‘Jim’ Packer, Man of Immutable Integrity
[J. I. Packer entered into glory on Friday, July 17th, five days short of his 94th birthday. A couple of months earlier I was contacted by the Gospel Coalition and asked to write a personal tribute to him. At the time of the request, it appeared that his days on earth were drawing to a close and they wanted to have everything in place to honor this man once the Lord had called him home. I encourage you to visit the Gospel Coalition website at www.thegospelcoalition.org where you can read several other tributes by such men as D. A. Carson, Justin Taylor, and Ray Ortlund. John Piper has also written of Packer at www.desiringgod.org.]
There are two autographed items sitting on my desk at home, each a reflection of a dominant passion in my life.
The first is a baseball, signed by my boyhood hero Mickey Mantle. “To Sam. Best Wishes, and Merry Christmas. Mickey Mantle.” Many years ago, my wife had a young lady in her class at Trinity Christian Academy in Dallas who just happened to be dating one of Mickey’s sons. This student figured (rightly!) that a signed baseball from Mantle would be more endearing than an apple.
The other, and far more dominant passion in my life, is theology. That’s why I cherish with even greater affection the framed piece of paper, across the top of which is imprinted, “A note from Mr. James Packer.”
This second item was sent to me in late November 2015. My book, Packer on the Christian Life, had just been released by Crossway. As expected, a typewriter was used to compose the letter, as Packer never made the transition to a computer. It reads as follows:
This is the note I should have written you weeks or maybe months ago to express my admiration for what you made of me for Crossway. In terms of what I recommend, and hope (though fail) to be myself, I think you got me exactly right. So thank you for all your effort.
It seems a very long time since we were in touch. I hope you keep well, as I do, quite amazingly, and are enjoying a fruitful pastorate. I am slowing down, but have not yet ground to a halt, and hope to get one or two more things done—we shall see.
Advent and Christmas blessings to you, Sam
“Jim” is the only thing written by hand.
I doubt if any two people could’ve been more different from each other than Mickey Charles Mantle and James Innell Packer.
Mantle was freakishly athletic, handsome, and, sadly, as I came to learn later in life, an alcoholic and womanizer.
Packer, with the now-famous indentation in his forehead (due to an accident in his childhood), made up for his lack of athletic prowess by giving us the enduring fruit of an incomparable intellect and gift for writing.
Mantle’s conversion to Christ, praise God, was quite literally on his deathbed. He was able to devote only a few days of earthly existence to Christ’s glory, whereas Packer’s long life of devotion to the Lord has influenced not only this generation but certainly generations to come.
Packer’s long life of devotion to the Lord has influenced not only this generation but certainly generations to come.
They’ve finally met. Well, if not yet, soon I hope.
When I speak of Jim Packer as a man of “immutable” integrity, I’m not saying that he was without fault. He would’ve been greatly displeased with me if I suggested otherwise. By “immutable” I don’t mean that he was either sinfully stubborn or arrogantly dogmatic. Rather, he was a man whose conscience was tightly tethered to God’s Word. It mattered little to him if his reputation was sullied or if all manner of men spoke ill of him. So long as what he believed and how he behaved were consistent with God’s inerrant revelation in Scripture, he was a happy man. His commitment to the truths of the Bible was, as much as is humanly possible, immutable.
When once asked how he wanted to be remembered, he said, “I should like to be remembered as someone who was always courteous in controversy, but without compromise.” This uncommon devotion to truth was the hallmark of his life. I’ve been remarkably influenced by his many books, but the one thing that stands out to me above all else was the unflappable, immovable integrity with which he embraced the whole counsel of God, regardless of the personal cost it might entail.
I once heard him say—or perhaps I read it in one of his books—“Bad theology hurts people.” It was this rigorous fixation on both truth and the spiritual welfare of God’s people that energized this man throughout his life and ministry. Although Packer could easily hold his own in dialogue with the most sophisticated theological minds, his primary commitment was to the growth and spiritual maturity of the people of God’s church. He had an uncanny capacity to take deep and complex biblical truths and apply them with life-changing power and devotional sensitivity to the hearts and lives of the average Christian believer.
Conscience and Controversy
Though Jim didn’t seek out controversy, he didn’t back down from it when biblical truth was at stake.
When the academy found it fashionable to reject the inerrancy of Scripture, Packer defended it with persuasive clarity. When he stood with John Stott in opposition to Martyn Lloyd-Jones, as the “Doctor” called for withdrawal from those denominations that he believed were guilty of doctrinal compromise, Packer declined to vilify those who attacked him for his stance.
His commitment to the truths of Scripture was, as much as is humanly possible, immutable.
Indeed, to the end of his days he insisted that Lloyd-Jones was still “the greatest man I have ever known.” When several accused Packer of compromising the gospel because of his involvement with Evangelicals and Catholics Together, he refrained from responding in kind and remained true to his conscience. When the synod of the Anglican Diocese in Canada, of which he was a contributing member, chose to affirm same-sex marriage, he famously and courageously stood up and walked out of its meeting in protest.
Packer’s influence on pastors across the globe is incalculable. I know I speak for many when I say that few have exerted a more profound influence on the shape of both my theological convictions and also my pastoral philosophy than Jim Packer. One example will suffice.
There is on the pulpit at my church a small magnet inscribed with these words: “Sam Storms, Sewage Specialist.” To this day I have no idea who made it or placed it there. But I cherish its truth as I prepare every week to preach God’s Word. The phrase comes from something Packer wrote in his book Hot Tub Religion. In it, Packer wrote:
Think of theologians as the church’s sewage specialists. Their role is to detect and eliminate intellectual pollution, and to ensure, so far as man can, that God’s life-giving truth flows pure and unpoisoned into Christian hearts.
That is a calling, a designation, if you will, that I and thousands like me have embraced.
Perhaps, above all else, I learned from Jim what it means to live, write, and preach as a Christian gentleman.
Yes, I disagreed with Jim Packer on a handful of secondary doctrinal issues. But even then I’ve been challenged and, hopefully, refined in my thinking by the razor-sharp intellect with which God blessed him.
Perhaps, above all else, I learned from Jim what it means to live, write, and preach as a Christian gentleman. I’m a long way from measuring up to this man, but I thank God daily that he gave me, and the universal body of Christ, a man like Packer to imitate.
By God’s grace, may his legacy and influence endure for generations to come.