John Piper Interviews J.I. Packer
Dr. J.I. Packer recently passed into glory. It was about a year ago that we began to get updates indicating that his race on earth was nearing its end.
I had a short list of topics I wanted to talk with him about over the telephone, and he very kindly agreed to a series of three telephone calls to answer various questions I had about the Puritans, and specifically his thoughts on Puritan theologian Thomas Goodwin. These were not formal interviews, just informal chats. However, I knew the end of the third call would be my final time speaking with him. I wanted to voice my gratitude to God for his life and ministry.
Although Dr. Packer’s formal ministry had ended and he would no longer preach or teach or write books or articles, he wanted Pastor John to know that the shared convictions he had with us, the convictions that drove his public ministry — convictions about Christ and imputation and personal holiness and the nature of Scripture — those were all convictions he was still clinging to privately. I love that. Friends close to him in his final weeks and days and hours on this earth confirmed the very same. Until the end, Dr. Packer talked about the preciousness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And those shared convictions bring us back to an earlier date five years ago. It was April of 2015. Pastor John traveled to Vancouver to interview Dr. Packer about life, doctrine, and ministry. What resulted from their time together is a 72-minute conversation. This interview has never been released until now. Here it is.
John Piper: Dr. Packer, in 1988 you came to the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors that we started as a church. It’s been going on now for 27 years or so. You didn’t know anything about this. It was the very first one. I didn’t know if anybody would come. And I wanted to publicly thank you for coming. I mention it because you have, I think, assumed that lowly, risk-taking servant role for more than one ministry. Getting our little conference off the ground with your presence was a gift to us. So thank you, and the legacy has been significant.
There’s another thing. Two years before that, I wrote a book called Desiring God, which was my first popular book. (My dissertation doesn’t count because it didn’t get any blurbs.) And you wrote a blurb for it: the first blurb, right at the top. And you said, “The ghost of Jonathan Edwards walks through the pages of this book.” And you added, to my amazement, “I think he would be pleased with his disciple.” It really did bring tears to my eyes. That you would write it, that you would say that, moved me deeply.
So those two reasons — a blurb on my first popular book and the first speaker at the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors — have endeared you to me in some pretty significant ways.
J.I. Packer: Well, that’s a very gracious way for you to start this conversation; I appreciate it. You remind me of things which are very happy memories, as a matter of fact. Nothing that has happened since I made those gestures has changed my mind about any of the things that we had in common then. Well, it’s just a great joy to be talking to you now after so many years, and realizing that all of this stays firm.
Redwoods of the Faith
Piper: So, here’s the way I want to turn that ghost comment into a question: Jonathan Edwards is walking through John Piper’s writing’s like a ghost, and I’m happy with that. And to be called a “disciple” who would be pleasing to the master — a sub-master — is pleasing to me. You have different ghosts walking through your pages. If I were to guess what they are, I think it’s pretty clear they are English Puritans from the seventeenth century. You have called them “redwoods” in the book A Quest for Godliness.
So the question is kind of twofold: Speaking now to younger people who may only be marginally familiar with that group of redwoods, what was it about them that took hold of you and have kept hold of you that would be useful for us today? And subordinately: Does Edwards walk at all through the pages? In other words, did Edwards have a little place in the shaping of J.I. Packer?
Packer: Well, the first thing to say, I think, is that the Puritans broke into my life when I was still a young Christian. I became a believer at Oxford, and I was put in charge of a library that had been left to the InterVarsity chapter. In that library were uncut volumes of the works of John Owen, who by general consent, of course, is the top Puritan. I was interested simply, I suppose, because I’m that sort of person. I like to know about the past of anything that I’m interested in at the present. At that time, in the present, I was interested in — well, more than interested; I mean, I was committed as a disciple of Christ. I was a new disciple. I was trying to catch up for all those years during which I hadn’t been a believer. From that standpoint, it was time wasted. I had heard that the Puritans were something rather special, so I cut the uncut pages of a volume of John Owen and started reading.
Now, I hadn’t expected what happened. I was reading him on indwelling sin in believers and the mortification of sin in believers. I hadn’t realized that I had a major problem at that point until Owen showed me that I did, showed me what it was, showed me how to understand myself, and showed me what the Lord would do for me, and what I must do for him to deal with the sin that was still operating in my life. So unexpectedly, John Owen, for a time, became my pastor. I moved out from John Owen to various of his friends. Richard Baxter was another great Puritan whom I began to read and was thrilled by.
