and grace to the New, but Packer makes a case for both in both sections.

There is something about the word “judge” that is repellent to us. We don’t want anyone judging us, especially someone who doesn’t truly know us, doesn’t know the circumstances, and is as fallible as we are. But don’t we long in our hearts sometimes for someone to set things right in the world? From our earliest experiences, we appeal to a parent or teacher to judge a situation, do the right thing, and take care of the culprit involved.

God does know all about us and our circumstances and is the only one who can judge perfectly and rightly. We can trust the “judge of all the earth” to “do right” (Genesis 18:25). And when it comes to taking care of the culprit…well, that is all of us at one time or another. Though He would be perfectly justified to dispense with any and all of us, He offers grace. He judged His own Son in our place so we could be made right with Him when we repent and believe on Him. Those who reject His grace will have to face Him as Judge.

Packer does a masterful job showing God’s judgment throughout Scripture, explaining how His judgment is a manifestation of His righteousness, and discerning how Christians will be judged in light of the fact that the Bible says we are not under condemnation: we’re not, as far as our soul’s destiny goes, but we are accountable for what we did with what God gave us, and 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 indicates there will be some kind of loss or reward when we face God.

If God is a righteous Judge, why is there so much injustice still in the world? People have wrestled with that for years (see Psalm 73), but the Bible assures us it will be dealt with–“if not here then hereafter) (p. 143).

In the chapter on grace, Packer offers reasons why people have trouble grasping it and then expounds on what it is and what it involves.

“Those who suppose that the doctrine of God’s grace tends to encourage moral laxity…are simply showing that, in the most literal sense, they do not know what they are talking about. For love awakens love in return; and love, once awakened, desires to give pleasure” (p. 137).

Paul refers to the fact that we must all appear before Christ’s judgment seat as “The terror of the Lord” (2 Cor 5:11 KJV), and well he might. Jesus the Lord, like his Father, is holy and pure; we are neither. We live under his eye, he knows our secrets, and on judgment day the whole of our past life will be played back, as it were, before him, and brought under review. If we know ourselves at all, we know we are not fit to face him. What then are we to do? The New Testament answer is this: Call on the coming Judge to be your present Savior. As Judge, he is the law but as Savior he is the gospel. Run from him now, and you will meet him as Judge then- and without hope. Seek him now, and you will find him (for “he that seeketh findeth”), and you will then discover that you are looking forward to that future meeting with joy, knowing that there is now “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1) (pp. 146-147).

Knowing God, Chapters 11 and 12: God’s Word and His Love

Knowing GodWe’re continuing to read Knowing God by J. I. Packer along with Tim Challies’ Reading Classics Together Series. This week we are in chapters 11 and 12.

I believe chapter 11, Thy Word Is Truth, is one of the most important in the book, not because God’s Word is more important that His love or grace or the rest of His attributes we’ll be looking at, but because without His Word we wouldn’t know about the rest. At least, not as much. God’s Word is His revelation to us: as one pastor put it, it is divinely brief. It doesn’t tell us everything that ever happened or everything God is thinking or doing, but it does tell us what He most wants us to know about Himself and how He wants us to live.

God speaks to us through three different means in the Bible: law or instruction, promises, and testimony: “information give by God about Himself and people–their respective acts, purposes, nature, and prospects” (p. 110).

Though God is a great king, it is not his wish to live at a distance from his subjects, Rather the reverse: He made us with the intention that he and we might walk together forever in a love relationship. But such a relationship can only exist when the parties involved know something of each other…we can know nothing about Him [God] unless He tells us. Here, therefore, is a further reason why God speaks to us: not only to move us to do what He wants, but to enable us to know Him so that we may love Him. Therefore God sends His word to us in the character of both information and invitation. It comes to woo us as well as to instruct us; it not merely puts us in the picture of what God has done and is doing, but also calls us into personal communication with the loving Lord Himself (p. 110).

