The Progress of a Pilgrim who “Knew” God

Bernie Diaz, July 21, 2020

May the Lord rise up a new generation of biblically bathed pastors, preachers and theologians for our troubled times… because we just lost another great one, who has been called home.

James Innell (J.I.) Packer, one of the most oft-published, quoted and influential, evangelical theologians over the last century, went to be with the Lord of glory late last week, just days short of his 94th birthday.

This “good and faithful servant” of the Lord, 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 here in the United States. Why?

He was a student and expert on the ‘Puritans’ – a brotherhood of pastors and theologians, whom he regarded as “the Redwoods of the Christian faith”, having revolutionized Christianity in the 16th and 17th centuries on both sides of the Atlantic, with their dedication to piety and sanctification to God, only matched by their zeal for God’s glory and sovereign grace in salvation.

Packer long fanned the flames of that historic church movement, which has continued to influence and inspire the church from yesterday to today, as noted in the preaching and teaching ministries of men like: Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, John MacArthur, John Piper and R.C. Sproul, among many others.

In fact, I personally have been encouraged and exhorted in my ministry by these Puritan forefathers of the faith, due in large part to Packer’s work on their legacy (The Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life).

In turn, Packer drew inspiration and much of his ministerial motivation from Puritan John Bunyan’s classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress, which he read every year of his Christian life. 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 further called for the church to take holiness and repentance seriously by walking in the Spirit (Keep in Step with the Spirit) and fighting against indwelling sin.

J.I. Packer defended the infallibility and inerrancy of scripture and biblical authority as a whole and championed the cause of disciple-making to boot. He did all this and more even in the face of controversy, championing other biblically based causes without compromise, though he may have erred – good motives notwithstanding, with his support of the mid 90’s ECT (Evangelical and Catholics Together) statement, which called for ecumenical cooperation between biblical evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism in the cause of political, culture war advancement.

The Best of Packer

ECT notwithstanding, I am most indebted to Packer however, for two of his works – perhaps the two that will leave his greatest legacy to the biblical church for generations to come. The first, his 1973 classic, Knowing God, was not your typical book on theology and certainly was not a traditional, systematic theology text, as many of us come to think of them academically, as it came from the pastoral heart of a man who knew God intimately, and wanted to make him known to readers in the same way.

He took the most fundamental doctrines (truths) of the Christian faith and made them understandable and relevant in such a way, as to lead millions of readers to go deeper into their personal relationship with God and lead them to more holy, God-glorifying lives. He once said his conviction to write his landmark best-seller, was because, “… ignorance of God lies at the root of much of the church’s weakness today.”

Packer knew that Knowing God – what we think of our creator, reveals much of our heart.  In its pages 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.”

As to his other great work of legacy to the church, many of us by the turn of the 20th century, probably didn’t see the need for yet another translation of the Bible into English, but Packer jumped at the opportunity to join a project that could be among the most significant investments he could ever make to the global church, that being the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible, which Packer named, serving as the General Editor of that award-winning study Bible, which I take to my pulpit (or online office desk) on each and every Sunday I preach God’s Word.

Published in 2001, Packer reflected on the ESV and said, “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.” He may very well be right, in having helped to develop an excellent and readable, word for word or formal equivalent translation of the vocabulary and structure of the original biblical languages into English.

J.I. Packer did lots of things right for the kingdom and cause of Jesus Christ, by above all, calling Christian people to holiness – to move from spiritual superficiality and to follow the Lord’s example – and that of other great men and women of the faith, to spiritual maturity.

When asked not long before his death what his final words to the church might be, Packer replied, “I think I can boil it down to four words: “Glorify Christ every way.” Not only might that serve as an epitaph for what Packer did in his lifetime and what he is doing now, but should serve as of course, a scripturally bound clarion call (1 Cor. 10:31) for each and every born-again believer and disciple of Christ today.

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