I read for the first time, seriously, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, both parts. Well, there were quite a number, actually, of other Puritans of almost equal stature whom I read because Owen — although he’s difficult in style — gave me a taste for a reality which now I think I’d describe in terms of the recognition of God, quite simply. The Puritans carried a tremendous sense of God with them, and Owen, with his awkward style, was able to communicate that sense of God. It took me a little time to recognize what it was that was coming across.
But in fact, during those months when I was doing my first exploration of the Puritans, I was also able, from time to time, to listen to the great Martyn Lloyd-Jones preaching the gospel. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, more than any preacher whom I have ever sat under, brought God with him. That’s the only way to say it: he brought God with him into the pulpit. From being in worship that he was leading, I got to the point where I recognized that the reality of God is what’s impacting me from the Puritans. And that stays with me today.
Piper: Is that what you mean by redwoods?
Packer: That’s one of the things that I mean by redwoods; it isn’t all. The redwood image is intended to conjure up the thought of stability and strength and the capacity to stand firm under pressure. Actually, I’m not sure that, in terms of botany, that actually works for redwoods. I have been told that they have shallow root systems, and that isn’t part of the picture at all. The Puritans were very strong because they had very strong root systems.
But yes, they became my example — as they still are — of folk who lived slowly enough to be able to think deeply about God. And they did, and what they thought, they expressed. Some of them were quite eloquent, actually, in the ordinary sense of the word. Bunyan, for instance, is a very pleasant writer to read, quite apart from the fact that, in my estimate at any rate, Pilgrim’s Progress is simply magnificent as Christianity.
And you asked about Jonathan Edwards.
Piper: In other words, he does not figure in your thinking the way he figures in my thinking. He’s prominent for me; they are prominent for you.
Packer: He did for you what John Owen did for me.
Piper: Yes, that would be very true.
Packer: He was for you the first exponent of the strong sense of God, the strong thinking about God’s reality, and the strong perception of what a healthy relationship with God is like.
Packer: I’m not telling you anything you don’t know; you wrote about that again and again, very clearly and strongly, and, I thought, rightly from every standpoint. I was writing, and still, I suppose, every now and then I am writing still, things about the Puritans which are intended to highlight those particular Puritan virtues which I learned from Owen, Baxter, Bunyan, and the rest of them.
Head and Heart Together
Piper: Would it be accurate to say that the pattern of pastoral-theological life that you have developed for decades is profoundly — it seems to me — affected by the way Puritans lived their lives? In other words, they were pastors mostly, not university professors. You have been a professor, but your writing ministry and your church ministry have seemed to be marked by a more pastoral bent than many.
Packer: Well, as far as I’m concerned, the two things come together and bond. I mean, as a matter of history, those Puritans who worked in universities — and quite a number of them did for more or less time — they saw themselves in that situation as pastors: they preached, they catechized, they pastored the young men who were passing through their hands. It was understood in those days that a university tutor would do that.
The gulf between academic theology and personal devotion didn’t exist in those days. It seems to me that that was a much healthier state of affairs than you can match in most universities nowadays. But certainly, that’s how they saw their vocation, and I, equally certainly. Yes, it’s true. I, equally certainly, equally strongly, have believed myself called to pastor, to shepherd, to guide folk, as best I can, in their relationship with God, in their service of God. Well, that I suppose has a lot to do with what we were talking about: the fact that the Puritans pastored me at an early stage.
But behind that and beneath that, it’s rooted in the Bible. I mean, if you think of the apostles, think particularly of Paul followed by John and the para-apostles — people like the writer to the Hebrews — they were persons with tremendously strong minds. That, by the way, really does include the apostle John. He had a marvelously simple way of expressing the marvelously profound things that he had to communicate. Paul is more obviously a very strong-minded man and a very articulate man. Well, Hebrews the same. As far as I’m concerned, these things belong together.
Divinity of Scripture
Piper: Yeah, the Bible runs like a massive stream underneath your work and the Puritans. In 1978, you were happy to be a part of the battle for the Bible. You helped move Beyond the Battle for the Bible, the book by that title. It was about inerrancy. Here we are thirty-some years later. Are you as equally committed to the doctrine of inerrancy today? And why should young people embrace, defend, minister out of a conviction like that?
Packer: Well, first of all, as a matter of personal fact, yes, my commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture is as strong as ever it was. And the basis of it is a recognition that Scripture, according to the Lord Jesus — there is no higher authority than he — is precisely the word of God, the word of his heavenly Father, the word of authority, to which he models obedience to show his disciples, amongst other things, the way that they must go.
