Thanking God for J. I . Packer

What follows is a small tribute I was asked to bring at the annual meeting of the Centre for Mentorship and Theological Reflection, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, where Dr. Packer was given an award for his distinguished contributions to the Body of Christ as an historical theologian. In the mid-1730s George Thomson (1698-1782), the Anglican vicar of St. Gennys, a windswept village in North Cornwall perched atop cliffs overlooking the Atlantic, wrote to the Nonconformist hymnwriter Isaac Watts (1674-1748) to let the latter know how much he appreciated his hymns and other writings.[1] In his letter, Thomson happened to remark about the way that he and Watts were “differently ordered,” a reflection on their ecclesial differences. Well, I find myself in a similar position to Thomson, though in this case it is the Nonconformist thanking the Anglican Evangelical for his writings.

A few years ago, Dr. Alister McGrath, who has written the biography of Dr. Packer,[2] drew up a short collection of what he called the “core theological writings” from Dr. Packer’s massive literary output between 1954 and 1998. It sought to give the reader interested in Dr. Packer’s work some guidance as to the central ideas of Dr. Packer’s thinking. The pieces included ranged across the entire breadth of Dr. Packer’s contribution to the life and thought of the church, from biblical inspiration to ecclesiological issues, from revival to the cross, from Reformed piety to the importance of recognizing our indebtedness to the past.[3] Reflecting recently on this valuable collection caused me to think about what works of Dr. Packer have been most instrumental in shaping my Christian life and thought.

Undoubtedly, the first would be his classic Knowing God (1973), which I read not long after I became a Christian in the mid-1970s and gave me a vision of the God of the Scriptures: holy and sovereign, Triune and a God of mercy and grace abounding to sinners. Then there would be his Keep In Step with the Spirit (1st ed., 1984) that was of enormous help in making me realize that the central work of the Holy Spirit in this new covenant era is the glorification of the Lord Jesus (see John 16:14). This was of tremendous help to a believer struggling with the claims of the then-charismatic movement.

Then, Dr. Packer’s helpful essay “Steps to the Renewal of the Christian People” (1983) gave me a morphology for understanding revival that has stayed with me ever since I first came across it in the early 1980s. Fourth, Dr. Packer has helped establish me in the Reformed tradition through books like Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (1961) and his introductory essay to John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ, which convinced me of the true nature of the biblical gospel.

Finally, may I say that Dr. Packer’s numerous essays on figures of the past, ranging from Thomas Cranmer to Richard Baxter, from George Whitefield to Martyn Lloyd-Jones have been of enormous help to me in knowing how to read history as both a Christian and as an historian. In particular, Dr. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (1990) has been a major shaper in my thinking about that remarkable body of believers, the Puritans. Dr. Packer led me to see the Puritans as sure guides to many areas of the Christian life. Though we are “differently ordered”, I thank God for Dr. Packer: for his enormous contributions to the life and thought of the church—and for the help that he has given, by the grace of God, to this one sinner seeking to be a faithful Christian pilgrim.

[1]For a good study of Thomson’s ministry, see G. C. B. Davies, The Early Cornish Evangelicals 1735-1760. A Study of Walker of Truro and Others (London: S.P.C.K., 1951), 30-34, 37-52. For the letter, see Donald Davie, The Eighteenth-Century Hymn in England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 49.

[2] J.I. Packer: A Biography (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997).

[3] The J.I. Packer Collection (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999).