But the claim of the word of God upon us does not depend merely upon our relationship to him as creatures and subjects. We are to believe and obey it, not only because he tells us to, but also, and primarily, because it is a true word. Its author is “the God of truth” (Psalm 31:5; Isaiah 65:16), “abundant in … truth” (Exodus 34:6 KJV); his “truth reacheth unto the clouds” (Psalm 108:4 KJV; compare 57:10) – that is, it is universal and limitless. Therefore his “word is truth” (John 17:17). “All your words are true” (2 Samuel 7:28 RSV).

Truth in the Bible is a quality of persons primarily, and of propositions only secondarily. It means stability, reliability, firmness, trustworthiness, the quality of a person who is entirely self-consistent, sincere, realistic, undeceived. God is such a person: truth, in this sense, is his nature, and he has not got it in him to be anything else. That is why he cannot lie (Titus 1:2; Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Hebrews 6:18). That is why his words to us are true, and cannot be other than true. They are the index of reality: they show us things as they really are, and as they will be for us in the future according to whether we heed God’s words to us or not (p. 113).

Chapter 12 discusses the wonderful truth of the love of God. Packer notes that a lot of false ideas have sprouted about what it means that “God is love” (1 John 4:5, 16), and we have to look at what God’s love is as revealed in His Word.

When Paul says, “ the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” (Rom 5:5 KJV), he means not love for God as Augustine thought, but knowledge of God’s love for us…Three points in Paul’s words deserve comment. First, notice the verb shed abroad. It means literally poured (or dumped) out. It is the word used of the “outpouring” of the Spirit himself in Acts 2:17-18, 33; 10:45; Titus 3:6. It suggests a free flow and a large quantity—in fact, an inundation. Hence the rendering of the NEB, “God’s love had flooded out inmost heart.” Paul is not talking of faint and fitful impressions, but of deep and overwhelming ones. Then, second, notice the tense verb. It is in the perfect, which implies a settled state consequent upon a completed action. The thought is that knowledge of the love of God, having flooded our hearts, fills them now, just as a valley once flooded remains full of water. Paul assumes that all his readers, like himself, will be living in the enjoyment of a strong and abiding sense of God’s love for them. Third, notice that the instilling of this knowledge is described as part of the regular ministry of the Spirit to those who receive him—to all, that is, who are born again, all who are true believers. One could wish that this aspect of his ministry was prized more highly than it is at the present time. With a perversity as pathetic as it is impoverishing, we have become preoccupied today with the extraordinary, sporadic, non-universal ministries of the Spirit to the neglect of the ordinary, general ones. Thus, we show a great deal more interest in the gifts of healing and tongues—gifts of which, as Paul pointed out, not all Christians are meant to partake anyway (1Cor. 12:28-30)—than in the Spirit’s ordinary work of giving peace, joy, hope and love, through shedding abroad in our hearts of knowledge of the love of God (p. 118).

God’s love does not contradict His holiness and justice:

“The God who is love is first and foremost light, and sentimental ideas of His love as an indulgent, benevolent softness, divorced from moral standards and concerns, must therefore be ruled out from the start. God’s love is a holy love. God…is not a God who is indifferent to moral distinctions, but a God who loves righteousness and hates iniquity, a God whose ideal for His children is that they should “be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48) (p. 122).

This goes along with much of what C. S. Lewis said in The Problem of Pain.

Packer describes or defines God’s love as follows: “God’s love is an exercise of his goodness toward individual sinners whereby, having identified himself with their welfare, he has given his Son to be their Savior, and now brings them to know and enjoy him in a covenant relation” (p. 123), then he expands in each phrase individually, a wonderful section in which to meditate on how great and full His love is.

One of the things I like best about reading a book together with others is that they bring out different emphases or even bring out points I missed. See Lisa’s post about God’s love and Tim’s about the Holy Spirit’s ministry of shedding God’s love abroad in our hearts for different perspectives of these chapters. I’m only able to keep up with these two with an occasional glance at the Facebook group for this project, but it’s enlightening to see what others got out of the same reading.