It seems to me, as the years go by, that the gulf between those who do and those who don’t recognize what I would call (if I’m left to choose my own phrase) the divinity of the Scriptures, the gulf is deeper than it was. I hoped that the result, or one result, of the public controversy about inerrancy during the late 1970s and on would be that the hollowness — and I think that’s the word that fits — the hollowness of liberal claims to insight and authority and spiritual things would appear, and the next generation of liberals would quietly dissociate themselves from it so that they wouldn’t need to be labeled liberals anymore.
It hasn’t been like that. And if I’m asked to diagnose what’s happened, I would say, well, one thing that has happened is that the intellectual pride that produced liberalism in the first instance — challenging the Bible, and professing, at least in their own hearts, these people did, to be wiser than the Bible — that pride has strengthened its grip I think, so that the non-inerrantists in the church are further from the truth and the wisdom that comes of acknowledging the divinity of the word of God than their predecessors were.
Well, alright, sin in the world often wins victories which one would have hoped it wouldn’t win, and one wouldn’t have expected it to win. But I was telling another group of people only yesterday, with as much emphasis as I could manage, that Satan, who stands behind all the unbelief of the world, he is a very cunning operator, and, well, he doesn’t give up. He devises new ways of establishing his grip in the lives of people whose positions are shown to be intellectually flimsy as they stand. Satan doesn’t say, “Well alright, then you’d better become orthodox again.” Satan says, “I’ve got a better idea for you along the line that you’ve been following.” And a supposedly better idea emerges, and away they go.
Doctrines of Grace
Piper: Within those who embrace the divinity, inerrancy, of Scripture, there emerge differences of the way they read it. Another theme through your writings is a love for, a defense of, an exposition of, the doctrines of grace, as the Puritans probably would have called them (as opposed to, say, “the five points of Calvinism”). But the question is, very simply, if you take the gospel (and I’m thinking of 1 Corinthians 15) and you take the five points (soteriological Calvinism, doctrines of grace), what’s the relationship between those two? How do you like to describe the specificities of Reformed theology over here and the center of the gospel — if that’s even the correct way to set it up?
Packer: Well, let others be the judge of that. But as far as I’m concerned, the five points of Calvinism are a secondary concern, not a primary one. They are the Reformed answer to the five points of classical, early seventeenth-century Arminianism. And if there had never been an Arminian version of Reformation theology, there never would have been five points at all. But there would have been the doctrines of grace. That’s the conception that I like to pursue and the category in terms of which I like to speak.
Piper: So, did you mean the doctrines of grace are secondary, or the structure of the five points are secondary?
Packer: No, no, no, the five points are secondary. You have to talk about the doctrines of grace if you’re going to talk about the teaching of Scripture at all, or the teaching of Paul, or the teaching of the Lord Jesus.
Piper: So are they definitions of the gospel, expansions of the gospel, elaborations, insights, elucidations? I mean, I’m thinking of Spurgeon, who said, with his robust Reformed theology, or maybe even Warfield, I think, said, “This is the gospel in its purest form.”
Packer: Well, that sounds like Warfield, but it’s a sentiment that Spurgeon would have agreed with — well, did agree with — one hundred percent.
Piper: Does Packer?
Packer: Oh, yes. Yes, Packer belongs to that tribe, by the grace of God. I have nothing that I’ve not received, and I’m just profoundly thankful that God, in his providence, has led me this way, because this is the truth. Well, ultimately, the quest for truth, reality, is what it’s all about.
Piper: I don’t want to go too far because we have brothers who don’t agree with us about some of these things, but would it be fair to say that the proper elaboration of the doctrines of grace is good for the gospel — a deepening of the gospel, a preservation of the gospel, an advancement, not a distraction from the gospel?
Packer: No, I would use the word elucidation, I think. I would point to places, passages in the New Testament, where these doctrines are laid out and used in the course of pastoral exhortations and simply say — as indeed I think I’ve already said in one way, and now I will say in another — this is the scriptural path, which is all that concerns me. I want to go where the Scriptures take me. Why? Because the teaching of Scripture is the word of God, the truth of God, the gospel of God, and that’s where I cast anchor. God has taught me that, and I stay with it.
“The teaching of Scripture is the word of God, the truth of God, the gospel of God, and that’s where I cast anchor.”
