J. I. Packer went to be with the Lord on July 17, 2020. He was 93 years old.
Packer was a lifelong Anglican churchman who spent the first half of his life in England and the second half in Canada but who was perhaps most popular in the United States. He is widely recognized as one of the most influential theological popularizers of the twentieth century.
Throughout his nearly 70 years of writing and ministry, he stressed the importance of knowing and praying to and communing with the triune God. He called for the church to take holiness and repentance seriously by walking in the Spirit and fighting against indwelling sin. He defended biblical authority and championed the cause of disciple-making catechesis. And he reintroduced multiple generations to his beloved Puritan forebears, whom he regarded as the Redwoods of the Christian faith.
He saw himself as “a voice that called people back to old paths of truth and wisdom.” His entire life was spent resisting the idea that “the newer is the truer, only what is recent is decent, every shift of ground is a step forward, and every latest word must be hailed as the last word on its subject.”
Though he was willing to address and engage the controversies of his day, he wrote, “I should like to be remembered as one who pointed to the pasturelands.”
James Innell Packer was born on July 22, 1926, in the village of Twyning in the north of Gloucestershire, England, the firstborn child of James and Dorothy Packer. His only sibling, Margaret, was born in 1929.
The Packers were a lower–middle-class family with a nominal Anglican faith, faithfully attending nearby St. Catharine’s Church but never talking about the things of God or even praying before meals.
In September of 1933, at the age of seven, young Packer was chased by a bully at junior school out into the street and violently collided with a passing bread van, resulting in brain surgery, a three-week hospital stay, and a six-month recuperation at home away from school. He had suffered a depressed compound fracture of the frontal bone on the right-hand side of the forehead. He later compared it to the way the top of an eggshell is knocked in when you hit it with an egg spoon, and a skilled surgeon at his local hospital removed the bits of broken bone. The doctor required him to wear a black, protective aluminum plate over his injury, held in place by an elastic band. He was forbidden from playing any sports, causing the young loner to further confine himself to things like reading and writing. He wore the protective plate for the next eight years, and then at the age of fifteen, refused to wear it again.
On the morning of his eleventh birthday, in 1937, Packer awoke hoping to find a bicycle waiting for him—a traditional coming-of-age gift for which he had dropped hints. Instead, his parents gave him an old heavy Oliver typewriter in excellent condition. His biographer Alister McGrath notes the spiritual lesson: “It was not what Packer had asked for; nevertheless, it proved to be what he needed. . . . his best present and the most treasured possession of his boyhood.”
That fall, in 1937, Packer transitioned from junior school to the Crypt School, where he became the only student in his class to specialize in “classics.” Leland Ryken writes:
The school itself was a prestigious one, going all the way back to 1539, the approximate time when Henry VIII broke with the Church of Rome and established the Church of England. The school received its name from the fact that it had been founded in the crypt or underground room of a parish church building. Ironically in view of Packer’s nominal Christianity at the time, but prophetically in view of what he became, the Crypt School counted among its former students the English preacher and evangelist George Whitefield.
He played chess with a classmate whose father was a Unitarian minister, and the boy tried to convince Packer of Unitarianism, but Packer wondered why someone would accept some parts of the New Testament but reject the divinity of Jesus. He read C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters during his teenage years, followed by Mere Christianity, and spent some time reading his grandmother’s copy of the King James Bible—all of which solidified for him the basic framework of the Christian worldview, even though he still lacked saving faith. He later characterized himself as being halfway there.
Packer was confirmed at St. Catherine’s at the age of fourteen having never heard about conversion or saving faith.
At the age of eighteen, Packer won a scholarship to Oxford University, studying classics at Corpus Christi College. He arrived in Oxford as an awkward, shy, intellectual oddball (his descriptions), with a single suitcase in hand. His father was a clerk for the Great Western Railway, which enabled young Packer to have a free ticket for the hourlong train ride.
