Reformation Theology in the Hands of a Servant: My Tribute to J.I. Packer (1926–2020) – John Piper

Reformation Theology in the Hands of a Servant

J.I. Packer wrote a postcard to me dated December 18, 1990, which included this sentence in his tiny handwriting: “Creep up behind your wife, whisper in her ear Ellis Peters, Elizabeth Peters, Andrew Greely, Ralph McInerny, William Kienzle, Charles Merrill Smith, and see how she reacts.”

These are all contemporary mystery novelists. There’s a backstory.

Raising a Banner

In the late 1980s, I felt a midlife restlessness. Not to leave my wife, or sail around the world, or buy a motorcycle, but to find fellowship with other pastors across denominations who really cherished the sovereignty of God in salvation. Pastors who treasured Calvinism with a little “c” and a big joy — “inexpressible joy,” as Peter calls it (1 Peter 1:8).

I knew pastors like that were out there somewhere because little bands would gather at the Southern Baptist Founders conferences and the Banner of Truth conferences. But there was a certain tone I wanted to set. Really serious — blood-earnest serious. Really joyful — charismatic joyful. Really rooted in history — the lineage of Luther, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones, Packer. Richly contemporary — with the best big-God worship songs. Really passionate about global missions and unreached peoples. Really in love with the local church. Really courageous — ready to say out loud, “Killing babies in the womb is abominable, and racial respect and justice and harmony really matter.”

That’s the banner I wanted to fly. I wanted to see who would come and sing with me under that kind of Bible-saturated preaching and Reformation theology.

How could I pull that off? How could I help pastors take that seriously? Nobody knew me. Why would they come? I needed a speaker whom pastors knew and respected, and who would believe in the vision. I wrote to J.I. Packer. To my amazement, he was willing to come. And in the spring of 1988, we held the first Bethlehem Conference for Pastors. It has met every year since then. He did that sort of thing again and again for no-name churches and no-name conferences. He was a servant.

Inclined to Serve

Back to the mystery novelists.

While he was here for the conference, Noël and I invited him and the other speakers to our house for dinner. During the conversation, it came out that Noël enjoys reading mysteries. Packer lit up. “Who are your favorites? May I see your collection?” The two of them disappeared into Noël’s “library.” He never forgot those happy moments, and would bring them up in conversation or correspondence as the decades went by.

Hence the counsel in his postcard: I might awaken more affection if I would creep up behind my wife and whisper the name William Kienzle rather than John Calvin.

So for me, the name J.I. Packer stands for Reformed theology in the hands of a servant. He did not seek to put himself forward, but rather sought to get behind what others were dreaming. He had the brainpower to design and lead a movement. But he had the spiritual disposition to serve.

Unglamorous Theologian

Of course, there is a difference between leadership and influence. There have been many popular leaders whose influence is ephemeral. But Packer’s quiet, steady output of books, and his behind-the-scenes work in movements that were led by others, have probably solidified and deepened the evangelical and Reformed resurgence with greater effect than that of many more visible leaders.

He knew that the job of a theologian is really not very glamorous. He wrote in 1991,

Theologians are called to be the church’s water engineers and sewage officers; it is their job to see that God’s pure truth flows abundantly where it is needed, and to filter out any intrusive pollution that might damage health. (Quest for Godliness, 15)

In other words, Reformed theology in the hands of a servant.

Introductory Bombshell

Another example of Packer’s servant heart was his disposition to promote other people’s publication projects. His name shows up in endorsements on the back of so many books, one wonders how he had time to write his own. When I say “promote other people’s publication projects,” I have in mind not just his writing blurbs, but also his contributing forewords and introductory essays.

In my experience, one of Packer’s productions had the impact of a bombshell. In 1958 Banner of Truth reprinted John Owen’s book The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, a three-hundred-page exposition of definite (or limited) atonement (the L in TULIP). They invited Packer to write an introduction. I regard such efforts as the work of a true servant, because introductory essays usually get buried and forgotten, only serving to jump-start the readership of the larger work.

But this time, the quiet, unassuming, non-leading influencer dropped a bombshell. This “introduction” took on a life of its own. It was reprinted in numerous forms, and today is available free online. I say “bombshell” because when it was printed as a self-standing essay, it blew out the walls of John Owen’s difficult diction and spread far more widely on its own than in Owen’s book.

Recovering the Gospel

I count this essay (to change the metaphor from bombs to bricks) as one of the most important building blocks of the Reformed resurgence of the last fifty years. His essay was not mainly about definite atonement. It was about the gospel. And Packer argued that the five points of Calvinism, with all their limitations (which he details), do the great service of clarifying how the saving work of God, heralded in the gospel, is diluted by rejecting the five points of historic Calvinism. He wrote,

Whether we call ourselves Calvinists hardly matters; what matters is that we should understand the gospel biblically. But that, we think, does in fact mean understanding it as historic Calvinism does. The alternative is to misunderstand and distort it. . . . Modern evangelicalism, by and large, has ceased to preach the gospel in the old way, and we frankly admit that the new gospel, insofar as it deviates from the old, seems to us a distortion of the biblical message. (Quest for Godliness, 137)

He explains the distortion:

Our minds have been conditioned to think of the cross as a redemption which does less than redeem, and of Christ as a Saviour who does less than save, and of God’s love as a weak affection which cannot keep anyone from hell without help, and of faith as the human help which God needs for this purpose. As a result, we are no longer free either to believe the biblical gospel or to preach it. We cannot believe it, because our thoughts are caught in the toils of synergism. We are haunted by the Arminian idea that if faith and unbelief are to be responsible acts, they must be independent acts; hence we are not free to believe that we are saved entirely by divine grace through faith which is itself God’s gift and flows to us from Calvary. Instead, we involve ourselves in a bewildering kind of double-think about salvation, telling ourselves one moment that it all depends on God and the next moment that it all depends on us. The resultant mental muddle deprives God of much of the glory that we should give him as author and finisher of salvation, and ourselves of much of the comfort we might draw from knowing that God is for us. (Quest for Godliness, 137)

This little booklet (written as a supporting essay) rang out with such clarity and force and beauty that, for many of us, we knew this was (to change the metaphor once more) the music of our homeland. This was true. This was through-and-through biblical. This was the stripping away from our “muddled” minds the alien philosophical straightjacket that kept dozens of texts from meaning what they mean. Bombshell. Building block. Music. And more. Packer sounded a trumpet of gospel recovery.

Great Among Men

It is no coincidence that the last quarter century among evangelicals has seen both a Reformed resurgence and a multiplication of movements and books and conferences under the banner of “Gospel-Centered.” For those who see the world and the word the way J.I. Packer did, these are not distinct movements.

All of that because the humble servant was willing to write an “introduction,” which by all accounts should have been overshadowed by a great book. But the Lord Jesus told us how this works: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26).

J.I. Packer was a great man. Whether he was giving his wholehearted attention to my wife’s mystery novels, or helping an unknown pastors’ conference get off the ground, or disposing of theological sewage, or writing a hundred endorsements for other people’s books, or supporting the republication of John Owen — here was Reformed theology in the hands of a servant. Or, as he would want it said, here was the biblical gospel in the hands of a servant.

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