[For more detail on this point, see Packer’s book A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Crossway, 1990), especially pages 127–34. There he argues we shouldn’t merely focus on the abridged acronym of the five points (TULIP), but bring in the full Christ-centered soteriology of the historic gospel of what it means to know God and be known by him, which is more broadly now called “Calvinism,” which Packer affirms is “the biblical gospel.” Thus, Packer robustly affirms: “Spurgeon was thus abundantly right when he declared . . . ‘Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else.’” But foregrounding the five points themselves was a secondary priority in Spurgeon’s ministry, as it was in Packer’s. —Tony]
Imputation and Union with Christ
Piper: Amen. Let’s move to another place where the Scripture has seemed to take the church for the last two thousand years, I hope, but at least the last five hundred years. Concerning justification, about fifteen years ago, a prominent New Testament scholar in America wrote a couple of articles in which he said that the doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ is not a New Testament doctrine. Justification should be understood more in terms of the forgiveness of sins, not the positive imputation of the righteousness of Christ. In your own experience of the word and in your relationship with Christ, what’s the place of that particular aspect of the doctrine of justification — namely, the imputation of the righteousness of Christ?
Packer: That’s a very fair question and I know that you’re a committed man on that subject. You wrote against an English scholar, whom I know quite well, as a matter of fact, to try and put the record straight when, in your estimate, he had muddled it up a little.
Seriously now, I think the reality that we are called to elucidate, and indeed, that the Scriptures go ahead of us elucidating, the reality of salvation — if the question is asked, “What sort of a reality is salvation?” this is the answer: it is union with the risen Christ in the life that is his, and that he, through the Holy Spirit, communicates to us, so that we are one with him in terms of union of life, even though, of course, we remain distinct from him in terms of personal identity. But union with Christ is the central category for apostolic thinking, it seems to me, about the substance, the reality, of the salvation that is ours when we put faith in Christ. This is Paul and this is John and this is where I think Peter points in both his letters. Although he’s not so explicit as Paul and John, never mind; he’s pointing in the same direction and he’s on the same wavelength.
Well now, within that relationship, the language of the imputing of righteousness, which is Paul’s phrase in Romans 4, that language is very properly extended. Now I think one has to say, this is going a little beyond what any particular New Testament phrase does, but it’s entirely on wavelength with the New Testament phraseology. It’s a slight extension of what Paul says about God imputing righteousness to say that the righteousness imputed is the righteousness of Christ.
What does that mean? It means that God judges us as he sees us in Christ. It means that Christ, in a real substantial sense, by virtue of our union with him (I have to be pictorial here; I don’t know any other way of saying it) casts his righteousness, his status — that is, as the one who has perfectly done the will of God, pleased God, and so is accepted by God — over us like a cloak (a Mackintosh, if you like), covering us and shielding us from what would otherwise be ours — namely, the clash between our sinfulness, which, well, it is sinfulness as well as a track record of sins. The sins are the fruits of the sinfulness. Satan has seen to it that sinfulness runs right through our system, as children of Adam and Eve.
But now we are accounted righteous in Christ because of what Christ is, has been, continues to be: the righteous one. And the Father sees us in that way, and this is our fundamental identity as new creatures in Christ. So I would say — indeed I often have said, and doubtless will say again — that though the imputing of Christ’s righteousness isn’t a scriptural phrase, it’s a scriptural thought, and a very fundamental scriptural thought. I wouldn’t, therefore, want to discourage Reformed people from using it simply on the grounds that it isn’t exactly a New Testament thought, which I don’t think it is, as I said. The substance of it, the substance of the meaning, is one hundred percent New Testament.
When we talk about our life in Christ, well, one of the first things we have to talk about is the standing, the status, the position, in relation to Christ and the Father. We’re united with Christ, and so we are welcomed by the Father in Christ. We have to understand that that phrase, that little phrase which we so often pass over, and so rarely explain in the pulpit or books or anything — the phrase “in Christ” — that’s a phrase of tremendously weighty meaning, saying everything about justification and everything actually about sanctification.
Walk by the Spirit
Piper: Exactly, which is next. So, I’m going to just keep you going by sharpening it. You have written about holiness a lot.
Packer: Yes, it’s true.
Piper: You care about personal holiness and corporate holiness, and your book Keep in Step With the Spirit was a profoundly helpful book to me. So, here’s my simple question to keep us going from justification, rootedness in Christ, identity in Christ, to walking by the Spirit — that’s a biblical phrase: “Walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16). Now, that’s a very paradoxical phrase. Or Owen on “put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit” (Romans 8:13)
So how does a human being act with his will in such a way that it can be said the Holy Spirit has acted? Because I assume that’s what “walk by the Spirit” or “put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit” means. That’s something I do, and yet it is not I, but Christ. So can you just describe the dynamics? And I mean as practically and as personally as you can, because I personally find it strange language that I have to adapt to, even though it’s biblical language. For me to act by the Spirit or walk by the Spirit, what does that look like? How do you do that?
