It’s not unheard of to sleep badly the night before preaching. This night, however, was particularly bad.
I was still only a few weeks into regular Sunday preaching, and I had a particularly complex passage to expound. I wasn’t entirely sure I’d understood the passage correctly. I’d rewritten the sermon a number of times. I was also conscious of the fact that I was preaching to a congregation wherein a significant number had advanced theological education, and so any theological error would be conspicuous. But as I woke on Sunday morning after a fitful night, I reminded myself that the only thing that mattered was that the sermon be pleasing to God, not man. You preach to an audience of one, I kept telling myself as I walked into the church service.
Which is when I saw J. I. Packer sitting in the congregation. “Are you kidding me?” I muttered to myself. “Great. So it’s an audience of one and J. I. Packer.”
I’m guessing it would be intimidating for pretty much any fledgling preacher to discover Packer was visiting his church that week––the man has been a world-renowned theologian for many decades. But Packer wasn’t just a global theological authority; he had been one of the key influences on my Christian life from its earliest days, not to mention someone whose example had shaped the course of my ministry.
Packer, the Theologian
When I first became a Christian and began exploring Christian truth, Packer––along with John Stott and C. S. Lewis––was one of the first names I encountered. Like so many others I quickly had a copy of Knowing God thrust into my hands. Packer’s chapter “The Jealous God” would change my life and fuel a concern for God’s reputation and glory. (I’ve since worn my way through or given away multiple copies.) From the beginning of my Christian life, I knew this was an author I could trust. If I saw his endorsement on a Christian book I knew it would be worth reading. (I was to quickly discover quite how many books this would potentially lead me to read!)
From the beginning of my Christian life, I knew this was an author I could trust.
Some years later, when my faith in the trustworthiness of Scripture was being challenged by theological liberalism, it was Packer’s two books ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God and God Has Spoken that brought me the clarity that I so needed. They’re both volumes to which I regularly return.
But it wasn’t just Packer the theologian who meant so much to me; it was Packer the churchman. Like Lewis and Stott, Packer was an Anglican. As I felt called to ordination in the Church of England, I became more and more immersed in the theological controversies exploding in global Anglicanism. Packer’s clarity and boldness gave so many of us courage to contend for biblical truth in our own Anglican contexts.
It wasn’t just Packer the theologian that meant to much to me; it was Packer the churchman.
In June 2002 the synod of the Anglican diocese to which Packer belonged voted for the production of a service for blessing same-sex unions. Packer was among those who walked out of the synod in protest. He went on to explain:
Why did I walk out with the others? 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.
This was a defining moment in the Anglican world. Which would matter most to evangelicals—denominational peace or doctrinal fidelity?
Packer’s actions triggered a process that led to him receiving discipline from the Anglican Church in Canada. But his clear and uncompromising stance was the example and catalyst many of us needed to do what we could do in the fight for truth in the Anglican Communion. Packer quickly became instrumental in the newly formed Anglican Church in North America. One of his final labors was in serving as the theological editor for To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism, published in 2020 by Crossway.
But Packer’s influence hasn’t just been pivotal for the Anglican church. He has had a significant influence on the wider church scene. He taught at Regent College, Vancouver, beginning in 1979, shaping many generations in their Christian thinking and devotion.
He was a prolific author, continuing to write into his 80s and 90s. His books made him a household name to Christians around the world. Packer also served as the general editor for the English Standard Version of the Bible, and as theological editor for the ESV Study Bible—two projects that had an incalculable affect for Christ globally.
Packer was the epitome of what might be called a devotional theologian.
But it may be two of his final books, Weakness Is the Way and Finishing Our Course with Joy, that most reflect the heart of this servant. Packer was the epitome of what might be called a devotional theologian. He was, to be sure, a theological mind of the first order. But with Packer theological study was never theology for theology’s sake.
One of the most significant things he learned in his discovery of the Puritans is the centrality of deep affection for Christ. It’s this––more than anything else––that permeated his ministry, and that will continue to bless the church for decades to come.