The Millenium Falcon, the iconic spacecraft of the Star Wars movies, reminds me of books. Both are transports able to deliver passengers in light speed from one place to another. Books can go further, though, and deliver you to distant times and new ideas as well as faraway places. Next to the Bible, no human author has transported me more frequently or meaningfully than J. I. Packer. Today I’d like to offer a tribute to him by highlighting how he mentored me through his books. Perhaps this will bring honor to him while also creating an interest to drink from the deep well of his writings.
[Note to alert readers: I promised a second part to last week’s, “Is There Mercy in Our Mission?” and it’s coming. Just not today!]
James Innell Packer left this world and was ushered into the joy of his Master last Friday, July 17, 2020. Some of you know of him, others may only know the name, and some are being introduced as you read this. You can find out more about him through a brief biography here and tributes by Don Carson, Sam Allberry, and Carl Trueman. J. I. Packer spent 93 years on planet earth. He never led a large institution or church, he was by all accounts a man as meek as he was courageous, as uninterested in building his brand as he was caught up by the glory of Christ. And he could write. Oh, how he could write.
Following are a few reflections on some of his writings and the imprint they’ve left upon me for good. I hope this may stir you to read and be strengthened by this remarkable man and his powerful pen.
Knowing God. This is probably his best-known book and it is not an overstatement to say that it has been a game-changer for many, many lives. The chapter on adoption (chapter 13, “Sons of God”) is worth its weight in gold. The climax of the Bible, he argues, is the revelation to the believer that God is a Father. As much as we love the doctrine of justification, he points to adoption as an even greater thing when he writes, “To be right with God the judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the father is a greater.”
Keep in Step with the Spirit. I grew up as a new believer in the charismatic movement. God’s presence and power was remarkable. So were some less-than-helpful teachings and emphases. Packer got my feet on the solid ground of Scripture with this joyful welcome of the Holy Spirit’s ministry.
Concise Theology. What are the building blocks of Christian thought? They are the basic beliefs taught in the Bible. This book sets out in remarkably succinct and memorable terms the basics of what we believe about God, ourselves, and redemption. I found reading one of these 2-page chapters before bed gave me something solid to think about during those wakeful times when I can’t sleep. I can safely say that, next to the Bible, no book has been a more frequent companion in sermon preparation than this one.
As a growing Christian, I’ve found my roots going deep through Packer’s little books about the Apostle’s Creed (Affirming the Apostles’ Creed), the Lord’s Prayer (Praying the Lord’s Prayer), and the 10 Commandments (Keeping the 10 Commandments).
Packer helped transport me from being an “intuitive Arminian” to being an informed and, I hope, joyful Reformed Christian when it comes to how salvation works. His introductions to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ and Martin Luther’s The Bondage of the Will are worth the price of the books. Buy them and read Packer’s introductions and you’ll find God becoming bigger and more glorious.
In Quest for Godliness, Packer introduced me to the Puritans. What a gift. When he said that North American Christianity is 3,000 miles wide and an inch deep, I wasn’t insulted. It resonated with me. When he informed this forestry major from northern California that the Puritans were, by contrast, like redwoods, he had hooked me for good! I’ve read and benefited from many Puritan writers since.
Finally, Packer taught me how to move from knowing about God to knowing God personally and in an ever-deepening way. How? Through meditating on the Bible. I close by leaving you with this memorable passage from Knowing God which I have read and reread and pondered and read to others and referred to constantly over many years.
“Meditation is the activity of calling to mind, and thinking over, and dwelling on, and applying to oneself, the various things that one knows about the works and ways and purposes and promises of God. It is an activity of holy thought, consciously performed in the presence of God, under the eye of God, by the help of God, as a means of communion with God.
Its purpose is to clear one’s mental and spiritual vision of God, and to let His truth make its full and proper impact on one’s mind and heart. It is a matter of talking to oneself about God and oneself; it is, indeed, often a matter of arguing with oneself, reasoning oneself out of moods of doubt and unbelief into a clear apprehension of God’s power and grace.
Its effect is ever to humble us, as we contemplate God’s greatness and glory, and our own littleness and sinfulness, and to encourage and reassure us—‘comfort’ us, in the old, strong, Bible sense of the word—as we contemplate the unsearchable riches of divine mercy displayed in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
P.S. Got comments or questions about this post, or ideas for another one? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 J. I. Packer, Knowing God, p. 18.