Packer: Well, the starting point, as far as I’m concerned, is where we were in the last paragraph of Packer that you pulled out of me. The starting point is the relation that the apostles express in the phrase in Christ. It’s a relation of union without identity, in the sense of one person being absorbed into the other. It’s a relation actually in which the human partner becomes more fully a person than ever he or she was before because that’s one of the things that resurrection life in Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit working within us brings about.
There isn’t, to my mind, any obvious analogy that one can use to express it. One simply has to talk all the time about two things between which one moves, on which one rings the changes, but of which both are vital and central. One is the discipleship relation, which we learn about from the Gospels, where we are shown how Jesus started the discipleship relation going with his twelve. The other aspect of the matter is that the vital energy which operates within the person who is following Christ, through, specifically, the Holy Spirit — this energy is the energy of Christ’s risen life in us and through us. And that energy is mediated by the Holy Spirit who indwells us.
When I am teaching the Trinity, again and again I find myself talking about the Holy Spirit as the executive agent that brings about, first of all, the relationship in Christ, with Christ, with the Father, through the Son. You need all those prepositions in order to get it right. I talk of him as the executive agent of the Godhead. I stress that everything in creation, in providence, in grace, comes to us from the Father through the Son. And then I add: by the agency, recognized or unrecognized, specified or unspecified, but nonetheless, energy that’s really there — the energy of the Holy Spirit. The Trinity, or the three persons of the Trinity, they’re always together; none of them ever acts separately.
Piper: Right, so are there things I do that engage that executive influence? “Walk by the Spirit.” That’s an imperative to me: “You, walk by that agency.” Very practically, if I get up in the morning, what do I do to do that? Because I’m supposed to obey that command: walk by that agency, by that executive power. He’s sovereign. I’m not God; I don’t make him do things.
Packer: Well, look, I was trying to say, and I think I have to try again, simply because this is a way of thinking that runs all through the New Testament, and which we miss. I mean, some things are so big and so clear that we overlook them. I regularly illustrate this from the letters “Pacific Ocean” on a map of all that water between Asia and America. We look at the map and we see the names of dozens of islands. It’s a big map, and all the islands are there. And while we’re focusing on those details, we miss the big words “Pacific Ocean.”
When it’s a matter of walking in the Spirit, doing things by the Spirit, putting the deeds of the body — that is, the habits, the bad habits of our sinful system; that’s how I like to explain it or verbalize it: putting the bad habits of our sinful system to death — that is, draining the life out of them so that they don’t operate anymore. When that’s what we’re talking about, well, what’s involved is knowledge of what we ought to do. Dependence — I don’t think, frankly, that, by and large, in our evangelical teaching these days, we make enough of the truth that we really are dependent on God — God the Holy Spirit, quite specifically — to enable us to do anything right which we do.
The way to proceed, it seems to me, is to look to the Lord, tell him, in effect, “All of this depends on you. I can’t do it. I can’t break a sinful habit. I can’t form a new pattern of obedience without your help.” And having thus prayed and made it clear that it all depends on God, then it’s up to us to make plans and devise procedures, decide what we’re going to do, as if it all depends on us. We are used, I think, in some other places in our discipleship and our theology, to the thought that we pray, acknowledging that it all depends on God, and then proceed as if it all depends on us.
Piper: That’s what I remember from the book, that there is a dependence: you say, “Without you I can do nothing,” and then you turn and you get out of bed, you open your Bible, you turn off the television, you don’t click on the computer, you do things. But you’ve said, fundamentally, “I cannot do this.”
“We started in asking to be enabled, and we shall finish by saying, ‘Thank you, Lord, for enabling me.’”
Packer: You’re saying it absolutely the way that I wish everybody would say it, and certainly the way that I try to say it. And then the last bit, I think, ought to be put into the pattern. When we recognize that — in measure, at any rate — we’ve done it, we could say, “Thank you, heavenly Father, for enabling us to do it.” Say, “Father, well, it was the Holy Spirit.” This is an area of reality in which the action of the Spirit doesn’t impede — indeed, he strengthens and animates our action. But we don’t think of our action as in any way self-generated or self-sustained. We know very well that the things we do that are right have been done by the Spirit because we were walking by the Spirit, and they wouldn’t have been done otherwise. And so, we certainly feel that we are doing it; we know we are. But at the same time, we know, by faith, we’re being enabled to do it. We started in asking to be enabled, and we shall finish by saying, “Thank you, Lord, for enabling me.”
