Now He Knows God Face to Face: 4 Important Elements of J. I. Packer’s Legacy

On July 17, 2020, J. I. Packer died. The theologian who raised our gaze to heaven now soars with the angels.

Packer (1926-2020) lived a long and full life. Raised in a middle-class home in Twyning, England, Packer experienced little spiritual vibrancy in his childhood. God and Christianity were a respectable if distant reality. But when Packer went to Oxford, he was gripped by the gospel. At an Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union evangelistic service on October 22, 1944, he was converted. It was an evening service at St. Aldate’s Anglican Church in the middle of the Second World War; blackout conditions were in effect. The church building was not particularly remarkable; no one knew of any great spiritual happening that night; the OICCU had not figured out a new way to present the gospel to Oxford students. But God’s ways are not our ways. Though the first half of the service bored Packer according to biographer Leland Ryken, the simple gospel arrested Packer’s attention. He knew in that hour that “He needed to come in” to Christ. So he did. On an otherwise unfantastic evening, the modern church gained one of her greatest voices.

Spiritual salvation gave Packer a sense of belonging he had not had in his youth; early on, a terrible childhood bike accident left his head altered, and kept him indoors and alone for months. Packer seemed a boy apart, but beneath the surface there were deep waves of intellect and affection rolling through him, waiting to be expressed. Evangelicalism would soon witness the surging force of Packer’s pen. Trained as an Anglican minister, Packer began to write publicly in the 1950s. He did not stop writing for nearly six decades. Linked with D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the Puritan conference, Tyndale Hall (Bristol), Latimer House (where he was warden), Christianity Today, Regent College, InterVarsity press, and the ESV Bible (of Crossway), Packer became a one-man publishing house for a distinct brand of twentieth-century theology. It was deeply Reformational, driven by a passionate commitment to sola Scriptura, rigorously cross-centered (Packer’s famous essays on the atonement are compressed excellence), warmly extra-denominational, Puritan-promoting, and surprisingly experiential in nature.

We could say a great deal more to summarize Packer, married to Kit since 1954. I will leave that to others (even as I encourage you to devour Ryken’s excellent study of Packer). Instead, I wish to treat four important and pertinent elements of Packer’s legacy.

First, Packer’s theology is grounded in commitment to biblical authority. One of the best statements of a strongly sola Scriptura  position I’ve read is from a short essay that appeared in Themelios  over 40 years ago. It demonstrates Packer’s ability to pack a great deal of theology in tight paragraphs. Here Packer expounds on a supremely important element of the Bible: it’s self-attesting nature. The Bible, according to Packer, cannot be seen as God’s Word due to any external measure. The Bible shows itself to be God’s Word in the very reading of it. This we call its “self-authenticating” or “self-attesting” nature:

The third element in the evangelical position is a belief that the Scriptures authenticate themselves to Christian believers through the convincing work of the Holy Spirit, who enables us to recognise, and bow before, divine realities. It is He who enlightens us to receive the man Jesus as God’s incarnate Son, and our Saviour; similarly, it is He who enlightens us to receive sixty-six pieces of human writing as God’s inscripturated Word, given to make us ‘wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus’ (2 Tim. 3:15). In both cases, this enlightening is not a private revelation of something that has not been made public, but the opening of minds sinfully closed so that they receive evidence to which they were previously impervious. The evidence of divinity is there before us, in the words and works of Jesus in the one case and the words and qualities of Scripture in the other. It consists not of clues offered as a basis for discursive inference to those who are clever enough, as in a detective story, but in the unique force which, through the Spirit, the story of Jesus and the knowledge of Scripture always carry with them to strike everyone to whom they come. In neither case, however, do our sinful minds receive this evidence apart from the illumination of the Spirit. The Church bears witness, but the Spirit produces conviction, and so, as against Rome, evangelicals insist that it is the witness of the Spirit, not that of the Church, which authenticates the Canon to us. So the fourth answer of the Westminster Larger Catechism declares: ‘The Scriptures manifest themselves to be the Word of God, by their majesty and purity; … by their light and power to convince and convert sinners, to comfort and build tip believers unto salvation: but the Spirit of God bearing witness by and with the Scriptures in the heart of man, is alone able fully to persuade it that they are the very Word of God’ (4-5).

Note the interplay here of several doctrines: we do not receive biblical truth because of sin, the Spirit opens sinful minds and hearts to see the truth, the Scripture testifies to Christ, and the Bible is self-authenticating. Vital words in Packer’s day, and vital words now.

