Posts Tagged ‘Knowing God’

What?  Did you think we forgot about this series?

J I Packer carries the theme of wisdom from Chapter 9 into Chapter 10 of his classic book, Knowing God.  Whereas Chapter 9 dealt more with God’s wisdom, Chapter 10 dives into how God grants wisdom to His people and what that wisdom looks like.  In fancy theological language, it looks at wisdom from the standpoint of one of God’s communicable attributes.

Packer gives two prerequisites for attaining wisdom (p101):

1. We must learn to reverence God.  “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps 111:10, Prov 9:10)

2. We must learn to receive God’s word.  “Your command makes me wiser than my enemies… I have more insight than all my teachers for I meditate on your statutes” (Ps 119:98-99, see also Col 3:16, 2 Tim 3:15-17)

Of course, one wonders why Packer didn’t marshal James 1:5 in support, but his point is still well made.

What we learn from Ecclesiastes is that the difficult realities of life show us that we are not as wise as we thought:

…we feel sure that God has enabled us to understand all his ways with us and our circle thus far, and we take it for granted that we shall be able to see at once the reason for anything that may happen to us in the future. (p106)

For the truth is that God in his wisdom, to make and keep us humble and to teach us to walk by faith, has hidden from us almost everything that we should like to know about the providential purposes which he is working out in the churches and in our own lives. (p106)

Packer’s thoughts are good, as far as they go.  That is, I begged for more in this chapter that gives a positive look at wisdom.  I kept wanting to know, what does a wise person look like?  In my opinion, Ecclesiastes only gives one part of the biblical picture of wisdom.  It is mostly (though not entirely) a cautionary tale.  But something like the book of Proverbs, while echoing much of what is in Ecclesiastes, offers a broader picture of “our wisdom.”

That said, Packer is correct.  We often think we are wise, when in reality we show our ignorance in our inability to come to terms with our lack of understanding of God’s ways.  We demonstrate our wisdom by accepting that we cannot fully understand what God is doing in our world.  Those who refuse to admit otherwise betray their arrogance.

Packer ends with a helpful section entitled, “The Fruit of Wisdom” (p108).  And I leave you with his words, with one interjection of my own:

Thus, the kind of wisdom that God waits [fantastic word choice!] to give to 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.

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Knowing God: God Only Wise

Wisdom can be a slippery word to define these days.  I suspect that most Americans would equate wisdom with intelligence or sagacity.  More practically, wisdom might be defined as the ability to make “good” choices.  Most of the time when I say that I made a “wise” choice, this is all I really mean:  It was a good one, viz., it brought about the results I sought.

Along this line of thinking, wisdom is more or less morally neutral.  What constitutes “wise” or “unwise” is largely subjective.  I could say that I was wise in lying to the police officer about my expired registration, because it spared me the displeasure of a ticket.  Biblically speaking, however, I’d be wrong.  Packer corrects this perception of wisdom in the 9th chapter of Knowing God, defining wisdom as “the power to see, and the inclination to choose, the best and highest goal, together with the surest means for attaining it.”  It is “the practical side of moral goodness” (p.90).  Biblical wisdom, Packer notes, is not morally neutral.

God’s wisdom, unlike ours, is perfect, and not limited by a lack of foresight, intelligence, or moral goodness.  His choices are always the best means of realizing his perfect will.  Packer is quick to point out what the ultimate aim of this perfect will is.  This is a crucial point, given our tendency to think that any act of God which brings about personal unhappiness or discomfort is not good (i.e., unwise).  God’s ultimate aim is his glory (p.92):

[God’s] ultimate objective is to bring [humankind] to a state in which he is all in all to them, and he and they rejoice continually in the knowledge of each other’s love – people rejoicing in the saving love God, set upon them from all eternity, and God rejoicing the responsive love of people, drawn out of them by grace through the gospel.  This will be God’s glory, and our glory to, in every sense which that weighty word can bear.