God and Calamity
Piper: That’s very helpful, very helpful. New direction — I’ve not heard anybody ask you this. Two to three days ago, there was an earthquake in Nepal. I think about 2,500 people have died. You and I are lovers of people and lovers of the sovereignty of God. How do you articulate God’s role in that earthquake?
Packer: I’ll go right back to the beginning and say, with all due respect to Christians who think otherwise, I don’t believe this world was ever intended to be our final dwelling place. I believe that it was always God’s intention that his human creatures, having been tested, disciplined, and so drilled into full-scale godliness in this world, would be taken like Enoch was taken, into a world beyond. I applaud the title of a sermon that Martyn Lloyd-Jones preached, and it was published and circulated widely as a tract, titled — and you can see from the title that all of this was being expressed in the sermon — “God’s Preparatory School.” That was how Martyn Lloyd-Jones was urging us all to understand our present life.
Now, this world has been messed up as a result of sin in a way in which it wouldn’t have been had sin not happened. It’s beyond me to say whether there would have been the tests of living through earthquakes in a world where sin had not entered in the way that there is now, in the world as it is. I believe that all these circumstances, however drastic and traumatic, are, in fact, to be understood by believers as so many tests in which we practice faithfulness to our God and experience God sustaining us and carrying us through. And when these cosmic traumas bring about an early death, well, that now is God’s will for the person or persons who undergo that death. And we can only say God remains in charge, and he knows what he’s doing. If you ask me to cash that belief in terms of geology and physics, well, I can’t do it — I mean, tectonic plates.
There are so many things in life where you have that problem. I mean, you have a physical order of things, which it seems has always been out of man’s control. It’s an order of things which now, in the sinful world, is used by God over and over as retributive judgment. I’m thinking here — and this is just one example among thousands — of the way that Berlin got ruined and wrecked in the last days of World War II when Russia, from one side, and the Allies, from the other side, advanced on Berlin. And just because of everything that was centered in Berlin, they messed up Berlin “real good,” if one may put it that way. And I’m sure that there were German believers in Berlin who lived through it, and all they could say is, “Well, God has done it.” And they may have added, “I’m beginning to suspect that we all deserved it.”
And if, for instance, we continue in industrial life in a way that actually does produce major global warming in the way that they’re warning us it might, well, that will mean certainly more storms, more natural disasters, more violence in the natural order, and there’ll come a time when we shall have to whisper to ourselves, “Well, we brought it on ourselves, and in that sense, we must accept responsibility for it.”
But it’s still under God’s sovereignty, and the bottom line for every believer, then, like the bottom line for every believer now, must be, “Lord, you know what you’re doing. What you do is right. If I fully understood it, I should see that. I don’t fully understand it, so I walk by faith in your goodness and your wisdom, and, step by step, I seek to please you, starting, as it were, from now.” You can’t go further than that.
Our Eternal Abode
Piper: A brief clarification: it may be the most controversial thing anybody would say you’ve said so far — the belief that we were not intended to live our eternity on this earth. Relate that to the teachings of the new heavens and the new earth in Revelation or in Isaiah 65. When you see out a million years, and all of history is over, where are we?
Packer: I must begin by saying this is a matter under discussion by learned men. There are learned men of evangelical persuasion, Bible believers, Bible lovers, taking different positions on this one. I can’t guarantee that I am properly wised up on the matter as yet. I don’t know whether I know enough, and that’s what I would prefer to tell the world, rather than to pontificate on one side or other of this question.
But now, I think the thing that is certain from Scripture and that, one way or another, both brands of evangelical scholars are trying to catch hold of at the same time, is that in some form, there will be continuity. And having said that, I want to go on and say I certainly believe that in all sorts of ways, it will be an enormously different order of things from that which we know now. But then, putting my weight on the other foot, you see, I want to say that I am equally sure that in all sorts of ways, there will be perceived continuity: we shall never forget what this world was like and we shall never forget our walk through it before we came to whatever is our final place of abode. What I can’t say, though, is how we shall remember the past when things are so different in the present.
Now, that’s a formula. I can’t cash the formula. I’m not wise enough. I don’t know enough. The Bible doesn’t tell me enough. I think that is clearly — yes, clearly — what we are intended to learn from Revelation 20–22. Is that enough for you?
Piper: It is enough. Continuity and discontinuity — that’s pretty much all I know too. We’re almost done. We’re almost done, but I have one or two more.
