A Seriously Happy Puritan: Praising God for J.I. Packer
The most heavenly minded man I’ve ever met passed into eternal glory Friday morning. J.I. Packer entered into his eternal reward five days shy of his 94th birthday.
Packer loved to read John Bunyan and C.S. Lewis because he said they were especially clear about heaven, clear because heaven had remarkably gripped their hearts. He celebrated all the English Puritans for this reason, it seems, but especially Richard Baxter, the most heavenly minded Puritan of all.
Heaven captured Dr. Packer’s heart too. In his now-classic book, Knowing God, he wrote, “What will make heaven to be heaven is the presence of Jesus, and of a reconciled divine Father who loves us for Jesus’s sake no less than he loves Jesus himself. To see, and know, and love, and be loved by the Father and the Son, in company with the rest of God’s vast family, is the whole essence of the Christian hope.” This God-centered heavenly mindedness marks Packer’s entire legacy. His role was to remind us of an eternity he has now entered.
Pastor John, we are left behind to celebrate his homecoming by thinking back on his life and memories of meeting him, talking on the phone, receiving faxes from him, and, of course, the many ways his writings have impacted so many of us. We are intruding on your vacation right now, but Pastor John, what comes to mind when you think of Dr. Packer the person and the figure and the writer?
Well, I’m happy to come off a vacation to do this with you, Tony. This is a high and precious moment, not a sacrifice.
The Lord has remarkably set me up for this. I knew he was close to the end. I didn’t know when it would come, but I’ve been reading a biography by Iain Murray of J.C. Ryle. I just wanted to go to Ryle again. I’ve already read about Ryle and written about Ryle, Bishop of Liverpool 130 years ago, and Packer really esteemed Ryle. Maybe it was a confluence of those things that set me to reading this. I came to the end of reading it yesterday as I got the news that Dr. Packer had gone to be with Jesus.
At the end of that biography, Murray tells about, and he actually has a photograph of the tombstone of Ryle and his wife, Henrietta. I noticed under Henrietta’s tombstone data this statement from 2 Kings 4:26. This is Elisha sending his servant to the woman who lost her son. “Say unto her, Is it well with thee? is it well with thy husband? is it well with the child? And she answered, It is well” (KJV).
That’s what’s on her tombstone. I just thought, it is well; it is well. One of us is dead, one of us is alive, and it is well with the wife. It is well with the husband. Romans 14:8: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord.”
I just thought, what a beautiful statement that catapults me into thinking about the preciousness of leaving behind a wife (like he has his wife, Kit). You know, when you get to be my age, or his age — he’s twenty years older than I am, but I feel old, good grief — we wonder, Who’s going to go first? And how will the other be taken care of? Then, to top it all off, I was taking that tombstone saying and emailing to a missionary friend of mine in Brazil who has a week to live. She spent the last half of her life there. She’s going to die in Brazil, she’s going to be buried in Brazil, and I just wanted to encourage and quote this to her.
So, I’ve been thinking a lot, even before that text came from you that he had passed away. I was immersed in the last chapter of Pilgrim’s Progress, from where Iain Murray quoted that Mr. Honest had come to the end and was ready to cross the river into heaven, and the land is called Beulah, which means married, and Mr. Honest says, in his last words, “Grace reigns.” I thought, Packer has just walked through that river with a flag flying over his head: Grace reigns. Grace reigns.
Best Kind of Christian
The reason it seems appropriate to say this at the beginning of our conversation here is that Bishop Ryle was precious to Packer because he represented latter-day Puritans. I don’t know of another person that Packer took the time (maybe Richard Baxter would be that person) to devote an entire book to. Half of the book Faithfulness and Holiness is biography, and the other half is Ryle’s book on holiness. He really esteemed Ryle very highly, and the reason he did gets at the key to who he was and why he made an impact on me.
