Image: Regent College / Youtube.
I met J.I. Packer in the early 1990’s, and I worked with him (off and on) since 1994. Before I share several things about him, I first want to share a story about someone else that I believe probably captures what he would say about what I am about to write.
I used to do a monthly service at a Senior’s residence. The main organizer of the service was a resident I will call Sue. She always insisted that I stay for lunch after the service so that we could chat. She was elderly but formidable and a very committed Christian. She told me one day that when she died she wanted me to do her funeral. I asked her what she would like, and she told me that she wanted a “very old fashioned, proper, Book of Common Prayer funeral.” I knew what she meant but asked her to explain.
She said she did not like modern funerals where people go on and on about the deceased. She said I was permitted to sum up her life in no more than two minutes, but then preach about the Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, the Christians only hope. She died a year or so later, and her children organized the funeral with me. I told them of her wishes, and they said they knew those were her wishes, but they planned several testimonials about her many virtues anyway.
I still preached Jesus and him crucified and risen, and I inwardly smiled at how bothered Sue would be with all the things said about her. I now find myself writing about Jim (as he was called), and I am very sure his view would have been the same as Sue’s. Spend very, very little time talking about me, and preach Jesus Christ crucified and risen instead. I still have many years to preach the Gospel, but despite Jim’s (probable) wishes, I will say a few things about him.
First, I was very intimidated by him when I first met him. It took me quite a while to not be intimidated by him. It was not that he was intimidating, far from it, he was quiet, gentle and personable. However, his books had been so formative to me that, well, it felt odd to say anything in his presence. His books Knowing God (1973), Fundamentalism and the Word of God (1958), Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (1961), I could go on and on––his books were so influential in my Christian life and thinking that I was awed by being about to talk and discuss things with him.
Second, he was a very peaceable and irenic man, yet he would not back down on matters important to the gospel and the whole counsel of God. He quietly, but firmly, took his stand on the word of God. To name a few: the nature of the Bible; God and how he reveals himself; sexuality and marriage; the biblical limits on who God calls to be an elder/overseer; salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone––he would take his stand on the Bible even if it was unpopular in secular or church culture. He was a model of quiet conviction, even when that conviction had a high personal cost.
Third, he was a simple Christian who loved to worship with simple Christians. When sitting beside him during a church service or to be in a small group bible study and prayer time with him, you knew that he was there to meet with Jesus. He was not evaluating and criticizing the people leading or the others praying.
Fourth, he listened. You never felt that he had stopped listening to you and was in fact just pretending to listen while preparing the next thing he wanted to say. He listened to you and seemed to be just as delighted to listen to a famous theologian as he was to the ordinary Christian who was also there to work or worship.
Fifth, he was gentle, unassuming, and unpretentious. The first time I got to teach the Bible to a group that included Jim I was very nervous. As I put it at the time, he not only knew far more than me but even what he had forgotten was far more than all that I had learned. But if anyone who had no idea of who he was had been in the Bible study, they would have just thought him a nice older gentleman, not someone famous or important. He never volunteered comments on how I spoke, but when I asked him for comments, he was gentle, helpful and encouraging.
Sixth, he was a good speaker and a great writer, but he excelled at answering questions. His answers were wise, thorough, concise, brief, to the point, and always gentle.
Seventh, he is a model on how to run the race and finish the race. Billy Graham famously said that the word “retirement” is not found in the Bible. That is true, but the word “season” is found in the Bible. Jim modelled faithfulness and diligence in every season of his life. He ran the race well and inspires me to run the race well.
What would Jim say about my writing these things about him? I do not know what he would have said, but I believe that as with Sue (whose story I tell at the beginning), Jim is now beholding his blessed Saviour face-to-face, and only has the glory of the Triune God on his mind. In the meantime, for those of us still in the race, Jim will be missed.