This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
In this special episode, we want to remember J. I. Packer, who went home to be with the Lord yesterday.
Born in 1926, J. I. Packer is widely recognized as one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. Sam Storms, author of Packer on the Christian Life: Knowing God in Christ, Walking by the Spirit, discusses Packer’s remarkable life and ministry. He reflects on how Packer came to faith, the impact that his many books have had on generations of Christians, and how he thought about his own death.
Topics Addressed in This Interview
- Personal Insights about J. I. Packer
- Rare Humility
- The Influence of C. S. Lewis
- Relationship with Martyn Lloyd-Jones
- Packer and the Puritans
- Split Between Packer and Lloyd-Jones
- Commitment to the Church
- The Impact of Knowing God
- Packer’s Sense of Humor
- Emphasis on Catechesis
- The Importance of Sound Theology
- Packer’s Legacy
- Final Words for Packer
Personal Insights about J. I. Packer
J. I. Packer looms large as one of the most influential evangelical theologians of the 20th century. Did you ever meet him personally?
Yes, I did on several occasions. I heard him speak and lecture on a number of different occasions but didn't meet him personally there, but the first time that we met personally was at a conference in Dallas. I can't remember the year—it had to have been probably back in the early 2000s—and he and I shared a platform in a panel discussion on a particular theological issue. And then I had the opportunity to have a couple of meals with him. And then finally we reconnected in a more personal way when I was teaching at Wheaton College.
There's kind of a humorous story about that: I had a student that I was mentoring who was at Wheaton who absolutely—if I can say it in a reverential sort of way—worshiped the ground that Packer walked on. He held him in such high regard. I was assigned the task of picking Jim up at the at the—by the way he insists that people call him Jim, I'm not being overly personal there or flippant—but to pick him up at his hotel and take him to dinner, and he was lecturing at the Wheaton Theology Conference. Actually, I take that back. It was a conference on ECT—the Evangelicals and Catholics Together issue—and he was delivering one of the messages on that. So I told his young student, Hey, come with me. We're going to go to dinner before the session but I have to pick up an out-of-town guest. And he asked who and I said, Don't worry about it, you wouldn't know him. So we pull up at the hotel and I go in, walk out, open the door, and Packer sits down in the passenger side of the front and my friend in the back almost had a heart attack. To this day he has never forgiven me. He said, I was speechless. I probably made a fool of myself. I probably couldn’t even pronounce the name Packer. We'd laugh about that quite a bit.
So I've had opportunities just over the years—at Evangelical Theological Society meetings—to see Jim. I wish I had spent more time personally with him, but unfortunately that hasn’t been the case, largely because he’s up in Canada and I’m down in Oklahoma.
You mentioned the fact that he always insists on being called Jim. I think sometimes when there are “celebrity” Christians, or celebrities of any kind, we have this sense of who they are in public, but we don’t often get a chance to actually meet them in person and talk with them and see what they’re like in private. What is Packer like? What were some of the things that he said and did that you think gave you an insight into him as a person?
I think you’ve touched on it right there. You’re right, there are some celebrity-type theologians and speakers who expect to be treated with special care and have VIP treatment all along the way. Jim is not that way. He is so down to earth, so forthright, just a normal human being.
Obviously, when he starts talking and you begin to get a grasp of the magnitude of his mind and his grasp on theological issues, it kind of startles you because he is just a very down to earth individual. His physical presence is very unimposing, if I can use that. He does not command attention. He’s just a very kind, down to earth, ordinary Christian man. Profoundly courteous and expresses, in many respects, amazement that anybody would want to spend time with him.
So he’s not the sort of individual that you kind of shake in his presence because you think you’re surrounded by greatness. He’s just a very down to earth—I would say the consummate Christian gentleman.
In your book you write, “In our age of Christian celebrity, Jim Packer feels oddly out of place.” I wonder, do you think there is anything that current Christian leaders—maybe even young men and women who are who are currently on the cusp of entering into that leadership kind of role in the church broadly—can learn from Packer’s example in that regard?
