I recently participated with several other authors who contributed a volume to the Crossway series entitled, Theologians on the Christian Life. My book was devoted to J. I. Packer. Here are ten things you should know about him.
(1) If you are wondering why Crossway would include J. I. Packer in the list of those who deserved to have a book written about their view of the Christian life, I would simply remind you that the readers of Christianity Today identified J. I. Packer as second only to C. S. Lewis when it came to the most influential theological writers of the 20th century.
(2) J. I. Packer’s early experience is a riveting testimony to the truth of Romans 8:28. Whereas some at the time of his accident at the age of seven may have thought that there was no possible “purpose” in his having been chased from a playground by a schoolyard bully into the path of an inattentive bread truck driver, I beg to differ. And I think Packer would too.
The injury was severe, and to this day Packer bears the mark of that incident in the form of a rather sizable dent or indentation in his forehead. Recovery was not without its inconveniences, as the young Packer was forced to withdraw from school for a period of six months. From that time until he went to university, Packer wore a protective aluminum plate over the injury. Needless to say, this was not the sort of thing that would contribute to a young man’s participation in athletics or widespread acceptance among his peers. This only reinforced his tendency to keep unto himself and thrust him into a more secluded life of reading and writing.
When he turned eleven, like most boys his age, Packer anticipated a bicycle for a birthday present. But given their lingering and well justified concerns about their son’s head injury, sending him into the streets once again did not strike his parents as the wisest course of action. Instead, he received an old Oliver typewriter. Once he had overcome his initial disappointment, Packer took to typing with a fervor. To this day, notwithstanding the many technological advances we all now enjoy, Packer still writes all his books on an old-fashioned typewriter! I doubt if any of us who have been so richly blessed by his ministry are inclined to protest.
(3) Packer’s interest in Christianity was largely stirred by his reading of C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters (1943) and Mere Christianity (1944). Upon his arrival at Oxford University in 1944, Packer paid a visit to the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (the OICCU). On Sunday evening, October 22, 1944, following the singing of Charlotte Elliot’s famous hymn, “Just as I Am,” Packer committed himself in faith to Jesus Christ. He was, at the time, standing about 100 feet from where the great evangelist George Whitefield committed himself to Christ in 1735.
(4) Though truly born again by the Spirit of God, Packer early on struggled greatly with the power of indwelling sin. He wasn’t in the least helped in this battle by Keswick theology, a view that one might experience a victorious Christian life only through an act of faith that led to total surrender. This decisive moment, in which one wholly yields and trusts the work of Christ within the heart rather than making any effort to overcome the power of sin, was the key to Christianity, or so they insisted. Any suggestion that a Christian should engage in active energetic obedience to the will of God was considered legalism.
Keswick theology proved unhelpful to Packer. He regarded it as deeply damaging to his spiritual growth. His increasing frustration over the inability to get past daily sins into that promised victory robbed him of the joy of his salvation. He was told that he simply needed to re-consecrate himself, over and over again, until such time that he could identify whatever obstacle stood in the way of the fullness of moral victory.
Packer’s rejection of Keswick theology came with his discovery of the Puritans in 1944. C. Owen Pickard-Cambridge, an Anglican clergyman, donated his considerable collection of books to the OICCU, over which Packer was given authority as the junior librarian. Packer began the arduous task of sorting through the dusty piles of books in the basement of a meeting hall on St. Michael’s Street in central Oxford. There he came upon an uncut set of the works of the great Puritan pastor and theologian, John Owen (1616-83). Two of the titles in volume 6 caught his attention: “On Indwelling Sin in Believers” and “On the Mortification of Sin in Believers.” Suffice it to say that a major watershed in his spiritual development can be traced to this providential discovery. Owen’s realistic and thoroughly biblical grasp on the nature of indwelling sin and the believer’s Spirit-empowered battle throughout the course of one’s earthly existence set Packer free from the Keswick-induced discouragement of soul under which he had been laboring.
