On July 17, 2020, J.I. Packer went to be with the Lord. Packer has been described as “Evangelicalism’s best known and most widely respected theologian” (McGrath). He has authored more than 300 books, reviews, articles, etc.. He was named by Crossway as one of the 20th centuries greatest theologians. Because of Packer’s immense influence in strengthening evangelicalism, I want to add my voice of thanks to God for Dr. Packer for his ministry as a theologian, author and teacher.
Packer was born in Britain in 1926. At age 7 he had a near fatal accident when hit by a car. In God’s providence, this set him on a course to be indoors a lot at an early age, and as a consequence, to become a voracious reader of classics.
This also helped prepare him for Oxford University, where as an undergraduate he was converted in 1944. Packer then trained for pastoral ministry at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford. He then became a tutor at Oak Hill College in London. In those days, while living there, he attended All Souls Church in the morning and heard John Stott preach. Then in the evening he would go to Westminster Chapel and listen to Martin Lloyd-Jones preach. This made a huge impression on his life.
Packer was ordained as an evangelical Anglican and went on to do a doctorate at Oxford on the writings of the Puritan Richard Baxter. Packer helped found the Puritan Studies conference in London with Martin Lloyd-Jones. After teaching and scholarship assignments in Bristol (Tyndale Hall) and Oxford (warden of Latimer House), Packer moved to North America and became a professor at Regent College, in Vancouver, British Columbia.
But it is Packer’s writings which have extended his influence. His book Fundamentalism and the Word of God, written in 1958, made a strong defense of the complete trustworthiness and inerrancy of Scripture. His book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, (1961), showed that Calvinism and evangelism are completely compatible. But it was his book Knowing God written in 1973 that had the greatest impact, giving many a high view of God and a taste for devotional theology. Packer rightly says, “Bad theology hurts people!” So he gives us a remedy.
Two other Packer books had a great influence on my life. His book Concise Theology, where he succinctly gives us an overview of 94 doctrines. It is one of his best books and the closest he ever came to writing a systematic theology. A Quest for Godliness brings together his lifelong study of and classes on the Puritans. In fact, many of his writings promoted the Puritans—whose rediscovery, Packer believed, would offer maturity to the modern evangelical movement.
There was a wonderful sense of proportion in Dr. Packer. Describing himself, Packer said: “I am a Bible man, a gospel man, a reformed man and a Puritan man.” He said he was more of a Bible Calvinist, than a systems Calvinist. In his later years he said, “I am called a theologian, a pastor, but nowadays I call myself an adult catechist. I have given my life to teaching the Lord’s people the truths that we live by.” “My books” he said, “are catechetical books.”
I first met Dr. Packer in Washington D.C. when he was visiting Prison Fellowship.
I was working with Chuck Colson at the time and contemplating which graduate school to attend. Undecided about different seminaries, someone gave me the great advice—“just go study then with someone you admire.” That’s what I did. I headed for Vancouver and spent a year with Dr. Packer, taking every course he offered: Knowledge of God, Systematic Theology, Calvin and Calvinism, the Work of Christ, The Puritans and Ephesians! It was a feast. My time with him proved to be one of the most theologically formative years in my life.
One thing I appreciated most about Dr. Packer as a teacher is that in every class, among all the assigned readings, there was usually one particular book that he recommended we get to know deeply (i.e. Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Calvin’s Institutes, Ryle’s Holiness, Baxter’s Reformed Pastor, and Dallimore’s biography of Whitefield, the writings of Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones). And he would make us memorize sections of The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, smuggling it not only into every class, but into my mind as well.
You will find that his writings present a high view of God, of his glory and his grace. He said, “Our view of God is like a pair of old fashioned scales. When God goes up in our estimation, we go down. When we go up, God goes down.” Reading his books will enlarge your view of God as well and will ground you in a strong Biblical theology.
So, even though his public ministry has ended, this man is still teaching through his writings. If you have not read anything by Packer, by all means start. And begin with the book Knowing God. You will find him to be a clear and concise writer, who engages your head and heart, and directs you to discover the greatness and glory of God.
At 90 when he was losing his vision, Packer said, “God knows what he is doing…..God is sovereign and good in all things. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.” He looked at it all with Christian realism and then added that his new condition would make it more possible for him to concentrate on God himself.”
J.I. Packer’s final words to the church were: “Glorify Christ every way.” Good words from a great and godly man. Along with countless others, I am deeply grateful to the Lord for the life and ministry of J.I. Packer.
If you want to read more about his life, read Leland Ryken’s biography of him, J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life (Crossway), and also Sam Storms, Packer on the Christian Life (Crossway).
J.I. Packer’s works include:
Fundamentalism and the Word of God, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, Knowing God, Concise Theology, and A Quest For Godliness.