He said that (and this is in his book on Ryle, and then in his book called A Quest for Godliness, which is one I’d recommend for everybody, besides his classic Knowing God) the Puritans — and Ryle included as a latter-day Puritan — were the very best kind of Christian that has ever existed. I mean, that’s incredible. Now, not everybody knows what I mean when I say Puritans. He mentioned Richard Baxter, John Owen, Richard Sibbes, John Flavel, Thomas Brooks, Thomas Manton, Thomas Watson, Robert Trail, William Bridge, Thomas Goodwin, Stephen Charnock, Jeremiah Burroughs, John Bunyan, William Gurnall — that sixteenth- and seventeenth-century band of brothers, who loved the sovereignty of God, were thoroughly Reformed in their theology, and yet were the most pastoral, penetrating, personal, effective prayerful, pious kind of people there were.
So Packer actually says, “This type was, in Ryle’s view, as in mine, the best type of evangelical that the world has seen, and that meant, quite simply, the best type of Christian” (Faithfulness and Holiness, 14). I mean, just think of what he’s saying. He thinks that band of brothers is the quintessential appearance on earth, after Jesus, of the best kind of Christians. He called them the “redwoods.” He said, “The rest of our generation is a pygmy generation compared to the redwoods of these Puritans” (see Quest for Godliness, pp. 11–12).
I’ve always known he had that high view, but here’s the key that links Packer with the impact he had on me and, I think, thousands. He said, “The Puritans made me aware that all theology is also spirituality in the sense that . . . it should have an influence on the recipients’ relationship or lack of relationship to God. If our theology does not quicken the conscience and soften the heart, it actually hardens both.” Then he adds this staggering statement, which explains his entire ministry. He says, “It seems to me in retrospect that by virtue of this Puritan influence on me all my theological utterances from the start, on whatever theme, have really been spirituality (i.e., teaching for Christian living), and that I cannot [this is the most amazing statement] now speak or write any other way. Am I glad? [You can hear him saying it; he would query himself, and then he would respond.] Frankly, yes. It is a happy inability to suffer from” (Quest for Godliness, 15).
People wonder, Why didn’t Packer ever write a major, great systematic theology like the other great systematic theologies, which he, intellectually, certainly could have? I think right there he’s saying, “I can’t write any other way than pastorally and spiritually.”
Theology for the People
And the reason that is so relevant and impactful for me is this: I didn’t come to Reformed theology through J.I. Packer; I came through serious exegesis of Paul, Daniel Fuller, and Jonathan Edwards. That was my pathway in. But once I was in and felt the majesty, and the greatness, and the glory of this sovereign God (I was in my mid-twenties), I began to look around, asking, Where is this? Where can I find somebody to be my father? Where can I find a help? Where is somebody who embodies this?
That’s where Packer came in, and with him came the Puritans. I didn’t read the Puritans in seminary. I started reading the Puritans later in graduate school, and then later in the pastorate, and I read them because Packer kept pointing to them as the key to this redwood kind of Christianity.
I was just thinking this morning of the people in my life who have been alive, not dead like Paul and Edwards, but rather who’ve been alive in my life who’ve influenced me most. Even including my parents, I would put Packer in the top five at least, if not the top four or three, who’ve made such an impact on me. It’s this combination of great theology, great redwood-like theology, of a magisterial God, working a massively glorious salvation, having a purpose for the entire universe that’s worthy of our devotion and our worship, combined with a tender, pastoral, loving, practical heart.
“How many great theologians write a little book that’s helpful about evangelism?”
I got out my old copy last night of Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Just the title says so much. I mean, how many theologians write about evangelism? How many great theologians write a little book that’s helpful about evangelism? I went through the book and I noticed there were two kinds of ink. I’ve read this book twice in print. I remember listening to it at the YWCA, working out with my wife a few years ago. So I’ve been through this book three times, and I remember places where he’s talking about how to behave on an airplane. Are you kidding me? One of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century is giving practical counsel about a guilty conscience of whether you should speak to somebody on an airplane or not, and how it relates to the sovereignty of God. Oh my goodness!