Homosexual Practice and the Gospel
Piper: One of the most painful issues today — and you have been significantly involved in it — is homosexuality. You took a stand that implied, and pretty explicitly stated, that to bless a union, an ordination of a union, or just to bless or celebrate or embrace an active homosexual partnership was a gospel issue. As I read your article in Christianity Today, you connected it. So things have intensified since then, and we are in a more aggressive situation of being asked to embrace and celebrate and endorse. How should we think about the importance of that issue and its relation to the gospel?
Packer: Well, this is a hot potato, just as you were implying. And though I have taken a pretty forthright stand, in black and white, shall I say — you affirm that; you’re quite right: indeed, I have. I was put in a situation where I was forced to do that because I was in an ecclesiastical structure that was, in my estimate, being led into major sin by totally disregarding what the Bible says so clearly about homosexual behavior. Well, in any situation of controversy, you have to speak as strongly as upholding the truth requires, which may mean that you speak so strongly that you appear to give more weight to the issue than in your own personal, pastoral, devotional ministry you actually do. I’m not sure that I was led into doing that. In fact, I do think that the issue is fundamental.
Having spoken that preamble, I’ll now try and answer your question and tell you just how. It seems to me that the procreation and continuance of the race was clearly the will of the Creator when he made the first couple — made the world for them to live in. And homosexual sex — whatever else one may say about it — doesn’t do that. It misdirects the order of creation in a fundamental way. Both testaments — the whole Bible, I was going to say — is categorical, black and white, in its condemnation of homosexual behavior. And in the Old Testament, of course, where the fundamentals of right and wrong are being taught — in the Pentateuch anyway, where the people of God are given the law and led into the promised land — homosexual behavior merits the death penalty.
I know that that is tough because in the first days of teaching the law, the penalties were very heavy — penalties for things that would always be wrong, but they were very heavy penalties. And that partly, I’m sure, was God teaching his people to have a conscience about things which the world around them didn’t have a conscience about, and which they wouldn’t have had a conscience about had he not shocked them, shaken them, by insisting that in the fellowship of Israel, “This behavior is intolerable; I will not have it.”
Well, I think that fact is directly connected with God’s purpose for sex and the procreation of the race. I am talking about procreation, incidentally, with a consciousness that too much discussion about sex these days never gets around to discussing procreation. God’s wise plan was procreation with pleasure, but the context of the pleasure is intended to be the purpose of procreation. At this point, I think the Catholic tradition has it right. And in the separation of procreation and pleasure and focusing exclusively on pleasure, a great deal of Protestant thinking about sex, gender, marriage and so on, has it wrong. I would have to defend that, I know, in discussion, but that’s something I would be willing to do, because I think it’s clear from the foundational books of Scripture, the Pentateuch, where all the foundations of everything are made.
Piper: And can you move this toward the gospel?
Packer: Yes. Well, the gospel message and the gospel grace are intended to lead sinful human beings — through the practice of discipleship and the powerful action of the Holy Spirit, enabling us to do things right that we’ve been doing wrong before — they’re intended to bring us into the moral and spiritual image of Jesus our Lord. Christlikeness isn’t primarily physical; it’s primarily personal. It has to do with character. It has to do with outlook. It has to do with mindset. It has to do with the practice of love in all relationships — well, love and justice and wisdom.
Alright, well, if that is so — and I believe it is — sanctioning homosexual behavior obstructs, counters, and messes up the work of sanctification. And when we’re told in debate that some people who practice homosexual relationship are ever so Christlike in this or that or the other way, it’s a confusion. Just as one has to speak strongly when one’s up against radical error and asked to sanction it, so one has to speak strongly when one’s confronted with confusion and needs to sort out lines of thought that have got tangled. That’s what I think we’ve got here.
Well, the gospel has to do with the whole process that’s involved in finding sinners, restoring them to fellowship with God — from whom they’ve turned their backs — and renewing them in the image of Christ. At this point, any sanctioning of homosexual behavior, any attempt to fit homosexual behavior — in any form — into the pattern of Christian discipleship is, it seems to me, very radical confusion.
Piper: Right. And the warrant for that would be 1 Corinthians 6:9–10?
Packer: Yes, those are the verses on which I lay more emphasis than any others, although Romans 1 comes pretty close. But yes, the apostolic witness against homosexual behavior is absolutely categorical and strong. And there in 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, Paul says if you embrace it, you must expect it to keep you out of the kingdom because you’re negating the gospel. The gospel is a unity.
