Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Knowing God in 2008: The Only True God

When we hear the word idolatry, what often comes to mind are thoughts of statues or anything we place before God, like money. But in chapter four of Knowing God, Packer instead addresses inadequate or even blatantly wrong views of God as idolatrous. As Packer quotes Hodge, "idolatry consists not only in the worship of false gods, but also in the worship of the true God by images." In other words, visual or pictorial images of any member of the Trinity is a violation of the second commandment. Packer says that "the commandment thus deals, not with the object of our worship, but with the manner of it; what it tells us is that statues and pictures of the One whom we worship are not to be used as an aid to worshiping Him."

What were most convicting and helpful to me were two reasons why the second commandment is so important: first, images dishonor God because they obscure His glory, and second, images mislead man. For example, when Aaron fashioned a golden calf for the Israelites, it was not a new god, but it was an attempt to visibly symbolize the God of the Israelites. Regardless of Aaron's intent to fashion a fitting symbol of Jehovah for the people, it was a gross violation of the second commandment, "for what idea of His moral character,
His righteousness, goodness, and patience, could one gather from looking at a statue of Him as a bull?" Similarly, "the pathos of the crucifix obscures the glory of Christ, for it hides the fact of His deity, His victory on the cross, and His present kingdom..."

Additionally, images can mislead man because they convey false ideas about God - the second commandment also prohibits wrong mental images of Him. "Those who hold themselves free to think of God as they like are breaking the second commandment...To follow the imagination of one's heart in the realm of theology is the way to remain ignorant of God, and to become an idol worshiper - the idol in this case being a false mental image of God." In other words, as sinful creatures, apart from His word, we cannot rightly conjure up images of God as we should, or as He truly is. Who are we to claim to have the accurate image of God? This leads to the positive aspect of the second commandment.

The positive side is that we are to "recognize that God the Creator is transcendent, mysterious, and inscrutable, beyond the range of any imagining or philosophical guesswork of which we are capable; and hence a summons to us to humble ourselves, to listen and learn of Him, and to let Him teach us what He is like and what we should think of Him." As Isaiah 55 says, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways."

God is so above us, Packer writes, that we cannot know of Him unless He speaks and tells us about Himself. Thankfully, Jehovah has revealed Himself to us in His word, the Scriptures, and through His Son, Jesus Christ. Without such Words, we cannot have an accurate view of God. Are we keeping the second commandment? Is the God whom we worship the God of the Bible? I know I am guilty of breaking this commandment over and again with imbalanced mental images or overlooking certain attributes of God, but I pray for forgiveness and grace through Christ, through whom God has spoken.

We'll cover such a topic next week in chapter five, "God Incarnate."

Monday, August 11, 2008

Knowing God in 2008: Knowing and Being Known

We're looking at J.I. Packer's Knowing God, and now we're at chapter three: "Knowing and Being Known."

WARNING: This post will not do this chapter justice. There's a lot here, and it's very worthwhile reading. Grab the book, read chapters one through three at least. Maybe next week we'll tell you chapter four is also indispensable!

What stands out to me in this chapter is a contrast: God is highly exalted; God is personal.

Packer reminds us, "The more complex the object, the more complex the knowing of it." He points out that of course this is true of God, and we should expect the study of God to be...well, actually impossible. Unless he makes himself known to us.

But God is not just a complex object of inquiry. God, who has revealed himself to us in His word and in His Son, is personal. For this reason, it is better to compare God to an exalted person whom we would not be able to know unless they chose to make themselves known to us -- like a president or world leader. Actually, as Packer reminds us, this is true of anyone -- we do not know anyone unless they choose to share their "real" self with us.

It's amazing that we have such a God who does choose to make Himself known. And if we find ourselves in the process of knowing God, we can be sure that it's because He knew us first!

"But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God..." (Galatians 4:9)

"And this is eternal life, that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." (John 17:3)

Friday, August 8, 2008

Knowing God in 2008: The People Who Know Their God

We're going through J.I. Packer's modern classic Knowing God, and have just finished the second chapter. We will try to cover one chapter per week, and you are invited to join in the reading or simply "overhear" the discussions here and at the New Covenant blog.

In the second chapter of Knowing God, Packer once again stresses the difference between knowing about God and knowing God. Knowing God is not just knowing the facts, but radically applying such knowledge to our lives. Those who know God "count all things to be loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus...and do count them but dung, that I may gain Christ and be found in him...that I may know him" (Philippians 3:7). Counting things as loss or dung, Packer says, means that one "does not live with them constantly in his mind: what normal person spends his time nostalgically dreaming of manure? Yet this, in effect, is what many of us do. It shows how little we have in the way of true knowledge of God."