Three weeks later, on October 22, 1944, Packer attended a Sunday evening evangelistic sermon at St Aldate’s church. An elderly Anglican parson gave the address. The biblical exposition left Packer bored, but in the second half, the pastor recounted how at a boys’ camp he had been challenged as to whether he was really a Christian. Packer recognized himself in the story and realized he did not know Christ. Following the invitation, which concluded with the singing of “Just As I Am,” Packer gave his life to Christ. He was just yards away from where the eighteenth-century evangelist George Whitefield had converted in 1735.
That same year, in 1944, a retired Anglican clergyman, losing his eyesight, donated his large library to the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union. The leaders of OICCU stored them in a basement and asked Packer the bookworm if he wanted to sort through the sets, including classics from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Packer soon came across an uncut set of the writings of the seventeenth-century Puritan, John Owen. Packer noted with interest the volume on temptation and sin. He cut the volume open and devoured the contents. He later wrote: “I owe more, I think, to John Owen than to any other theologian, ancient or modern, and I am sure I owe more to his little book on mortification than to anything else he wrote.”
He later asked for people to think of him as a latter-day Puritan: “one who, like those great seventeenth-century leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, seeks to combine in himself the roles of scholar, preacher, and pastor, and speaks to you out of that purpose.”
He often contrasted the spirituality of the Puritans with contemporary evangelicals, calling the latter to imitate the former especially when it came to communing with God:
When Christians meet, they talk to each other about their Christian work and Christian interests, their Christian acquaintances, the state of the churches, and the problems of theology—but rarely of their daily experience of God.
Modern Christian books and magazines contain much about Christian doctrine, Christian standards, problems of Christian conduct, techniques of Christian service—but little about the inner realities of fellowship with God.
Our sermons contain much sound doctrine—but little relating to the converse between the soul and the Saviour.
We do not spend much time, alone or together, in dwelling on the wonder of the fact that God and sinners have communion at all; no, we just take that for granted, and give our minds to other matters.
Thus we make it plain that communion with God is a small thing to us.
Early Writings and Positions
Packer’s first published article, written in 1952, was on “The Puritan Treatment of Justification by Faith” (Evangelical Quarterly 24, no. 3 , 131–43).
After obtaining his BA degree from Corpus Christi in Oxford (1948), he took up his first teaching post at at Oak Hill Theological College in London as a tutor (instructor) in Greek and Latin (along with some philosophy). During this 1948–1949 school year, 22-year-old Packer went every Sunday evening to Westminster Chapel to hear the preaching of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who was 50 years old. Packer had never heard such preaching”—it came to him “with the force of electric shock, bringing to at least one of his listeners more of a sense of God than any other man.” “He was the greatest man I have ever known,” Packer wrote, “and I am sure that there is more of him under my skin than there is of any other of my human teachers.” As the two men got to know one another, Packer suggested to Lloyd-Jones that they start a regular gathering to help people understand and apply the insights of the Puritans. They co-founded the Puritan Conference and hosted it together for nearly two decades.
For the next three years, Packer studied for ordination at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and then did doctoral research. He was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England in 1952, then as a priest at Birmingham Cathedral in 1953.
From 1952 to 1954, he served as a curate (associate pastor) at St. John’s in Harborne, a suburb of Birmingham, while finishing his 400-page doctoral dissertation on the Puritan Richard Baxter at Oxford University. He was awarded the MA and DPhil in 1954.
On July 17, 1954, Packer married a Welsh woman, Kit Mullett, a young nurse whom he had met after a speaking engagement in Surrey in the late spring of 1952. Together they would go on to adopt three children: Ruth, Naomi, and Martin.
The Packers moved to Bristol in 1955, where Packer served as a lecturer at Tyndale Hall for the next six years. Two significant pieces of writing emerged from this tenure.
The first was a review essay entitled “‘Keswick’ and the Reformed Doctrine of Sanctification” (Evangelical Quarterly 27 : 153–67), accusing this Higher Life teaching on sanctification as thoroughgoing Pelagianism. This was Packer at his most polemical, partly on account of his personal experience and his pastoral heart for others to avoid the “pietistic goofiness” that had nearly driven him despair as a student. He later wrote:
It is not much of a recommendation when all you can say is that this teaching may help you if you do not take its details too seriously.