Definitely. He just doesn’t draw attention to himself. When he speaks on an issue, he speaks with authority and is very pointed and very clear but he doesn't seek a platform. He doesn’t seek out praise. He’s not the sort of individual who flourishes by being acknowledged in public and lauded by others. He’s very quiet and very unassuming.
I’m sitting here at my desk looking over at a note that he wrote to me after the publication of my book, Packer on the Christian Life, and it’s—one of the interesting things we might talk about later—it’s actually typed on a typewriter. You can tell it was not done on a computer. He’s never used a computer in his life. And it’s just, Dear Sam and a couple of paragraphs of expression of gratitude and then at the bottom, In Christ, and then he signed it Jim. It’s just the way he is that he would actually write a thank you note to a nobody like me just expressing his appreciation for my efforts in writing the book about him. There aren’t many people today who write thank you notes, but he did. And that’s just the kind of man he is.
What a special thing to then have and to be able to have and cherish for yourself in the future.
Yeah. I’ve got it framed and it’s sitting on my desk. That’s just an interesting thing that I would point out to people: his life story is fascinating—when he was young he was given a typewriter by his parents for his birthday. He wanted a bicycle, but there’s a reason why they didn’t give it to him—we can get into that in a minute if you want to—but he has always done his work on an ordinary typewriter. He’s not technologically sophisticated, I don’t think he owns a cell phone. The only way you can get in touch with him, really, is through fax. I don’t have his email address, I don't know if he does email. I guess if he doesn’t have a computer, he probably doesn’t. But I want to say to him, Gosh, Jim, do you realize how productive you could have been if you had used a laptop and a word processor and spellcheck and all those things? Although I don't think his spelling needs checking, trust me.
If someone were to sit down with him today and open up their computer, or pull out their phone, and show him Twitter, what do you think he would think about it?
I have no idea. I don’t know what he would do with that. He would probably laugh or he might ask, What is that? or Is it really worth it? or some such notion. But in his dry British wit he would probably have some insightful comment to make.
Take us a little bit back, give us a brief sketch of Packer’s life: Where was he born? When was he born? What was his childhood like?
If my dating is correct, he’ll turn 94 in July of this year. He was born in 1926, so I think that would make him 94 this July. He was born in Gloucester, England. There was a decisive event in his childhood that really shaped the rest of his life. He was chased from the playgrounds at school by a bully and ran out into the street and was struck by a bread truck driver and suffered a very serious head injury. In fact, people today, when they see Jim in person—they wouldn’t ask him about it—but they notice this indentation on the right side of his forehead. Well, he had what they called a depressed compound fracture of the frontal bone on the right side of his forehead and had injury to the frontal lobe of the brain. They feared that he would have serious brain damage, but if anything it stimulated his brain.
What it did was it forced him to a life of seclusion, solitude, and a little bit of isolation. He couldn’t play with his friends—that’s the reason why his parents wouldn’t get him a bicycle for his birthday—and so he just took to reading and writing. That was his life. Eventually he went to Oxford, got his degree there, taught at various schools throughout England—he taught at Bristol, at Oxford, and a number of other places—and just began to, largely through the influence of C. S. Lewis and then eventually Martin Lloyd-Jones, came to embrace the Puritans as those who most represent and embody his approach to the Christian life and Christian theology.
He eventually moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, where he taught at Regent College and is still there, as far as I know. He’s still doing some writing, although his struggles with his eyesight have put some substantial limitations on what he can do. We’d always hoped and prayed that he would eventually write a systematic theology—a multi-volume theology. I think he got working on it at one time, but I don't anticipate that we will ever see it. Maybe we’ll see scraps of it or portions and snippets of it here and there eventually, but I don’t think we’ll ever see the full blown theology.
The Influence of C. S. Lewis
Going back a little bit, you mentioned C.S. Lewis and him being a big influence on Packer’s life. If my dates are correct, the two of them would have overlapped a little bit at Oxford where Packer was a student and Lewis was a teacher. Is that correct?