That statement reminded me of the sexual purity conference at church several months ago at which the speaker likened wallowing in sin to going back to a dead skunk. How much more should we yearn to have joyous thoughts of God than thoughts turned to a dead skunk? This knowledge of God and not merely about God is evident in the book of Daniel and summarized by Packer in four points. As I read through each of these four, I realized how much I fall short of truly knowing God though I know about God.

1. Those who know God have great energy for God: They react to the anti-God culture around them. This reaction is not only through public actions, but it starts with fervent prayer. "Men who know their God are before anything else men who pray, and the first point where their zeal and energy for God's glory come to expression is in their prayers...If, however, there is in us little energy for such prayer, and little consequent practice of it, this is a sure sign that as yet we scarcely know our God."

2. Those who know God have great thoughts of God: The central truth proclaimed by Daniel is that "the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men." Packer asks if this is how we think of God. Do our prayers reflect this perspective? "Does this tremendous sense of His holy majesty, His moral perfection, and His gracious faithfulness keep us humble and dependent, awed and obedient, as it did Daniel?"

3. Those who know God show great boldness for God: "They may find the determination of the right course to take agonisingly difficult, but once they are clear on it, they embrace it boldly without hesitation. It does not worry them that others of God's people see the matter differently, and do not stand with them."

4. Those who know God have great contentment in God: This is reflected throughout the book of Daniel, as well as in Paul's epistles: "For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ" (Romans 8:38-39).

So if we desire such knowledge of God, two things must follow: we must recognize how much knowledge we lack of God, and we must seek Christ. The next chapter focuses on "Knowing and Being Known."

photo source: Erwin C. Nielsen/Painet Inc., Illinois Department of Natural Resources

Saturday, August 2, 2008


Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. (Colossians 4:12)

This verse speaks of "struggling in prayer."

Have you (or I) done that lately? Do you (or I) understand what it means?

A related question is, should I be on the computer right now - or learning the answer to these questions?

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Knowing God in 2008: The Study of God

"As it would be cruel to an Amazonian tribesman to fly him to London, drop him down without explanation in Trafalgar Square and leave him, as one who knew nothing of English or England, to fend for himself, so 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."

So notes J.I. Packer in ch.1 of Knowing God, entitled “The Study of God.”

The message: Don’t be cruel.

We should not be cruel to ourselves, or to others, by seeking to live in this world while disregarding God. This disregard may be out of malice or ignorance; but once we realize there is an opportunity to know God, we should seize it. We will not only come to know Him (what a privilege!) but also best know ourselves and our world.

Packer notes that entering into the study of God is to seemingly enter a battlefield; so many claim God cannot be known. Packer was writing in 1973, but clearly in this regard his book remains quite contemporary! Let me just say that between 1973 and today, I have come to know God – as have countless others around the globe. Don’t believe those who say it cannot be done: it is a falsehood and a cruelty.

Yet to know God is not an achievement that we can boast about. It is a relationship initiated by God, who gave His Son to provide the way. In knowing God, we know God's grace.

* * *

Note: This is our first week of reflecting on Packer's book. We will try to cover one chapter per week, and you are invited to join in the reading or simply overhear these discussions.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Do Hard Things

Have you heard about the youth retreat?

Twenty-one of us drove to the D.C. area on Friday night, where we enjoyed a hotel stay and played "Marco Polo" and "Sharks and Minnows" in the pool. Ani, Noelle, and Ben were almost impossible to capture, so if you're a shark you might as well just give up.

Although "giving up" isn't much in the spirit of the conference we attended on Saturday...

The battle cry of the Rebelution conference was "Do Hard Things." The rebellion in mind is against low expectations for teens. It was a conference led by teens, for teens, though the actual message ultimately centered around the entire family.

But why try to describe it when you can see for yourself? Visit www.therebelution.com and check it out. There's a blog and a variety of resources there to help you learn about something wonderful God is doing in the lives of youth around the nation. And in God's grace He has allowed our youth to take a part as well.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Knowing God in 2008: Introduction

** Details on a new book reading project. You can join by following the weekly posts, or by reading along! **

One of the books that most helpfully shaped my understanding of God and the Christian faith, when I was a young believer, was J.I. Packer's modern classic Knowing God.

The concept of knowing God, however, is continually under attack. In the late 1700's, Immanuel Kant posited that we can know nothing of God -- whatever is "up there" is utterly unknowable to us, he claimed. This philosophy has been with us, not least of all in the sciences, ever since. Very ironic given that Immanuel Kant's first name points to God, who became intensely knowable by taking on human flesh!

But it's not just philosophers like Kant. Many in our day, including some hip young pastors, treat true knowledge of God as elusive at best. You may have faith, you may have spirituality, but you can't claim to actually know -- really, truly know -- the truth about God.

