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A Tribute to J. I. Packer (1926-2020)

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Posted by Wallace Benn, 21 Jul 2020

Wallace Benn remembers the life and influence of his former tutor, Jim Packer (1926-2020).

It was announced on Friday 17th July that Dr. Packer had passed away. It is a sad day for Reformed Evangelicals because we have lost our champion, but not for him as he is now with the Saviour he honoured throughout his life. He was the best Anglican Evangelical theologian of his generation, and a brilliant communicator of warm-hearted and big-minded classical evangelicalism. His wonderful books will live on, and as they are read by a new generation, will, please God, give them a deeper and more profound understanding of the Christian Faith, and deliver them from a weaker and more muddled modern version.

He saw himself as “a voice that called people back to the old paths of truth and wisdom”, and he wrote, “I should like to remembered as one who pointed to the pasturelands”. In an interview done for Crossway in 2015, he said:

“As I look back on the life that I have lived, I would like to be remembered as a voice- a voice that focused on the authority of the Bible, the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the wonder of his substitutionary sacrifice and atonement for our sins.

I would like to be remembered as a voice calling Christian people to holiness and challenging lapses in Christian moral standards.

I should like to be remembered as someone who was always courteous in controversy, but without compromise.

I ask you to thank God for the way that he has led me…”

He excelled in all the above. His strong and persuasive defence of a high view of Scripture as totally trustworthy, both infallible and inerrant, was expressed in his books Fundamentalism and the Word of God and God has Spoken, as well as in countless articles, and in his key participation in producing the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) and Hermeneutics (1982). He gave intellectual credibility to the resurgence of evangelicalism after the Billy Graham Crusades at Harringay in the 50’s, and a biblical theological backbone to the growth of Anglican Evangelicalism which was seen in the Keele Congress in 1967.

His partnership with Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones in establishing the Puritan Conference in the 50s drew a whole generation back to a more gutsy Reformed Evangelicalism. His love for the Puritans, which he saw as head and shoulders above others in our evangelical history, was infectious, and he thankfully developed that love too in many of us who were his students.

A convinced Reformational Anglican, his writing and speaking tirelessly when Warden of Latimer House in the 60s, helped enormously in the growth and confidence of Anglican Evangelicalism.

His Tyndale lecture in 1973 on ‘What did the Cross achieve?” was a brilliant explanation and defence of a penal substitutionary view of the atonement, which he saw as the essential glue that held all the other legitimate theories of the atonement together. I remember giving it to a high church colleague in Chichester whose view of the Cross was transformed as a result. Dr Packer summed up his view of God’s grace to us in Christ as “adoption through propitiation”.

His concern to call Christian people to holiness was expressed as “my last crusade” in a lecture given to the faculty and students of Trinity Episcopal School of Ministry, as well as in his lifelong love and promotion of Holiness by J.C.Ryle. It was that same concern which caused him to walk out of a synod in the diocese of New Westminster, when he, with others, saw that the promotion of the blessing of same sex unions undermined the teaching of the Apostles and the New Testament gospel itself. That brave act proved to be a significant help in resisting the tide of radical liberalism in North America and was a key ingredient in the formation of ACNA. His commitment to catechesis resulted in his major contribution to a new Catechism for ACNA called To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism (2014).

His outstanding work Knowing God, first published in 1973, has sold almost two million copies, and is a profound and moving expression of a doctrinally sound and warm-hearted Biblical Christianity. Joni Eareckson Tada expressed her appreciation well: “The books and essays Dr. Packer has written could fill shelves, but he is still known best for his fine work in Knowing God. Others may have followed with books about desiring, loving, serving or seeking God, but Dr Packer’s volume says it simply, says it best.” He wrote more than fifty books as well as countless articles (including some twenty articles for Churchman, listed below), all of a very high quality. He had that priceless gift of being able to explain deep truths in a clear and straightforward manner.

He was an uncompromising and gracious champion of classical Evangelicalism and not afraid to speak out when necessary. He spoke against the old Keswick view of moments of consecration (followed by lapses), and explained a better way of living as a Christian around daily repentance and obedience to God’s word with the help of the Holy Spirit. His wonderful book Keep in Step with the Spirit is a bigger doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit than is often promoted, and is a sympathetic but necessary corrective to some ‘Charismatic’ excesses. His lecture strongly defending the existence of Hell, ran contrary to even John Stott’s rather tentative steps in the direction of the theory of annihilation.