Packer lets the Bible illustrate God’s wisdom in action, through a few brief surveys of the lives of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph.  This is Packer’s springboard to the important point that our own lives can take odd twists and turns, including hardships, that God is working towards his very good ends.  Writes Packer, “We may be frankly bewildered at things that happen to us, but God knows exactly what he is doing, and what he is after, in his handling of our affairs” (p.98).

I once heard Tim Keller remark that our own “books” have not been written yet.  In the case of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, we can look back at the story of their lives and see how God worked his great plans through them.  But when Joseph was locked up in Egypt, he didn’t have that perspective.  Nor do we, as we face trials and odd turns of circumstance.  What we do have, is the blessed assurance of God’s perfect wisdom.  Our grief, confusion, or pain, then, can always be framed with trust.  We may not know what the reasons are, but we do know what they are not:  Our suffering is not because God doesn’t care, because he’s made a mistake, because he’s forgotten, overlooked, or miscalculated.  God is perfectly wise, and therefore perfectly trustworthy through any circumstance.

As much as I’d love to close this post on the note above, I can never escape the fact that great theological propositions are often cold-comfort when we’re smack in the middle of a trial.  Most of us have had the experience of a well-meaning friend reciting Rom.8:28 to us when we’re in such a place, and most of us have had to nod politely (at best).  Belief in God’s wisdom doesn’t necessarily ease the pain, nor (I would argue) is it meant to.  What it does do is give us hope.  It is the light at the end of the tunnel.  Without it, all suffering and confusion is ultimately unbearable.  We may hurt and weep, but we needn’t despair.  A bright future awaits all of God’s children, and we can count on it.

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Knowing God: The Majesty of God

“Today, vast stress is laid on the thought that God is personal, but this truth is so stated as to leave the impression that God is a person of the same sort as we are- weak, inadequate, ineffective, a little pathetic.”

In chapter 8 of Knowing God, J I Packer discusses the often overlooked subject of the majesty of God.  Packer doesn’t downplay the personal nature of God, nor does he think we should either.  But he does believe, and I think he’s right, that we have so stressed this point that we forget that God is not like us.  He is not a created being.  He is not limited in wisdom.  He does not confuse evil and good.

So how do we rediscover the majesty of God?  Packer gives two suggestions.  First, “remove from our thoughts of God limits that would make him small.”  He looks briefly at Psalm 139 “where the Psalmist meditates on the infinite and unlimited nature of God’s presence, and knowledge, and power, in relation to people.”  I found this particular quote convicting: “I can hide my heart, and my past, and my future plans, from those around me, but I cannot hide anything from God.”

Packer’s second suggestion for rediscovering the majesty of God is “to compare him with powers and forces which we regard as great.”  For this, he looks at Isaiah 40, where God invites us to look at 5 things: the tasks he has done, the nations, the world, the world’s great ones (rulers), and the stars.  All of these fall short of the majesty of God.  In fact, none of these would have their existence if it weren’t for the majestic and powerful God of the universe.

In response, Packer gives 3 points drawn from Isaiah 40 (I’m using the translations offered in the book).

1) When God asks, “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him?”, this question rebukes wrong thoughts about God.

2) When God asks, “Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel, My way is hid from the Lord and my judgment is passed away from my God?”, this question rebukes wrong thoughts about ourselves– specifically that God has abandoned us.

3) When God asks, “Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, faintest not, neither is weary?”, this question rebukes our slowness to believe in God’s majesty.

I appreciate Packer’s emphasis on the majesty of God.  While I completely agree with the belief that God is personal and cares for the littlest details of our lives, we cannot lose sight of the majestic glory of God.  In fact, God’s personal nature is made all the more amazing when I remember just how great he truly is, yet cares for me.

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One of the things I marvelled at when reading The Da Vinci Code was author Dan Brown’s claim that the early church, (in a power grab, of course), shrouded Christ’s humanity in a veil of divinity, thus obscuring His humanity.  This created the need for the church as a mediator of Christ’s revelation, otherwise Jesus would be incomprehensible.  Brown’s claims are backed up by several gnostic “gospels,” such as those found at Nag Hammadi.

