The Life of J. I. Packer (1926-2020)
I don’t think it an exaggeration to say that I owe much of what I am as a pastor and theologian to the combined influence of a schoolyard bully and an inattentive bread truck driver. Such are the mysteries of divine providence that largely account for the remarkable spiritual influence, not only on me personally but on the whole of the evangelical world, of one James Innell Packer. I’m not alone in this assessment of Packer’s impact, as the readers of Christianity Today identified him as second only to C. S. Lewis when it came to the most influential theological writers of the 20th century. But how did the bully and the bread truck driver enter the picture?
The answer to this question takes us back to September 19, 1933, and the city of Gloucester, England. J. I. Packer was only seven at the time of the incident, having been born on July 22, 1926, the son of a clerk for the Great Western Railway. It was from the grounds of the National School in Gloucester that the young Packer was chased by the bully, himself an obviously unwitting piece of the providential puzzle that would ultimately make Packer into the man we know and love him to be. Who knows what was passing through the mind of that bread truck driver? Were his eyes momentarily distracted by some random event? Was he day dreaming? Or was he fully engaged and must the blame be laid at the feet of young Packer himself? Regardless, the force of the collision thrust the seven-year-old to the ground, inflicting on him a serious head injury.
Packer was immediately rushed into surgery where he was treated for “a depressed compound fracture of the frontal bone on the right-hand side of his forehead, with injury to the frontal lobe of the brain” (McGrath, 1). It left Packer with an indentation on the right side of his forehead, still quite visible today. The accident was “thought to have damaged my brain,” said Packer. More than 85 years later one can only conclude that, if anything, it served rather to stimulate what we have come to know and appreciate as one of the great Christian minds not merely of the past century but in the history of the church these past 2,000 years.
The recovery was not without its inconveniences, as the young Packer was forced to withdraw from school for a period of six months. From that time until he went to university, Packer wore a protective aluminum plate over the injury. Needless to say, this was not the sort of thing that would contribute to a young man’s participation in athletics or widespread acceptance among his peers. This only reinforced his tendency to keep unto himself and thrust him into a more secluded life of reading and writing.
When he turned eleven, like most boys his age, Packer anticipated a bicycle for a birthday present. But given their lingering and well justified concerns about their son’s head injury, sending him into the streets once again did not strike his parents as the wisest course of action. Instead, he received an old Oliver typewriter. Once he had overcome his initial disappointment, Packer took to typing with a fervor. To his final day, notwithstanding the many technological advances we all now enjoy, Packer wrote all his books on an old-fashioned typewriter! I doubt if any of us who have been so richly blessed by his ministry are inclined to protest.
The Packer home was nominally Anglican, and his church attendance, though regular, was spiritually uneventful. On reaching the age of 14, Packer consented to his mother’s request that he be confirmed in their local church. “Confirmation, as the Church of England understands it, marks the point at which an individual chooses to affirm his or her faith on their own behalf, rather than simply rely on promises made on their behalf at their baptism by their parents and godparents” (McGrath, 7).
The journey to genuine conversion was soon to take on several interesting turns, the first of which came in conversations with the son of a Unitarian minister in between their regular chess games. Packer, 15 at the time, was not persuaded by his arguments. The notion that Jesus was little more than an ethical model simply made no sense to him. “If you are going to deny the divinity of Christ,” said Packer,” “which is so central to the New Testament, you also deny all the rest of it. If you are going to affirm that the ethic of Jesus is the best thing since fried bread, well then you ought to take seriously what the New Testament says about who He is. That got me going.”
His newly awakened interest in Christianity was deepened upon the discovery of the early works of an increasingly popular author, C. S. Lewis. The latter’s Screwtape Letters (1943), followed by his best-selling classic, Mere Christianity (1944), proved stimulating to Packer. So too were his conversations with friend Eric Taylor whose own conversion experience left him wondering what he himself lacked and how it might be attained.
Upon his arrival at Oxford University in 1944, Packer fulfilled his promise to young Taylor that he would pay a visit to the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (the OICCU). On Sunday evening, October 22, 1944, the Reverend Earl Langston was preaching, boringly according to Packer. But half-way through the sermon something changed. Langston “started telling at length the story of his own conversion and suddenly everything became clear. I am not a person who gets much in the way of visions or visuals, but the concept called up a picture which was there in my mind was that here I am outside of the house and looking through the window and I understand what they are doing. I recognize the games they are playing. Clearly they are enjoying themselves, but I am outside. Why am I outside? Because I have been evading the Lord Jesus and His call.” At the conclusion, as was customary at such meetings, they sang Charlotte Elliot’s famous hymn, “Just as I Am.” And so, “about 100 feet from where the great evangelist George Whitefield committed himself to Christ in 1735, James I. Packer made his own personal commitment” (McGrath, 18).