(5) Packer took a one-year teaching post at Oak Hill Theological College in London (1948-49) where he taught Greek, Latin, and philosophy. During this momentous year he would listen to John Stott at All Souls, Langham Place, on Sunday morning, and to Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel on Sunday nights. Together with Lloyd-Jones they launched an annual conference focused on the Puritans. The first conference convened in June of 1950 and met annually until they terminated in 1969. I’ll return to Packer’s relationship to Lloyd-Jones in a minute.
Packer then enrolled at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, with a view toward ordination in the Church of England. There he studied theology from 1949-52, eventually being awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. In December of 1952 Packer was ordained a deacon in the Church of England and a year later was ordained a priest at Birmingham Cathedral. He served as a curate at St. John’s, Harborne, a suburb of Birmingham, from 1952-54.
Following his marriage to his wife Kit in the summer of 1954, Packer served as lecturer at Tyndale Hall, Bristol, from 1955-1961 and as librarian and then principal at Latimer House, Oxford, from 1961-1970. In 1970 he was appointed as principal of Tyndale Hall and became associate principal of Trinity College, Bristol, from 1971-1979. It was then that he moved permanently to Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia, where he remains to this day, just a few months short of his 92nd birthday.
(6) There is no escaping the fact that Packer’s life and influence was, at least until his move to Canada, inextricably intertwined with that of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. The defining moment in Packer’s relationship with Lloyd-Jones occurred on October 18, 1966. The occasion was the Second National Assembly of Evangelicals, organized by the Evangelical Alliance. At its core the question was: “Should evangelicals concerned with doctrinal orthodoxy withdraw from denominations which publicly fail to maintain such orthodoxy, or should they try to reform them from within?” (McGrath, 119).
Lloyd-Jones had become increasingly concerned with the theological liberalism espoused by the World Council of Churches and its ever-increasing presence among certain denominations in the U.K., especially the Church of England. He let it be known that the time had come for the theologically orthodox to “come out” of such denominations. In the absence of agreement on the fundamental issues of the gospel there simply can be no meaningful spiritual fellowship. In his opening address at the Assembly Lloyd-Jones issued what many, if not most, understood as an appeal for evangelicals to withdraw from their mixed denominations to form a “pure church” that could unite around orthodox doctrine. Packer was not even present that night, but received the news of this event by telephone at his home in Oxford. John Stott, on the other hand, was obviously concerned that many impressionable younger evangelicals might heed the call and pull out. Immediate intervention was required, he believed, to defuse an otherwise volatile situation. The “rightful and proper place of evangelicals,” argued Stott, “was within those mainstream denominations, which they could renew from within. It is entirely possible that Stott’s intervention was improper; he himself apologized to Lloyd-Jones subsequently” (McGrath, 124-25). In any case, his action “prompted a crisis in itself, in that it exposed a major division within evangelicalism on the opening day of a conference which was intended to foster evangelical unity; nevertheless, Stott reckoned that it had to be done” (125).
Packer sided with Stott, a decision that not only served to damage his friendship with Lloyd-Jones but also his reputation among many in Britain’s evangelical community. His interpretation of the event is best summarized in his own words. He explains:
“The Doctor [i.e., Lloyd-Jones] believed that his summons to separation was a call for evangelical unity as such, and that he was not a denominationalist in any sense. In continuing to combat error, commend truth, and strengthen evangelical ministry as best I could in the Church of England, he thought I was showing myself a denominationalist and obstructing evangelical unity, besides being caught in a hopelessly compromised position. By contrast, I believed that the claims of evangelical unity do not require ecclesiastical separation where the faith is not actually being denied and renewal remains possible; that the action for which the Doctor called would be, in effect, the founding of a new, loose-knit, professedly undenominational denomination; and that he, rather than I, was the denominationalist for insisting that evangelicals must all belong to this grouping an no other” (Honouring the People of God, 79).
Whatever else may be said of the matter, Packer did not hesitate to continue to speak highly and in virtually reverential terms of the Doctor. “He was the greatest man I have ever known,” said Packer, “and I am sure that there is more of him under my skin than there is of any other of my human teachers” (“David Martyn Lloyd-Jones,” 77).