What was amazing to me about this view, (aside from the fact that it is historically puerile and hopelessly inconsistent to the point where one wonders if Brown even bothered to read a gnostic text, or even look up the word “gnosticism”), was that Brown made such an effort to assert Christ’s humanity, and emphasize his human ministry.  This was interesting to me merely on a personal level, because for the bulk of my Christian life, I have had far greater struggles convincing non-Christians of Christ’s divinity.

This struggle, I learned, was actually much easier than describing what Christ’s divinity actually meant.  How was he God and man?  This difficulty could have been much reduced if only I had read Packer’s 5th chapter in Knowing God.  Here, with the simplicity and clarity that has made this book so popular, Pakcer tackles the incarnation:  Jesus as fully human and fully divine.

Particularly helpful in this chapter is Packer’s precision in expressing that Jesus was not God minus certain divine characteristics, but God plus humanity.  His explanation of Paul’s text in Php. 2:7 is helpful (p.60,63):

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…a volutary restraint of power; an acceptance of hardship, isolation, ill-treatment, malice and misunderstanding; finally, a death that involved such agony-spiritual even more than physical -that his mind nearly broke under the prospect of it.

As well as one may be able to describe Christ’s nature, we should note that it will always be mysterious and intrinsically baffling; there is nothing in the universe that serves as an accurate analogue for the Trinity.  God is our only example.  All we can do is express what the Bible teaches.

But even after understanding (best I could) the Bible’s teaching on Christ’s nature, I encountered a third struggle when I met with some Jehovah’s Witnesses to discuss the Bible.  Jehovah’s Witnesses deny Christ’s divinity, and instead claim that he was a created being, and while he may be ontologically superior to us, he is not divine.  As I labored to reason with them through the Scriptures that Jesus is indeed the God-man, a chilling question surfaced in my head:  What’s at stake?  Does it matter that Jesus was human and divine?  Am I still Christian if I deny this?

Packer hints at the ramifications of Christ’s nature in the beginning of his chapter.  Gallons of theological ink can be spilled to answer why it is crucial to Christianity that Jesus be divine and human.  Consider my very brief, very incomplete list:

  1. Jesus as the God-man is the only adequate explanation for the information we have of him (i.e., Scripture).  It best accounts for his self-understanding, his actions, words, and teachings.  If he were not divine and human, Jesus was either a lunatic, an apparition, or a scoundrel.  None of these seems a plausible option.
  2. Jesus’ nature as God-man means he is the perfect atoning sacrifice for our sins in kind (he is human) and quantity (he is infinite).  Even more, we might ask of Scripture:  Who alone saves?  Who alone forgives sins?  It is only and always God.  Jesus is no savior if he is not God.
  3. Jesus’ nature explains the resurrection.  How could one die, yet raise himself up again by his own authority (see Jn. 10:17-18) if he were not both God and man?
  4. Jesus’ nature cements the authority with which we understand his teaching.  If he’s just another guy with amazing, revolutionary things to say, why would we listen to him over and against the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama or Karl Marx?
  5. If Jesus were not human, we lose the awesome realization of how deeply God loves us, and the expanse of Christ’s humility.  C.S. Lewis says it this way in Mere Christianity (p.179):

The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a Woman’s body.  If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.

Packer concludes with the practical application of my point above, that as we model God, and “make our attitudes the same as Christ Jesus,” (2 Cor. 8:9), we too become poor, so that others might become rich.

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Knowing GodChapter 4 of Knowing God is always one of the most interesting to discuss.  It is here that Packer deals with the second commandment and proper worship of God.  His basic premise is that the 2nd commandment, which is a prohibition of idols, is talking about making an idol or representation of God Himself.  Many Christians take it as setting up an idol and worshipping it instead of God, but Packer argues this would be nothing more than repeating the first commandment.  For the sake of conversation we’ll go with Packer’s notion here, with the caveat that not all agree with him.

Regarding physical images of God, Packer states two reasons why this commandment is given: 1) Images dishonor God, for they obscure his glory, and 2) Images mislead us, for they convey false ideas about God (45-46).  In essence, we can’t capture the glory of God in an image, so we’re creating false (or incomplete) impressions about him that do not honor who God truly is.