I don't know that he ever had Lewis as a professor. He was at Oxford from 1949 to 1952. Certainly he would have known of Lewis, and I think he heard Lewis’s lectures on the radio on what eventually became Mere Christianity. So I don’t know how extensive his personal, face to face interaction would have been, but he certainly was influenced by Lewis, more so by Lloyd-Jones. In fact, Packer has said in his writings that Martin Lloyd-Jones was the greatest Christian man he ever knew. So there were certain significant influences on the development of his life and his thinking.
Relationship with Martyn Lloyd-Jones
How did Packer and Lloyd-Jones first meet? What was it about Lloyd-Jones that drew Packer to him?
Well, it's interesting. When Packer was in London—now try to get your mind around this, this is stunning—on Sunday morning he would go to All Souls Church, Langham Place and listen to John Stott preach, and on Sunday nights he would go down to Westminster Chapel and listen to Martin Lloyd-Jones preach. That was his Sunday fare. I mean, can you imagine that?
While he was attending Westminster Chapel and got to know Lloyd-Jones, they launched what was called the Puritan Conference, and I think this was in the early 1950s and it lasted until about 1966. And so he and Lloyd-Jones partnered together to host this conference on the Puritans, and it was a magnificent way of introducing the evangelical world to the Puritans because the Puritans had long been forgotten, and it was largely through Packer’s and Lloyd-Jones’s influence and the Banner of Truth trust that a lot of the writings of the Puritans finally were brought back into the hands of Christians everywhere.
The Puritan Conference lasted until about 1965 or 1966, and then there was an unfortunate split between Packer and Lloyd-Jones that I can go into if you want me to. That was very sad, very unfortunate in terms of how it affected their personal relationship. But Packer never lost his respect and his love for Lloyd-Jones. Long after that split occurred he still, as I said a moment ago, referred to Lloyd-Jones as the greatest Christian man he ever knew. So Lloyd-Jones’s verse-by-verse exposition of Scripture—just that methodical, slow line upon line treatment of the text—is what drew Packer to him, and I think had a great influence on the way Packer views Scripture and the responsibility of a pastor to preach.
Packer and the Puritans
I want to return to that split that you referenced between Packer and Lloyd-Jones. I want to hear what that might reveal about Packer, the man and the theologian. But maybe even before getting there, what was it about the Puritans that captured Packer’s heart?
There were several things. He talks often about their realism. In other words, they were just very realistic about life, about their struggles. He really appreciated how they were rooted in Scripture, their high view of biblical authority, their very strong emphasis on the life of the local church had a tremendous impact upon him, their Reformed theology, their emphasis on the sovereignty of God, their emphasis on practical Christian living—just the daily responsibilities of following Christ, of living according to the word of God. I think all of those things were what drew him.
Maybe especially—coming back to this thing about the realism of the Christian battle with sin, with indwelling sin—a significant moment in Packer’s life happened when he was at Oxford and some individual donated a large collection of books to the Christian Union there and Packer was given the responsibility of cataloging them. And while he was doing it in this basement, he came across a set of the works of John Owen—the consummate Puritan—and the pages hadn’t even been cut. He had to slice open the pages one by one. He came across Owen’s treatment called The Mortification of Christian Sin and another one called On Indwelling Sin in the Believer, and he read these and it literally transformed his life. He saw the realistic assessment of Owen saying, Yes, sin is an indwelling reality in the Christian. It's a constant daily battle. And I think Owen, more than anybody else, just captivated his heart for a Puritan perspective on the Scriptures and on Christian living.
I'm struck that even today the Puritans often get a bad rap, or that word itself—puritanical—can have these very negative connotations, maybe less so today because of the work of people like Packer and Lloyd-Jones. What would Packer say to that idea that the Puritans were this cold, harsh, austere, joyless group of Christians that we would do well to kind of forget about it?
He would say, You have obviously not read them. Because when you read the Puritans you discover a vivacious, joyful perspective on life, on family, on marriage, on the ordinary daily delights that God has provided to us. Packer would just simply say, That is a misconception that is based on the word “Puritan”.
Like you said, people take this word, puritanical, as meaning austere, legalistic, and abstinence to the highest degree. Well, that's not what the word “Puritan” means anyway. Actually, it was used to refer to the desire on the part of those individuals to purify the church from all the external, ritualistic trappings of Roman Catholicism and to return to a more pure and more biblically rooted approach to Christian worship.