Packer also set his store by what the corollary doctrine of biblical authority: biblical sufficiency. Even as evangelicals were recovering what used to be called pastoral care and is now called biblical counseling, Packer made a case for scriptural completeness in a spiritual sense. Once again, his confidence in the Bible is so strong as to stand out even among evangelical theologians:

Fourthly, evangelicals maintain that the Scriptures are sufficient for the Christian and the Church as a lamp for our feet and a light for our path – a guide, that is, as to what steps we should take at any time in the realms of belief and behaviour. It is not suggested that they tell us all that we would like to know about God and His ways, let alone about other matters, nor that they answer all the questions that it may occur to us to ask. The point of the affirmation is simply that, in the words of Article VI of the Church of England, ‘Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation’, and does not need to be supplemented from any other source (reason, experience, tradition, or other faiths, for example), but is itself a complete organism of truth for its own stated purpose. The grounds on which this position rests are, first, the sufficiency of Jesus Christ as Saviour; second, the demonstrable internal completeness (5).

 It is for this reason that Packer will be read for decades to come. Long after current academic trends peter out and exciting new movements dissipate, the people of God will still hunger for resources that explicate rugged Bible doctrine and teach them the ways of God. The church always needs more confidence in God’s Word; because of this, coming generations will turn to Packer for guidance, just as millions of evangelicals of varying kinds did in the last 70 years. Biblical authority and biblical sufficiency will never cease to be of paramount importance to Christ’s blood-bought household.

 Second, Packer helped forge the neo-Protestant consensus that broke out radiantly in the 21st century. For years, Packer worked within Anglican circles to try and anchor his denomination in sound evangelical theology. He gave great attention and effort to this end, initially siding more with John Stott than Lloyd-Jones in this respect. But he saw ultimately that he was part of a decided minority in British Anglicanism, and eventually crossed the Atlantic for good, teaching for a good long while at Regent in beautiful Vancouver. As in the story of Stott, we gain a real sense of frustration and loss when we track this part of Packer’s life. He yearned for the old Puritan light to break forth in the Anglican church and engulf it. But it was not to be—at least not yet.

All this was gain for broader evangelicalism, however. Packer wrote prolifically for many outlets, penning short theological studies for the Evangelical Magazine  that became millions-selling Knowing God. His columns for Christianity Today  helped form the late twentieth-century consensus on Scripture, the atonement, a robust Christian worldview, and more. The soil that Packer (and Henry and Ockenga and Graham and Boice and MacArthur and Sproul and many others) tilled in the twentieth-century gave rise to the “Reformed resurgence” of the twenty-first century. The links are—as Mark Dever has shown—traceable and direct. (This little series really needs to be a book, or a dissertation.) Without Packer’s landmark contributions to a Reformed identity and doctrine and spirituality, we would not have observed the breakout movement we did. This movement is currently in a transitional phase, and evangelicals are currently weighing which way we will go—toward Christ or toward culture. Nonetheless Packer and his generation left us a prism of cooperation and theological investment. 

Third, Packer stands for a model of theology that is deeply doctrinal but unapologetically spiritual. Packer’s work exploded the canard that deep theology defied daily practice. Agree with him or not, you could not—and cannot now—read his works without recognizing that this is a man who adores God, who loves communion with God, who has found the pearl of great price and will not let it go for anything.

As just one example of this model, see this catalyzing passage from Knowing God:

This shows us that the action taken by those who know God is their reaction to the anti-God trends which they see operating around them. While their God is being defied or disregarded, they cannot rest; they feel they must do something; the dishonour done to God’s name goads them into action. This is exactly what we see happening in the narrative chapters of Daniel, where we are told of the ‘exploits’ of Daniel and his three friends. These were four men who knew God, and who in consequence felt compelled from time to time actively to stand out against the conventions and dictates of irreligion and false religion. Daniel in particular appears as one who would not let a situation of that sort slide, but felt bound openly to challenge it. Rather than risk possible ritual defilement through eating palace food, he insisted on a vegetarian diet, to the consternation of the prince of the eunuchs (1:8—16). When Darius suspended the practice of prayer for a month, on pain of death, Daniel not merely went on praying three times a day, but did so in front of an open window, so that everyone might see what he was doing (6:10f). One recalls Bishop Ryle leaning forward in his stall at St Paul’s Cathedral so that everyone might see that he did not turn east for the Creed!

