Last year TIME magazine listed J.I. Packer as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America, referencing his book “Knowing God,” which “outlined a conservative Christian theology deeper and more embracing than many Americans had encountered.” Five years earlier, “Knowing God” (published in 1973) was honored by the Evangelical Publishing Association in recognition of more than a million copies sold. In addition to his post as executive editor at Christianity Today, the Oxford-trained Packer is the Board of Governor’s Professor of Theology at Regent College, in Vancouver, British Columbia. In this classic book, Packer distinguishes between knowing about God and really knowing God. He contrasts travelers in the faith to onlookers who merely observe from afar. Packer calls “Knowing God” a book for travelers. Thirty-three years after the book’s first publication, Decision speaks with the author about his own travels in knowing God.
Q: The person who proclaims and shares his faith in Christ must be consistently engaged in seeking Him diligently. Your book “Knowing God” lays that adventure before us.
A: When we talk about knowing God, what’s meant every time is a relational knowledge that’s distinct from simply knowing just facts about God. You can know the facts about somebody without having any knowledge of him in a personal sense. And that’s the distinction which we’ve always got to keep in mind. Jesus said, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3, ESV). Eternal life is knowing the triune God.
Q: What are the disciplines in your own life that you have found helpful in experiencing the reality of knowing God?
A: For me, the stewing over the Bible has been a really formative thing. “Soaking” yourself in Scripture is another way of putting it. Reading, re-reading and thinking about what I’ve read in Scripture, frankly, just enriches me more and more as I get older. As I do this, I’m able to see each bit of Scripture that I read more clearly in relation both to the rest of what’s in the Bible and the moral practical realities of human life–my life and the life of people around me. That insight grows as one becomes more and more, shall I say, impregnated with Scripture, as the truth sinks down to a deeper and deeper level of one’s mind. As we take the Bible into our system by reading and re-reading and meditating on the truths, we see more clearly, and our minds are transformed at a very deep level. At any rate, and I imagine I’m not alone in this, I often find that I have faults, insights, perceptions, references to Scripture and applications of Bible truth that come out in discussion that I didn’t consciously know I had until the discussion pulled them out of me. We take in more than we know when we allow ourselves to read the Bible thoughtfully and meditate on what we discern.
Q: The pursuit of a relationship with Christ, and the wonder of a personal relationship with Him, can seem to some as quite daunting and difficult to grasp. The thought of knowing a sovereign, holy God is inviting, but intimidating, isn’t it?
A: Well, if anyone put that to me as a real problem I’d take them to Galatians 4:9, where Paul says, “But now that you have come to know God” and then immediately adjusts what he wrote to “or rather to be known by God” (ESV). That correction is a springboard for the point I would make: The really important thing is that God knows you. Understand, when God knows people it means that He loves them. If God knows you, He’s made you realize that the Lord Jesus is for real and that being His disciple is as much a personal relationship of learning and submitting and accepting direction now as it was when He walked in the flesh with His disciples. God has brought all of this home to you so that He may have your response, which is faith and repentance and obedience.
Q: God always is taking the initiative, isn’t He?
A: That’s right. For us to know God is not so much a bold, even full-heart adventure on our part. It’s a humble, thankful response to God’s own approach to us. He has made us realize that the Lord Jesus is for real and that His Word is true.
Q: In your book “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God,” you discuss the tension between the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man in sharing the Gospel. Both of these biblical truths play a role in evangelism.
A: We are morally responsible for all the choices and decisions we make, and yet God is the absolute Sovereign who overrules everything that happens in this world, including human decisions. Both of these things are very clear in the Bible, so we learn to live with them. We take encouragement from God, who sovereignly blesses evangelistic witness and opens hearts. He Himself is the supreme evangelist who brings folk to Himself through faith and repentance; and at the same time, we take seriously the fact that we are called to be enterprising in sharing the truth of Christ at every opportunity we can.
Q: Embracing the sovereignty of God in our evangelistic efforts then is a great comfort to those who share the Gospel, since the supernatural work of salvation is God’s to perform.
A: That’s right. God has said in Isaiah 55 that His Word will not return to Him void. It will accomplish that which He pleases. It will prosper in the tasks to which He sent it. He will see that Christian testimony to Christ in whatever form it’s given is not finally fruitless. And that is a tremendous encouragement.
Q: God has led you through many triumphs and trials. What have you learned about knowing His works and ways? What have you discovered about God that still thrills your soul?
A: I realize that all of my Christian life from beginning to end is His gift of grace. I’m still a sinner and I can only live by being forgiven by the mercy of God day to day. That has become a bigger and bigger thought for me. As I look over the 62 years I’ve been a Christian, one of the great things that God has been teaching me the whole time from start to finish–and is teaching me still–is that Christians grow down, downward into humility rather than upward into any form of achievement or success. If God gives achievement and success, those are His gifts and we should be thankful. But, if we are going to talk about growing in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ that all of us are called to pursue, the thing to grasp is that growing in grace, growing in the knowledge of Jesus Christ, is growing downward into humility in which one claims less and less for oneself. We become more insistent in saying, “Look, it’s entirely God’s grace to me. It isn’t in the least my effort, my volunteering, my performance. Anything that I’ve managed to do right is by His grace.”
Q: Jesus Himself confessed His dependence upon the Father.
A: Right. Remember John 5:19, when Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise” (ESV). The Father shows the Son everything that He Himself is doing and the Son joins in and does what the Father wants Him to do. The initiative belongs to the Father all the time. Jesus was following the prompting of His Father, learning more clearly that spiritual growth is growing downward into a way of living, where–whatever it may look like to the outside–you know that you are simply doing the will of God.
Q: How would you encourage the next generation to know and worship the God you serve?
A: I would beg this generation to make clear first to themselves and then to the rising generation that we must understand the Christian Story from beginning to end. This means starting with God the Creator to whom we owe the service of our lives, and ending with the prospect of a life that’s much richer and more glorious than we can imagine. This is the destination to which our Lord is leading us. Discipleship to Jesus, faith in Jesus, service to Jesus, however you like to express the real personal relationship of Christianity, is allowing the Lord Jesus to lead us on the journey–to lead us, you might say, on the hike. I shall say the best textbook that has ever been written on this particular aspect of the Bible is John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Hiking is a good picture of the Christian with ups and downs and rough places as well as smooth places. Let the Lord Jesus lead us on the hike through this world to the final glory.