Knowing God, Chapters 9 and 10: God’s Wisdom and Ours

Knowing GodWe’re continuing to read Knowing God by J. I. Packer along with Tim Challies’ Reading Classics Together Series. This week we are in chapters 9 and 10, which present different aspects of wisdom.

Chapter 9, “God Only Wise,” discusses what the Bible means when it says that God is wise and acknowledges that Biblical wisdom is not merely intellect, knowledge, or cleverness but also includes a moral quality. “Wisdom is the power to see, and the inclination to choose, the best and highest goal, together with the surest means of attaining it. Wisdom is, in fact, the practical side of moral goodness. As such, it is found in its fullness only in God. He alone is naturally and entirely and invariably wise” (p. 90). But His wisdom doesn’t guarantee a comfortable, trouble-free life: “He has other ends in view for life in the world than simply to make it easy for everyone” (p. 92).

God’s wisdom cannot be thwarted as human wisdom can “because it is allied to omnipotence…Omniscience governing omnipotence, infinite power ruled by infinite wisdom, is a basic biblical description of the divine character” (p. 91). “Wisdom without power would be pathetic, a broken reed; power without wisdom would be merely frightening; but in God boundless wisdom and endless power are united, and this makes him utterly worthy of our fullest trust” (p. 91).

After discussing God’s purposes or goals for us, part of which is to draw us into a loving relationship with Himself which involves faith in Him and deliverance from sin, manifesting His grace through our lives, Packer traces that wisdom in God’s dealing with three Biblical figures: Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. I won’t list everything he skillfully brings out about them, but I loved this section, and his descriptions reinforced in me the need to not just read the facts, but to notice what is going on with the people in the Bible and how they change. Packer then briefly discusses how we can trust that same wisdom to be working through the perplexities in our lives.

Chapter 10 is “God’s Wisdom and Ours” and discusses what the Bible means when it says we are to be wise. It doesn’t mean that we know everything God knows or what His purposes are in what happens in the world and our lives. There is much that doesn’t make sense in life, and Packer brings out some truths in Ecclesiastes to illustrate that but also to show that ultimately we can trust God no matter what is happening or what sense it does or doesn’t make to us. He emphasizes the need for realism in our view of life and compares it to driving: we may not know why certain roads are laid out the way they are or why other drivers are acting they way they are, but we “simply try to see and do the right thing in the actual situation that presents itself. The effect of divine wisdom is to enable you and me to do just that in the actual situations of everyday life” (p. 103).

That wisdom is gained first by reverencing God (“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” – Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10, and others) and then by receiving His Word (Psalm 119:98-99, Colossians 3:16).

[Wisdom] is not a sharing in all his knowledge, but a disposition to confess that he is wise, and to cleave to him and live for him in the light of his Word through thick and thin.

Thus the effect of his gift of wisdom is to make us more humble, more joyful, more godly, more quick-sighted as to his will, more resolute in the doing of it and less troubled (not less sensitive, but less bewildered) than we were at the dark and painful things of which our life in the fallen world is full. The New Testament tells us that the fruit of wisdom is Christlikeness–peace, and humility, and love (James 3:17)–and the root of it is faith in Christ (1 Cor. 3:18; 2 Tim. 3:15) as the manifested wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24, 30).

Thus the kind of wisdom that God waits to give those who ask him is a wisdom that will bind us to himself, a wisdom that will find expression in a spirit of faith and a life of faithfulness (p. 108).


Knowing God, Chapters 7 and 8

Knowing GodWe’re continuing to read Knowing God by J. I. Packer along with Tim Challies’ Reading Classics Together Series. This week we are in chapters 7 and 8.

