When J. I. Packer died in 2020, post-war evangelicalism was left with very few remaining representatives of its early days. He lived through three waves of evangelical ecclesiology and scholarship and also helped launch a fourth. Can his life and ministry show us the way forward?
If there’s to be a healthy next wave of evangelicalism, foundation stones will need to be set in place, or perhaps simply cleared and used again. Packer has left at least four of these stones. Each one is biblical. Each one is often overlooked.
1. Strong Family
Packer left the foundation stone of a strong family. Packer was married for 65 years to Kit. They raised three children. They made a home in Vancouver, following their sense of God’s call at a time in life when many people won’t make such a change. Having earned little money in England, they trusted God to provide in a new and expensive setting. Kit managed the household alone during Jim’s many absences. Their partnership honored God and served his people.
2. Humble Service
He modeled the foundation stone of humble service. He taught in small colleges that boasted no international scholarly reputation. Every one of those colleges needed building up or rebuilding. He and his colleagues shared a vision of evangelical theology, formation of shepherds for God’s people, and high-quality scholarly and popular writing. Many of his colleagues are remembered but most are not. Packer’s willingness to serve in such places and in such ways shows a commitment to doing what he believed God asked, no matter the circumstances.
3. Faithful Writing
Packer wrote the books and articles that came his way. He didn’t calculate, scheme, or dream about what was “strategic” for his career or “the evangelical cause.” Rather, he stressed sound theology and its pastoral implications. He wrote because he believed God had extended to him a “call to authorship.” While he eventually had a favorable teaching load, he still wrote in odd hours taken from sleep and companionship. Packer knew his writing wasn’t ultimately his own. The same was true of his sales. He once told me that he understood that the extraordinary sales numbers of Knowing God were a once-in-a-lifetime gift from God.
Packer knew his writing wasn’t ultimately his own.
4. Broad Relationships
He imitated the English Reformers he admired. He believed that they planted seeds of renewal that he ought to cultivate. William Tyndale translated the Bible into English. Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and others left the Book of Common Prayer and the Book of Homilies. Packer wanted to be like them, and he was. Moreover, he tried to develop fellowship with liberal Anglicans, a wide swath of Protestants, and Roman Catholics, and he accepted the heat that came with trying to rebuild these long-broken relationships.
Building on the Past to Reach the Future
Evangelicalism’s first wave (1944–54) proved that the seeds of a renewed evangelicalism don’t lie in achieving large numbers, building impressive institutions, controlling perceived centers of influence, or holding political power. They don’t lie in book sales, internet notoriety, prestigious speaking engagements, or new educational delivery systems. Some of these things have their place, but they aren’t primary.
Evangelicalism’s second (1954–79) and third (1979–99) waves showed that renewal lies in the seeds of absolute commitment to Christ the Lord, to the Word of God, to the people of God, to the ministry of God, for the glory of God and the benefit of those created in God’s image. It lies in a life of worship with others that forms people for service of God and others.
Renewal lies in a life of worship with others that forms people for service of God and others.
Evangelicalism’s fourth wave (1999–2020) demonstrated there can be faithful work done amid circumstances that should humble evangelicalism.
Commitment to the Bible and to sound theology in a denominational or interdenominational setting can leave seeds for future renewal. Faithfulness unto death remains the primary testimony for succeeding generations. Packer’s life shows that renewal begins in building homes and doing personal work in small places. Renewal requires a bedrock belief in God’s trustworthy Word and the lordship of Jesus Christ. Renewal requires accepting costly vocational discipleship and manifesting character.
If evangelicalism is to again help renew persons, places, churches, and communities, it must regain commitment to these small, marginal means, not for a movement’s sake but because these are the right things to do according to Scripture.
This article is adapted from “J. I. Packer and the Next Wave of Evangelicalism: Foundations for Renewal” by Paul R. House, which appears in Themelios 47, no. 3 (December 2022). Access the full journal online.