Jim Packer arrived for our interview by bus, his favourite mode of transport. As he walked into the room, I wondered how many people had sat next to this elderly English gentleman that morning with no idea who he was. Sadly, Packer would soon be diagnosed with macular degeneration in his right eye, making it impossible not only for him to travel so easily but also to preach and to write.
Nevertheless, here is an 89-year-old who has accomplished so many things for God. Once described by Time magazine as ‘one of the most influential evangelicals in North America’, Professor James Innell Packer wrote in 1973 what many consider as the definitive classic evangelical book of the 20th century: Knowing God (Hodder & Stoughton). It has sold more than a million copies in North America alone. Over the years he has trained and continues to train countless leaders both face to face and through his prolific writings.
Yet Packer seems to like his anonymity. Or perhaps – and the longer I spend with him, the more I believe this – it is not anonymity he is modelling, but humility.
Born in Gloucester, England, Packer studied at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. It was during his Oxford years that Packer attended lectures by CS Lewis, whose thought was to become a firm influence in his life. He came to faith through Oxford’s Christian Union.
Following the completion of his doctorate in philosophy, Packer went on to teach at Oak Hill Theological College in London before attending Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, where he underwent theological training for ordination into the Church of England.
"BY THE END OF THOSE 20 MINUTES I WAS CLEAR THAT I NEEDED TO BE CONVERTED"
While working at Oak Hill, Packer and a friend would take the underground into London on Sunday evenings – ‘which in those days you could do for 9 pence’ – in order to hear Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones preach at Westminster Chapel. ‘He was a magnetic preacher…humanly as well as spiritually,’ says Packer, who went on to run conferences on Puritan history and theology under Lloyd-Jones’ leadership. ‘I got quite close to the doctor, who began to treat me in the way that I imagine Paul treated Timothy,’ Packer recalls.
Before his move to Canada in 1979, Packer took on a number of theological college-based roles, including working as principal of Latimer House, Oxford, followed by a stint as principal of Tyndale Hall, Bristol, and then as associate principal of Trinity College, Bristol.
We conducted our interview in Vancouver, where Packer still teaches at Regent College and serves as the board of governors’ professor of theology. He was dressed simply in a polo shirt and slacks, carrying himself as always with purpose and dignity. He is very tall and I wonder, with his love for cricket, whether he would have made a great fast bowler. He certainly was fit and active as a young man, once cycling from Gloucester to Oxford and back in a single day – a 100-mile round trip.
Packer is incredibly personable, willing to help, speaking words of encouragement as we go, and asking questions about my work at London School of Theology and Home for Good. As it has been for many, my first exposure to Packer’s teaching was through reading Knowing God. This was a seminal book to kick off my own passion for theology, so it was a great honour to spend some time getting to know Packer and his story personally.
In his recently published Finishing Our Course With Joy (IVP), Packer wrote that ‘growing old is not for wimps’. His own clarity of thought, passion for God, people and ministry are still clearly on display. In both words and action Packer offers us a model of what it means to grow in grace and to grow older gracefully.
What were the influences on you coming to faith?
I was brought up a churchgoer and assumed I was a Christian – because all churchgoers assume they are Christians. I was impacted while I was still at school. I used to play chess with another senior boy who was the son of a Unitarian minister, and he tried to sell me the Unitarian bill of goods. I had never before thought about Christian truth; I had never faced the question of what is ‘true’ in Christianity. Christianity was just part of the furniture of life.
What he said made me realise that this is a question of truth. The Unitarian position, I thought, was very unreasonable. If they were going to deny the divinity of Jesus Christ in [the] face of the way the New Testament asserts it, they ought to deny a great deal more of the New Testament. If, on the other hand, they are going to say that Jesus’ moral teaching is the most wonderful thing the world has seen, then they ought to take more seriously what Jesus and his followers claimed about his divine identity. I wasn’t persuaded by Unitarianism, but as you can see, I was beginning to think.
What helped you to pursue Christian truth?
I began to read books about Christianity: I read CS Lewis’ three small books that later became Mere Christianity and a good deal of other stuff. I went to the library and got out books about Christianity more or less at random just to see what people were saying. Then a friend of mine went up to university a year before me. He was soundly converted through Bristol Christian Union. He tried to persuade me that I might have orthodoxy but I didn’t yet have faith. I was moving into orthodoxy; people like Lewis were taking me that way. He tried to explain to me what it meant to have faith in Christ and in the promises of salvation, but none of that registered with me at all.
The Essential Packer
Packer’s classic has been praised for helping Christians all over the world understand the wonder, the glory and the joy of knowing God.
Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God
One of Packer’s earliest works, here he argues that belief in God’s sovereignty does not cancel out human responsibility to share the gospel with others.
From Heaven He Came and Sought Her
This 704 page tome features a variety of authors, but was edited by Packer. It argues in favour of the controversial reformed doctrine known as limited (or definite) atonement
"THE LORD JESUS CHRIST IS THE CENTRE OF ALL GOD’S PLANS"
The next academic year (October 1944) I went up to Oxford. The Christian Union was on its toes and invited me to the ‘Freshers’ Squash’, where nothing registered; I was, frankly, bored. However, I was invited to a Saturday night Bible-reading and I was struck by the topic. ‘Christ Supreme’ was the title and the great passage at the end of Colossians chapter one was expounded.