It is utterly damning to have to say, as in this case I think we must, that if you do take its details seriously, it will tend not to help you but to destroy you.
His biographer Alister McGrath looked back on the effect of this article and wrote:
There was . . . no response from the Keswick faction which rebuffed the critique offered by Packer. It is widely agreed that Packer’s review marked the end of the dominance of the Keswick approach among younger evangelicals. . . . [T]he theological weight of Packer’s critique seemed to many to prove unanswerable.
Second, in March of 1958, at the age of 31, Packer published his first book, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (IVP in the UK; Eerdmans in the US), a defense of the historic Protestant position on the authority of Scripture.
Michael Reeves writes:
It served as a morale-boosting rallying cry for evangelicals with a high view of the Bible, it raised the level of sophistication and nuance with which they could think about Scripture, and it established Packer as a theological leader of the movement.”
In 1961, the Packers moved back to Oxford, where for the next nine years he served as librarian and then warden at Latimer House—an evangelical research center begun by Packer and John Stott to theologically strengthen the Church of England.
During the 1960s editor Elizabeth Braund invited Packer to write a series of articles for their small bimonthly Evangelical Magazineoffering a guide to basic Christianity. Packer wrote nearly two dozen pieces every other month for five years.
In 1970, Packer returned to Tyndale Hall as principal. The following year, Tyndale Hall was incorporated into the new Trinity College, Bristol, where Alec Motyer was named principal and Packer the associate principal. This move, however, freed Packer to have more time to write.
In the early 1970s, Packer approached Inter-Varsity Press about publishing the series of articles from Evangelical Magazine as a book. The publisher responded that they needed him to write on the charismatic issue sweeping through Great Britain before they would consider a book from him on another subject.
So he took it to Hodder & Stoughton instead, who gladly accepted it for publication. InterVarsity Press in the United States agreed to pick up the North American rights. The book was published in 1973 with the title Knowing God. It established his international fame, and went on to sell over a million and a half copies. “The conviction behind the book,” he wrote, “is that ignorance of God lies at the root of much of the church’s weakness today.”
In February of 1977, Packer met with R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, Norman Geisler, and Greg Bahnsen for a conference on the Authority of Scripture at Mount Hermon, California. Later that year, the International Council of Biblical Inerrancy was formed, which produced the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy a year later, with Sproul as the lead author.
Regent College in Vancouver
In 1979, James Houston, who had been friends with Packer since their undergraduate days at Oxford, invited him to join the faculty at Regent College at Vancouver. Packer eventually accepted the position, which would allow him to teach without administrative duties, and his family made the transatlantic relocation. He maintained a position at the university until the end of his life, retiring from full-time teaching in 1996 and then teaching part-time thereafter.
Controversies and Separations
Packer’s life was not without doctrinal controversy and relational rupture.
In October of 1966, during the National Assembly of Evangelicals, Lloyd-Jones issued a call for evangelicals to leave doctrinally mixed denominations (like the Church of England) and instead to fellowship with an association of independent evangelical churches. John Stott, who was chairing the session, violated the unwritten rules by publicly opposing the proposal after Lloyd-Jones was done speaking. Packer was not at the event (he heard about it by phone that evening), but he was on the side of Stott. The rift became a full-blown rupture in 1970, when Packer join with fellow Anglican evangelical Colin Buchanan and two Anglo-Catholics to publish Growing into Union: Proposals for Forming a United Church in England. The book led Lloyd-Jones to separate from Packer, removing him from the board of The Evangelical Magazine and canceling the Puritan Conference they had co-founded.
In March of 1994, Packer’s ecumenical inclinations again caused problems. He joined several evangelicals and Roman Catholics to sign onto a joint statement entitled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” co-authored by Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus. R. C. Sproul had previously said, “When the battle gets bloody, I want Jim Packer in my foxhole.” But Packer’s signing of the document mystified Sproul and others, who saw studied ambiguity in the wording that implied agreement on the gospel even as other theological differences remained. Both men agreed doctrinally on justification, but Sproul insisted the doctrine was essential, while Packer preferred to say it was central. Packer later wrote on why he signed it.
