The Centrality of Knowing God
“What is the best thing in life,” asks Packer, “bringing more joy, delight and contentment than anything else? Knowledge of God.”1 This should come as no surprise to those familiar with Packer. Knowing God is of central importance in living a life that is both productive for oneself and pleasing to God. This is simply one expression of the emphasis Packer places on the intellectual grasp of doctrinal truth. One cannot authentically love and enjoy or even obey a God of whom one knows little or nothing, or a God about whom one entertains false and distorted beliefs. Thus a cognitive grasp of the truths about God as revealed in Scripture is the sine qua non of all genuine Christian living. Whatever emotional “heat” may be generated in the heart must be the fruit of biblical “light” imparted to the mind. Indeed,
we are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God whose world it is and who runs it. The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God. Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfolded, as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul.2
This doesn’t preclude, sadly, those who may yet wonder, why study God? The person who thinks in this way probably assumes that a study of the nature and attributes of God is impractical and of little help in today’s world. Packer counters with the assertion that it is by far the single most practical project in which anyone can engage. He points us to Psalm 139 as but one example. Here
the psalmist’s concern to get knowledge about God was not a theoretical but a practical concern. His supreme desire was to know and enjoy God himself, and he valued knowledge about God simply as a means to this end. He wanted to understand God’s truth in order that his heart might respond to it and his life be conformed to it.
Again, “the psalmist 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.”3 What, then, does the activity of knowing God involve? Packer directs us to no fewer than four elements. There is, first, the task of listening to God’s Word and being receptive to its teaching as the Holy Spirit sheds light upon each passage. This also entails the willing application of such truth to life in terms of reshaping both what we believe and how we behave. Here again we see that Packer operates with a functional view of biblical authority and not merely a theoretical one.
The Word is always living and active and transformative when it is read with a receptive heart. A second critical dimension is taking careful note of how God himself is portrayed in Scripture, observing the complexity of his personality and the multifaceted nature of his many (indeed, infinite) attributes. But knowing God must not stop with either of the first two elements. There must follow from them a joyful acceptance of God’s commandments and a pursuit, in the grace God himself supplies, of obedience to them. Finally, all this should awaken love for God, a deep and abiding joy in God, and a consequent intimacy of fellowship with God that overflows in worship. How, then, should we express this love for God?
In a word, by seeking to please him. The best definition of love focuses on the purpose of making the loved one great in all appropriate ways. We cannot, of course, confer greatness on God, but we celebrate his greatness and so exalt him and render him homage by our praise, by our direct obedience, and by always trying to do that which, of all the options open to us, we calculate will please him most. Thus we glorify him. The three notions meld into one: loving God, pleasing God and glorifying God, the composite goal of the Christian’s life.4
God’s Glory for His Sake
Packer would also contend that one has fallen short in the knowledge of God until such time as the glory of God becomes central in all areas of life and thought. Although this often strikes the unwary Christian as divine selfishness (a blatant contradiction in terms, as Packer will shortly explain), God’s ultimate aim in all his dealings with us is his own glory. God “does not exist for our sake, but we for his.”4 As noted, some object to this. Such folk are sensitive to the sinfulness of continual self-seeking. They know that the desire to gratify self is at the root of moral weaknesses and shortcomings. They are themselves trying as best they can to face and fight this desire. Hence they conclude that for God to be self-centered would be equally wrong.5
There can be no genuine or transformative holiness in life until a person has for his primary and ultimate aim the glory of God alone.
Is this conclusion valid? No. Here is Packer’s response:
If it is right for man to have the glory of God as his goal, can it be wrong for God to have the same goal? If man can have no higher purpose than God’s glory, how can God? If it is wrong for man to seek a lesser end than this, it would be wrong for God, too. The reason it cannot be right for man to live for himself, as if he were God, is because he is not God. However, it cannot be wrong for God to seek his own glory, simply because he is God. Those who insist that God should not seek his glory in all things are really asking that he cease to be God. And there is no greater blasphemy than to will God out of existence.6
Although we must proceed with caution here, it is surely right to say that the only thing God is bound to do is the very thing he requires of us: to glorify himself. Thus Packer drives home his point by declaring that “the only answer that the Bible gives to questions that begin: ‘Why did God . . . ?’ is: ‘For his own glory.’ It was for this that God decreed to create, and for this he willed to permit sin.”7
There can be no genuine or transformative holiness in life until a person has for his primary and ultimate aim the glory of God alone. This is not optional, as if some who claim to know him in a saving way might choose to move in a different direction, with a different goal or aim. Packer rightly insists that
every Christian’s life-purpose must be to glorify God. This is the believer’s official calling. Everything we say and do, all our obedience to God’s commands, all our relationships with others, all the use we make of the gifts, talents, and opportunities that God gives us, all our enduring of adverse situations and human hostility, must be so managed as to give God honor and praise for his goodness to those on whom he sets his love (1 Cor. 10:31; cf. Matt. 5:16; Eph. 3:10; Col. 3:17). Equally important is the truth that every Christian’s full-time employment must be to please God. . . . Pleasing God in everything must be our goal (2 Cor. 5:9; Col. 1:10; 1 Thess. 2:4; 4:1).8
There is a sense in which this is so foundational to everything Packer has to say about the Christian life that we should have begun this book with it rather than concluding with it. But in either case, the point is made: the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever!
- J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973), 33.
- Ibid., 19.
- Ibid., 22.
- J. I. Packer and Carolyn Nystrom, Praying: Finding Our Way through Duty to Delight (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 20.
- J. I. Packer, Hot Tub Religion (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1987), 36.
- Ibid., 37.
- Ibid., 38.
- Ibid., 42.
- J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1993), 185.
This article is adapted from Packer on the Christian Life: Knowing God in Christ, Walking by the Spirit by Sam Storms.
As we remember the life of J. I. Packer, join us in thanking God for his profound writing ministry and the legacy of his faithful service to the church.
Over the course of his life, J. I. Packer became one of the most famous and influential evangelical leaders of his time.
As we look back on the life of J. I. Packer, join us in thanking God for his humble writing ministry and the legacy of his service to the church.
Sam Storms reflects on Packer's remarkable life and ministry, including how Packer came to faith and the impact that his many books have had on generations of Christians.