J. I. Packer: A Tribute
By John A. Sparks
The Institute for Faith & Freedom pays tribute to one of the major Christian spiritual leaders and writers of the last 75 years — J. I. Packer, who died July 17. Like many of us who are Christians, I first came in contact with Packer through his classic book, Knowing God. In this one volume, published in 1973, translated into at least 23 different languages, from German to Urdu, Packer made the claim that, “Once you become aware that the main business that you are here for is to know God, most of life’s problems fall into place of their own accord.”
That challenge led me and millions of others to read and discuss that remarkable book and to begin a never-ending journey to understand and respond to the Triune God of the Bible. Packer said it another way, as a pointed warning: “so we are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God whose it is and who runs it. The world becomes a strange, mad and painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business…. Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life, blindfold, as it were, with no sense of direction, and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul.”
Men and women of all eras, who have tried living solely according to their own promptings and inclinations, and then came to know God, can say a loud “amen” to that statement.
Why is Packer so helpful to us? Principally, because he wrote in such clear, readable, and compelling prose. His topic sentences make one want to read on to see how he develops a point. Besides Knowing God, one of his books I have turned to regularly over the years since its publication in 1981 is simply titled God’s Words. In this short, 200-page work, Packer, in his inimitable style, discusses 17 key biblical words such as grace, revelation, the world, faith, death, and others. Each chapter takes one word and explores its appearance and meaning in the scriptures. My copy is red-marked and the pages are falling out of the binding because I have come to it so many times for guidance. The chapter on “sin” is still, to this writer, a prime example of how Packer captures readers’ interest, explores the topic fully, and leaves them with a deep appreciation of the subject and, more importantly, with a willingness to live a life more consistent with the word of God.
Here is how that chapter on sin begins, almost like the first lines of a good mystery novel: “The subject of sin is vital knowledge. To say that our first need in life is to learn about sin may sound strange, but in the sense intended it is profoundly true. If you have not learned about sin, you cannot understand yourself, or your fellow men, or the world you live in, or the Christian faith. And you will not be able to make head or tail of the Bible. For the Bible is an exposition of God’s answer to the problem of human sin.” What reader, having read Packer’s claims about the centrality of understanding sin, can refuse to go on, even if it is only to dispute him?
As is common with Packer, he tells us why, as moderns and postmoderns, we may be resistant to thinking about sin: “[T]he biblical doctrine of sin is uncomplimentary to us; and we naturally jib at any view of ourselves which is uncomplimentary. The self-excusing instinct, itself a product of sin, … is very strong. Hence comes the temptation to water down the doctrine of sin.”
Yes, indeed. Politicians, public figures, teachers, even church leaders, seem reluctant to utter words, like “sin,” “depravity,” and “evil” when they are the hard-hitting words that accurately, unblushingly describe the cruelty and wrongfulness of the deeds that unfold in our world. But now Packer returns to the theme of Knowing God when he writes: “We start seeing sin in ourselves only when consciously facing a holy God…. Most of us today, however, lack … knowledge of sin because we lack … awareness of God.”
Typical of his method, Packer goes on to define sin with unsparing precision. “What, in positive terms, is the essence of sin?” he asks. His answer: “Playing God; and, as a means to this, refusing to allow the Creator to be God so far as you are concerned…. Sin is exalting oneself against the Creator, withholding the homage due Him, and putting oneself in His place as the ultimate standard of reference in all life’s decisions.” As experienced sinners we know, painfully, that Packer is right about sin’s essence. Packer makes it absolutely clear to us: “Sin can paralyze our minds, so mesmerizing us by the dazzling prospect of what is is open to us to do, that reason and conscience cannot get a word in edgeways.”
Of course, Packer does not leave us here. The bad news is sin. But the good news, the gospel, is grace through Christ. “The Christian under grace is free from sin’s dominion,” he writes. “By virtue of his union with Christ, dead and risen, and the power of the Holy Spirit who indwells him, the Christian is able to oppose and resist the urgings to sin that infect his moral and spiritual system.”
These sentences of Packer are only a limited sampling of what he has to offer the reader. But, the question remains, why, besides his clear prose, is Packer so effective? In short, it is his unfailing attachment to and dependence on scripture to support his claims. Every position he takes is anchored in the inerrant word of God which he describes as “totally true and entirely trustworthy.” Because of that foundation in Holy Writ, his work will buoy Christians for generations to come now that he has gone to be with the Savior he loved and exalted. After a life of service, thought, and generous devotion to the God he so unrelentingly urged us to know, J. I. Packer is now joyfully worshiping Him for eternity.
Dr. John A. Sparks is the retired Dean of Arts & Letters, Grove City College and a Fellow in the Institute for Faith and Freedom. He is a member of the state bar of Pennsylvania and a graduate of Grove City College and the University of Michigan Law School. Sparks writes regularly for the Institute on Supreme Court developments.