I had never heard any teaching of that sort before. Eight days after that, I went to my first OICCU evangelistic sermon, and an elderly Anglican clergyman was preaching. The first half of the sermon I cannot remember at all...Then the preacher told the story of his own conversion and suddenly I realised I needed something. By the end of those 20 minutes I was clear that I, like the preacher, needed to be converted. By the end of the service I was a Christian. I was praying to the Lord Jesus, welcoming him into my life, while they all sang ‘Just as I Am’.
How did you sense the call into Christian ministry?
Slowly I became concerned that on the one hand, I had teaching gifts and on the other hand, there wasn’t any secular occupation that I wanted to go into. That began to raise the question [of] whether God was calling me to ordained ministry.
It remained a question that I couldn’t get away from for the next 18 months. I resolved to ‘have it out with God’. I spent the whole of a Sunday afternoon thinking and praying through the issue, in terms of what are the factors that make me think I am being called to the ministry, and what are the obstacles that make it doubtful. I was concerned about the fact that temperamentally I was an introvert, as in many ways I still am
a withdrawn person. Someone who found personal relationships difficult was a no-no for ordained ministry; I doubted whether I would be good enough at personal dealings.
On the other hand, I knew I could teach and the teaching side of the ministry very much appealed to me. I don’t think it was on that afternoon that I became clear that I should apply for ordination. But soon I did apply,
and in due course was at a selection conference and felt very peaceful that it was God generating this concern in me, and he really did want me as a minister of the word.
Many people will know of you through your book Knowing God. How did you come to write it?
The editor of a Christian magazine asked for some discipling articles on God; so I began to write, asking myself, ‘What is the first thing I say to readers who care?’ and then, ‘What should I say next?’ and so on. Thus, in pastoral sequence, at the rate of five or six a year, the articles that became Knowing God came to be written. When I realised they would make a book I offered it to IVP, who had published my Fundamentalism and the the Word of God and Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, both successfully; but the press director wanted me to write a book on the Holy Spirit before he would consider Knowing God. So I offered it to another publisher, who accepted it straight away.
That’s a bit like Decca Records turning down the Beatles – I bet IVP regretted that decision.
[Laughs] In later years it did look a little like that…the director admitted he had made a mistake. When Edward England, of Hodder & Stoughton, started reading the magazine articles, he said ‘this is going to be a classic’. He was a very good diagnostician as it turned out – in the goodness of God, Knowing God has become a classic.
In Knowing God you described the importance of the doctrine of adoption.
Paul talks about adoption as one element of the fruit of God’s grace breaking into our lives, bringing us to faith in Christ and to union with Christ through the Holy Spirit who comes to indwell us. All of that is magnificent, but on top of that he says that you are sons of God by adoption because the spirit of God’s son indwells you, and you become heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – that is even more magnificent.
That picks up what adoption is all about in the ancient world. There’s a difference here that we need to note. Today we think about adoption as a means to securing or enlarging a family; in those days they thought about adoption as a way of securing an heir who would be worthy of the family heritage and would maintain the family estate and keep the family prosperous. Paul is writing and thinking out of that cultural background rather than ours. When, as was the case for my wife and myself, children did not come in the ordinary way, we thought of adoption as the way we would build our family…I would certainly go out of my way to encourage folk to think of adoption. Indeed, I have done that in the past and thought of it as part of my ministry.
I find it mind-boggling that we will be joint heirs with Christ.
Well, I find it quite mind-boggling too. He is the heir of the cosmos. I think here we are touching on something that perhaps has never had the emphasis it should have had for us as Bible readers. The Lord Jesus Christ is the centre of all of God’s plans; the new heavens and the new earth are climactic in God’s plans, and for Jesus to be heir of the entire renovated cosmos is a great thing.
I think that Paul leads us actually to say: justification, regeneration, reconciliation – there are so many steps up to adoption that is oneness with Christ, both in status and in the living of resurrection life. This is something we begin to experience here; I don’t think we get very far with it, frankly, compared with how it is going to be in the world to come.
One thing I notice about Paul’s articulation of adoption is that it involves all three members of the Trinity. Is it significant that all three members of the Trinity are involved?
Yes, but I don’t think that is a truth that is unique to adoption. Indeed, nowadays when I teach about salvation, I am constantly telling my class or congregation that in the whole work of salvation from start to finish, God appears as a team; three persons working together, each with a specific job to do. The project doesn’t get accomplished unless and until all three do what it is they have as their distinctive in the enterprise. And that is true when it comes to adoption, just as it is true already when you think about the Father sending the Son to die for our sins, and the Son offering himself to the Father on the cross through the eternal Spirit.
"THE TEACHING SIDE OF THE MINISTRY VERY MUCH APPEALED TO ME"
We don’t think of salvation in a biblical way until we see it as three things together: a new relationship with the Father by adoption, through the atoning work of the Son and then the agency of the Holy Spirit who draws us into the knowledge of the triune work of salvation.
The response of faith to the promises are the door we are called to go through in order to become new creatures in Christ.
KRISH KANDIAH is president of London School of Theology and founder and director of charity Home for Good