Piper: Right. The gospel is designed, at enormous price, to get people into the kingdom. The apostles say this sin, among others — embracing greed, embracing idolatry — will keep you out of the kingdom. Therefore, to try to be a gospel person and a person embracing this sin is impossible.
Packer: Yes, impossible, incompatible, and in our current culture, that needs to be shouted from the housetops because of the confusion about it which infects our culture.
Piper: And shouting it from the housetops will be very costly.
Packer: Well, yes. And of course, prudence, saying things in the way best calculated to get them a hearing, is also part of the equation here. When I talk about shouting from the housetops, there’s a way in which you could understand that phrase which I wouldn’t.
Piper: I cannot picture J.I. Packer, standing on a housetop, shouting. But I can hear you saying pointed, appropriate, well-timed, powerful things.
Packer: Well, it’s engaging people’s minds and keeping them engaged while you make your points.
Searcher of My Heart
Piper: Let me close with this question: You and I are old by standards of our culture. You, a little older.
Packer: By any standards.
Piper: OK, that’s true. “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty” (Psalm 90:10). And that’s where I am: just about 70.
Packer: And I’m well beyond that.
Piper: You have, along with the Puritans, drawn our attention to the beauties of Christ, the beauties of his salvation, the glories of God. As you contemplate seeing him remarkably soon, what aspects of his person, character, are strengthening, bringing peace, joy, to you now?
Packer: What a good question: it goes right to the heart — and to the depths of the heart. Well, let me answer it as best I can. I don’t think of the Lord in terms of anything physical because I know that, at that level, I can’t focus him; it’s beyond me.
I think, and I try to keep thinking, of his wisdom — wisdom means a great deal to me — his wisdom in seeing to the heart of everyone with whom he’s engaged, speaking to the heart, often introducing the person with whom he is engaged to himself or herself in a way that they never yet have met themselves. Like the rich young ruler, for instance, who thought he was a good chap until the Lord Jesus really brought him down in flames at that point — made him realize that discipleship is what it’s supposed to be about, and discipleship is something which, at heart level, he hadn’t begun.
Well, I think of the Lord Jesus as the searcher of my heart, and whatever he — how do I say it without seeming flip? — whatever he looks like when I see him face to face, what I shall still, I think, value most, focus on most directly, take most interest in — dare I say it that way? I think so — is that he knows me through and through; he knows my heart. Just as it’s humbling to know that you can’t hide anything from him — it’s very salutary to know that — I hope that the awareness that he is the searcher of my heart will keep me, dare I say, humble. If you venture to claim humility in any shape or form, the ax falls.
Piper: Yes, but you may pursue it.
Packer: Yes, thank you. That’s helpful. I pursue it. But the Lord knows me better than I know myself still. Although I think that, through his ministry to me, I now know myself a great deal better than I did seventy years ago when it started. And then I have known myself at various points at the past.
“The Lord knows me better than I know myself still.”
That’s the best answer I can give you. If it doesn’t sound exciting, well, I’m sorry. I can’t be exciting about the Lord searching my heart. I just tell you that, as far as I’m concerned, is central to what it’s all about, because he’s changing me.
Piper: In Psalm 92, at the end, there is a word to old people:
They still bear fruit in old age;
they are ever full of sap and green,
to declare that the Lord is upright;
he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him. (Psalm 92:14–15)
So I want to close by thanking you for seventy-plus years of declaring that the Lord is good, the Lord is sovereign, the Lord is sufficient, the Lord is beautiful, the Lord is the searcher of our hearts, and that the Lord is upright. You’ve been a faithful witness, and we thank God for it.
Packer: Thank you for the kindness with which you say that. Yes, I was reading Psalm 92 very recently and finding much encouragement actually in those very words that you quoted. I’ve enjoyed our conversation. If you’ve enjoyed it too, well, let us praise the Lord together.
Piper: Father, thank you for Dr. J.I. Packer and the manifest delight he has in you, your ways, your work, even your humbling searching of his and our hearts. Bless his remaining days. Fill him with energy, health, wisdom, insight, love, joy, hope, and use him mightily as you have in the past. I pray in Jesus’s name, amen.
Packer: Amen. And I would pray that John Piper’s ministry, which you have made so rich and honored so widely in so many good ways, may continue — continue in strength for many years yet — as he leads disciples to desire you, to love Christ, to love their fellows, to stand for the truth, and to practice all the aspects of the discipleship to which you call us in your word. Thank you, Father, for John Piper and his ministry. Bless it greatly in years to come. In Jesus’s name I pray, amen.