J.I. Packer: A Personal Remembrance
July 22, 1926-July 17, 2020
Shortly after the death of Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981), Dr. Packer delivered a lecture-sermon at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary entitled, “Martyn Lloyd-Jones: the Greatest Man I Ever Knew.” It says something important about Packer that despite the sad falling-out of Lloyd-Jones and the Anglican Calvinists in October 1966, he paid such a glowing tribute to “the Doctor.” A number of men of my generation will want to join me in saying that J. I. Packer was the greatest man we ever knew. His influence was decisive in determining the direction of our entire adult lives and ministries. In my case, it might be helpful to learn how a man in Bristol, England, some 5375 miles from a college student in Los Angeles, California, could have exercised this influence.
No surprise here. I tentatively began investigating Knowing God my junior year at the University of Southern California before I stalled about halfway through. Senior year I restarted successfully, and this time I was completely captivated. Packer’s command of the English language was for me unprecedented. More importantly, Packer introduced me to crucial foundational concepts, such as...
- the difference between knowing God and knowing about God;
- the 2nd commandment and its prohibition of visual representations of God;
- the distinction between the incommunicable and communicable attributes;
- God’s impassibility and immutability.
Packer's two chapters on wisdom—“God Only Wise” and “God’s Wisdom and Ours”—were utterly captivating. His use of Bible biography in the first of those chapters was thrilling to my soul, while the concise summary of the message of Ecclesiastes in the second was a lesson in both brevity of expression and biblical exposition. “Packer by name, packer by trade,” he once said of himself. His two-paragraph summary of the mid-century debate over the meaning of propitiation in his chapter, “The Heart of the Gospel,” is a brilliant example of his unparalleled ability to condense with clarity and charity. His chapter on adoption, “Sons of God,” placing sonship at the center of the Christian’s self-concept and Christian experience, provided a never-to-be-forgotten lesson in Christian identity. His chapter on suffering, “These Inward Trials,” rebutted a type of gospel ministry that He described as “cruel” because it disallows what he called “the rougher side of the Christian life” and thereby gives rise to “false hopes.” This chapter was the purest sort of medicine for my struggling soul.
Packer elsewhere described his youthful self as “self-absorbed in just about every way, a silly, troubled adolescent who needed a great deal of straightening out.” Many of us can say the same about ourselves and credit Packer with doing much to straighten us out, insofar as we are straightened out. I could go on and on about Knowing God. Suffice to say that his persuasive powers with the pen were such that I was convinced that he was the man under whom I must study theology. I was immersed in what my friends and I derisively called “Orange County Christianity,” and reared in the relatively novel dispensational theology that dominated Southern California evangelicalism—Packer, I was sure, could guide me through the issues to what he would call the “older, riper” theology. Providentially, he delivered a lecture at the Newman Center (!) at the University of Southern California in the spring of my senior year. We met, corresponded, and in September 1977 I found myself traveling to a strange land in which I knew not a single soul, excepting what I barely knew of him. His theological brilliance, biblical insight, and warm devotional piety were simply compelling. I had to go.
One more word about his books. The day before leaving for England, I was sitting at the beach in Santa Monica reading a booklet that was given to me by the proprietors at “Christian Discount Books,” a local Christian bookstore. It had the utterly uninviting title of “Introductory Essay to John Owen’s ‘The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.’” It is hard for me to put into words the impact of that booklet. It had the effect of further exploding (beyond what Knowing God had already done) my concept of God and further exposing the weaknesses of contemporary evangelicalism. His contrast between the “old gospel” and its design and impact and the “new gospel” and its design and impact, was revolutionary. His characterization of each and his devastating critique of popular presentations of the gospel continue to shape my assessment of what is going on around me in churchland to this day. His impact upon me, my theology, my outlook continued through book after book, particularly Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, “Fundamentaism” and the Word of God, Keeping in Step with the Spirit, and The Quest for Godliness. The four volumes of his Collected Shorter Writings are a goldmine of biblical, theological, historical, and practical insight.
It wasn’t just his books. J. I. Packer and J. Alec Motyer were simply the two most godly men I have ever known. Early into my first year at Trinity I looked up as I was finishing dinner and there was Dr. Packer, bussing my table. I was discomforted by the anomaly of my highly esteemed instructor collecting my dirty dishes, yet he was perfectly at ease in doing so. Packer was brilliant but humble. The Americans at Trinity all felt he was a man without honor in his own country. We had left our homeland to study under him. He was the draw. He was why we were there. Strangely, there was an air of dismissiveness about him among the natives. No doubt that air contributed to his decision to immigrate to Canada. Yet while still in England, he seemed utterly unaffected by his diminished status in his homeland. When a colleague on the faculty scorned his reputation as an easy grader, his understated response was, “My students work hard for me.” After multiple Packer classes, lectures, sermons, preaching-team outings, and refreshments at the Packer home, I can say his profound powers with the pen were complimented by an equally profound depth of character. After years of brash, loud, flashy, attention-drawing, self-promoting, personal empire-building American preachers and ministries, Packer was a breath of fresh air—humble, self-effacing, reserved, God-centered and Christ-exalting. Some might say that he merely was a typical Englishman, yet there was more to it than that: His humility in the context of intellectual superiority and exceptional accomplishment was a fruit of the Spirit’s work. Packer was a man of God.
Packer was the great theological mind of our generation. I recall Dr. Roger Nicole (1915-2010) at Gordon-Conwell, himself no slouch of a theologian, relating in the most glowing terms Packer’s scintillating intellect displayed during a theological dialogue among theologians, as he responded to challenges on the fly with multiple points and sub-points, organized logically, in complete sentences, even complete paragraphs. Similarly, Dr. David Wells (b. 1939) asked me to pass along my lecture notes from Packer’s systematic theology class along with his (in)famous “pink sheets,” his summaries of each theme. Wells response: Unrestrained admiration for Packer’s organizational skill, clarity, conciseness, and comprehensiveness.
Dr. Packer’s published works will continue to influence believers for generations to come. If I have one regret in connection with his ministry, it is that he didn’t write more and travel less. I join those who lament that he didn’t write the definitive systematic theology of our generation, the one that he alone was capable of writing. Rumors have circulated over the years that he had written his “big book” but was holding on to it, only to be released upon his death. Alas, it was not to be.
Knowing God is Packer’s big book, and a modern classic that I suspect will endure for many years to come. Reading it unleashed in my life a sequence of connected convictions: Calvinism, covenant theology, Puritan piety, Presbyterian polity (yes, this too), expository preaching, reverent and well-ordered worship, family worship, and catechizing. Packer was the conduit for all of this and was, for me and many others, simply the greatest man we ever knew.
Terry L. Johnson has been the senior minister of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, GA for 33 years. He is author of various books including Leading in Worship, Worshipping with Calvin, Serving with Calvin, and The Identity and Attributes of God.
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