The Conclusion of Christian Living, or, How to End Well
So when can we quit? Is there a point in the Christian life when we can take our foot off the pedal, throw our lives into neutral, and happily coast into heaven? After all, isn’t that what the world counsels? Retire. Relax. Amuse yourself. Indulge in whatever pleasures you were denied in your working years. You’re on the shelf, so take it easy. The end is in sight.
J. I. Packer only recently entered into glory. During his final years he grew increasingly weak in his body but remained amazingly sharp and clear-headed. Some might have told him, after such a long and productive ministry, to ease up a bit, back off, and patiently wait either for death or the Lord’s return. Not on your (Christian) life! Packer’s stated aim, which he hoped would be imitated by all, was to make his remaining years an all-out sprint for the finish line. The call to obedience, fruitfulness, holiness, witness, learning, leading, prayer, and worship is lifelong. It only ends when life does. The body may well suffer, to varying degrees, progressive deterioration, whether in some form of dementia or organic disease. Energy wanes. Pains increase. The mind is less focused. But the call of Scripture is to live as fully as possible for God’s glory until one’s dying breath.
The timing couldn’t have been better. On the day I sat down to write the final chapter to my book, Packer on the Christian Life, a package arrived in the mail. Crossway had graciously sent me a copy of Packer’s most recent book, Finishing Our Course with Joy: Guidance from God for Engaging with Our Aging (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), a short (106 pages) but powerful appeal that we not conform to the self-indulgent and lazy ways of the world which beckon us to the golf course, the beach, the rocking chair, or wherever it may be that we choose to squander our remaining years on earth. Packer’s counter-cultural counsel comes from Psalm 71:5, 9, 14-18 –
“You, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth. . . .
Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent. . . .
But I will hope continually and will praise you yet more and more.
My mouth will tell of your righteous acts, of your deeds of salvation all the day, for their number is past my knowledge.
With the mighty deeds of the Lord God I will come; I will remind them of your righteousness, yours alone.
O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.
So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come.”
To what are we being called in this psalm? What is the biblical expectation for all God’s people in their later years, after a lifetime of devoted service and love and pursuit of that holiness without which no man shall see God? Packer’s contention is that “so far as our bodily health allows, we should aim to be found running the last lap of our Christian life, as we would say, flat out. The final sprint, so I urge, should be a sprint indeed” (Finishing Our Course With Joy, 21-22).
The urgency in this call is partly due to the never-ending onslaught of our enemy, the Devil. Many mistakenly, and dangerously, think that the older one gets the less attention Satan will pay us, turning his insidious efforts instead to the young and inexperienced. No. As Packer rightly notes, “Satan’s war against each of us will end only with the end of this present life” (59). And his strategy in this conflict is to persuade us that as we grow older, as “our outer self is wasting away” (2 Cor. 4:16), we should humbly acknowledge that life is “winding down” and so should we. “By moving us to think this way . . .,” says Packer, “Satan undermines, diminishes, and deflates our discipleship, reducing us from laborers in Christ’s kingdom to sympathetic spectators” (63). Sadly, and all too often, local churches contribute to this mindset and “behave as though spiritual gifts and ministry skills wither with age. But they don’t; what happens, rather, is that they atrophy with disuse” (64).
Anyone who has read Packer will recognize that the Christian life called for by Scripture and this latter-day Puritan is the farthest thing imaginable from passivity. It is a race to be run, a fight to be fought, and a war to wage. But there is nothing grim and onerous in such a life, for it is energized by the power of God, permeated by intimacy with the Son, and filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit. Still, it is a life that tempts some to wonder when we might slow down, disengage, and drift. As far as J. I. Packer was concerned, the answer is never, this side of heaven.
So, whether you are young in years and new to the Christian faith or quite old and coming to the end of your earthly journey, the call to everyone who knows Christ, at every age, is the same: energetically engage, breathlessly run, relentlessly repent, passionately believe, fervently worship, and zealously seek after God and his holiness.
(Adapted from Packer on the Christian Life [Crossway, 2015]).