The third painful separation took place in 2002, when the synod of the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster in Vancouver authorized its bishop to produce a service for blessing same-sex unions. Packer was among the synod members who walked out in protest. He explained why:
Because this decision, taken in its context, falsifies the gospel of Christ, abandons the authority of Scripture, jeopardizes the salvation of fellow human beings, and betrays the church in its God-appointed role as the bastion and bulwark of divine truth.
In 2008, Packer’s church (St. John’s Shaughnessy, the largest church in the Anglican Church of Canada) voted to leave the ACC and to align with a more orthodox province in Argentina. As a result, Packer and the other clergy were suspend (their authority as ministers of the Word and Sacrament, conferred at their ordinations, was revoked) for (1) publicly renouncing the doctrine and discipline of the Anglican Church of Canada, and (2) having sought or intending to seek admission into another religious body outside the Anglican Church of Canada.
Packer had explained in his original decision to walk out:
For many decades now, I have asked myself at every turn of my theological road: Would Paul be with me in this? What would he say if he were in my shoes? I have never dared to offer a view on anything that I did not have good reason to think he would endorse.
Packer the Author and Reader
His biographer Leland Ryken notes that it is virtually impossible to construct a comprehensive bibliography of his writings:
In both his speaking and writing, Packer has followed a policy of entering virtually every door that has opened before him. The list of his publications defies tabulation, partly because of the large number of items, partly because the range of genres is so broad that it is hard to know what constitutes a publication as opposed to a privately printed document, partly because Packer has often published the same book in both the U. S. and Britain under different titles, and partly because many of his writings have been republished, sometimes with new titles.
Apart from Knowing God, his most widely read and influential works would have to include the books Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (1971) and The Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (titled in the UK, Among God’s Giants, 1990), along with the essays “Saved by His Precious Blood: An Introduction to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ” (1958) and “What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution” (1974).
In addition to his own writing and teaching, Packer also served as a theological advisor, consultant, and book endorser. Beginning in the early-1980s, with editor-theologian Kenneth Kantzer returning to teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Packer was hired by Christianity Today in Carol Stream, Illinois, as a senior editor, making regular visits to the office, providing theological review, and critiquing each issue from the standpoint of good theology, sociology, and journalism, including what worked well graphically and conceptually.
Packer’s willingness to endorse books was a labor of love intended to help lay readers. He was often generous, perhaps to a fault, though to anyone who queried a particular decision, he insisted they read the endorsement carefully, noting not only what he said but what he didn’t say and how he said it! His commendations were often concise classics in and of themselves.
He was often asked what books had influenced him most, and he usually gave some variation of the following list:
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion
- J. C. Ryle, Holiness
- John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
- Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor
- Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will
- The works of John Owen (particularly Indwelling Sin and The Mortification of Sin, Justification, The Holy Spirit, and The Death of Death in the Death of Christ)
His favorite novel was Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and his favorite genre for pleasure reading was murder mystery and detective novels, devouring his first series of Agatha Christie books at the age of seven. (“What I enjoy is the poignant perplexity of the puzzle, the sleuth’s superior brainwork, and the doing of justice by clearing the innocent and exposing the guilty.”)
But his all-time favorite book was Pilgrim’s Progress, which he read every year of his Christian life until macular degeneration prevented him from reading.
Another personal interest of Packer’s was early jazz. At the age of thirteen, Packer was doing his homework one evening at home while listening to the radio, and the announcer decided to play some 1920s jazz: “Steamboat Stomp” by Jelly Roll Morton. “I remember getting up and going over to the radio and putting my ear against the speaker and just drinking it in. I was left gasping. My breath was literally taken away.” At Oxford he played clarinet for a jazz band called the Bandits, though he quit because it interfered with Saturday meeting of the Inter-Varsity group and he was told jazz was devilish. Later, though, he declared that “by Christian standards” he thought “early jazz was among the twentieth century’s most valuable cultural products.”
In a 1970 letter to Packer, ending his involvement with the Puritan Conference, Lloyd-Jones wrote:
You have known throughout the years not only my admiration for your great gift of mind and intellect but also my deep regard for you. I had expected that long before this you would have produced a major work in the Warfield tradition, but you have felt called to become involved in ecclesiastical affairs. This to me is nothing less than a great tragedy and a real loss to the Church.