Though truly born again by the Spirit of God, the struggle for Packer had, in a sense, only begun. The OICCU at that time was under the influence of what has come to be known as Keswick theology. Suffice it to say that this view insisted that one might experience a victorious Christian life only through an act of faith that led to total surrender. This decisive moment, in which one wholly yields and trusts the work of Christ within the heart rather than making any effort to overcome the power of sin, was the key to Christianity. As Packer’s biographer, Alister McGrath, has explained, “the notion of ‘active energetic obedience’ was thus criticized as representing a lapse into legalism, and a dangerous reliance on one’s own abilities” (23).
This not only proved unhelpful to Packer, it was deeply damaging to his spiritual growth. His increasing frustration over the inability to get past daily sins into that promised victory robbed him of the joy of his salvation. He was told that he simply needed to reconsecrate himself, over and over again, until such time that he could identify whatever obstacle stood in the way of the fullness of moral victory.
No less providential than his encounter with the bread truck in 1933 was Packer’s discovery of the Puritans in 1944. We today take for granted the availability of Puritan books, largely, and at least initially, due to the publishing efforts of the Banner of Truth Trust. But such was not the case in the 1940’s. C. Owen Pickard-Cambridge, an Anglican clergyman, donated his considerable collection of books to the OICCU, over which Packer was given authority as the junior librarian.
Packer began the arduous task of sorting through the dusty piles of books in the basement of a meeting hall on St. Michael’s Street in central Oxford. There he came upon an uncut set of the works of the great Puritan pastor and theologian, John Owen (1616-83). Two of the titles in volume 6 caught his attention: “On Indwelling Sin in Believers” and “On the Mortification of Sin in Believers.” It is enough to observe that a major watershed in his spiritual development can be traced to this providential discovery. Owen’s realistic and thoroughly biblical grasp on the nature of indwelling sin and the believer’s Spirit-empowered battle throughout the course of one’s earthly existence set Packer free from the Keswick-induced discouragement of soul under which he had been laboring.
Upon completion of his work at Oxford he took a one-year teaching post at Oak Hill Theological College in London (1948-49). His primary responsibility was as an instructor in both Greek and Latin, although he ended up teaching philosophy as well. It was at Oak Hill that Packer discovered his gift for teaching. Although somewhat “shy and withdrawn, [and] lacking in self-confidence; as a teacher, he was seen as caring, competent and considerate” (McGrath, 36).
Of greatest importance during this one-year tenure at Oak Hill was the establishment of the Puritan conferences that ultimately bore considerable impact not only on British evangelicalism during the 1950’s and 60’s but also on a more global scale in the west. Together with his friend Raymond Johnston, they made contact with Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, minister at Westminster Chapel in London. During this year Packer was often found listening to John R. W. Stott at All Souls, Langham Place, on Sunday morning, and to Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel on Sunday nights, enough to make even the most privileged of Reformed Christians salivate with envy! The relationship that developed between Packer and Lloyd-Jones, together with the formation of the Puritan conferences, was of massive significance in Packer’s personal and professional development. The first conference convened in June of 1950 and met annually until they terminated in 1969.
Packer then enrolled at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, with a view toward ordination in the Church of England. There he studied theology from 1949-52, eventually being awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. In December of 1952 Packer was ordained a deacon in the Church of England and a year later was ordained a priest at Birmingham Cathedral. He served as a curate at St. John’s, Harborne, a suburb of Birmingham, from 1952-54.
There was yet another event of great import that came about, again, by a twist of God’s gracious providence. In the late spring of 1952, Packer was asked to fill in at a weekend conference near Surrey. Evidently the original speaker had been inadvertently double-booked. Following his first talk on Friday night, a young nurse approached Packer and informed him that his style of preaching was somewhat similar to another that she greatly admired: Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Her name was Kit Mullett.
At the Puritan conference in 1952, Kit was present to hear Packer speak. McGrath explains what happened next:
“Noticing Kit and one other woman in the audience, Lloyd-Jones complained of their presence to Packer [the attendance of females at such conferences was unexpected, though not forbidden]. At the time, they were enjoying a cup of tea in the chapel vestry, and planning the next year’s conference. ‘They don’t come here to study the Puritans!’ he remarked. ‘They’re only here for the men! I know one of them [Kit, of course], she’s a member of my church.’ ‘Well, Doctor,’ Packer replied, ‘as a matter of fact, I’m going to marry her.’ Packer recalls that Lloyd-Jones’s reply was: ‘Well, I was right about one of them. Now what about the other?’” (68).
Following his marriage to Kit in the summer of 1954, Packer served as lecturer at Tyndale Hall, Bristol, from 1955-1961 and as librarian and then principal at Latimer House, Oxford, from 1961-1970. In 1970 he was appointed as principal of Tyndale Hall and became associate principal of Trinity College, Bristol, from 1971-1979. It was then that he moved permanently to Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia, where he passed away five days short of his 94th birthday.
(The preceding was adapted from my book, Packer on the Christian Life [Crossway, 2015].)