So he just was an enormously effective model for me, and he did that for so many people.
He was a servant. I put up an article today at Desiring God on his servanthood as a theologian. Let me just mention two concrete examples.
When I wrote my very first non-academic book, Desiring God — I wrote it from ’83 to ’86; it was published in early ’87 — I thought to myself, I want this book to be called Desiring God. Do you know why I wanted it to be called Desiring God? Because I wanted to piggyback on Knowing God. I wanted to piggyback on Loving God by Chuck Colson. I wanted people to see my book and think, Oh, maybe it’s like J.I. Packer’s book Knowing God, since it’s called Desiring God. That’s exactly what I wanted them to think.
We did the front cover with a big G-O-D, and if you know the first edition of Knowing God and Desiring God, they look very much the same. That’s not an accident, because I loved the man; I thought any association between me and him would be a real boon to me and a tribute to him. Lo and behold, I write him. I sent him a copy of the book, and I write him. I mean, this is before it’s published. I had no idea if he’d like this book all about Christian Hedonism.
And he wrote the blurb on the back of the book. When I got the book in January of ’87 and took it out of the envelope — and I didn’t know that they had accepted a blurb from him — and when I read his blurb, I cried like a baby. I just thought, I can’t believe he did this for me because I’m just this no-count pastor in Minneapolis, and had never met him, and he didn’t know me from Adam as far as I could tell. He wrote, “The healthy biblical realism of this study in Christian motivation comes as a breath of fresh air. Jonathan Edwards, whose ghost walks through most of Piper’s pages, would be delighted in his disciple.” I thought, Are you kidding me? My father who’s dead would be delighted in me, according to my father who’s alive (I mean J.I. Packer)?
You know better than I do, Tony, he wrote those kinds of blurbs for hundreds of books. I mean, someday somebody’s going to put a book together of Packer blurbs because they’re all so thoughtful, and clever, and helpful, and winsome.
Making of a Conference
Here’s the other personal thing that showed his servant heart toward me. When I was looking around in the late ’80s, like ’85, ’86, ’87 — where can I find fellowship in this Reformed Christian Hedonism that I have come to love, which is my life, and which Packer comes so close to embodying in a veteran theologian-pastor type? Where can I find it? It was in a few pockets of places. I thought, let’s have a conference and gather people together who are serious about worship, serious about mission, serious about evangelism, serious about theology, and are Reformed through and through, and care about serious joy. How could I bring guys together?
Well, I need a Packer, or somebody like that. I wrote him and said, “I have no idea whether anybody will come to this conference, but I’m going to have a little conference at our church. I’m going to invite the people that I’m aware of in my denomination, and would you come?” He came. He came and he spoke to the first group. There were about eighty pastors there in April of ’88, and that conference has existed for 32 years without stopping. Its origin and its catapulting into existence is owing to the servant heart of J.I. Packer.
Just a little side note that I mentioned in the article that’s at DG today: when he came to dinner that evening, along with the other speakers (we always had the speakers over in those early days, and Noël would make spaghetti, because I love her spaghetti), he took a great interest in Noël and said, “What do you read?” She said, “Come and I’ll show you.” So she took him into her study. I’ve got my study upstairs, she’s got hers downstairs, and she showed him her collection of mystery novels. Well, Packer is an avid reader of mystery novels, and they disappeared for — I don’t even know how long they were gone.
Later, about a year later, he writes me a little postcard with his handwriting on it. It’s dated December 18, 1990, and he had come to the conference in ’88. He said, “Creep up behind your wife and whisper in her ear, ‘Ellis Peters, Elizabeth Peters, Andrew Greeley, Ralph McInerny, William Kienzle, Charles Merrill Smith,’ and see how she reacts.” I didn’t know any of those guys, and women. They’re all mystery novelists that he and she had enjoyed talking about.
So there’s a taste of how broad his heart was, and his interests. I mean jazz saxophone was a great interest of his, and mystery novels, and Puritan theology.