Chapter 7, “God Unchanging,” opens with the scenario of reading the Bible but not getting much out of it because it seems so far removed from one’s own life. “We don’t live in the same world. How can the record of God’s words and deeds in Bible times, the record of His dealings with Abraham and Moses and David and the rest, help us, who have to live in the space age?” (p. 76).

Packers answers that it is true that we might experience a different “space, time, and culture,” but “the link is God Himself. For the God with whom they had to do is the same God with whom we have to do,” (p. 76), and He hasn’t changed in the meantime. He quotes A. W. Tozer as saying, “He cannot change for the better, for He is already perfect; and being perfect, He cannot change for the worse.”

Packer then elaborates on the points that God’s life, character, truth, ways, purposes, and Son do not change. He lists a few texts where God is said to have repented, but those refer to “a reversal of God’s previous treatment of particular people, consequent upon their reaction to that treatment. But there is no suggestion that this reaction was not foreseen, or that it took God by surprise and was not provided for in His eternal plan. No change in His eternal purpose is implied when He begins to deal with a person in a new way” (p. 80).

While it is a comfort that “fellowship with Him, trust in His Word, living by faith, standing on the promises of God, are essentially the same realities for us today as they were for Old and New Testament believers,” it is a challenge as well. “How can we justify ourselves in resting content with an experience of communion with Him, and a level of Christian conduct, that falls so far below theirs?” (p. 81).

Chapter 8 explores “The Majesty of God,”and Packer asserts that “Christians today largely lack” the knowledge of God’s greatness and majesty, “and that is one reason why our faith is so feeble and our worship so flabby…Modern people…cherish great thoughts of themselves” but “small thoughts of God” (p. 83). The emphasis today is on the personal interest and care God extends towards His loved ones, and while that is a blessed truth, it can’t offset His majesty and greatness. The rest of the chapter is a wonderful walk through the Scriptures that give us glimpses of His majesty and a reminder that we need to “‘wait upon the Lord’ in meditations on His majesty, till we find our strength renewed through the writing of these things upon our hearts” (p. 89).

Knowing God, Chapters 5 and 6: The Incarnation and the Holy Spirit

Knowing GodWe’re continuing to read Knowing God by J. I. Packer along with Tim Challies’ Reading Classics Together Series. This week we are in chapters 5 and 6.

Chapter 5, “God Incarnate,” is probably the most…I hate to say difficult or technical, because that immediately turns people off. It is a little more difficult and technical than the previous chapters, but not at all insurmountable. I love that Packer says, “This is the deep end of theology, no doubt, but John [in John 1] throws us straight into it” (p. 66). Some people prefer to avoid theological discussions and feel that, “We’re just supposed to love God and people. Why waste time on that stuff?” Because it matters. If people talk about loving Jesus but don’t know Him for Who He really is, they can be totally lost even while thinking all is right with the world. False steps either on the side of Jesus’ humanity or His deity lead to grave errors.

That said, I couldn’t possibly reproduce what Packer said in this chapter in distilled form. It would be long and involved and I just don’t have time this particular week. But it’s good reading to cement the truth that Jesus is totally God and totally man into our thinking, drawing primarily from John 1:1-14,  Philippians 2:5-11, and II Corinthians 8:9.

A section particularly interesting to me involved what it meant for Christ to “empty Himself” in Philippians 2:6-7: “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” We know this doesn’t mean He set aside His deity, for He displayed omnipotence (still the storm, feeding 5,000+, raising the dead, etc.), omniscience (knowing others’ thoughts), and omnipresence (talking about being in heaven at the same time He was talking to people on earth – John 3:13)) while in human form. So what did He empty Himself of? “Does  it not imply that a certain reduction of the Son’s deity was involved in His becoming man?” (p. 59). No, answers Packer. Such a theory is called kenosis, and it has been around in various forms for years. Packer discusses it and its manifestations and implications more fully and then says:

When Paul talks of the Son as having emptied himself and become poor, what he has in mind, as the context in each case shows, is the laying aside not of divine powers and attributes but of divine glory and dignity, “the glory I had with you before the world began, as Christ puts it in His great high priestly prayer (p. 60).

