One fall afternoon in 1994, as a not-new but newly serious believer, I wandered into a small Christian bookstore in Tennessee, a book caught my eye. Actually, the title of the book caught my eye: Knowing God, written by someone who, at the time, I’d never heard of… J.I. Packer.
However, the name of almost every Christian leader I did know (like Chuck Colson, Joni Eareckson Tada, Chuck Swindoll, Elisabeth Elliot, Billy Graham, and others) was on the dust jacket, offering their endorsement of the book. Each was along the lines of: “This is one of the most important books I’ve ever read other than the Bible itself.” So, I picked it up, read it, and I’ve been recommending Knowing God ever since.
The book is best described as a work of “devotional theology.” For many Christians, “devotional” and “theology” are two incompatible words, as if diving deep into theological truth is the stuff of the “head,” while walking with God is more a matter of the “heart.” Packer, in a thoroughly biblical way, destroys that false dichotomy in Knowing God.
Two statements which this Oxford-trained theologian made in the second chapter of the book hit me like a ton of bricks. First, “One can know a great deal about God without much knowledge of Him,” and second, “One can know a great deal about godliness without much knowledge of Him.”
In Knowing God, Packer describes four characteristics of those who truly know God. First, they have great energy for God. Second, they have great thoughts of God. Third, they show great boldness for God. And finally, those who know God have great contentment in God.
Throughout the book, Packer clarifies that God must be known on His own terms. Too often, the God Christians claim to know is One made in our own image. We must know the God revealed in Scripture and clarified by proper theology.
That’s why I recommend this book, even for those who have studied theology deeply. Even though Packer is one of the brightest theological minds of our time, he never forgot what theology was all about. And if you’ve never studied theology, or even think that theology gets in the way of personal devotion to Christ, I’ll wager that Packer’s classic will convince you otherwise.
A few years ago, Dr. Packer announced the end of his public ministry. The eminent pastor theologian, who authored more than 300 books, book reviews, journal articles, dictionary entries, and forewords, and preached and lectured around the world, was losing his vision. He was sustained during the last several years not by his feelings, by what he knew to be true about the God he knew.
On The Gospel Coalition website, Dr. Packer told interviewer Ivan Mesa that “in the days when it was physically possible for me to do these things I was concerned, even anxious, to get ahead with doing them. Now that it’s no longer possible I acknowledge the sovereignty of God.” Describing what he called Christian realism, Dr. Packer continued, “God knows what he’s up to. And I’ve had enough experiences of his goodness in all sorts of ways not to have any doubt about the present circumstances. Some good, something for his glory, is going to come out of it.”
That’s a good word for all of us. Aging is one of the stages of life that our youth-fixated culture doesn’t prepare us for. Years ago, Dr. Packer wrote, “How should we view the onset of old age? The common assumption is that it is mainly a process of loss. But here 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.”
That kind of perspective comes not merely from knowing about God, or knowing about godliness, but only comes from truly knowing God. (You can pick up a copy of Knowing God by J.I. Packer at the BreakPoint.org online bookstore).
This past Friday, July 17, Dr. J.I. Packer, aged 93, died. When asked for his final words to the church, Packer said: “Glorify Christ every way.” He has now entered his eternal rest, and I join with thousands and thousands of others and thank God that his faith is now sight. Now, at last, he truly and fully knows the God he faithfully studied, and taught so many of us about, for many years.