Truthfully, I don’t really have an issue with Packer here.  Where most people get tripped up is on the next section, regarding mental images.  The idea is the same as the previous point, that our mental images dishonor God and mislead us about him.  Our mental images cannot capture the fullness of the glory of God, so making those images is breaking the second commandment.

I have a number of thoughts on this chapter, so let me run down the list.  NB: these mostly deal with the mental images portion of the chapter.

1)  I wish Packer would have handled the issue of the Son separately from the Father.  The fact is that Jesus did come in a physical form.  He is seen after his resurrection in a physical form.  Is there significance to the fact that Jesus is desribed in physical terms in Revelation 1, whereas the Father is not in Revelation 4?  It would have been nice for Packer to address this.

2) If we cannot ever have a picture of God in our mind, then I feel like God has played a cruel joke on us.  Were the original hearers really expected not to picture a shepherd when they heard Psalm 23?  What about when God talks about his “right arm” stretching out to save Israel?  Is one to repent for having a picture of an arm pop into their mind?

3) I hear Packer’s concern for not capturing the fullness of God in an image, whether physical or mental.  But, can’t we say the same thing about using words to describe God?  If I say God is a loving Father, which is certainly biblical, am I sinning because I’m not emphasizing the fullness of God’s character?  How would one ever capture all who God is accurately, in any form of communication?  I’m reminded of Haddon Robinson’s words: “every sermon borders on heresy.”  His point- you can’t capture everything in a sermon, thus you run the risk of short-shrifting God.  If you are preaching on the love of God, you naturally will not focus on the wrath of God.  That, of course, means you might mislead your listeners to think that God has no wrath.  Welcome to the challenge of living with human limitations!  I’m not sure why a mental image is any different from these other potential problems.

4) I’m not sure Packer adaquetly accounts for sanctification here.  The Bible teaches that believers go through a process of sanctification- being made holy.  What may be used for evil can now be used for good.  For instance, my mouth as an unbeliever may speak lies.  But as a believer, the Lord sanctifies me and uses my mouth to proclaim truth.  This process includes the sanctification of the mind.  So couldn’t an image in that sanctified mind be good?

I do have some strong agreements with Packer, lest anyone think I dismiss this chapter easily.

1) There is, even with my caveat about sanctification, a serious danger of imagining God as we would like to imagine him rather than the biblical revelation of him.  You don’t have to talk to a Christian very long to realize that God is often spoken of in limited terminology: Father, Savior, Friend, etc.  Those are all true and good, but they often reflect what that person wants God to be rather than what he fully is.  Often times the picture of God one has reveals more about the person than it does about God.

2) The second commandment “is a summons to us to recognize that God the Creator is transcendent, mysterious and inscrutable, beyond the range of imagining or philosophical guesswork of which we are capable-and hence a summons to humble ourselves, to listen and learn of him, and to let him teach us what he is like and how we should think of him” (48).  Amen and amen.

3) There are cultures in which one would do well to heed Packer’s warning.  I think specifically of a place like India, where people are accustomed to worshipping an idol that represents a god.  To introduce images into a culture such as this could be extremely dangerous.

I enjoy rereading this chapter every year.  Part of the reason is because it forces me to step back and look at my life and ask myself whether or not I’m truly worshipping and recognizing God for who he is.  Am I guilty of only focusing on those aspects of God’s character that I find most palatable?  Do I create an image of God that I prefer, over against who God has revealed himself in the Bible?  While I know many people will read this chapter and easily dismiss Packer’s point, I think it offers a wise and valuable look into the idolatry of our hearts.