Such gestures must not be misunderstood. It is not that Daniel, or for that matter Bishop Ryle, was an awkward, cross-grained fellow who luxuriated in rebellion and could only be happy when he was squarely ‘agin’ the government. It is simply that those who know their God are sensitive to situations in which God’s truth and honour are being directly or tacitly jeopardised, and rather than let the matter go by default will force the issue on men’s attention and seek thereby to compel a change of heart about it—even at personal risk (28).

 This is no dry and dusty theologian we are reading. This is theology, you could almost say, for the church. It is the explication of Scripture in order to feed and strengthen the people of God. It is doctrine with an edge—an ethical edge, a moral summons, a setting of the face like flint to go to the greater Jerusalem. Not for nothing did Packer cite Ryle, the great nineteenth-century Anglican theologian who most reminds me of Packer. Ryle was unafraid and undaunted by the pressure of the world or his ecclesial peers. So too was Packer unafraid and undaunted.

He took on many of the toughest topics of his day and wrote so as to be understood on them. In an age when many were softening their doctrine of God and their doctrine of divine justice, for example, Packer wrote early and often about the central importance of blood atonement. You could scarcely find a quicker way to forfeit access to the cultural high places, the corridors of English power, in his era. Packer could have won much greater praise from his non-evangelical peers than he did; he could have found himself in far more elite settings and confabs and conferences and planning sessions than he did. Instead, Packer chose to slum it with the cross-obsessed evangelicals. Ironically, many of the movers and shakers of his era are even now forgotten, but the Christian world is celebrating Packer, and will do so for a long time to come.

This is not to say that Packer was a perfect man or thinker. His own doctrine of sin would not allow for such a conclusion by any stretch. Packer drew criticism, some of it just, for his involvement in the justification formulations of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (I’ve written about this here). So too with Packer’s extended involvement in official Anglican doctrinal efforts, efforts that Lloyd-Jones argued would prove to be fruitless (with some accuracy). Some in the academy would dock Packer for working primarily on occasional terms, and not producing volumes of more extended theological consideration (his literary legacy depends in places on temporal, rather than long-term, projects).

These matters notwithstanding, Packer summed up his life’s work in humble terms: “to make ministers and establish consciences.” He did not wish to create fancy academic theology that no one could decipher; he wanted to train pastors, and he wanted to anchor them to the mast of God’s Word so that they could lead the people of God into safe harbor. (PhD students, and prospective PhD students: I’d gladly consider shepherding a thesis (or two or three) on Packer and his theology, especially his bibliology, theology proper, and doctrine of the atonement. If this piques your curiosity, you know here’s one way to engage your research interests.)

Fourth, Packer commends to us the importance of courage amidst cultural change. This is the second part of the quotation cited above: Packer knew as a theologian that he was not only called to form shepherds of God’s flock. The theologian is called, in his arresting and simple phrase, “to establish consciences.” This is a markedly different model than that which sometimes dominates the classroom at the college and seminary level. Some professors influenced by a post-truth culture will even take pride in presenting theological views and not guiding their students into the truth. Not so for Packer. He was clear and judicious in his assessment of other camps, as every theologian should be, but he recognized that the Word of God came with terms. It came as a divine command. It was not a suggestion book; it was a living tablet from the sky summoning wayward sinners to holy worship driven by joy in Christ.

As one example, Packer demonstrated courage when he became a signatory of the Nashville Statement in 2017. Here again, Packer could have played his cards close. Many Christian leaders did and would. Better to avoid the hot-button issues; better to keep one’s brand positive and unitive and out of the weeds of theological and ethical disputation. But though he was a gracious statesman, Packer never showed any fear in putting his boots on and going to work, as they say in rural America. After Wayne Grudem contacted Packer about signing the Nashville Statement, Grudem noted that Packer “was extremely happy” to add his name.

How telling, and how instructive. Even in his closing years, Packer was willing to suffer reproach for the gospel and its implications. He did not sidestep difficult issues. On numerous occasions in his life, he went toward them. He was not timid and silent, diffident and noncommital. He was fearless and unafraid, conclusive and committed to sola Scriptura. Not for him a half-mast approach; Packer wrote and worked at full-sail, all hands to arms, and knew tremendous favor and influence as a result. He walked with God, and exalted God, and searched out the whole counsel of God’s Word. Then he was caught up with God. He is not among us any longer. Now he soars with the angels; now he knows God face to face (1 Cor. 13:12; 1 John 3:2).