Thinking about the breadth of his heart, I remember back in the ’80s and ’90s, I was struggling with the third wave of the charismatic movement, the John Wimber types, and I had looked at history, and I looked at what was happening around the world and how the church was exploding in the global South, and most of that was charismatic. The question I was raising to myself was, Why does God bless — all over the world he seems to bless — that is, use people to save sinners whose theology is defective?
In his book Keep in Step with the Spirit, Packer has this great quote that ever since then has been a real sweet, humbling help to me. He said, “God loves to bless the needle of truth in a haystack of error” (see p. 21). And that’s not a slight, because Richard Baxter was probably as close as anybody to a hero for Packer, largely because Baxter’s pastoral orientation on life made Packer a pastor as well as a theologian. He says that, theologically, “he was something of a disaster” (Quest for Godliness, 159). So what does that mean? That means that Packer had the breadth, and had the graciousness, to find usefulness, riches, in Baxter, and he could just take the disaster on certain points and set it aside and benefit from what he saw. That was a great help to me, and it’s been a great inspiration.
I keep learning things from Packer everywhere I turn. I suppose the reason for that, as you would know as well as I do, is because under it all was his absolute allegiance to, and love for, an inerrant Bible. He was part of the battle for the Bible in the ’70s, and the capstone of his career, I’ve heard him say, was his leadership, or editorship, of the new translation called the English Standard Version, the ESV, and so we would be amiss not to pay tribute to Packer’s deep, solid, heartfelt devotion to the infallibility, and truthfulness, and authority, and pervasive usefulness of the Bible. That’s what’s going to make Packer durable for decades, perhaps centuries, to come.
That’s good. J.I. Packer, speaking of Baxter, once wrote, “Richard Baxter was a gifted theologian, more stimulating in his mistakes than many lesser men in their orthodoxy” (The Redemption and Restoration of Man in the Thought of Richard Baxter, 406). So, there’s the praise side of that same critique.
So much of Packer’s legacy is him celebrating other people — historic voices, and writing endorsements for current writers. In 2012 I was able to interview Dr. Packer in Vancouver. We traveled up there. And one of my favorite clips from that interview is called “J. I. Packer’s Advice To Aspiring Writers.” There he explains why Ryle is important for aspiring writers. He said this: “J.C. Ryle was a wonderful communicator. Most of his work is written up sermons, but even when he’s just doing historical studies and not writing sermons at all, he never lets the reader off the hook. Always you feel, ‘He is talking to me.’ His idiom is very nineteenth century, and I’m not saying imitate that. But see what he’s doing with words to get into the minds and hearts of his readers. And then do that in twenty-first century terms.”
That is so good, and true. Just finishing that biography, every time Murray quoted Ryle I felt, “Yeah, that’s it. That’s it.” It’s like Billy Graham, “The Bible says,” and he’s looking right at you with this finger pointing in your face, and you don’t take offense at it. You feel like, “That man’s real. That man’s real; he’s not playing games.”
Maybe it would be good to draw this to a close with a comment on his style, his way of communicating and writing, and then a last comment on substance. I’ve been affected by, and love, his style. Now, I’m an American; he was British. The way I’m talking right now — he would never talk this way, alright. Piper is animated: he gets loud, he gets soft, he talks fast, he talks slow. All that’s very, very cultural, very personality driven. He wasn’t that way at all. He embodied serious, joyful — he had a twinkle in his eye. I was just looking last night at one of the videos that Justin Taylor put up. I looked at his eyes and I thought, What a beautiful communication of delight is in those eyes. He was articulate, he was steady, he was slow, he was deliberate in his speech. Nobody in America talks like him — nobody. I mean, N-O-B-O-D-Y — nobody talked like J.I. Packer.
