Book Review: Packer on the Christian Life: Knowing God in Christ, Walking in the Spirit

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The Theologians on the Christian Life series produced by Crossway gives a select and exclusive list of theologians a truly high honor in being recognized for their everlasting impact on the Church. It’s certainly hard to pick only a dozen or so men who are worthy of such a treatment, given the vast expanse of two thousand years of Church history we’ve had and the thousands of men who’ve been vital to Christianity as a whole. Given these circumstances, you can start to get a glimpse into how exponentially higher of an honor it is for a theologian who is still living to be elected to this prestigious class.

Apart from C.S. Lewis, J.I. Packer is widely regarded today as the most influential writer of the twentieth century. That in and of itself speaks volumes about the life and ministry of this English Anglican. His writings and ministry have served as a bridge of sorts, linking a deep, scholarly, and high-reaching knowledge of God to laypeople of all backgrounds through practical language, examples, and practices. There has perhaps been no other figure this side of 1900 that has so expertly blended Biblical interpretation with Biblical application than J.I. Packer. To not “hang his jerseys in the rafters” with his inclusion in this series would have been a serious misstep; a bigger one would be for the Christian to miss out on what Packer’s writing has to offer us.

Make no mistake; Packer’s writing not to glorify Packer, considering that he is too busy glorifying God at the expense of drawing attention to himself. Early on in my understanding and study of Reformed theology, I knew J.I. Packer was a voice to listen to, but didn’t know much about him (a.k.a. I didn’t see him writing a lot of blog posts, he’s not on Twitter, and didn’t have many flashy quotes I was familiar with). This is intentional on Packer’s part. To me, Packer’s perceived existence out of the public eye is not a matter of being a rookie with technology and media, but to him, the Christian life has been centered on one idea: piety (32). Faithfully serving in his sphere, oftentimes behind his typewriter, is Packer’s way of faithfully committing himself to a holiness that keeps Christ at the front.

With an author like J.I. Packer who’s written on nearly every subject out there, what does this kind of book really have to offer us? What I love about Packer on the Christian Life is that Sam Storms has brilliantly given us a much deeper look into some of the key themes that have been anchor points for Packer throughout his ministry. Instead of requiring us to build understanding of Packer’s teaching of, for example, sanctification, over a collection of a dozen books, Storms does the gold-mining for us in a sense, leaving us rich with understanding when we’re done and yet leaving us longing for more. Some biographies/author-focused books try to tell the whole story, to cover every inch of their history and thought. Others focus so much on their lives that we have no better idea of what they thought than before! But in Packer, Sam Storms has made sure to focus on the majors, hint at the minors, and make much of Jesus through Packer’s words. This is really helpful for all of us no matter our familiarity with J.I.’s works.

One of the best chapters in the entire book is the second one, “The Central Reference Point for Christian Living: Atonement.” In it, Storms positions the atonement as the most critical hinge-point of the gospel — Packer

demands it — not by direct assertion but in the way he conceives of Christ’s atoning sacrifice as the foundation and source of everything in one’s Christian experience. As far as Packer is concerned, there is but one explanation for why there is such a thing as Christian living. It is found in this singular truth: Jesus Christ died for sinners! (34)

There are other key highlights in this treatment of Packer’s theology. Storms gives us a great account of the doctrine of indwelling sin according to Romans 7:14–25, devoting a whole chapter to it. He also helps us in seeing Packer’s labor to make our prayer lives centered on and around our knowledge of God. Ironically enough, one of my favorite chapters of the book was to watch Storms, a continuationist himself, start to draw out and sometimes even affirm the “careful cessationism” of J.I. Packer in chapter 7.

What I walked away with in reading this book is a much larger appreciation of Packer’s far-reaching and deep-running theology. His book Knowing God is a prime example to me of the a miraculous balance of narrow and high theology for wide and vast audiences. Yet his whole ministry has fit in this mold. Packer is the theologian every man can learn from, whether he be new to the faith or a tenured senior pastor.

A particularly touching chapter from the book was the final one, in which Packer, through Storms, teaches us how to end well. We would love to see our eighty-eight year old brother and friend live decades longer. But I think we’re all even more excited to know he is fringes away from being with the glory he’s so strived to point us towards. Thank you Sam Storms for handling Packer’s teachings with precision and care. Thank you Crossway for such a Christ-centered series. Thank you J.I. Packer for teaching us all how to start well, run well, and end well.

Stars: 4.5/5.0

Note: I was provided this book via Crossway in exchange for my review.

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