If people want to really understand the Puritans, Packer’s book A Quest for Godliness is his treatment of the Puritans. It is superb and it will, I think, bring a real clarification to misconceptions. So Packer would say, Obviously you haven't read them, and Packer has, and his book, A Quest for Godliness, is excellent. It’s a good place to begin.
You referenced that the Puritans are what brought Lloyd-Jones and Packer together and they enjoyed this close friendship for many years, started this Puritan conference, and then in the mid to late 60s everything kind of fell apart. What happened?
There was a conference, and here’s the interesting thing: Packer was not present at the conference, he was actually back in Oxford at his home. But there was a conference held, I believe it was held at Westminster Chapel, and at this conference Martin Lloyd-Jones stood up and made an appeal to evangelical pastors to withdraw from liberal denominations. Lloyd-Jones was very concerned about the theological drift of the Church of England, and he basically called upon the theologically orthodox—the evangelicals—to come out of such denominations and to form—he didn’t call it a denomination—but to unify around the basic orthodox fundamental truths of the faith.
Well, John Stott was actually on the platform sitting behind Lloyd-Jones when Lloyd-Jones made this appeal, and he got up and basically refuted him, or challenged him, and said, Look, let’s not hastily pull out of the Church of England or other denominations. Let’s work from within to try to bring purification, to try to bring theological renewal. And so it was a very public, visible disagreement about what to do. Lloyd-Jones said the Church of England, these denominations, are corrupt, they’re drifting left—pull out. Stott, and eventually Packer aligned himself with Stott on this issue and said, No. As long as the fundamentals are not denied let’s stay within these denominations, let’s stay in the Church of England, and work for renewal from within. And sadly, it did create something of a split between the two.
Packer stayed in England for about another 13 years, but many believe that it was this event that prompted Packer, in part, to move to Canada because there were a number of evangelicals who thought he had betrayed their commitment to evangelical orthodoxy. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. But Packer was committed to the Church of England. He felt like God had called him to stay within it and to work for reform and renewal within. Lloyd-Jones said no, we’ve got to pull out. So it was a very sad and unfortunate division. But as I said, Packer never criticized Lloyd-Jones publicly or in his writings, he always praised him, always honored him, even though they did have a fundamental disagreement.
Split Between Packer and Lloyd-Jones
I wonder, did Packer ever talk about the split later in life and did he ever change his mind or think differently or does he still feel that was the right decision at the time?
As far as I can tell he never changed his perspective. He did write on this in a couple of places—I think I document these in my book. Now, let’s be clear about something. Although Packer remained within the Church of England, he was not at all hesitant about standing up in defiance of what he perceived to be theological drift. So for example, one of the most famous instances took place once Packer was in Canada. He was a member of the Senate of the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster and they put forth a position which said, We want to honor and permit same sex marriages. And Packer just could not believe that this was happening. And at the synod meeting he and several others actually stood up and walked out as an expression of protest against this because Packer said, You're now calling evil good and you are encouraging people on a path of life that will put their souls in jeopardy of eternal damnation. And so Packer was eventually put out of that synod and he joined another—he’s a part of another Anglican fellowship there in Canada.
So he was not at all hesitant about being very vocal and taking a very controversial stand when he thought it was demanded. So yes, he’s remained true and faithful to the Anglican communion. He is still very much active within it. But again, also standing very strongly for biblical truth and the principles of Scripture when it comes to sexual ethics and the like.
Commitment to the Church
That kind of reflects the broader commitment to unity in the church and ecumenical dialogue that Packer has become known for in some circles and criticized for in some circles. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about Evangelicals and Catholics Together—I think you referenced that already earlier in our conversation. That’s a very controversial endeavor that Packer was a part of pretty famously.
In fact, it's the one area that I didn’t go into much detail in my book. Other things have been written, both supportive and critical of Packer’s stance. I think there is an article that Christianity Today published in which Packer defends his decision to sign on ECT—which is short for Evangelicals and Catholics Together. He has been roundly criticized by many, in fact it seriously affected his friendship with R. C. Sproul and John MacArthur. It's another kind of sad episode. But Jim believed that it was possible for Christians to unite around commonly held beliefs for the sake of combating the drift towards secularism within our society.