Certainly this much is true: Left to myself, who am I to say that I know something about an invisible God? That a mere mortal could speak of knowing God, let alone write a whole book about it, is possible only because of verses such as these:

"And God spoke all these words, saying, 'I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me." Exodus 20:1-3

"And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." John 17:3

Other passages remind us that knowing God's love requires a divine work within us, it's not something we can attain to. This is true of Ephesians 3:14-19 and certainly John 3:3.

Starting next week, we will base weekly blogs on the theme Knowing God in 2008, based around the chapters of J.I. Packer's book. You are welcome to read along, or to simply follow the posts each week. (Note: We will post on other stuff too, but this will be a staple.)

I believe this will stimulate us to think about God more deeply and more clearly. We will cover some material that's neglected quite a bit in our day. We'll also pave the way for a class beginning in the Fall on the character of God -- details on that soon!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Lest We Drift

Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?
-Hebrews 2:1-3

Pretty powerful exhortation, eh? We are to pay "much closer attention" to the wonderful salvation found in the gospel of Jesus Christ - the Son of God who died to atone for sinners so that they would be considered righteous in God's sight. It is a "great salvation" because Christ, the "radiance of the glory of God," "the exact imprint of his nature," who "upholds the universe by the word of his power" made purification for the sins of sinners such as me!
(Hebrews 1:3).

Thus, the gospel is not to be a one-time message to be forgotten after conversion, but it is to flavor every aspect of our lives. As Jerry Bridges has said, we are to preach the gospel to ourselves everyday, continually facing up to our own sin, confessing and repenting of it, and looking only to Christ and claiming his blood and righteousness only.

The author of Hebrews seems to be writing directly to me in warning us to not neglect the transforming power of the gospel. It must be at the center of everything. It must be clung to above all other idols or images in our lives. The sermon this past week on the second commandment included an exhortation to not have anything less or else than God in our hearts, minds, and lives.

But here I am, just a few days later, drifting and neglecting this already. I've again elevated myself above God; I've again been unfaithful to him; the "screensaver" of my mind has again turned away from his Word and his Truth and his Gospel. How much do I need to ask God for his grace and strength to pay much closer attention to the gospel and to not neglect the great message of Christ.

It reminds me of a sincere, convicting song: "Jealous Kind" by Jars of Clay:
I built another temple to a stranger,
I gave away my heart to the rushing wind.
I set my course to run right into danger,
Sought the company of fools instead of friends.

You know I've been unfaithful
With lovers in lines
While you're turning over tables
With the rage of a jealous kind.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Surpassing Worth

Often when we see something of value, we want to obtain it. Usually, we want to obtain it - whatever it may be - to add it to our treasures. Big companies want to obtain the smaller ones, so their resources can grow bigger. Children want the newest toy to add to their already vast collection. Pastors want the next book to set on the shelf alongside the other gently used (meaning "partially read") books.

But there is such a thing as a treasure that we obtain that cannot be added to our already overflowing collection:

"But whatever gain I had, I counted loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish..." Philippians 3:7-8a

Paul realized that gaining Christ meant losing everything else. In context, Paul is saying that he once based his worth on a host of accomplishments; but these were a bad joke in light of Christ's accomplishments, and he had to choose one or the other. With eyes wide open to the value of Jesus Christ in the eyes of God the Father, he wisely chose Christ - so that in the final day he would be prepared to stand before God.

To paraphrase a friend, Jesus cannot have a place among our pantheon of gods. He cannot even have prominence, as chief among our gods. He must have preeminence: this means that he must be, as Paul said above, Lord.

Paul does not say "the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Savior," although that would be absolutely true also. He certainly does not say "Christ Jesus my ticket to heaven." He says that knowing Jesus as Lord is the surpassing worth. In other words, I would rather follow and obey Jesus than follow myself and obey my own appetites.

Can I say the same thing?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Prayer for the Fatigued

Perhaps you feel fatigued because you have served the Lord with your whole being, prayerfully and joyfully, and now it's time to rest in Him for a while. Or perhaps, like me, you find yourself fatigued because your service to Him has been too often accompanied by prayer but has not actually been the result of prayer. If you fall into this later camp, perhaps the following prayer may help you as it helped me:

Lord Jesus, whom I follow --
I am sorry, and I repent of my ways,
Which obscure your ways.
I repent of the self-sufficiency so embedded within me -
And of the prayerlessness, restlessness, busyness, and fatigue
That are its consequence.

I repent because I have not honored Your ways by drawing from Your strength.
I repent because I want Your ways to be known in the earth, not my own ways.
And in honesty I acknowledge that I repent because I know that I desperately need the fruits of this repentance.

Please receive me back as Your follower,
Though I have sought to lead the way.
Please deliver me from self-sufficiency and its fruit,
And cause me to know the gladness of service once again.
Whatever I have built with my own hands --
Tear down in Your jealousy
Or redeem in Your mercy
Either way, I praise You, O Lord,
For your gracious forgiveness and cleansing
Because of the shed blood of Calvary.