books

Knowing God, by J.I. Packer

During the summer of 2005, an older, more mature Christian gave me a copy of J.I. Packer’s book, Knowing God. Besides the Bible itself, I don’t believe God has used any single book in my life to more radically change the way I see myself, my life, and my Savior.

No other single book has been more used by God to change me.

Our church book table will, for the most part, be stocked with books that fit with our current sermon series. But Kai and I decided to indulge ourselves a bit. We will take turns putting our favorite books on the table, still hopefully fitting the current series. Knowing God is one of my favorite (and highly readable!) books of theology. 

Knowing God Is Serious Theology

“Milquetoast” is the best word I can think of to describe the theology I grew up with. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines milquetoast as “a person who is timid or submissive.” The word is derived from a cartoon character of that name. Here’s an example of why:

The definition of "milquetoast." 

The definition of "milquetoast." 

The God of the churches I grew up in was careful not to make waves. He never said anything impolite, didn’t step on anyone’s toes, was always sure to disciple children to be nice boys and girls. Church didn’t interest me much because there wasn’t much going on that was interesting.

But then I read the opening chapter of Knowing God, which is titled “The Study of God.” Packer begins his book with a quote from Charles Spurgeon:

The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of a child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls Father. (pg. 17)

I was immediately hooked. This wasn’t milquetoast at all. There was nothing polite or apologetic about this statement. This was passion. Gravitas. Conviction. This was theology.

Somewhere in the midst of reading Knowing God while stretched out on my bed on a Saturday afternoon in New York City, I said to myself, “If this is what theology is, I could give my life to this.” All these years later, here I am.

Somewhere in the midst of reading Knowing God, I said to myself, “If this is what theology is, I could give my life to this.” All these years later, here I am.

Knowing God Is Practical Theology

If the word “theology” calls up for you academic debates, abstract ideas, or angels dancing on the heads of pins, put those ideas out of your mind. J.I. Packer has no patience for theology that doesn’t lead to life change.

[Y]ou can have all the right notions [about God] in your head without ever tasting in your heart the realities to which they refer; and a simple Bible reader and sermon hearer who is full of the Holy Spirit will develop a far deeper acquaintance with his God and Savior than a more learned scholar who is content with being theologically current. The reason is that the former will deal with God regarding the practical application of truth to his life, whereas the latter will not. (pg. 39)
Not the sort of theology Packer is into.

Not the sort of theology Packer is into.

Packer wants us to know God (theology) in a way that will transform our lives (practically). Any knowledge of God that doesn’t have a practice effect in our lives is nothing short of dangerous.

Knowing God Is Devotional Theology

One thing that comes out constantly in his book is that Packer is devoted to the Lord. He wants to know God, and wants us to as well. And he wants that knowledge to lead to a deeper love for God, a devotion to Him. Knowing God is devotional theology.

The second (and largest) part of the book looks in depth at the various attributes of God: His majesty, wisdom, holiness, truth, love, grace, wrath, and jealousy. Packer treats these theological topics as holy ground, dealing with them in reverence and awe (Hebrews 12:28).

But Part Two leads into Part Three, which opens with a chapter on “The Heart of the Gospel.” There, Packer puts the infinite majesty and love of the God of the universe in the context of what it took for Him to redeem us: the sacrifice of His only Son on the cross. The weightiness of the gift of God’s grace comes home more comprehensively, beautifully, and humblingly in the light of how glorious and great God truly is.

Conclusion: Get Your Copy of Knowing God!

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is clear, readable, rich, and Christ-exalting. Get it, take your time with it, and let it show you more clearly the glories of the God of the Bible!

Knowing Scripture, by R.C. Sproul

I was 22, maybe 23. I’d grown up in church and read the Bible through several times. I had won Bible memory competitions (yes, it’s a thing), and from appearances had my life together. But my Christianity was much more about duty than delight. It was a holdover of my early years, not a vibrant, living, daily experience. 

But God changed that as I participated in the life of a small church plant in Brooklyn, NY. He warmed my heart to the beauty and wonder of the gospel. And all of a sudden, reading the Bible wasn’t a chore. It was a means to get more of God! And I wanted to be sure I got the Bible right!

My pastor recommended this book, Knowing Scripture, by R.C. Sproul. It is short (score!) and profoundly helpful (double score!) to the Christian who wants to learn to get the most out of the Bible. As we work to build a habit of Bible reading in our church, I pray this book will instruct many of you in how to read and understand God’s Word.

A Brief Chapter-by-Chapter Breakdown

In chapter 1, Sproul makes the case for why we should read the Bible. He addresses some of the cultural obstacles many of us face when it comes to Bible study, and gives a passionate plea to study the Word because it is GOD’S Word. He tells us God makes Himself known to us in it and addresses our motivation for (not) reading the Bible. He calls us to maturity, to obedience, and trust in our self-revealing God. 

Looking over chapter 2 again, I was struck by how perceptive Sproul is of our cultural predicament. He looks at the objective meaning of the text and our subjective response to it through the lens of Martin Luther and the Reformation. It doesn’t teach us how to read the Word per se, but Sproul does identify a tendency many of us have—to bring our cultural and personal baggage to the Bible—and effectively calls us to look outside of ourselves for the right meaning of a Bible passage. 

In chapter 3, Sproul gets into the nitty gritty of biblical interpretation, or “hermeneutics.” From the analogy of faith (the idea that Scripture interprets Scripture) to literal interpretation and understanding literary genre, he deftly gives an overview of what we need to know to rightly approach the Word.

Chapter 4 is pure gold! There he gives 10 practical rules for biblical interpretation:

  1. Read the Bible like any other book.
  2. Read the Bible existentially (get passionately and personally involved in it!).
  3. Read the historical narratives in light of the didactic (teaching) passages.
  4. Interpret the implicit in light of the explicit
  5. Determine the meaning of words carefully.
  6. Be aware of parallelisms.
  7. Note the difference between proverbs and laws.
  8. Note the difference between the spirit and letter of the law. 
  9. Be careful with parables.
  10. Be careful with prophecy.

If you take these guidelines to heart, you will be much better able to understand the biblical message!

In the fifth chapter, Sproul comes back to culture again. This is because there is an enormous gap between the culture in which the Bible was produced and the culture in which we now live. We are conditioned by our contemporary culture (and we will be tempted to read our cultural experience into the Bible) and the Bible should be interpreted in light of its original culture (and understanding it will help us make sense of how it applies to us today). 

The final chapter of the book shows Sproul’s experience and wisdom. There he gives the reader a guide to a variety of different tools available for reading and interpreting the Bible. He explains what things like concordances, commentaries, Bible atlases and Bible dictionaries are, and gives helpful tips on when and how to make use of these. 

Conclusion

When I first read this book, it whet my appetite to dive deeper into God’s Word. I bought a Bible dictionary, made use of biblical commentaries, and felt better equipped than ever before to dig into the Word and get the most I possibly could out of it. Reading and interpreting the Bible rightly is hard work, but it is well worth the time and effort. Because reading and interpreting the Bible rightly leads us to a deeper understanding of the God who reveals Himself in it! I pray the Lord works through this book to stir up your heart to desire more of Him and more of His Word.