He was not chipper, silly, joking; he was not spontaneous. Now, by that I mean he didn’t start talking quickly. He reflected, he pondered, he considered, and then he opened his mouth, and out of his mouth, at a very slow and deliberate pace, came complete sentences — not half sentences where you have to start over again, because you’re just blathering away because you didn’t know what you’re going to say before you opened your mouth. And every one of them makes sense, and if you think he’s pausing between words because he doesn’t know where he’s going, the next thing out of his mouth makes you think, “Oh yes, he knew where he was going.”
So, that model for me, I just loved it. I don’t want to be silly. I don’t want to be a typical American, entertainment-shaped, entertainment-driven communicator that feels like every podcast, or every sermon, or every conversation, has to begin with some silly comment or some joking. Why do we have to be that way? Packer wasn’t that way, and while we know we’ll never be the kind of British, careful, slow, deliberate speaker he was, we certainly can benefit from the style of serious, joyful, articulate, deliberate speech that’s full of (and this is my second thing) substance. So that’s style.
Here’s my last comment on substance. When I say substance, I mean this: Packer was a Reformed theologian. At a point in life, fifty years ago, when some of us had just found our way into the biblical reality of God’s majesty, and greatness, and glory, and purpose, and sovereign grace in salvation, we looked around to find representatives, and thousands of us stumbled onto his little pamphlet called “Saved by His Precious Blood: An Introduction to John Owen’s *The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.” And all it was supposed to be was an introduction to John Owen’s book, but it took on a life of its own. And the reason it did is this: Packer showed in that little booklet that what is sometimes called Calvinism, or TULIP (*T-U-L-I-P: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints), was not a peripheral, ancillary addendum to the gospel, but rather was the gospel in its fullest, richest, deepest, form.
Man is dead and hopelessly unable to create faith. God sent Christ into the world to shed his blood, to purchase a new covenant by which the heart of stone will be taken out, sins would be forgiven for God’s people, and they would be kept forever. The omnipotence of grace would be poured out by the Holy Spirit, and he would open the hearts and grant faith to his elect. And that wasn’t an afterthought; it was planned in eternity. And those whom he thus calls and creates, he keeps forever. That’s the gospel, and it’s also Calvinism when it’s understood in its fullness and completeness, biblically.
I’ll tell you, those of us who longed to be pastors, who longed to meet people’s needs, who longed to see people saved, and the mission of the church advanced, that was like a breath from heaven to hear that this great and glorious truth called Calvinism was nothing other than the sweetness, and preciousness, and depth, and fullness, and richness of the gospel of Jesus Christ that saves sinners and keeps them forever. So he showed me, along with John Owen, how to love the gospel, preach the gospel, and have a free offer — a free offer. “Come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! . . . Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:1–2).
So I love J.I. Packer. I love what he stood for. I love the kindness he showed to me. I love his allegiance to the Bible, and his appreciation of the majesty of God, and how utterly practical he was in everything he wrote. I’m very sorry to lose him.
Authentic Christian Living
Amen, lots of praise for Dr. Packer. Lots to be thankful for. Any misgivings? He seemed to like the idea of Christian Hedonism, but he sure didn’t care for the name. Did you guys ever talk about Christian Hedonism, the name?
You know, I can’t remember. That’s no evidence that we didn’t. John Piper’s memory today is not what it used to be. Frankly, I can’t remember. We did a long interview. We’re going to show some of those, I think, over at Desiring God eventually, but I cannot remember. I should remember, but I don’t.
But I do know that I get a mixed message when I read him. I do. I wish we had talked more, because I frankly think that we would have seen eye to eye if we had had a chance to talk about it. You asked, “Do I have any misgivings? Is there anything I want to point to in Packer that I would caution?” I’m not going to end on a negative note, because I’m going to turn this to positive — but it’ll sound negative at first.
He had a view of motivation — even though he commended Desiring God and said it was a great study on Christian motivation. He didn’t see the inconsistency that I see between what he said and what I wrote there. He said this: “From the plan of salvation I learn that the true driving force in authentic Christian living is, and it must ever be, not the hope of gain, but the heart of gratitude” (Rediscovering Holiness, 71).
