J. I. Packer went to be with the Lord on 17 July 2020. He was 93 years old. Packer was widely recognised as one of the most influential theological popularisers of the 20th century. Throughout nearly 70 years of writing and ministry, he stressed the importance of knowing and communing with God.
He called for the church to take holiness and repentance seriously, to walk in the Spirit and to fight indwelling sin. He defended biblical authority and championed the cause of disciple-making catechesis. He reintroduced a generation to his beloved Puritan forebears, whom he regarded as the ‘redwoods’ of the Christian faith.
James Innell Packer was born on 22 July 1926 in the village of Twyning, Gloucestershire. The Packers were a middle-class family with a nominal Anglican faith. They attended St Catharine’s Church but spoke little of the things of God.
In September 1933, the seven-year-old Packer was chased by a school bully and accidentally hit his forehead against a moving vehicle. He needed brain surgery, a three-week hospital stay, and a six-month recovery. Although restricted from much outdoor activity or sport, the injury fostered in Packer a love of reading and writing.
In 1937, Packer went to grammar school in Gloucester, specialising in Classics. He played chess with a classmate whose father was a Unitarian minister, and the boy unsuccessfully tried to convince Packer of Unitarianism.
He read C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters during his teenage years, followed by Mere Christianity, and spent time reading his grandmother’s copy of the Authorised Version of the Bible – all of which solidified for him the basic framework of the Christian worldview, even though he still lacked saving faith. He later characterised himself as being ‘halfway there’. Although yet to hear about ideas of conversion or saving faith, Packer was confirmed at St Catherine’s at the age of fourteen.
Aged eighteen, Packer won a scholarship to Oxford University, studying Classics at Corpus Christi College. He arrived at Oxford as an awkward, shy, intellectual oddball (his words), with a single suitcase in hand.
In October 1944, Packer attended a Sunday evening evangelistic sermon at St Aldate’s Church. An elderly Anglican parson gave the address. The biblical exposition left Packer bored, but in the second half, the speaker recounted how once at a boys’ camp he was challenged as to whether he was really a Christian.
Packer recognised himself in the story and realised he did not truly know Christ. Following the invitation, which concluded with the singing of ‘Just as I am’, Packer gave his life to Christ.
In 1944 a large library of books was donated to the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union. The leaders of OICCU invited Packer to sort through them. He soon came across a set by John Owen and began to read. He later wrote: ‘I owe more, I think, to John Owen than to any other theologian.’
He later asked for people to think of him as a latter-day Puritan: ‘one who seeks to combine in himself the roles of scholar, preacher, and pastor.’
He often contrasted the spirituality of the Puritans with contemporary evangelicals, calling the latter to imitate the former, especially when it came to communing with God: ‘When Christians meet, they talk to each other about their Christian work and Christian interests, their Christian acquaintances, the state of the churches, and the problems of theology – but rarely of their daily experience of God.’
Early writings and positions
After obtaining a BA from Oxford, Packer began teaching at Oak Hill Theological College as a tutor in Greek and Latin. During the 1948–1949 school year, 22-year-old Packer went to Westminster chapel each Sunday evening to hear the preaching of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
Packer was duly impressed. Lloyd-Jones’s preaching came to him ‘with the force of an electric shock, bringing more of a sense of God than any other man.’
He became acquainted with the Doctor, and as the friendship grew, Packer suggested that they start a regular gathering to help people better understand the Puritans. They co-founded the Puritan Conference and hosted it together for nearly two decades.
For the next three years, Packer studied for ordination at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He was ordained as an Anglican deacon in 1952 and then as a priest in 1953.
From 1952 to 1954, Packer served as a curate at St John’s in Harborne, Birmingham, while finishing his 400-page doctoral dissertation on the Puritan Richard Baxter. He attained an MA and a PhD in 1954.
In July 1954, Packer married a Welsh woman, Kit Mullett. She was a nurse whom he met after a speaking engagement in Surrey. They would adopt three children: Ruth, Naomi, and Martin.
The family moved to Bristol in 1955, where Packer served as a lecturer at Tyndale Hall for six years. Two significant pieces of writing emerged from this tenure.
The first was an essay entitled ‘Keswick’ and the Reformed Doctrine of Sanctification, accusing this Higher Life teaching on sanctification as thoroughgoing Pelagianism.
Alister McGrath, a biographer of Packer, reflected on the effect of this article: ‘There was… no response from the Keswick faction which rebuffed the critique offered by Packer. It is widely agreed that Packer’s review marked the end of the dominance of the Keswick approach among younger evangelicals… the theological weight of Packer’s critique seemed to many to prove unanswerable.’
In 1958, aged 31, Packer published his first book: ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God, a defence of the historic Protestant position on scriptural authority.