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In Packer’s third chapter, he begins to take on the nuts and bolts of knowing God. Although he’s been using this titular phrase for some time, he devotes this chapter to fleshing out what it means to know God. He opens by way of an excellent thought experiment, wherein the reader is asked to consider the prospect of being introduced to somebody of high rank: some distinguished man or woman of government, the academy, or some other well known position. Packer imagines our thoughts:

We would like to get to know this exalted person, but we fully realize that this is a matter for him to decide, not us. If he confines himself to courteous formalities with us, we may be disappointed, but we do not feel able to complain; after all, we had no claim on his friendship. But if instead he starts at once to take us into his confidence, and tells us frankly what is in his mind on matters of common concern, and if he goes on to invite us to join him in particular undertakings he has planed and asks us to make ourselves permanently available for this kind of collaboration whenever he needs us, then we shall feel enormously privileged…If life seemed unimportant and dreary hitherto, it will not seem so anymore…[here is] something to live up to! (pp.35-6)

This illustration gives us a taste, if only in part, of what it is like to know God. Says Packer, “It is a staggering thing” (p.36). He moves on to highlight three points about knowing God: (1) It is a personal matter; God is no object or study, but a person with whom we have relationship through Christ. (2) It is a matter of personal involvement, including all the aspects of relationship – mind, will and feeling. (3) It is a matter of grace. The relationship is at God’s initiative, and we are known by God before we know Him.

Properly understood, I believe that such truth should knock us out of our chairs every time we think of it. That we are loved, cared for, and every inch of us known by the great God of the universe is truly amazing, and even more so when we consider that He is the one seeking us. God Himself wants to be known by us.  As one simple example (of literally hundreds that I could list), read through the Bible with an eye for “so that you/they/he may know I am the Lord” or similar phrases; it’s everywhere. Our God is one who is constantly revealing Himself to us, that He may be known.

The God of the universe wants to have a relationship with you.  Will you accept?  Will you seek Him out?  I have depleted many hours and dollars to see a band perform, or hear a person speak.  I have spent energy thinking on how great it would be to meet so-and-so.  Our celebrity culture clamors to even catch a glimpse of the latest movie star, and oh, the badge we wear when we can recount some story that highlights our connections!  “I went to college with so-and-so’s nephew.”  Examples such as these highlight to me that C.S. Lewis was right when he said that we are “like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

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How have you responded to past failures?  Heartbreaks?  Missed opportunities?  Perhaps, like me, you typically sigh, shurg your shoulders and dole out a theological crumb or two: “Well, I guess God doesn’t have that for me”, “I guess it wasn’t His will”,  “I don’t understand this, but God is good, right?”  While the theology of these statements may be good enough, according to Packer, the attitude with which they are often spoken evidences a deficient knowledge of God.   We focus on our past hurts, and respond to them with “dried up stoicism.”  We carry our hurts as “crosses” to bear, and the “unspeakable joy” of knowing God is nowhere to be found.  As Packer says,

These private mock heroics have no place at all in the minds of those who really know God.  They never brood on might-have-beens; they never think of the things they have missed, only of what they have gained.

Packer points to Paul, who considers “everything a loss” when compared to knowing Christ.  He considers everything else rubbish in light of what he’s gained in knowing God through Christ (Phil. 3:7-10).  The glory of knowing God trumps everything, such that any failure (or success) and hurt (or pleasure) pales in comparisson.

What characterizes the people who truly know God?  Packer suggests four traits.  Those who know God: (1) have great energy for God, (2) have great thoughts of God, (3) show great boldness for God, and (4) have great contentment in God.

Speaking personally, Packer’s analysis here cuts deep.  I am particularly convicted by his fourth characteristic of contentment in God.  Herein lies the “joy” in the midst of hardship; though the world may all but kill us, we rest in joyful contentment with our God.  I believe one of the roots of our discontent is that, whether we realize it or not, we have subscribed to the notion that there is always something better out there, be it a better body, better car, better sex, better iPod, better job, better church, better food, or better friends.  Multi-billion dollar marketing machinery strives each day to create and exploit this discontent, from which the only ostensible escape is the proffered product, be it an idea or automobile.

My analysis is as trite as it is obvious, but we cannot deny that the cacaphony of voices which bombard our senses each day easily cloud the fact that there is a greatest good, a One who knows no close rival, no better, and no equal.  When we truly get our arms around the fact that God Himself is the greatest good in every category – and actually believe it – real contentment must follow.  This contentment transcends every circumstance, because the source of our contentment transcends all circumstance.  Our contentment meets our every need, because everything we need is rooted in God.