And so when it came to what he would call “evangelical Catholics”—I know some people say that’s a contradiction in terms, Packer didn’t believe it is, I don’t believe it is—but he said there were individuals with whom he could stand side by side, not necessarily in agreeing on all theological principles or propositions, but enough of a consensus around the fundamentals of the faith that they could form a unified front to address the secular drift of society as a whole. So Packer would appeal to what he would call, what Lewis would call, mere Christianity—the foundational truths of the faith—that he believed both Protestant and Catholic would affirm. If you read his writings on justification by faith alone, or any of the other soteriological truths of the faith, you can see that he is not compromised. He has not been influenced by some of the errors of Roman Catholicism.
But he does want to do everything possible to present, as it were, a unified front and a unified voice—what they call “co-belligerents” in which they were united in their fight against what they saw as the increasing decay in society and in the secularism that is so pervasive in our day today. It has been probably the one thing for which Packer has been more criticized than anything else in his life. But I don’t have any reason to think he regrets his decision. I haven’t seen him or heard him recant anything in that regard. I think he does regret the loss of some friendships as a result of it, but I think he believes that the stand he took was one that needed to be done and he’s willing to pay the price for it.
The Impact of Knowing God
If our listeners have read any book by Packer, there is a pretty good chance that it would be the book Knowing God—I think the book that he’s most well-known for. It was a best-selling book, still is—I think sold at least over a million copies, if not much more by now. Do you remember the first time that you read that book and the impact that it had on you?
Oh yeah. It wasn’t the first Packer book I read though. I think Fundamentalism and the Word of God was the first one and I think Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God was the second and then Knowing God was probably the third. I think what I appreciated about Knowing God is I don’t have any hesitation in giving it both to the average Christian and also to the well-educated scholar. That's the genius of J. I. Packer is that he is able to write in a way that is deep and substantive and therefore informative to the highly educated scholar and to the people in the academy, and yet at the same time write in such a way that it informs and challenges and encourages the average Christian. That's a hard middle ground to maintain and yet I don't know that anybody has done it any better than he has.
Some people have said they found Knowing God a little bit too challenging. Others have said not quite challenging enough, but I think it's just a wonderful treatment. It actually came out of a series of radio lectures that he gave in England on the attributes of God. So yes, I would highly recommend it. It's one of, obviously, his most popular books. There are numerous others that probably a lot of people don't know about that I wish were more widely read as well. His book Rediscovering Holiness is just remarkable. It’s one of the best treatments of the Christian life I've ever read. His book Keep In Step with the Spirit, even though I have some disagreements with him on spiritual gifts, it is a superb treatment of the Holy Spirit. His book Truth and Power on the doctrine of Scripture is wonderful. He has a book on prayer. One of his most, I think, enjoyable books is one called Hot Tub Religion.
That might be a surprising one for most of our listeners.
Yeah. His experience in a hot tub caused him to start thinking about the approach to Christianity that a lot of people have today—that it’s just this relaxing, passive, physically sensuous approach to life. And he uses that as a way to challenge what he perceives as the misperception of the nature of true Christian faith. So there are so many other things that he’s written on that are so helpful. I just wish people would dig into them and that he would even get a wider reading than he currently has.
Packer’s Sense of Humor
Even the title of that book—maybe getting back to something we talked about earlier—it makes me wonder, what is Packer’s sense of humor like? He seems like he doesn’t necessarily take himself too seriously and can laugh at himself or laugh at a situation.
Oh, yes. The old idea that the British are not very joyful or overt in their humor, then work with Packer. Now, it’s a dry wit, of course, but he is remarkably joyful.
In fact, that's really what the book Hot Tub Religion focuses on is the reality of joy in the Christian life. I don't think he’s ever actually used the language that John Piper coined, but Packer is most certainly a Christian hedonist and focuses on the joy and the delight and the deep satisfaction we find in Jesus. So yeah, he kind of shatters the image of the tight lipped Brit who doesn't know how to laugh or enjoy life. That’s a caricature, I hope all my British friends know that I don’t believe that about them. I don’t want to get emails and phone calls! No, I’m saying that's a caricature of the British and it certainly is shattered by Jim Packer.
