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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

Remembering J.I. Packer

Michael Horton Remembers J.I. Packer:

Having just heard about the home going of J. I. Packer, I am filled with mixed emotions: joy for him, sadness for us.  Long ago he wrote a book on Puritan spirituality.  The UK title was Among God’s Giants.  For me, and for many others around the world, Jim himself was one of those giants.  I first met him when I was about 15.  I can’t calculate how much I owe to him, not only his teaching and writing but his godly example.  I rejoice in thanksgiving to the Lord for the life of this servant and in the certain confidence that our Savior will continue to provide so lavishly for his bride until he returns for her.

According to Christianity Today, “J.I. Packer was one of the most famous and influential evangelical leaders of our time. He died Friday, July 17, at age 93.” [Click here to read the full CT article]. Dr. Packer had a significant influence on many of us here at White Horse Inn. He appeared on our radio broadcast a number of times, spoke at many of our conferences, and contributed to our magazine Modern Reformation. In this 2008 interview, Shane Rosenthal spoke with Dr. Packer about some of the trends and challenges of contemporary Christianity. Click here to listen to an audio version of this interview.

Christian Smith and his team at the National Study of Youth & Religion conducted a five-year study of religious teens from a variety of backgrounds and he discovered that they all have essentially the same outlook on life which he described as “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” What are your thoughts about his findings?

First of all, I don’t doubt what he affirms is true, and I put it down to the fact that churches by and large have lost the habit of catechism, and so they don’t teach young people doctrine. Even the syllabi in degree courses are defective here for those who are going to be youth leaders and who are currently being educated at seminaries; most youth leaders are much better at telling stories and organizing games than they are at teaching the faith. I think that catechism – that is, formal instruction – needn’t be by question and answer in the old-fashioned way, though it needs to be in a form of education that involves the young people as thoroughly as possible. This has to be recovered; and at the moment the Roman Catholics are doing far better than we evangelicals are in educating their young people. I am hoping that from that we’ll stand both a fuller recovery of adult catechesis across the board in Christian education, and a reaching out to recover catechesis for young people whereby you teach them the basic Christian truths. From my standpoint, generalizing about evangelicals, I am able to say with confidence that it’s the same biblical truths, the same gospel truths that every evangelical congregation wants to impart to its young people; but it does mean a change of mindset about the way to deal with young people and their groups and so on. We haven’t got very far along that road as yet, so you can’t be surprised at results like these which highlight the fact that the gospel is not known to the young people in today’s evangelical churches. [Click here to listen to Dr. Packer discuss this point further on a White Horse Inn episode].

Do you think part of the problem is that we’ve turned our worship into outreach? Is there a difference between outreach and Christian worship?

Yes, I think so. I think of the churches that have given themselves to “seeker services” – twice a Sunday if they have two services and once a Sunday if they don’t. The seeker services are exclusively or narrowly focused on the people who aren’t yet believers but whom the church is hoping to interest and intrigue. I must confess that in my limited experience of seeker-sensitive services, what is done both in the way of music and of drama is all superficial. The bottom line is that at the end of one of these seeker-sensitive occasions, the saints who came to be fed have not been fed. They came to worship God and they’ve been allowed to do precious little of that; and the folk from outside, if any have come in, have been fed so superficially that they haven’t got the authentic Christian message either. Putting it in secular terms, it’s been a flop. Churches that have specialized in seeker-sensitive ministry are beginning to see it’s a flop, starting at the top – I mean, Willow Creek has acknowledged that there was an unrecognized superficiality in the whole way in which they sought to involve, intrigue, and disciple folk; and they’re telling the world that they’re going to try and do better. Well, I think they’ll have to change the formula.

I recently visited a megachurch in Southern California on a Sunday morning and I discovered that the kids in the youth center were skateboarding, playing X-box, throwing frisbees, etc. Then, when it was time for worship, the kids participated in what seemed more like a rock concert, and the youth pastor’s message was closer to a stand-up routine than what you and I would call a traditional sermon. Later that day I spoke with a representative of that church, and he actually admitted that in some ways they are failing these kids, because when they go off to college, many of them simply stop going to church. The average church, you see, doesn’t have an amusement park type atmosphere, and so when the college age kids leave home and head off to school, on the one hand they’re too old for the youth center experience, and yet on the other hand, they’ve never actually been in an ordinary church service with other adults. What are your thoughts about this?

You are absolutely right. That’s the way it is and it’s very sad. It’s a wrong pattern and it’s harming rather than helping the kids. It’s asking them to leave behind what they thought of as Christianity. There’s enough temptation and pressure at the modern university to do that anyway. We don’t want to set them up for falling victim to that pressure by the way that we nurture them in our churches. So, I’m absolutely at one with your uneasiness about this kind of youth work which maximizes entertainment and fun, and getting them excited. Real Christianity will get them excited too, but in a different way, and at a different level. And of course what I say about youth applies also to adults. All Christians ought to be excited about their faith. There’s been something lacking in our discipleship if they aren’t – but the excitement I’m speaking of is certainly different from this hysterical entertainment-oriented type of excitement.

Is it wrong for a church to bore a kid?

On balance, yes, I think it is wrong to bore a kid because kids know no response to boredom except simply to switch off. The world of secular grade school education is using enough imagination and ingenuity to keep the kids’ interest from beginning to end. In other words, it can be done. And I would say, let our churches learn from the good teachers in the grade schools. I don’t believe it’s impossible for us thoroughly to reform our way of nurturing kids and teenagers to keep them from boredom, but to feed them regularly the substance of the faith, and a fascination with the Bible as a landscape of life in which the faith is being illustrated and expressed.  I’m a great believer in the importance of Trinitarian thinking in discipling. A lot of what has weakened contemporary discipleship is the result of thinking of only one person of the Godhead at any one time. The gospel is much less “What a friend we have in Jesus,” but “What a team of friends we have through Jesus” – it’s the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Our discipling instruction will be infinitely strengthened if we present it that way.