Michael Reeves writes: ‘It served as a morale-boosting rallying cry for evangelicals with a high view of the Bible, it raised the level of sophistication and nuance with which they could think about Scripture, and it established Packer as a theological leader of the movement.’
In 1961, the Packers moved back to Oxford, where for nine years Packer served as librarian and then warden at Latimer House – an evangelical research centre begun by Packer and John Stott to theologically strengthen the Church of England.
During the 1960s Packer was invited to write a series of articles for Evangelical Magazine offering a basic guide to Christianity. Packer wrote nearly two dozen pieces every other month for five years.
In 1970, Packer returned to Tyndale Hall as principal. The following year, Tyndale Hall was incorporated into the new Trinity College, Bristol, where Alec Motyer was named principal and Packer the associate principal.
In 1973 the series of articles from Evangelical Magazine was published as a complete book: Knowing God. It went on to sell over 1.5 million copies. ‘The conviction behind the book,’ he wrote, ‘is that ignorance of God lies at the root of much of the church’s weakness today.’
In February 1977 Packer met R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, Norman Geisler, and Greg Bahnsen for a conference on the authority of Scripture at Mount Hermon, California. Packer went on to be a co-signatory of the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.
In 1979 Packer was invited to join the faculty at Regent College, Vancouver. The position enabled Packer to teach without administrative duties. He maintained a position at the university, retiring in 1996.
Packer’s life was not without doctrinal controversy. In October 1966, during the National Assembly of Evangelicals, Lloyd-Jones issued a call for evangelicals to leave doctrinally-mixed denominations and instead fellowship with an association of independent evangelical churches. John Stott, who chaired the session, openly opposed Lloyd-Jones’s proposal after the latter had finished speaking.
Packer sided with Stott. The rift widened in 1970 when Packer joined fellow Anglican evangelical Colin Buchanan and two Anglo-Catholics to spublish Growing into Union: Proposals for Forming a United Church in England.
The book led Lloyd-Jones to separate from Packer, removing him from the board of Evangelical Magazine and cancelling the Puritan Conference they had co-founded.
In March 1994 Packer joined several evangelicals and Roman Catholics to sign a joint statement entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together, co-authored by Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus.
Author and reader
Apart from Knowing God, Packer’s better-known works include Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God and Among God’s Giants (about the Puritans). In the 1980s Packer was hired by Christianity Today as a senior editor, and he also spent much time reading and endorsing others’ books.
Which books influenced Packer the most? Among others, he cited Calvin’s Institutes, Ryle’s Holiness, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor. Besides theology, Packer enjoyed Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and murder-mystery novels. Jazz was another secular interest of Packer’s. At Oxford he played clarinet for a jazz band called the Bandits.
The closest that Packer came to writing a systematic theology was his Concise Theology, sketching 94 doctrines using 600 words for each. In a typical Packeresque sentence – simultaneously ‘packed’ together yet expansive – he explained the project: ‘As an activity, theology is a cat’s cradle of interrelated though distinct disciplines: elucidating texts (exegesis), synthesising what they say on the things they deal with (biblical theology), seeing how the faith was stated in the past (historical theology), formulating it for today (systematic theology), finding its implications for conduct (ethics), commending and defending it as truth and wisdom (apologetics), defining the Christian task in the world (missiology), stockpiling resources for life in Christ (spirituality) and corporate worship (liturgy), and exploring ministry (practical theology).’
In the 1990s, Dr Lane Dennis, President of Crossway Books, invited Packer to serve as the general editor of a new Bible translation. Packer was the one who eventually suggested the name: The English Standard Version.
Packer reflected on his involvement: ‘I look back on what we did in producing that version and I find myself suspecting very strongly that this was the most important thing that I have ever done for the Kingdom.’
Packer the man
Packer was keen for people to appreciate his personal side as well as his ideas. His friend Timothy George described what it was like to watch the man in action: ‘His smile is irrepressible, and his laughter can bring light to the most sombre of meetings. His love for all things human and humane shines through. His mastery of ideas and the most fitting words in which to express them is peerless.’
I can add that in every encounter that I was privileged to have with him, I came away thinking of Packer not as a great man, but as a man who had personally encountered a Great Saviour. Each time I had the deep sense of longing not to be more like Packer, but to be more like Christ.
In Knowing God, he wrote: ‘If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father.
‘If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all.’
In 2015 I asked Packer how he would like to be remembered. 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 with me for the way that he has led me, and I wish, hope, pray that you will enjoy the same clear leading from him and the same help in doing the tasks that he sets you that I have enjoyed.’
This article is abridged from an obituary first published on the website of the Gospel Coalition.
Justin Taylor is executive vice president for book publishing and publisher for books at Crossway.