James Innell Packer was one of the three giants of 20th century evangelicalism: the evangelist, Billy Graham; the pastor/Bible teacher, John Stott; the theologian, Jim Packer. His influence on evangelical thought and practice around the globe has been immense. Here in Australia we owe him an enormous debt. With the brilliant mind with which God endowed him, he was able to answer the dominant liberalism of the mid and late twentieth century and help revive classic reformed theology in the life of the church.
Jim’s book Fundamentalism and the Word of God (1958) was life-changing for many. He gave our confidence in the Bible a new depth and resilience. Slightly later, his book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (1961) demonstrated the way a clear reformed theology, with an emphasis on God’s sovereignty in all things, not least in salvation, went hand in hand with a confident and gracious evangelism. We can share the message of Christ, call people to repentance and faith, while recognising that it is God who saves people, not themselves and not the brilliance of the one who shares the gospel with them. Prayer is the partner of evangelism because God is the Saviour of men and women. That is an incredibly liberating truth. Then his enduring classic, Knowing God (1973), captured the hearts and minds of a generation of young Christian men and women, grounding them in God’s revelation of himself and his ways in Scripture. A lecture he also gave in 1973 at Tyndale House, ‘The Logic of Penal Substitution’, helped many to grasp the theological dimensions of the cross and its consequences. In more recent years a number of his articles have been gathered into a 4 volume set, The Collected Shorter Writings of J. I. Packer (1998–9).
Jim Packer’s writing was always clear, insightful, generous towards those with whom he disagreed, but uncompromising in its commitment to the truth given to us in the words of Scripture. He was an encourager of others. The number of books he endorsed is almost legendary. He travelled around the world teaching the Bible and introducing people to his beloved Puritans. He loved the Puritans because they were determined to bring theology and life together. The knowledge of God, they knew, is not an abstract discipline, the kind of knowledge that puffs up. The knowledge of God is profoundly relational and practical, it shapes the way we live. Jim’s book The Quest for Godliness (1990) was a call for us to follow the Puritans in this determination to live in the light of the God we know, his mercy towards us and what he has made known of his purpose and intention for our lives.
Throughout his life he did not shrink from declaring the truth even when it was fiercely opposed. He was a founding member of the Council for Biblical Inerrancy and an initial signatory to the Chicago Statement. He contributed a number of books and articles defending the utter truthfulness of Scripture. He was a member of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and defended a complementarian view of identity, relationships and ministry. He did not shrink from declaring the teaching of Scripture on the issue, notably penning an article for Christianity Today in 1991 entitled ‘Let’s Stop Making Women Presbyters’. He called for ecumenical cooperation without the compromise of theological distinctiveness, most famously by contributing to the book Evangelicals and Catholics Together. He was one of those who endured the sanction of the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster when he, the congregation he attended in Vancouver (St John’s Shaughnessy), and a number of leading Canadian Anglicans voiced their opposition to the move to bless same-sex unions and removed themselves from the local synod in June 2002. He later explained his decision in another Christianity Today article, ‘Why I walked: Sometimes loving a denomination requires you to fight’ (2003). His license as a minister of the word was removed by the Canadian hierarchy in 2008, though immediately his ministry was affirmed by other Anglicans throughout the world. He was made an honorary canon of St Andrews Cathedral, Sydney at the end of that year and became Theologian Emeritus of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) when it was formed in 2009.
Jim Packer was a great friend of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney and Moore College. He was one of the early lecturers in the Annual Moore College Lecture series. He gave a series of lectures in 1978 entitled ‘We Preach Christ Crucified’. I met him on a number of occasions, memorably spending a week speaking at a conference with him in the mid 1990s. He was warm, friendly, willing to provide advice and encouragement to the crowds of theological students and others who clamoured for a moment of his time. I remember taking a group of students to hear him speak on ‘What we can learn from the Puritans’ at Latimer House in Oxford in 1995, knowing that having spent time with him was something they would never forget.
Others will be able to speak with greater authority about Jim Packer the man. My personal encounters with him were fleeting. Every moment I spent with him was encouraging and thought provoking. He was generous in person just as he had always been in his writing. He did not seem to be aware of the scope of his influence and the enormous help he had been to so many. However, his theological contribution over almost 70 years (he entered Wycliffe Hall Oxford in 1949 and was still encouraging people far and wide until ill health made meeting people impossible more recently) has been extraordinary. Like so many around the world, I learnt a great deal from him. Today we thank God for giving us this man and giving him the gifts he used so faithfully for the health and growth of the church of God. He now sees face to face the Saviour he loved. Meanwhile his remarkable legacy will continue to enrich the lives of God’s people for many years to come.
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