On Sunday, October 22, 1944—seventy years ago today—it is doubtful that anyone noticed a soft-spoken, lanky, and decidedly bookish first-year university student leaving his dormitory room at Corpus Christi College and heading across Oxford for an evening Christian Union service at a local Anglican church.
18-year-old Jim Packer had arrived at Oxford University less than three weeks prior, a single suitcase in hand, traveling east by train from Gloucester using a free ticket available to family members of Great Western Railway employees.
He later described himself at this stage of life as ”immature,” “shy,” “introverted,” “awkward,” “intellectual,” and an “oddball.” He was an “outsider” who was “bad at relationships” and “emotionally locked up.” He was also a “churned-up young man, painfully aware of himself, battling his daily way, as adolescents to, through manifold urges and surges of discontent and frustration.”
Packer came from a lower middle-class background and a nominal Anglican family that went to St Catharine’s Church in Gloucester but never talked about the things of God or even prayed at meals. As a teenager Packer had read a couple of the new books coming out by C. S. Lewis (fellow and tutor in English literature at Oxford’s Magdalen College), including The Screwtape Letters (1942) and the three BBC talks turned pamphlets that would later become Mere Christianity (1942-44). During chess matches with a high school classmate—the son of a Unitarian minister—he had defended Christianity.
Packer thought of himself as a Christian. But the events of that evening would convince him otherwise.
On this cool autumn evening, he made his way west across Oxford, past Pembroke College, and into St Aldate’s Church, where the Christian Union occasionally held services. The lights in the building were dimmed so that the light emanating from the building would be no brighter than moonlight—a recent relaxation of England’s “blackout” regulations to avoid air-raid attacks in World War II.
He entered the doors of the church a dead man walking and was to leave later that night as a resurrected man, knowing himself to belong to Christ.
The following narrative is adapted from Leland Ryken’s forthcoming biography, J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life (Crossway, 2015), which Mike Reeves calls “now the definitive, most up-to-date biography of J. I. Packer.”
A schoolboy friendship with Eric Taylor was an important part of Jim Packer’s final year at Crypt School in Gloucester, England. While Packer spent his third year in “sixth form,” Taylor made the transition to the University of Bristol. During his first year at Bristol, Taylor became a Christian. He wrote letters to Packer about his new-found faith. Packer did not fully understand the letters, especially the one that contained an exposition of the final verses of Romans 3 on justification by faith. Jim was puzzled by references to “saving faith.” During the following summer vacation of 1944, Taylor and Packer had a series of conversations about the Christian faith. The discussions left Packer feeling that something was lacking, but he was mystified as to what it was.
Eric Taylor did not bring Packer to faith, but he did the next-best thing by encouraging Jim to make contact with the Christian student group at Oxford called the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (OICCU, an Inter-Varsity organization).
Christian student groups at Oxford and Cambridge Universities were highly active in the middle of the twentieth century. The Christian Union at Oxford followed a practice of arranging a social event in the respective colleges for new students at the beginning of each academic year. These were informational meetings designed to attract the participation of students in the meetings of the Christian Union of the university as a whole. Nearly everything at Oxford University is traditional, and the opening recruitment meeting of the term happened specifically on the Thursday evening before the start of the academic year.
Ralph Hulme, the Corpus Christi OICCU representative, initiated contact with Packer and invited him to the introductory Thursday meeting. Packer accepted the invitation, having already determined that he would attend. The first meeting was eminently forgettable, as evidenced by the fact that the only thing Packer remembers about the event was that it failed to spark his interest!
Despite the low wartime enrollments at the University, OICCU president David Mullins (a medical student) was determined to maintain the evangelistic thrust of the Christian Union. The weekly agenda was ambitious. On the University level, there was a Bible exposition every Saturday evening and an evangelistic sermon every Sunday evening (known as “Sunday evening sermon”). Individual colleges then sponsored their own weekly Bible studies and prayer meetings. These options were presented to Packer at the informational meeting. The first week he decided to attend the Saturday evening Bible exposition but not the Sunday evening evangelistic service. He did, however, attend the evangelistic service the next Sunday, October 22, 1944.
The service at which Packer was converted occurred at St. Aldate’s church, an Anglican church in the center of the city. It was one of the larger Oxford churches and was noted for its student ministry. We might note in passing that St. Aldate’s is a “stone’s throw” from Pembroke College, where fellow Crypt School alumnus George Whitefield (1714-70) attended college and was converted.
The service began at 8:15 PM. The preacher was an elderly Anglican parson named Rev. Earl Langston, from the resort town of Weymouth. The first half of the forty-minute sermon consisted of biblical exposition that left Packer bored. But the second half was a personal narrative of how Langston had been converted at a boys’ camp. The key component of that conversion had been a challenge posed to the youthful Langston by a camp leader as to whether or not he was a Christian. Langston had been jolted by this question to conclude that he was not actually saved. That, in turn, led to his coming to personal faith in Christ as Savior.
This autobiographical narrative was riveting to Packer, who had entered Oxford believing himself to be a Christian. Packer suddenly saw his own story in Langston’s narrative and realized that he was not a Christian. It was a traumatic realization. It was accompanied by an imagined picture that Alister McGrath reconstructs as follows:
He found a picture arising from within his mind. The picture was that of someone looking from outside through a window into a room where some people were having a party. Inside the room, people were enjoying themselves by playing games. The person outside could understand the games that they were playing. He knew the rules of the games. But he was outside; they were inside. He needed to come in.
Packer was particularly convicted by the latter awareness: “I need to come in.” So by the Spirit’s prompting he came in. The sermon ended as evangelistic services in the Oxford milieu (and more universally) did—with the preacher emphasizing the need to commit oneself to Christ and the singing of the hymn “Just As I Am.”
Just as I am, without one plea, But that Thy blood was shed for me, And that Thou bid’st me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come! I come!
Just as I am, and waiting not To rid my soul of one dark blot; To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot, O Lamb of God, I come, I come!
Just as I am, though tossed about With many a conflict, many a doubt; Fightings within, and fears without, O Lamb of God, I come, I come!
Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind; Sight, riches, healing of the mind; Yes, all I need, in Thee to find, O Lamb of God, I come, I come!
Just as I am, Thou wilt receive, Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve; Because Thy promise I believe, O Lamb of God, I come, I come!
Just as I am, Thy love unknown Has broken every barrier down; Now, to be Thine, yea, Thine alone, O Lamb of God, I come, I come!
Packer states simply, “I had given my life to Christ.” He also recounts, “When I went out of the church I knew I was a Christian.”
Packer went back to his room at Corpus Christi and wrote his parents to tell them what had happened.
More than half a century later, Packer could attest regarding his conversion that “I remember the experience as if it were yesterday.”
Thank God for his saving grace. Seventy years later, Packer continues to instruct the church on the beauty and power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who saves us just as we are but begins to transform us into what we will someday be, all to the praise of the glory of his grace.