What do you think about the issue of generational segregation? Do you think this is something that is adversely affecting our churches?

We have separated the ages, very much to the loss of each age. In the New Testament, the Christian church is an all-age community, and in real life the experience of the family to look no further should convince us that the interaction of the ages is enriching. The principle is that generations should be mixed up in the church for the glory of God. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t disciple groups of people of the same age or the same sex separately from time to time. That’s a good thing to do. But for the most part, the right thing is the mixed community in which everybody is making the effort to understand and empathize with all the other people in the other age groups. “Make the effort” is the key phrase here. Older people tend not to make the effort to understand younger people, and younger people are actually encouraged not to make the effort to understand older people. That’s a loss of a crucial Christian value in my judgment. If worship styles are so fixed that what’s being offered fits the expectations, the hopes, even the prejudices, of any one of these groups as opposed to the others, I don’t believe the worship style glorifies God, and some change, some reformation, some adjustment, and some enlargement of spiritual vision is really called for.

How do you summarize the Gospel?

It is the good news that for us lost and ruined souls, God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – has done something which saves us, which transforms us, which gives us hope and community that is the life of love, friendship, and trust. God has done something which imparts value to life in a way that we never conceived, but it’s all founded on what God did for us at the cross and in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. It all focuses on the person of Jesus Christ and his gift of the Spirit as he draws us into sonship with him to the Father and to the service of the Father, Son, and Spirit together. That’s the wholeness of the gospel and it’s got to be presented in that way.

I have on occasion presented pastors and church leaders in a variety of settings with the following question: “If I were to ask people in your congregation about crucial doctrines such as propitiation, justification or imputation, how do you think they would do?” What’s interesting is that many of them have responded by saying, “I think their answers would be all over the map.” Is it okay for us to have different opinions about these important doctrines?

No, I don’t think it’s okay for us to have different opinions about these key doctrines. I think your question calls attention to something we talked about before, namely the fact that catechesis – that is, teaching the truths that people live by and teaching them how to live by those truths – has pretty much perished from our evangelical churches for more than a century now. But, yes, it is the case that for lack of anything that does the catechetical job in our church life, we have lots of people in the pews who don’t understand these doctrines, and don’t even know why they need to understand these doctrines, and certainly don’t know where to look in order to get an understanding of them. The type of preaching we often hear today often fails to give a doctrinal understanding, and in my vision of church life, catechesis and expository sermons go together. But either without the other is going to be deficient in practice as a way of generating lively mature adult disciples.

Do you think that Pelagianism is a natural outgrowth of our fallen condition, and that unless we’re taught about the doctrines grace from the Scriptures, we’ll by nature think in terms of saving ourselves?

Yes, I do. It has often been said that Pelagianism is the heresy of the natural man. We need to teach sin at the deep level that the Bible teaches it – “The heart of man is desperately wicked and who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). Only God knows it, and only God can reveal to us the true condition of the heart. But, yes, my hope is that churches in our day will come to see that the teaching that contradicts Pelagianism – namely, the teaching that pins us to the wall as spiritually helpless and unable to save ourselves, helpless in the presence of God, lost and ruined – must be given thoroughly, as well as that teaching which exhibits the cross of Christ – his substitutionary atonement, where he took our place, bearing the retributive judgment due to our sins, and the resurrection of Jesus whereby as the living Lord he became available as a personal minister and friend to those whom he has been pleased to intervene. Again, superficiality and sentimentality, which disfigures so much of contemporary evangelical testimony these days, must be transcended.

What do you think about N. T. Wright’s interpretation of St. Paul in general and of the gospel in particular?

I think his material is somewhat like the curate’s egg in the old British cartoon, where the young clergyman tells the bishop who asks him whether he’s enjoying his boiled egg, “Oh yes, sir, it is very good in parts.” Actually, it’s a rotten egg. I think Tom Wright’s material is very good in parts. A price always has to be paid for originality in any field of study; original contributors are going to get some things wrong, just as they’re going to get other things magnificently right; and I think that is how it is really with Tom Wright. He pushes some of the things that he’s seen too hard, but at the same time I am grateful for some of the things that he’s seen clearly and said with crashing weight and strength – most notably in his recent book on the resurrection of the Lord Jesus which I think is absolutely masterly. That’s a magnificent achievement. But I think he’s wrong, actually, in his understanding of Paul on justification.

Would you say that in some ways his view of justification approximates the Roman Catholic position?

It’s not quite Roman Catholic, no. The Roman Catholic view is that justification is a process that begins when sacramental grace first finds you, and it continues until after purgatory when you’re finally perfected in glory. By putting it that way, Catholics obscure the momentousness of justification as a reality in a person’s life. A momentousness that consists precisely of the fact that this is the last judgment that will ever be passed on where you are to spend eternity; the judgment is being passed here and now in time, and when it’s been passed, your destiny is assured for time and eternity so you may have an assurance of a kind which a Roman Catholic cannot have. But in terms of Tom Wright’s view of justification, I think John Piper has compellingly shown that he’s off wavelength. As with radio, if you’re almost on wavelength, but not quite, you don’t actually get the sound that you need to hear. This is the case when Tom Wright talks about justification.

The above interview was adapted from a piece that was originally published in the July/August 2008 issue of Modern Reformation magazine. This issue of the magazine is available for purchase here.

Listen to a White Horse Inn episode featuring J.I. Packer