A self-described Puritan, theological exegete, and latter-day catechist, J. I. Packer for more than half a century of public ministry was a great popularizer of reformational theology through his writing and teaching ministry.
He died at age 93.
My Phone Call
With the audacity of a 20-something, I picked up the phone and gave Packer a call at his home in Vancouver, Canada, to interview him about life, ministry, and books. I was eager to send him a written interview via postal mail, if he agreed. But he quickly shared something that at the time wasn’t public, and allowed me to interview him on the record. “Over Christmas macular degeneration struck so that I can no longer read or write.”
For many who had appreciated and benefited from James Innell Packer’s writing ministry—the author of more than 300 books, journal articles, book reviews, dictionary entries, and innumerable forewords—this was saddening news.
Packer, then 89, would no longer be able to write as he had before or travel or do any regular preaching. Macular degeneration, an incurable eye disease that causes the loss of vision, removed his ability to see from his last working eye. (Some time later I received word that Packer had partially regained some sight with injections in the eye.)
“God knows what he’s doing,” Packer told me in a phone interview. Rather than being paralyzed by fear or self-pity, Packer was confident that “this comes as a clear indication from headquarters. And I take it from him.”
Whether his response stemmed from the British stiff upper lip or decades’ worth of sanctification, Packer was living out a truth he had long believed and proclaimed: God is sovereign and good in all things. “God knows what he’s up to,” said the author of Knowing God and Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. “And I’ve had enough experiences of his goodness in all sorts of ways not to have any doubt about the present circumstances.” He added, “Some good, something for his glory, is going to come out of it.” Perhaps this is a timely reminder as ever as we’re now amid a pandemic that has seemingly thrown the world upside down.
For Packer, Ecclesiastes was the book that cured him of youthful cynicism. The book, he said, “has taught me that it is folly to suppose that you can plan life and master it, and you will get hurt if you try. You must acknowledge the sovereignty of God and leave the wisdom to him.”
“It tells me now what it told me 40 years ago, namely, that we wear out, physically we come apart. You get old, and getting old means the loss of faculties and powers you had when you were younger. And that is the way God prepares us to leave this world for a better world to which he’s taking us. The message of Ecclesiastes 12 is “Get right with God as early in life as you can; ‘remember the Creator in your days of youth’ [v. 1]. Don’t leave it until some time in the future when you’re not likely to be able to handle it well at all.”
Over the years, Packer commended Richard Baxter’s practice of meditating half an hour every day on the reality of heaven. For Packer, what made heaven heaven was Jesus himself: “The essence of eternity as I conceive it—as it lies before me as my destination—is quite simply the joy of being with the Lord.” While on earth, the Lord gave Packer a calling, and the energy and health to accomplish it. “Here in this world he gives us things to do, and we affirm our identity as his children by tackling the tasks that he gives us,” he said. “There [in heaven], the relationship we have with him is closer (closer in terms of realization than ever it’s been in this world).”
With the passing of the years, Packer explained that he found it more possible to “concentrate on God himself and his plans, purposes, performance than I used to do.” But he didn’t view himself as an impressive Christian. “I’m not a spectacular person as far as I understand it. And I don’t think my experience of the Lord’s grace has been spectacular. I’ll say it’s been steady, and I thank God for that.”
As someone who has ministered in nursing homes over the years, I have been saddened to see people in the latter years of life grow cold, jaded, and bitter. The trials of life and a growing sense of mortality seem to harden hearts rather than make them pliable. But for Packer age seemed to grow his tenderness before the Lord. “I don’t see how any Christian under any circumstances can’t be encouraged who focuses on God. I don’t see how any Christian can be discouraged, because God is in charge—God knows what he’s doing, all things work together for good for those who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28), and our hope is in Christ. Those things don’t change, and those are the things to focus on.”
Final Words to the Church
As I wrapped up my interview with Packer, I asked him what would be his final words to the church. After a 10-second pause he said, “Glorify Christ.” Then adding “every way.”
Glorify Christ every way.
Now that Packer is in the presence of his Savior, I can’t think of a more fitting summary of a life well lived and a charge for the church of the risen Christ.
The Gospel Coalition