Now, if he were sitting here right now, I would say either, “I don’t agree with that,” or “I don’t know what you mean.” He might mean by “the hope of gain” something materialistic and worldly. But it sounds like he really is saying that, in the backward glance of the Christian to the cross, and to the call of God in our conversion, and to the demonstration of God’s grace and mercy in history, we feel an overpowering sense of thankfulness, and then we turn that thankfulness into motivation to return to God for what he’s given to us. I don’t think that’s the way the New Testament or the Old Testament talks.
Jesus “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus was motivated to complete the obedience on the cross for the joy, the gain, that was in front of him — namely, being with his Father and a redeemed people.
Or Colossians 1:4–5: “. . . the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.” Hope for heaven was where love came from.
Or Matthew 5:12: “Rejoice and be glad [when you’re persecuted], for your reward is great in heaven.” It’s thinking about the greatness of the reward in heaven that enables us to endure persecution and persevere in love.
Or Paul saying, “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13–14). That drove Paul: “I want to make it to the end and get the prize, which is Jesus; he’s more precious to me than anything.”
Or Hebrews 11: “By faith Abraham obeyed” (Hebrews 11:8). What is faith? “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for” (Hebrews 11:1); it’s the glory of the future, the better reward, the Beulah land with Jesus that sustains us and motivates us in our obedience.
So, I would say, “Dr. Packer, what did you mean when you said that the driving force in authentic Christian living is not the hope of gain? I don’t think that’s right.” He might say, “Well, I think, perhaps, I should reconsider that half of the statement.” (I’m congratulating myself that I might get that kind of response.)
‘Till I’m Home with You’
“I stand in awe of your life’s work and will draw from it till I’m home with you.”
Here’s the way we should close, Tony. When I say that, I say it with tears in my eyes, that if I can nitpick at a statement of Packer that I wouldn’t say, and then point to the precious Bible that he taught me to love and die for, there’s a great affection in my heart, and maybe he would understand if I said, “Well, Dr. Packer” — I never could call him anything other than “Dr. Packer” — “Dr. Packer, you taught me that God loves to honor the needle of truth in a haystack of error. You will then perhaps be merciful toward me if I find a needle of error in the haystack of your life’s work — which is not a haystack, because hay is going to be burned up. Yours is made of gold and silver and precious stone, and I stand in awe of your life’s work and will draw from it till I’m home with you.”
We’re actually going to release an interview you did with him, a 70-minute interview on all sorts of things. It’s never been released. The whole thing is coming soon as an episode of APJ. Stay tuned for that in the next week or so. Was that recorded in Vancouver?
Yeah, I think so.
It’s never been released: Pastor John, Dr. Packer, talking about the gospel, Calvinism, and the Christian life. Thank you, Pastor John, for coming off vacation to talk with us.
What a privilege.
Well, back in 1990 Packer wrote an especially interesting editorial for Christianity Today, titled “Why I Like My Pie in the Sky.” He wrote, “When persons suffering loss of memory cannot recall where their earthly home is, we pity them; but Christians who forget that heaven is their true home, and never think positively about heaven at all, are much more to be pitied. Yet this, it seems, is how most of us proceed most of the time.”
So what is the problem? He asks, “Why are there so few Christians these days who can honestly affirm that they have anchored their hearts in heaven and are continually excited about it? Worldliness, alas, is the cause. Secular materialism, preoccupied with the present, and Marxist mockery of ‘pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die,’ combine to make Christians feel embarrassed about their hope of glory, as if having it is somehow bad manners; so they do not talk about it, and soon they stop thinking about it. Rarely in today’s Christianity does excitement about heaven break through. When did you last hear a sermon on the subject?”
Poignant. And then he signed off with an aspirational plea to his readers. “See you in heaven, I hope.”
This heavenly minded man, dear to so many of us — J.I. Packer — passed into the joyful presence of his Savior on Friday morning, July 17, at the age of 93.