We now see what it meant for the Son of God to empty himself and become poor. It meant a laying aside of glory (the real kenosis); a voluntary restraint of power; an acceptance of hardship, isolation, ill-treatment, malice and understanding; finally, a death that involved such agony – spiritual even more than physical – that his mind nearly broke under the prospect of it. It meant love to the uttermost for unlovely human beings, that they through his poverty might become rich (p. 63).

I like the way he applies this truth to Christmas, when we celebrate the incarnation, the fact that God came to us in the form of a baby, to grow up as a human, yet still fully God, for the purpose of dying on the cross for our sins:

We talk glibly of the ‘Christmas spirit,’ rarely meaning more by this than sentimental jollity on a family basis. But what we have said makes it clear that the phrase should in fact carry a tremendous weight of meaning. It ought to mean the reproducing in human lives of the temper of him who for our sakes became poor at the first Christmas. And the Christmas spirit itself ought to be the mark of every Christian all the year round.

It is our shame and disgrace today that so many Christians–I will be more specific: so many of the soundest and most orthodox Christians–go through this world in the spirit of the priest and the Levite in our Lord’s parable, seeing human needs all around them, but (after a pious wish, and perhaps a prayer, that God might meet them) averting their eyes, and passing by on the other side. That is not the Christmas spirit. Nor is it the spirit of those Christians–alas, they are many–whose ambition in life seems limited to building a nice middle-class Christian home, and making nice middle-class Christian friends, and bringing up their children in nice middle-class Christian ways, and who leave the sub-middle-class sections of the community, Christian and non-Christian, to get on by themselves.

The Christmas spirit does not shine out in the Christian snob. For the Christmas spirit is the spirit of those who, like their Master, live their whole lives on the principle of making themselves poor — spending and being spent — to enrich their fellow men, giving time, trouble, care, and concern, to do good to others — and not just their own friends — in whatever way there seems need (pp 63-64).

Chapter 4, “He Shall Testify,” is about the Holy Spirit. He asserts that preaching and teaching about the Holy Spirit has been sadly neglected but is vital, for He is fully God as well and testifies of Christ. “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (John 14:26).

Again, I am not going to list point by point his instruction about the Holy Spirit – you’ll just have to read the book. 🙂 But one section that stood out to me was this:

In the Old Testament, God’s word and God’s Spirit are parallel figures. God’s word is his almighty speech; God’s Spirit is his almighty breath. Both phrases convey the thought of his power in action (p. 67).

He then discusses the parallels are mentioned in the creation account and in reference to Christ. This caught my eye because I had noticed a long time ago that in the passages telling us to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16-25) and to “be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18-33), the aftermath is remarkably similar: speaking to ourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, letting the Spirit and the word affect all our relationships, etc.

After showing that one of the Holy Spirit’s ministries is to illuminate and convict people of God’s truth:, Packer says:

It is not for us to imagine that we can prove the truth of Christianity by our own arguments; nobody can prove the truth of Christianity except the Holy Spirit, by his own almighty work of renewing the blinded heart. It is the sovereign prerogative of Christ’s Spirit to convince men’s consciences of the truth of Christ’s gospel; and Christ’s human witnesses must learn to ground their hopes of success not on clever presentation of the truth by man, but on powerful demonstration of the truth by the Spirit (p. 71).

That’s not to say we shouldn’t share the truth of Christ since opening people’s eyes is His job and not ours: no, we must. We’re commanded to, and the Spirit used the Word to open eyes. But we trust in His working, not our “clever presentation.”

These chapters were beneficial to study, even though they tossed us for awhile into the “deep end of theology.” It’s good to “gird up the loins of our minds” sometimes and exercise them beyond what we’re used to.