He taught at Oak Hill, Tyndale and Trinity Bristol, where he was appointed Associate Principal of the new College in 1972, before he went to Regent College in Vancouver (in 1979) where he served as Governor’s Professor of Theology for the rest of his working life. He influenced generations of students, as well as his influence becoming world-wide. I thank God weekly for the privilege of having been taught by him. He had a colossal mind. I remember him quoting two pages from memory of Luther’s Commentary on Galatians, as well as a TSF lecture he gave on the authority of Holy Scripture to all the theological students in Bristol, where he out-quoted the liberal opposition from the university and graciously silenced them. That filled us with a bold confidence that the Bible could be trusted and that our position was intellectually credible. That became the unshakeable conviction of many of his students.

But his was no ivory tower rationalistic theology. In his brilliant Concise Theology, which is a kind of shorthand Biblical Systematic theology he wrote: “As I often tell my students, theology is for doxology and devotion — that is, in praise of God and the practice of godliness.” Those who knew him found a warm pastoral heart and a good-humoured companion. Personally speaking, he was a real help and encouragement to me, and his visits to Harold Wood and later to speak to the clergy in my episcopal area of East Sussex were highlights.

He loved hot curries and steam engines and always travelled by train when he could. His generosity in his dealings with people was noteworthy. He used to say to his students: “Be so thought through and strong in your own biblical convictions, that you can listen and be generous to others without compromise.” That led him to moments of perhaps unwise controversy when he and Colin Buchanan wrote Growing into Union with two High Church Anglicans, and when he later in life put his name to “Evangelicals and Catholics Together”. He never compromised his own position but was prepared to work with those he believed were real believers, and with whom God’s Holy Spirit had not finished yet. He was generous to a fault perhaps, but that kindness won many around to what he believed.

He believed that his role as the general editor of the translation committee of the English Standard Version of the Bible (2002) was his best contribution to the church, in producing an accurate, word for word as far as possible, modern translation of the Scriptures. It is, as a result, a superb help in expository preaching.

His was a life well lived to the glory of God and the praise of his Son. Read his books and be blessed as a result, and thank God for giving him as a gift to the church. Pray that God may raise up more like him.

Wallace Benn is a Vice President of Church Society

Lee Gatiss adds:
J. I. Packer began his ministry as curate of the Church Society parish of St John’s Harborne in Birmingham (1952-1954). In 1955, sixty-five years ago, he also began contributing to our journal Churchman. Here are links to his many Churchman articles, from our free online archive:

(1955). “Baptism: A Sacrament of the Covenant of Grace.”

(1957). “Review of Seventeenth-Century Teaching on the Christian Life—1.”

(1958). “Seventeenth-Century Teaching on the Christian Life—II.”

(1959). “Calvin the Theologian.”

(1960). “Expository Preaching: Charles Simeon and Ourselves.”

(1961). “The Revised Catechism.”

(1961). “The Bible and the Authority of Reason.”

(1964). “The Holy Spirit and the Local Congregation.”

(1966). “One Body in Christ: The Doctrine and Expression of Christian Unity.”

(1967). “Hermeneutics and Biblical Authority.”

(1968). “Re-Tooling the Clergy Factories.”

(1968). “The Church of South India and Reunion in England.”

(1972). “Representative Priesthood?”

(1973). “Towards a Confession for Tomorrow’s Church.”

(1978). “New Lease of Life.” . (Preface to our editions of the Griffith Thomas commentary on the Articles).

(1978). “The Uniqueness of Jesus Christ: Some Evangelical Reflections.”

(1980). “Theological Reflections on the Charismatic Movement (Part 1).”

(1980). “Theological Reflections on the Charismatic Movement (Part 2).” T

(1997). “Personal Standards.”

(2000). “For Truth, Unity, and Hope: Revaluing the Book of Common Prayer.”

Wallace Benn is a Vice President of Church Society, and former Bishop of Lewes.

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