Emphasis on Catechesis
Another way that Packer has famously described himself is as a latter day catechist. What did he mean by that?
I think where that came from was his lament at how poorly taught Christians are in the local church today. There’s this loss of just the basics of learning Christian doctrine, Christian truth, biblical teaching, and he wanted to see restored in the life of the local church this approach to just the fundamentals of the faith, just the basic Christian doctrines being taught line upon line, point upon point.
And so I think he is deeply bothered, in fact I know he is, by the loss of a desire for going deeper in the knowledge of who God is and the fundamental truths of the faith; because apart from those, Packer is convinced, that there will never be any successful Christian life, there will never be any possibility of actually growing deeper and understanding God in a more vibrant way. It’s a language that isn’t common among a lot of evangelical Protestants. We hear “catechism” and most people think of Roman Catholicism because they have produced a formal catechism. But it just simply means a commitment to teaching—a methodical, systematic approach, line upon line, to the basic principles of Christian truth.
In fact, in some of his writings he has outlined the principles that he would cover in a class or as he would lecture, and it’s a very comprehensive approach to Christian teaching. Basically, the bottom line is he just wants to see that restored to the church. It may be, in fact, a little bit of a pushback on his part to the topical, anecdotal type of preaching and teaching that we have so prevalent in Christian churches. And he would say, Let’s return to the foundational principles of Scripture, to the line upon line, verse-by-verse, exegetical preaching and focus in on the themes of Scripture and let’s dig deeply into them on a consistent, systematic basis. That's kind of what he has in mind as he calls the church to return to what he would call catechesis.
The Importance of Sound Theology
What do you think he would say to someone listening right now who hears that but maybe feels like, I don't know if I’m cut out for this theological conversation and all these terms and these words and that kind of formal structure and systematic structure of some of these categories. It seems like many churches, as you’ve noted, have shied away from pressing in on those theological doctrines, those formal conversations, in favor of maybe something a little bit more “accessible” to the average Christian. How would Packer respond to that?
There’s one line that—I can’t remember in what book he wrote it—but it has stuck with me for all of my life. It's simply this, Bad theology hurts people. Bad theology hurts people. And it may even have been in Hot Tub Religion where I first read that. And his point is that how you live, the decisions you make day in and day out, the ethical choices, the goals you set for yourself, are shaped by what you believe to be true about God and reality. And if what you believe is not well-founded in Scripture—it’s not based on the truths of God’s word—you're going to be misled. You’re going to be deceived. You’re going to eventually hit rocky times, especially when suffering comes upon you, and you’re not going to be able to thrive, if even to survive.
And I think Packer would be happy with reversing that statement of saying, Good theology helps people. It helps people formulate ethical principles. It informs how they make choices, how they set goals for themselves and for their family. So this idea that somehow we can thrive as Christians and become more and more like Jesus, which of course is the goal of sanctification, apart from having our minds transformed by the truth of who God is and what he's done for us in Jesus, Packer would say it’s just impossible. It’s not going to happen.
If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the kind of Christianity, the depth of Christianity, across the earth today. It’s very broad, it’s very widespread, but it’s very shallow. Shallow Christianity, shallow thinking, overly simplified perspectives on who God is and what the nature of the Christian faith is all about does not help people finish well. Jim has actually written extensively of late on finishing well and how we need to continue to press in, even toward our latter years, to a deeper understanding of the revelation of God in Scripture because otherwise, we won’t know how to suffer well. We won’t know how to end well. And, of course, we see that so often today in the church with people just kind of apostatizing, spinning out of control, abandoning their faith, yielding to the pressures of the secular society around us.
So I would just say once again, bad theology hurts people. That is really kind of the cry of J. I. Packer and hopefully people will listen to that and take note of it and make the decisions to dig deeper into the word of God and to read those who’ve written on these issues, like Jim Packer, more consistently.
