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July 29, 2020

J.I. Packer is With Our Lord

Dr. John Neufeld

By now, the glorification of J.I. Packer is well known.  I have been grieving our loss.

There are three books by Dr. Packer that have influenced me the most.  They are, “Knowing God”, “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God” and “A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life”.  Each one reminds me why he never wrote a systematic theology.

J.I. Packer was certainly capable of writing a very thorough systematic theology.  And he did write “Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs.”  But there, the language is not that of a scholar, but rather it is a book for laymen, covering over 100 major Christian beliefs so that the average Christian might understand.  Dr. Packer clearly made a decision to write for pastors and laypeople, not for scholars.  And we, the people of God have been enriched by the use of his marvellous insight, along with his gift of communicating through his books.

Dr. Packer was once asked what he thought to have been his most significant work.  He said it was his leadership in bringing the English Standard Version into being.  The ESV’s philosophy is to be an essentially literal translation.  It is not a paraphrase or a “dynamic equivalence.”  Rather it seeks to give the non-Greek and Hebrew reader the best possible opportunity to hear what the original sounded like, without being able to read the language.  But this is the legacy of J.I. Packer.  His interest was the Bible.  But his interest was making the Bible available to the layperson.

I think I was among the first to make the ESV Bible a Pew Bible in my local church.  I purchased it when it first came out and quickly read it from cover to cover.  I made notes about the questions I had.  I then called Dr. Packer and asked if I could have an appointment with him to discuss the Bible.  He was exceedingly gracious.  He took me out to lunch, and we talked about the ESV for several hours.

One of the questions I asked him, was why, in translating Romans 3:24, the translators had chosen to translate the Greek word, “hilasterion” as “propitiation”.  He asked me what word I thought they should have used.  I said I didn’t know, however, since “propitiation” is an old English word, the word would be meaningless to most English readers.  He readily agreed.  But, he reminded me there was no modern English equivalent “hilasterion”.  Furthermore, people have learned a great deal of technical computer terminology.  “Why could they not,” he asked, “also learn some technical language to describe Christ’s death on a cross.”  And then, almost as an afterthought, he said, “Isn’t that your task as their pastor?  Should you not explain those things to your people?”

I am reminded that J.I. Packer was not just a theologian to the common man and woman, he was also a theologian to countless pastors, urging us on to faithfulness in explaining God’s words, God’s truth and Christ’s gospel to our world.

From my perspective, J.I. Packer has no peer in his generation.  A spiritual giant has been taken home to glory, and for that matter, I am deeply and profoundly grateful.  But he has also been taken from us, and I fear we have none to replace him.

Enjoy your eternal reward, Dr. Packer.  The God whom you described so well is now the God you now see with your own eyes.

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