Conversation: J.I. Packer
Knowing God is a lifelong process
Technically, theologian J.I. Packer is retired. Yet he's
still teaching a couple of courses this semester at Regent College, the
Vancouver, British Columbia, institution where he has been a professor since
1979, following 27 years of teaching and preaching in his native England. His
latest book, Guard Us, Guide Us, came out this month and he has three more
books in the works. Packer is the author of more than two dozen books, the most
renowned of which, Knowing God, has sold 3 million copies.
Through the years, Packer has consistently been able to
convey scholarly insights to a popular evangelical audience. He has played a
key role as a defender of biblical faith in various debates among Christians.
Packer, at 81, continues to offer penetrating answers to theological questions.
He recently spoke with TPE News Editor John W. Kennedy.
tpe: Why is the Church relevant today?
PACKER: Because the Church is the fellowship of the people
who know God and are new creatures in Christ. They're entrusted with the
message that tells everyone else how they can come to share this blessing.
tpe: Are you still gaining insights into God's character?
PACKER: I believe I am. The outline of what I believe goes
back many decades. But it's like getting to know anyone with whom you have an
ongoing relationship. For example, spouses get to know each other better as the
knowledge of the other person constantly deepens, and as you deal with that
person and that person deals with you. It's the same if you are seeking to
share your life with God, specifically with the Lord Jesus Christ risen from
the dead and present with you by the Holy Spirit according to His promise.
tpe: What primary attribute of God do many Christians seem to
PACKER: The least well understood is God's justice, which is
simply His resolve, indeed His nature, to maintain the supremacy of what is
right in His universe. When there is wrong, sooner or later there will be
retribution. God blesses those who wholeheartedly give themselves to pleasing
tpe: Has the concept of sin fallen out of fashion, even in
much of the Church?
PACKER: I think it has. The word "sin" has been cheapened in
our daily talk. If you say "sin," people usually start thinking about some form
of sexual misbehavior. But sin in both the Old Testament and New Testament is
presented as a vivid reality first and foremost as sin against God. In essence,
we creatures whom God has made don't appreciate Him, don't acknowledge Him, don't
give thanks to Him, don't love Him and don't obey Him.
The Bible is full of teaching about the kind of behavior God
wants to see and the kind of behavior that breaches the order of what is right.
The Bible tells us that sin is a power that has hold of the human heart. It
works like any sort of habit, almost like instinct. The behavior of sin in the
heart produces a disregard of God and disobedience to God. Every time I see a
"self service" sign at the gas station, I think of sin.
tpe: What is the biggest threat facing the Church?
PACKER: It's going with the world rather than challenging
the world, and so representing Christianity as if it's a call to be the nicest
people we can be in accepting the rules and expectations of our culture. But
the truth is that Christians are not called to be "nice" people in that way;
we're called to be obedient people and God's rules challenge the whole system
of our culture, which is drifting away from God very fast.
tpe: How can Christians have a peaceful disposition yet stand
PACKER: A person who has come to Christ in faith and
repentance through the convicting work of the Holy Spirit finds a spirit of
gratitude to love others, which simply wasn't there before. As the 17th-century
Puritan Richard Baxter said, "If people see that you love them, you can say
anything to them." That is the key to witness that is irenic, courteous,
respectful and going to be heard. If you love someone, you help them along at
whatever point they need help. That sets the context for which you can tell
them about the Lord Jesus and their own sin, without them feeling as though you
are simply expressing your own conceit and condemning them.
tpe: How did your brush with death as a child impact your
PACKER: When I was 7 years old I ran under a truck. The
truck cracked my head in the way that an egg spoon cracks an eggshell when you
hit it with the firm intention of taking the top off. In the providence of God,
there was a first-class brain surgeon at the hospital in the British town where
I lived, and he pulled out the bits of broken bone very successfully. I now have
a hole in my head.
When this happened I wasn't a believer. I didn't come to a
living, saving faith until I was 18 years old (at Oxford University). When I
look back and increasingly appreciate that God saved me from death, I think
that He saved me for service I was to render. I was called to teach, speak and
write, and I've been trying to fulfill that agenda for nearly 64 years.
tpe: Why is Pentecostalism growing around the world?
PACKER: The Pentecostal emphasis on life in the Spirit,
which became a big thing at the turn of the 20th century, was absolutely right.
It was an emphasis that hadn't been fully grasped by other evangelicals for a
long time. The up-front quest for fellowship with God that grabbed the whole of
the heart and therefore had emotional overtones and the openness to a
recurrence of some of the signs of the Kingdom was right. In the early 20th
century evangelicals didn't accept Pentecostals, and Pentecostals found
themselves tempted to say, "We're the only fully fashioned Christians in the
world today." Only during the last 50 years has real partnership and mutual
respect become reality.
It's simply a marvelous work of God that when the
Pentecostal version of the gospel has been preached all around the world for
the past half-century there has been a tremendous harvest. It's a wonderful
work in our time, which we can set against the decline of Christianity in North
America and Western Europe. Most notably in Africa and Asia, Christianity has
been roaring ahead through the Pentecostal version of the Christian message and
life in the Spirit. I celebrate it and thank God for it. There have been older
evangelicals who have set themselves against distinctive Pentecostal emphases
as if there's something wrong with it. I have not lined up with those folk and
indeed have argued that their attitude is mistaken.
TPExtra: Read an excerpt from J.I. Packer's new book, Guard Us, Guide
Us: Divine Leading in Life's Decisions.
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