And he’s such a great example of someone who, to your point earlier, even in his later years as his health has failed he hasn’t pulled back from devoting himself to the ministry that God has given him to do. And that makes me wonder, if you summarize Packer's legacy in one to two sentences, what would you say that is?
I think one would be theology for the sake of the church. And the reason why I put it in those terms is because Jim Packer is one of the deepest theologians and one of the most precise and profound thinkers that you will ever come across, but he always did it and wrote in response to it for the sake of the church.
Although he was in the academy, so to speak, for most of his life, all of his thinking, all of his theology, and all of his writing was for the sake of the average Christian in the local church. So he had a profound emphasis in all of his writings on what we would call “spirituality”—how are we changed? How are we transformed? So that is one thing, and that leads into the second. He is, I think perhaps the most since John Calvin himself, the man that we call a theologian of the Christian life.
The whole issue of sanctification—of what he calls consecrated holiness to God, daily living in the light of the truth of the gospel, and how we’re changed and how our inner promptings and urgings are transformed—this is I think the greatest legacy that Jim Packer will leave to the church. Christian sanctification and transformation is not just a matter of changing external performance and exchanging one set of bad habits for good habits. It’s a matter of the transformation of the heart. And he has written on this in such a penetrating way that I think is really surpassing anything that we have in the evangelical Protestant world since the time of the Reformation. And I think that really, more than anything else, is his lasting legacy.
Final Words with Packer
So if you had 15 more minutes with Packer face to face—time for one last conversation—what’s one thing that you would want to tell him, and what’s one thing that you would want to ask him?
Well, I think everybody would say the same thing: thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you for a life well-lived. Thank you for not compromising in your latter years. Thank you for not submitting to pressure or yielding to compromise or backtracking on your convictions. Thank you for setting an example of what it means to be courageous in your faith and unyielding in your beliefs. I think that would be the first thing I would say.
What would I ask him? Boy, that almost calls for a little more thought. I think what I would ask him would be, Do you have regrets? Were there some decisions you made that, if you had to make over in the light of a long life lived, that you would do differently? What would they be? I would want to ask him to go into a little more detail about the greatest influences on his life beyond people like Lloyd-Jones and John Owen and Richard Baxter? Who in the contemporary world, for example, has exerted influence on him? What does he most look forward to as he enters into the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ? What anticipation fills his heart in terms of the prospects of death? I’d even asked him that—as you deal with declining health and the prospect of standing in the presence of Jesus, what is it about death that stirs your heart? Is there any apprehension or fear? Gosh, there's so many questions I would ask him like that. What advice would he give to me as a pastor of a local church and as an author? What counsel would he give to the church at large? What are his greatest concerns about the direction of Christianity today? Those are some of the things I would want to ask him.
What do you think he would say to you in response to that question about his own death?
Just from what I know of the man and what I’ve read about him, I would think he would talk about the beatific vision—what theologians refer to as that sight, or that beholding, of the beauty of God revealed in Jesus. The last chapter of the book of Revelation where it says, “They will see his face” (Revelation 22:4). And I think he would say, I have this longing to behold the face of my Savior and to be in his presence in uninterrupted communion for eternity. I think that’s probably the thing that occupies him most in these latter years.
Well Sam, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today about J. I. Packer—this titan of our faith—a man that we respect and have learned so much from. And yet, he was just a man, a man who wasn’t perfect.
Yeah, let me just wrap that up. People will hear this podcast and they’re going to think that somehow he was a sinless, perfect person. He was not. He was a man who grappled with the reality of sin in his own life, but was very honest and realistic.
He was a human being, but he was a human who was wholly given over to Jesus.
Popular Articles in This Series
A Christian doctor discusses the current coronavirus pandemic, explaining what's currently happening in the US and around the world and offering perspective on how we should think about this virus.
Jim Hamilton discusses what to do when you hate your job, offering encouragement for those frustrated in their work and explaining the difference between a job and a vocation.
What does the Bible teaches about tithing? Are Christians still obligated to give 10% of their income today?
What are the five points of Calvinism really about and how can we believe them, while maintaining gracious humility towards others who don't?