(7) Most of you have never met Packer or had the joy of spending time in his presence. I think I can sum him up personally by citing the words of Carl Trueman and Timothy George. According to Trueman, Packer is “the classic example of a modest, Christian gentleman.” Sadly, that can’t be said of many today among the so-called Young, Restless, and Reformed crowd. Timothy George’s assessment of him is spot on:
“I have seen him buffeted by adversity and criticized unfairly, but I have never seen him sag. His smile is irrepressible and his laughter can bring light to the most somber of meetings. His love for all things human and humane shines through. His mastery of ideas and the most fitting words in which to express them is peerless. Ever impatient with shams of all kinds, his saintly character and spirituality run deep.”
May I add one observation of my own. For Packer, the sovereignty of God’s grace was far more than a theological truth. It has made J. I. Packer into the man he is today. Simply put, he is, as best I can tell, entirely devoid of self-promotion. The only one whom he desires to promote is Jesus Christ.
(8) As for the greatest and most influential thinkers in the development of Packer’s theology, he cites Martin Luther, John Calvin, the English reformers, John Owen, Richard Baxter, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, J. C. Ryle, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. From earlier centuries he points to Tertullian, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and more recently the Oxford Inklings.
When asked if his theology underwent any substantive changes down through the years, he said:
“my theology has no doubt broadened its base since 1947 but apart from getting clear on particular redemption in 1953 or 1954 [due to his reading of Owen’s treatise, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ] I don’t think there has been any change in its structure, method or conclusions. Like Calvin, I was blessed in getting things basically right from the start” (cited in Payne, The Theology of the Christian Life in J. I. Packer’s Thought: Theological Anthropology, Theological Method, and the Doctrine of Sanctification (Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2006), 73.
(9) One of the things, among many, for which I especially admire Packer is his insistence that all theological reflection, to be of value, must issue in holiness of life in which the love of God and his glory are preeminent. Put another way, theology and spirituality are inseparable. For Packer, theology “cannot, and should not, be detached or dissociated from the relational activity of trusting, loving, worshiping, obeying, serving, and glorifying God” (McGrath, 23). “One way of judging the quality of theologies,” he explains, “is to see what sort of devotion they produce.”
(10) Finally, although he didn’t often use the phrase, Packer is a thorough-going Christian Hedonist! We see this in his book, Hot Tub Religion. When searching for an image or metaphor or analogy to summarize the approach of many to Christian living today, Packer landed on the experience one has in a hot tub! Set aside for a moment your struggle with the image of J. I. Packer in a hot tub (!) and let him make his point. As he sat in a hot tub for the first time, it struck him that the experience
“is the perfect symbol of the modern route in religion. The hot tub experience is sensuous, relaxing, floppy, laid-back: not in any way demanding, whether intellectually or otherwise, but very, very nice, even to the point of being great fun . . . . Many today want Christianity to be like that, and labor to make it so. . . . [To this end many] are already offering occasions which we are meant to feel are the next best thing to a hot tub – namely, happy gatherings free from care, real fun times for all. . . . [Thus] when modern Western man turns to religion (if he does – most don’t), what he wants is total tickling relaxation, the sense of being at once soothed, supported and effortlessly invigorated: in short, hot tub religion” (68-69).
But Packer is no killjoy! He repeatedly insists that happiness plays an essential role in Christian experience; indeed, he asserts “that real enjoyment is integral to real godliness” (71). But it “comes from basking in the knowledge of the redeeming love of the Father and the Son, and showing actively loyal gratitude for it. You love God and find yourself happy [in him]. Your active attempts to please God funnel the pleasures of his peace into your heart” (70-71). Thus, what Packer advocates is genuine “joy” and not hot tub pleasures. We desperately need to hear his point that joy is always deeper than and never dependent on physical, financial, and emotional pleasure, and how damaging it is ever to equate the two.
Like the good Christian Hedonist that he is, Packer understands the foundational biblical truth that our joy in God is suspended on God’s joy in God. For God to seek his own glory is the only way he can truly love us. Listen:
“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” (38).