The closest thing that Packer came to writing a systematic theology was his Concise Theology, sketching 94 doctrines in about 600 words for each. (Crossway is set to publish a hardcover edition, in-stock on Packer’s 94th birthday.) In a typical Packeresque sentence—simultaneously “packed” together and expansive—he explained the project:
As an activity, theology is a cat’s cradle of interrelated though distinct disciplines: elucidating texts (exegesis), synthesizing what they say on the things they deal with (biblical theology), seeing how the faith was stated in the past (historical theology), formulating it for today (systematic theology), finding its implications for conduct (ethics), commending and defending it as truth and wisdom (apologetics), defining the Christian task in the world (missiology), stockpiling resources for life in Christ (spirituality) and corporate worship (liturgy), and exploring ministry (practical theology).
Near the end of the twentieth century, an opportunity arose that Packer thought could be a project that could be among the most significant investments he could make to the global church. Dr. Lane Dennis, the president of Crossway Books in Wheaton, Illinois, invited Packer to serve as the general editor of a Bible translation. Packer was the one who eventually suggested the name: The English Standard Version.
Published in 2001, Packer later reflected:
I was privileged to act as General Editor of the English Standard Version, and now that I look back on what we did in producing that version, I find myself suspecting very strongly that this was the most important thing that I have ever done for the Kingdom.
Packer’s “last crusade” was devoted to helping the church recover catechesis. His final years were devoted to convincing the North American church of the new to renew catechesis (instruction in the Christian faith). This work culminated in To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism—the catechism of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).
The final work he was able to complete in this lifetime was to make final verbal edits as his wife read aloud to him in their home the final draft of his manuscript for The Heritage of Anglican Theology, built on his years of classroom teaching, to be published by Crossway in May of 2021.
Packer the Man
He sometimes wondered if commentators on his theological and ministerial career had the missed personal side of Packer, including the humor that he saw in life and the twinkle in his eye. He did not want to be portrayed as a brain in vat or a mere purveyor of ideas.
His longtime friend Timothy George described what it was like to watch the man in action:
His smile is irrepressible and his laughter can bring light to the most somber of meetings.
His love for all things human and humane shines through.
His mastery of ideas and the most fitting words in which to express them is peerless.
Ever impatient with shams of all kinds, his saintly character and spirituality run deep.
On a personal level, I can only add that in every single encounter that I was privileged to have with him, I came away thinking of him not as a great man, but as a man who had personally encountered a Great Savior. Each time I had the deep sense of longing not to be more like Packer, but to be more like Christ.
In Knowing God, he wrote:
If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father.
If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all.
Though his spiritual thinking was as mature as they come (1 Cor. 14:20), throughout his life he retained a childlike humility and trust in God (Matt. 18:12) and he never got over the wonder of being known and adopted by his heavenly Father, united to Christ, and walking by the Spirit.
In 2015, while filming a short documentary on Packer for Crossway, it came time for my final question. I was off camera, and I asked how he might want to be remembered someday when he was gone.
He paused, in his characteristic way before answering any question, no matter how routine, and responded:
As I look back on the life that I have lived, I would like to be remembered as a voice—a voice that focused on the authority of the Bible, the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the wonder of his substitutionary sacrifice and atonement for our sins.
I would like to be remembered as a voice calling Christian people to holiness and challenging lapses in Christian moral standards.
I should like to be remembered as someone who was always courteous in controversy, but without compromise.
I ask you to thank God with me for the way that he has led me, and I wish, hope, pray that you will enjoy the same clear leading from him and the same help in doing the tasks that he sets you that I have enjoyed.
For Further Reading
Alister McGrath, J. I. Packer: A Biography
Leland Ryken, J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life
Sam Storms, Packer on the Christian Life
Mike Reeves, “The Puritan Theologizer: J. I. Packer,” in Theologians You Should Know
Timothy George, ed., J. I. Packer and the Evangelical Future: The Impact of His Life and Thought