Interview with J. I. Packer
Dr. Packer, you’ve done a great deal of writing and speaking on the subject of the need for a new reformation, a new awareness of the sovereignty and grace of God in our day. How do you assess the condition of the state of evangelicalism as it presently exists, and what do you think we can do about that condition.
J. I. Packer: I see evangelical strength in America needing desperately to be undergirded by Reformation convictions, otherwise the numeric growth of evangelicals, which has been such a striking thing in our time, is likely never to become a real power, morally and spiritually, in the community that it ought to be. I mean by Reformation truth, a God-centered way of thinking, an appreciation of his sovereignty, an appreciation of how radical the damage of sin is to the human condition and community, and with that, an appreciation of just how radical and transforming is the power of the Lord Jesus Christ in his saving grace. If you don’t see deep into the problem, you don’t see deep into the solution. My fear is that a lot of evangelicals today are just not seeing deep enough in both the problem and the need. But Reformation theology takes you down to the very depth of the human problem. And actually, the Reformation itself was a recovery of the tremendous contribution that the great St. Augustine made back at the turn of the 4th and 5th centuries. He was the man who, more than anyone else in Christendom, saw to the heart of the real problem. He saw how much damage sin had done, how completely we were oriented away from God by nature. He is the one who left us that phrase “original sin” which he got from the text of Psalm 51:5, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” He also saw in response to our sinful condition, how great a work of transformation was needed by the grace of God in human lives. The sixteenth century reformers stood on Augustine’s shoulders at this point. Of course they clarified the great truth that justification by faith is the way in which the grace of God reaches us. We need, even today, a Christianity that was as deep and strong as that. And this, it seems to me, is where modern evangelicalism is lacking.
Would you say that there is a connection or a similarity between the man-centered theology of evangelicalism and the general humanistic spirit?
Packer: Yes, although I think that it is an indirect connection. Secular humanism, you see, is very man-centered. It encourages every individual to regard his or her own personal happiness as the supreme value. And the kind of evangelical religion which doesn’t challenge this self-centered, self-absorbed stand point, but rather, reinforces it by making one’s religious experience the most important thing in the world, or God’s gift of personal contentment, happiness, joy, good feelings, or that kind of thing, is simply echoing the tenants of this type of modern humanism. A Reformational emphasis, however, challenges this by asserting that God is the center, not man. We must recognize that he is at the heart of things and that we exist for his glory, that is to say, we exist for him, not he for us. And it is only as we set ourselves to glorify him as the one who supremely matters that we are going to enter into the joy and fulfillment which being a Christian brings. The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it so well. Question: What is the chief end of man? Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. The enjoyment comes as we set ourselves to glorify God. But if our concern is with the enjoyment, then we won’t be glorifying God.
Dr. Packer, you mentioned just a moment ago, in referring to the proliferation and growth of evangelicalism, the lacking of any real significant power of the cross and the gospel. Do you believe that modern evangelicals have lost their grip on the biblical gospel?
Packer: Well, in one particular respect we’ve got it all wrong. We are inclined to believe that God exists for us, God is waiting for us, God is there to make us happy. But in the gospel, God does not play the role of a butler. In the gospel we are told that God, the creator who made all things for his own praise and glory, has gone into action as mankind’s redeemer. We human individuals are impotent of spiritual response, that is, response to God in any shape or form, but God first of all sends us a savior to make atonement for our sins, and then he sends the Holy Spirit to change our hearts and make us willing to see and respond to Christ. Now, if we don’t appreciate that our salvation is God’s work in that absolutely radical sense, that is, God sends the savior, God gives us the gift of faith to respond to the savior, then we won’t even be able to tell folks what the gospel means. You see, we ought to be telling folks that they are helpless, that they need Christ, and that they must ask God for new hearts and for the ability to trust Christ. In other words, you’ve got to tell them of their own spiritual inability right from the start. If on the other hand we forget this and go around saying that God is just there to help you, and that you call on him whenever you need to, that he is sort of a cosmic butler, well then we are misrepresenting the gospel in an absolutely fundamental manner. Until the gospel is understood as a message that obliges us to say that we are hopeless, helpless, lost, and ruined, requiring also that God does the work of salvation from start to finish, then we are not presenting the gospel as it is revealed in the New Testament.
Given the current trends of the evangelical movement, what do you see for the future?
Packer: I think that there is a big risk of fragmentation. Modern evangelicalism is simply too worldly, and the influence of the world is usually always a fragmenting influence. I think perhaps that evangelicalism in America hasn’t yet learned the way of unity on anything except the outward trappings of united evangelistic efforts. And that in itself is only a shallow uniting factor because the Gospel as understood by some doesn’t correspond to the Gospel as understood by others. And when it comes to all goals and objectives beyond evangelism, then I think that evangelicals are very seriously divided. There are some tightly connected with right wing politics, yet there are others, because of their emphasis on end times speculations, who really don’t think that involvement in society is important at all. There are some who are only interested in the supernatural works of the Holy Spirit, such as faith healing or speaking in tongues, while others seem only interested in the implementations of psychology or self-help type programs. So I see grave risks of fragmentation down the road. The only thing that can unite us is a bigger, broader, deeper, wider, and more generally agreed upon theology. And I find that theology only in the Reformation heritage.
If the theology is the only thing that will unite us, do you really think unity is at all achievable? Because from our perspective, the average evangelical, indeed, the average Christian, it seems, is intimidated by theology.
Packer: First of all, theology simply means the study of God. This is something that every Christian needs to realize. I think the way that the word has been used in the past has frightened many Christians away from it, even though they never stopped to consider what the word actually meant. People got the idea somewhere that theology is the business of the seminary professors and the clergy, but has very little to do with the day to day living of the Christian life. It’s something people seem to think you can get along without, provided that you read your Bible daily and think one or two guiding thoughts from your passage to keep you on the rails. I don’t believe it’s at all like that. But theology means the study of God, and if we are to love God, as we are commanded, with all our “minds” then we need to be in the business of theology. So when I speak of theology, I am referring to the truth that God has given us all in Scripture which we all need to learn and digest. It is truth for life!
Now, I am a professor of theology, but I must tell you that in all my teaching and writing, I am trying to show that theology is supremely practical. If this could be seen, then I think people’s fear of theology could melt away and they would appreciate, and benefit from, serious theological instruction. Again, if you will allow me to beat the drum once more, this is a Reformational emphasis. If you actually get around to reading the reformers, such as Luther or Calvin, you will find that they did all their work from a pastoral standpoint, but at every point they are applying truth to the lives of people. What they were trying to do throughout their earthly lives was to build the people up in God’s truth so their lives might bring glory to their creator and redeemer. It’s as practical and down to earth, and as pastoral as that. That’s what we need to get back to first, I think.
Adapted from “Interview with J.I. Packer,” Modern Reformation July/Aug 1993. Used with permission.