J. I. Packer: A Personal Appreciation from Ray Ortlund – Ray Ortlund

Our dear friend, James Innell Packer, has been released from this life.

Many of us will feel, as I do, deep personal loss. We will miss him—and for good reason.

Packer embodied the personal characteristics and ministry ideals we evangelicals most revere. He was saintly and sensible, brilliant and practical, faithful and peaceable, courageous and charitable, cheerful and serene, blunt and gentle, humble and bold, submissive to Scripture and sensitive to the Spirit. Above all, Packer was Christ-honoring. So my purpose here, as the Scripture says, is to “honor such men” (Phil. 2:29).

After hearing Packer preach and teach and after reading his books and essays for more than 40 years, I gratefully remember five outstanding marks of his life and ministry.

1. Packer revered the Bible and helped a whole generation settle into the same confidence.

In my dad’s copy of ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God: Some Evangelical Principles, this sentence is underlined: “Scripture itself is alone competent to judge our doctrine of Scripture.” Typical Packer. It gently forces us to become more clearly aware of our own view of Scripture, whether faithful or foolish. And in the article “Infallibility and Inerrancy of the Bible,” in the New Dictionary of Theology, Packer wisely writes, “Denying biblical infallibility thus exchanges manageable problems in the text for unmanageable perplexities in theology and spiritual life.” I underlined that sentence in my copy of the book, because it states simply, clearly and helpfully why faithful Christians ground their knowledge on the Bible. And in his brave protest against his own denomination’s betrayal of Scripture—“Why I Walked” (Christianity Today, January 1, 2003)—Packer takes his stand with

the historic Christian belief that through the prophets, the incarnate Son, the apostles, and the writers of canonical Scripture as a body, God has used human language to tell us definitively and trans-culturally about his ways, his works, his will, and his worship. Furthermore, this revealed truth is grasped by letting the Bible interpret itself to us from within, in the knowledge that the way into God’s mind is through that of the writers.

When God has spoken, no external validation is needed. Packer faithfully, lovingly, intelligently insisted on that conviction, guiding the rest of us into deeper faith.

2. Packer loved Christ crucified and taught us to revere the cross as God’s all-sufficient remedy for our objective moral guilt.

His essay “What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution,” reprinted within In My Place Condemned He Stood, settled the question, for me, of that classic doctrine. My mind goes immediately to the 33rd footnote, quoting Martin Luther—“Luther puts this dramatically and exuberantly, as was always his way”—about Jesus carrying our identity to the cross:

Our most merciful Father . . . sent his only Son into the world and laid upon him the sins of all men, saying: Be thou Peter that denier; Paul that persecutor, blasphemer and cruel oppressor; David that adulterer; that sinner which did eat the apple in Paradise; that thief which hanged upon the cross; and briefly, be thou the person which hath committed the sins of all men; see therefore that thou pay and satisfy for them.

Thanks to Packer, that bit of Luther has found its way into my preaching more than once, and its clarity of vision has set people free from their tyrannous pasts.

When God has spoken, no external validation is needed. Packer faithfully, lovingly, intelligently insisted on that conviction, guiding the rest of us into deeper faith.

Packer’s love for the truth of the gospel is obvious everywhere in his work—especially in his introductory essay to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. Here Packer lifted me above my immature enthusiasm for the five points of Calvinism so that I could finally get to the point: “To Calvinism there is really only one point to be made in the field of soteriology: the point that God saves sinners.” And then Packer riffed on that theme, with convincing power, at length. I quoted that section of his essay in chapter one of my exposition of Isaiah, as the wardrobe into the Narnia of the prophet’s gospel message.

3. Packer drew from the Puritan movement many striking insights that marked my generation.

In my copy of A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, I highlighted in yellow this sentence on page 39:

[T]he end to which all church order, on the Puritan view, was a means, and for which everything superstitious, misleading and Spirit-quenching must be rooted out, was the glory of God in and through the salvation of sinners and the building up of lively congregations in which people met God.

That one sentence sums up what we have attempted, by grace, at Immanuel Church in Nashville. We owe a debt of gratitude to Packer and, through him, our Puritan forebears for such clarity and courage to let nothing get in the way of God in how we “do church” today.

4. Packer was a friend to revival—and all the more impressive a friend, because he was a theologically conscientious man.

He longed to see the Lord move in power through his church. Packer understood the problem: “Unreality toward God is the wasting disease of much modern Christianity” (Knowing God, 228). And he embraced the remedy. In God in Our Midst, he identified five marks of authentic revival: (1) awareness of God’s presence, (2) responsiveness to God’s Word, (3) sensitiveness to sin, (4) liveliness in community, and (5) fruitfulness in testimony. Then Packer appealed to us, with pastorally wise guidance, to open up. In addition, of course, he gave us Keep in Step with The Spirit, a winsome work of correction and encouragement amid confusion and controversy. I remember hearing Sinclair Ferguson remark how rare it is for serious books on the Holy Spirit to even mention revival. Packer didn’t let us down, defining and describing revival clearly, persuasively, movingly.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Packer and, through him, our Puritan forebears for such clarity and courage to let nothing get in the way of God in how we ‘do church’ today.

5. Packer helped us know God better.

The word “classic” is overused. But Packer’s Knowing God deserves to be called a classic. In our copy, my wife, Jani, noted this trenchant assertion: “We are modern men, and modern men, though they cherish great thoughts of man, have as a rule small thoughts of God.” This is the true source of our deepest misery. But this book leads us respectfully and thoughtfully into the healing glories of our God and Father. And who else, in a book about knowing God at a personal level, would include a section on the book of Ecclesiastes? Packer did, and with helpful honesty:

The God who rules [this world] hides himself. Rarely does this world look as if a beneficent Providence were running it. Rarely does it appear that there is a rational power behind it all. Often and often what is worthless survives, while what is valuable perishes.

I respect a spiritual guide who has the sensitivity to fly right into the center of that storm, confident we will see more of God in his very inscrutability.

Packer’s Faithful Legacy

In the afterword to Leland Ryken’s J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life, Packer describes himself as “an historico-theological generalist . . . with a special interest in the evangelical heritage of Reformational, Puritan, revival and renewal piety.” And my own commitment to that heritage is more confident and more articulate because of this lovely man. I’m grateful. I feel invested in, cared for, and now all the more responsible to invest in and care for the next generation.

We have by now lost not only J. I. Packer but a whole generation of magnificent Christian leaders. For example, Billy and Ruth Graham, Carl Henry, Francis and Edith Schaeffer, John Stott, Bill and Vonette Bright, Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, Ray and Anne Ortlund, and many others. They have left us inspiring examples—and no excuses. Their stories stand as living proof that our race too is runnable, as we look to Jesus (Heb. 12:1–2).

Let’s keep going.

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