On July 17, 2020, one of the most influential theologians of the last century, J. I. Packer, finished his course. He went to be with Jesus at the age of 93.
Among many other notable achievements and publications, Packer served as executive editor of Christianity Today, general editor for the English Standard Version of the Bible, theological editor for the ESV Study Bible, and associate editor of the Reformation Study Bible. Yet despite his intellectual brilliance and theological mastery, he was a theologian, as Elisabeth Elliot remarked, “who puts the hay where the sheep can reach it.”
The following are two of books of his that I highly recommend, along with a suggested list for further reading.
For over 40 years, J. I. Packer’s classic has been an important resource for helping Christians around the world discover the wonder, the glory, and the joy of knowing God. In this book, Packer brings together two important facets of the Christian faith―knowing about God and knowing him personally through a relationship with Jesus Christ.
His chapter entitled “Sons of God” is one of the most beautiful presentations of the doctrine of adoption that I have ever read. Here are a couple examples from this chapter of his ability to capture profound biblical truth in clear, vivid, and compelling terms:
Justification is a forensic idea, conceived in terms of law, and viewing God as judge. . . . Adoption is a family idea, conceived in terms of love, and viewing God as father. In adoption, God takes us into his family and fellowship—he establishes us as his children and heirs. Closeness, affection and generosity are at the heart of the relationship. To be right with God the judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is a greater (207).
Many have struggled to understand the place of the law in the life of the Christian. But Packer finds a remarkable way of expressing this tension using the doctrines of justification and adoption:
While it is certainly true that justification frees one forever from the need to keep the law, or try to, as the means of earning life, it is equally true that adoption lays on one the abiding obligation to keep the law, as the means of pleasing one’s newfound Father. Law-keeping is the family likeness of God’s children; Jesus fulfilled all righteousness, and God calls us to do likewise. Adoption puts law-keeping on a new footing: as children of God, we acknowledge the law’s authority as a rule for our lives, because we know that this is what our Father wants (223).
Knowing God is a wonderful and refreshing study on the attributes of God, and a great starting point for those interested in reading Packer.
Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs
This study of what Packer calls “the permanent essentials of Christianity” distills theological truths in such a way that both scholar and layperson alike can grow to treasure the unchanging pillars of the Christian faith. Each of the ninety-four chapters (which are only a couple of pages long) explores a different doctrine in a way that is easy to understand and rooted in historic Reformed teaching. I really can’t improve upon Kevin Vanhoozer’s recommendation of this book: “Concise Theology is poetry to Christian ears: the best words in the best order about the best news there is―the gospel of grace poured out in Jesus Christ. Packer here sets forth with lucid brevity everything Christians need to know to become biblically literate and to grow in wisdom and understanding. Doctrine and doxology here walk hand in hand.”
In his preface, Packer explains the purpose of such a book on theology:
Theology is for doxology and devotion—that is, the praise of God and the practice of godliness. It should therefore be presented in a way that brings awareness of the divine presence. Theology is at its healthiest when it is consciously under the eye of the God of whom it speaks, and when it is singing to his glory (xii).
Here’s an excerpt from his chapter on “Worship.” Notice how robust and exhaustive his sentences are, yet how comprehensible and simple they are at the same time:
Worship in the Bible is the due response of rational creatures to the self-revelation of their Creator. It is an honoring and glorifying of God by gratefully offering back to him all the good gifts, and all the knowledge of his greatness and graciousness, that he has given. It involves praising him for what he is, thanking him for what he has done, desiring him to get himself more glory by further acts of mercy, judgment, and power, and trusting him with our concern for our own and others’ future well-being. . . .
The basis of worship is the covenant relationship whereby God has bound himself to those whom he has saved and claimed. This was true of Old Testament worship as it is now of Christian worship. The spirit of covenant worship, as the Old Testament models it, is a blend of awe and joy at the privilege of drawing near to the mighty Creator with radical self-humbling and honest confession of sin, folly, and need. Since God is holy and we humans are faulty, it must ever be so in this world. (98-99)
There are many good systematic theologies out there, but in Concise Theology, Packer has provided a perfect summary of them all.
For further reading:
- “Saved by His Precious Blood”: An Introduction to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. (This is one of the greatest articulations of historic Calvinism, and, as John Piper has remarked, “one of the most important building blocks of the Reformed resurgence of the last fifty years.” If you have ever struggled with the labels of ‘Calvinism’ or ‘Arminianism,’ or with what the “five points” are all about, definitely take time to read this brilliant essay.)
- “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God
- Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God
- Keep in Step with the Spirit: Finding Fullness in Our Walk with God
- A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life