In the last week, the theologian J.I. Packer went home to be with the Lord. He would have celebrated his 94th birthday today. I never met Packer, nor even came close. And yet his passing moved me in a way I wasn't expecting. Perhaps it would be understandable if this was a tragic death, maybe if this was God's man cut down in his prime. But there is no tragedy here. Packer was a man who lived a long and fruitful life serving Jesus Christ - a man extraordinarily gifted by God, who seemingly took every opportunity to use those gifts to proclaim and defend the Gospel.
So why did his death cause me to stare into the middle distance for long periods?
There are at least two reasons.
1. It is profoundly moving and inspiring when a Christian finishes their pilgrimage well. Packer became a Christian when he was 18 years old and almost immediately began to devour the writings of the Puritans (especially John Owen). He published his first article (on the Puritan understanding of justification) when he was in his mid-twenties. This was but the start of a prolific writing career that would span the next six decades. Throughout those years his commitment to the authority of Scripture, to the Gospel, to the need for personal holiness - all these were reflective of his enduring personal commitment to Jesus Christ. And I have no doubt that he would be the first to give all the praise for that endurance to God alone. It is surely the mark of a believer to eagerly long for the day when the Lord Jesus greets us with his 'Well done, good and faithful servant' (Matthew 25:23)
2. Reading a book that changes you for the better is like gaining a friend. These last few days have caused me to reflect on the way that Jim Packer became my friend at specific periods of my own Christian pilgrimage. There are actually several books that I have reached for in my reflections. In a recent project on the doctrine of Scripture I found great encouragement in a collection of Packer's writings called Engaging the Written Word of God. His essay on The Adequacy of Human Language, still sticks in my mind. Scholarly, clear, logical, unapologetic and always building confidence in the Scriptures.
I remember the joy I found in Packer's A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life. Here was my introduction to the Puritans; my gateway into reading the likes of John Owen, which was hugely formative in my own walk with Christ. Here I found some of my first eye-opening (and mind-blowing) moments on doctrines such as the Trinity, the atonement, preaching, the word of God.
In my mid-twenties I was introduced to his best-selling book Knowing God. To flick through the pages of it again today has been a reminder of what a precious resource this is for the church. In digestable portions Packer helped walk me through what it means to know God. What better way to spend time with a friend than thinking together about the knowability of God, the attributes of God, the heart of God towards us in the Gospel. It is still thrilling. Listen to Packer's goal and make it your own:
"Our aim in studying the Godhead must be to know God himself better. Our concern must be to enlarge our acquaintance, not simply with the doctrine of God's attributes, but with the living God whose attributes they are. As he is the subject of our study, and our helper in it, so he must be the end of it. We must seek, in studying God, to be led to God. It was for this purpose that revelation was given, and it is to this use that we must put it." (Knowing God, p.22)
And even though J I Packer has gone on to his reward, his writings will be valuable to the church for generations to come. If you have never read Knowing God (or any of Packer's works) it will be one of the soundest investments you could make - you will gain a friend.