Remember your leaders,

those who spoke to you the word of God.

Consider the outcome of their way of life,

and imitate their faith.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Hebrews 13:7-8

The Scriptures inform us of the importance of the past and the people that God has used in previous generations to proclaim his never-changing Word. No one in history, except the Lord himself, is perfect. Every single figure has flaws and thus can only be justified by faith. But we are told to remember with reverence those who got the gospel of justification by faith right and passed it on to us. I am particularly grateful for the life and teaching of the now late J.I. Packer (b. July 22, 1926 – d. July 17, 2020) who had an indelible impact on me.

Packer was the commencement speaker at my college graduation. His message to us then was to stand on the shoulders of the spiritual giants who came before us. Specifically he pointed to the English Puritans, the major influence on his life. Yet Packer’s wise words now certainly apply also to himself. J.I. Packer was a monumental theologian of the latter half of the 20th century. And we need the view from his shoulders.

One of the characteristics I most appreciated about Packer was that he was not flashy. His popularity didn’t come from his larger-than-life personality, but rather his steady, principled, careful, faithful teaching of God’s Word. He was completely unassuming, constantly writing introductions and endorsements for other people’s books. A true servant.

I saw Packer in person a few times. He wasn’t impressive in physical stature. To be honest, he was a bit odd looking. I distinctly recall walking past him while he was sitting and talking to a student on campus on one of his visits, a baggy tan suit draped over a hunched skeleton. Since then his body became progressively even more frail (watch this trailer for his book on weakness) and he eventually lost his eyesight in his last years. Yet his mind saw clearly the glory of Christ. And Packer’s pen helped us to see such beauty too.

A better writer than a speaker, in my estimation, Packer could pack a sentence tight with perspicuous profundity (“Packer by name, packer by nature” he would say). Looking through my stack of his books, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for his careful thinking and mastery of the English language in service of our knowledge of God.

Knowing God (1973) was probably the first book of his that I read and his most influential. I cannot overstate the way this book fundamentally shaped me. The distinction between knowing about God and actually knowing God has stuck with me. It was meaty, coherent, non-fluff, yet personal, experiential, and devotional. He showed that “there can be no spiritual health without doctrinal knowledge,” while maintaining that “it is equally true that there can be no spiritual health with it, if it is sought for the wrong purpose.”

When I was wrestling with the nature and place of the Bible in the Christian life and confused by the untethered subjectivism I was raised in, I wrote to a professor with my questions. He told me to read Packer’s “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (1958). I did. It cleared everything up! I still use this book every year with GOSPEL for Chicago apprentices because there is no better treatment of the authority of Scripture out there. It was cogent and potent. As Packer wrote there, “the antidote for bad reasoning is not no reasoning, but better reasoning.” He employed such reasoning to utterly dismantle all alternatives to Scriptural authority, showing convincingly that “anything short of unconditional submission to Scripture… is a kind of impenitence.”

I devoured other Packer books in my formative years. God Has Spoken (1965) continued to solidify my understanding and confidence in Scripture as special revelation – God’s voice. “In other words, Holy Scripture should be thought of as God preaching – God preaching to me every time I read or hear any part of it – God the Father preaching God the Son in the power of God the Holy Spirit. God the Father is the giver of Holy Scripture; God the Son is the theme of Holy Scripture; and God the Spirit, as the Father’s appointed agent in witnessing to the Son, is the author, authenticator, and interpreter, of Holy Scripture.”

I read Knowing Christianity (1995) and Truth & Power (1996) over a Spring Break in college. Keep in Step with the Spirit (1984) I read after I was a pastor. It was characteristic Packer clarity and charity applied to the Charismatic movement. His explanation of the “floodlight ministry” of the Holy Spirit was… illuminating. Concise Theology (1993) is still my go-to for short explanations of doctrines (except for his chapter on baptism, ha!). As always, Packer wrote with the notion that “theology is for doxology and devotion – that is, the praise of God and the practice of godliness.”

Confession: I never actually read Packer’s probably second best known book – Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God (1961), but I’ve heard it’s good. And I never finished Praying (2006), but probably should (the book, that is; not the practice).

His introduction to J.C. Ryle (Faithfulness and Holiness, 2002) invited us to listen to a great teacher of the past. Again, Packer’s words about Ryle could now be applied to himself – “Ryle has guided many along [the true path of wisdom and of life]; he has been a guide to me; may he now lead you. And to God be all the glory.”

And Packer’s entryway into the Puritan vision of the Christian life – A Quest for Godliness (1990) – rocked my world, particularly (pun intended) chapter 8, which was a reprint of his introduction to the reprint of John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ. There you will find Packer at his feistiest, showing up the pathetic ‘gospel’ of Arminianism. About the Puritans, Packer wrote – “[They] have taught me to see and feel the transitoriness of this life, to think of it, with all its richness, as essentially the gymnasium and dressing-room where we are prepared for heaven, and to regard readiness to die as the first step in learning to live.”

J.I. Packer has finished his training and passed through death. I was blessed to have met him once in this life and tell him how much Knowing God was helpful to me. He signed my copy:

It’s mind-boggling to think about how he is currently experiencing in a deeper way the realities that he so wonderfully wrote of while he was here. May we follow his example and join him there around our Lord too someday.