By Stephan van Os
Looking back on some 40+ years of Christian discipleship there are various significant marker points which on reflection turned out to be not only significant but life changing. Such was my encounter with the work of J I Packer. To this day I can recall the moment when I was browsing through the theology department of the Otago University library and spotted what looked to be a new book in the midst of a whole bunch of fairly old and dusty tomes. It was the recently published hardcover edition of Packer’s Knowing God.
At that time I had not been a Christian all that long. The title looked promising so I checked it out of the library and took it back to my digs. There I proceeded to devour its contents. It was life changing. I learned more about God than I had ever learned before and even more importantly discovered that it wasn’t enough to know about God—it was important to know God.
From that point on I began to search out other works by Packer. He had already revolutionized my understanding of God, what else could I usefully learn from him? In quick succession I acquired copies of Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God and “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God. Here was more solid grounding for my faith. These works changed my whole approach to sharing the gospel because I came to recognize that I could not convert anyone. The grace of God alone is able to accomplish that. My words could play a part in that but fallen human nature being what it is, unless the Holy Spirit moved in power they would only ever be just words.
It was while attending Knox College, Dunedin that I had the privilege of meeting Packer for the first time. It was just as the controversy over Biblical Inerrancy was coming to a head. Having explained why he believed this issue was important I began to research it for myself using his works as my point of departure. Though I was already convinced that Biblical inerrancy was critical for the future of the Church his active encouragement copper fastened my position on the Scriptures so that to this day I regard the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy as best representing what I believe about the Bible and how its message should be preached.
The other substantive work of Packer’s that made a huge impression was Keep In Step With The Spirit, a carefully worked text setting out key points concerning the work of the Holy Spirit in the light of the Charismatic Renewal of the 1970s and 80s. Key to understanding this text is the conviction that the Word and the Spirit belong together and that the Holy Spirit will never contradict the written Word of God. Thus I was saved from many a temptation to subjective experientialism on the one hand and arid intellectualizing on the other.
Over the years I have read the overwhelming majority of Packer’s works so after all this time I think it fair to ask, what is his long term legacy in my own spiritual growth in the grace of God?
- He is a stabilising influence. Packer has proved to be remarkably consistent both in his personal walk with Christ and in his writings. The concerns from his early works to be faithful to Scripture, to place Christ at the centre of everything and to be dependent on the ministry of the Holy Spirit are a dominant feature in all his writings right until the present day. His writings have proved to be a sure guide through the issues and controversies that have afflicted the Christian Church in my lifetime.
- Packer taught me about words and the importance of clarity and precision in both theology and liturgy. We are to say what we mean and mean what we say, particularly because the words that we use in worship and prayer have a way of settling in our hearts and affecting the way we think about God and his purposes for us.
- Packer is keen to emphasise that there is nothing new about the things he writes. His roots are planted deeply in the Scriptures but also because of that he makes common ground with those who came before him; St. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, the Puritans, the preachers of the Great Awakening etc. In this regard you could call Packer a “gateway theologian” because his writings will encourage you to explore and understand where we have come from in our spiritual heritage and how that heritage can help shape the present.
- Finally Packer has taught me that while good theology and spiritual writing can be deep, that does not mean that it cannot be clear. I am sure I am not the only Christian who has endured lectures at a Summer School or even sermons that have been dense and opaque. For Packer such things are inexcusable and in my turn I seek to follow his example to be clear and concise in my language about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and Christian faith generally so that the people I serve in ministry may likewise grow and be enthusiastic about their faith.
Timothy George (ed.) J.I. Packer and the Evangelical Future (Baker 2009)
Leland Ryken: J.I. Packer—An Evangelical Life (Crossway 2015)