Loose your job?  Your friends?  Your reputation?  Your health?  In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter, because you have something far superior in every way:  A relationship with the one and only God.  By comparison, as Paul says, everything else is refuse.  This is why Jesus can say that anyone who does not hate is family – even his own life – cannot be His disciple (Lk. 14:26).  The statement is jarring, but the premise is true:  We’re built to love and cherish our relationship with God to such a degree that all else seems as nothing (i.e., hatred).  Therein do we find lasting, unshakable contentment.

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Knowing God: The Study of God

Why study theology?  Why spend hours praying over biblical texts?  What are we hoping will happen to us when we study who God is and learn His character?

Knowing GodChapter 1 of J I Packer’s Knowing God helps direct us in our pursuit of knowing God.  He starts the chapter with a quote from Spurgeon.  Spurgeon notes that the study of God ought to do three things: humble the mind, expand the mind and console.  The more we learn about God, the more we ought to realize our limitations and finiteness.  The effect ought to be humbling.  Our minds will also find themselves expanding as we try to comprehend the God who created and sustains the entire universe.  Finally, the problems and grieves of the soul will find their comfort and consolation in God Himself.

What do we do about the problem of arrogance?  After all, many of us know people whose study of God simply fed their intellectual pride.  It’s not hard to see examples of this in the church, though I’ll point out seminary students and professors aren’t the only ones prone to this- I’ve met plenty of Christians who have no desire to study theology who are just as guilty of immense spiritual pride (indeed, the fact they don’t feel the need to study the Bible at all may be a sign of that pride).

Packer is well aware of the potential for this problem (pp21-22).

For the fact that we have to face is this: If we pursue theological knowledge for its own sake, it is bound to go bad on us.  It will make us proud and conceited…  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.

Packer’s remedy:  “Our aim in studying the Godhead must be to know himself better…  As he is the subject of our study, and our helper in it, so he must himself be the end of it” (p23).

Ultimately, our motivation will dictact what we get out of our study of God.  If our motive is get smarter, we’ll achieve that- and a healthy dose of arrogance on the side.  We will deceive ourselves into thinking that we actually do know God, when in reality all we know is stuff about God.  If our motive is truly to know God, he will be faithful to reveal himself.  After all, his desire is to make himself known.  And when he does, we can revisit Spurgeon’s points above and discover for ourselves just how right he was.

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One of the highlights of the fall for me is rereading J I Packer’s classic book, Knowing God.  We read it every year in our discipleship and missions training school, and for good reason.  If you’re impressed with quantity, the book has sold over 1 million copies.  At the very least this attests to the fact that many people have found this book useful in their Christian growth.

But some of Knowing Godus are less enamored with numbers than others are.  After all, there are number of bestselling books that quite frankly aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, though I’m not naming any names (coughdanbrowncough).  Books are popular for any number of reasons: celebrity authors, Oprah’s Bookclub, clever marketing, and so on.  None of these necessarily speak to the quality of the book, and in some cases it may speak negatively.  And even the perceived usefulness of a book noted above is no true indication of its merit- see: Joel Osteen books, high sales totals of (I’m not doing a good job of not naming names, am I?).

There are other bestsellers that top the charts because they are simply wicked good.  It is our contention that Packer’s Knowing God is that kind of book, though I’m not sure he’d understand or appreciate the term “wicked good.”  Brian and I have decided that we’d like to blog through this modern day Christian classic, one chapter per week.  I first read Packer’s book in David Wells‘ Systematic Theology class.  It ended up being my favorite theology book of all the ones I read in seminary, in large part because it captures the “why” of studying theology and knowing God so well.  Knowing God is no mere intellectual exercise.  Packer’s concern is that we truly know God, not just know about Him and about His book.  And in knowing God, the life of the Christian and the church will be forever changed.

So we hope you’ll join us in our quest over the coming weeks and months.   We invite you to read along with us and offer your thoughts along the way.  If you do not own a copy, get one.  Beg and borrow if you must, even contemplate stealing, though don’t act on it.  However you get the book, read it, digest it and participate in our discussions.  Hopefully we’ll all come away knowing the God we worship all the more.

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