On July 17, J. I. Packer passed away at the age of 93. He was “one of the most famous and influential evangelical leaders of our time,” according to Leland Ryken, professor emeritus of English at Wheaton College and author of J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life.
To mark the moment, we asked 20 Christian thought leaders to answer this question: How did J. I. Packer shape your faith and work? Some of the respondents were his close friends and colleagues, others studied under him, and still others knew him only through his writing. Here’s what they had to say.
N. T. Wright, senior research fellow, Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University:
In the 1960s, three men set an example of robustly intelligent evangelicalism: John Stott, Michael Green, and Jim Packer. Widely discounted by the liberal establishment, they carved out space for my generation to develop in new ways. Jim, the intellectual giant of the three, encouraged me from our first meeting in 1969 to my final one 50 years later. I thank God for his friendship, his courage, his intellectual rigor, his prayerfulness, his gentle humor, and above all, his love of the Lord and of Scripture.
Joel Scandrett, assistant professor of historical theology, Trinity School for Ministry:
“Chicken vindaloo, as hot as you can make it!” That was one of the more unanticipated sentences I heard from J. I. Packer’s lips during the years we worked together on the catechism of the Anglican Church in North America. He loved Indian food, and we would go to his favorite restaurant whenever we were in Vancouver. He always ordered chicken vindaloo with white wine.
I'm saddened by his passing but indescribably grateful for the chance to have worked with him and known him as a person, if only a little bit. What a mind! And what a heart for Christ and his church. Packer’s capacity to capture complex propositions with utter clarity and succinctness was astonishing, and his joy in the task of theology was undimmed and infectious. I love the man. So here’s to Jim Packer, lover of God, teacher of the church, now gathered to the saints with Jesus in paradise. May we all be as faithful as he in our vocations, whatever they may be. And may we eat chicken vindaloo and drink white wine at the wedding supper of the Lamb. RIP, James Innell Packer.
J. D. Greear, PhD, president of the Southern Baptist Convention:
God used J. I. Packer, along with a few of his contemporaries, to establish the theological core for our generation. Knowing God remains one of the most important books I’ve ever read, one I have returned to many times and one that I have taken many others through. Packer showed me that loving God with all my heart necessitated loving him correctly with my mind. His warning—about how offensive it was to God to worship him wrongly or according to the dictates of our imaginations—was a thunderbolt to my soul. May God raise up another J. I. Packer for the rising generation.
Suzanne McDonald, professor of systematic and historical theology, Western Theological Seminary:
J. I. Packer’s Knowing God was one of the very first books I read soon after I came to faith in my late teens. It has crossed continents with me several times since then. So has his book A Quest for Godliness, which fed the fire of a love for the Puritans that became formative for my faith and my work. I never had the privilege of meeting or hearing him, and he would not have approved of the direction of my calling as an ordained woman. But like countless thousands of others around the world, I give thanks to God for his faith, life, work, and witness, and for the ways that, by grace, he has helped to shape mine.
Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals:
J. I. Packer was a theological luminary, not simply for his intellectual brilliance but more for the way that he illuminated a path to knowing and loving God. In my college days, his writings introduced me to the majesty of God in a way that was also intimate and inviting. Then, when my wife and I studied at Regent College, we discovered that the man up close was even better than the man from afar. He exuded a love for God and a humble and confident curiosity about the things of God. His lectures were unfailingly well-prepared, but his devotion to the triune God is what I remember most.
Derek Rishmawy, campus minister for Reformed University Fellowship at UC Irvine:
Like thousands of other pastors, I can say that Packer’s work and witness are of inestimable value to me. He was a master of making the divide between doctrine and piety disappear, and for that reason, Knowing God is still one of the first books I tell my college students to read. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God helped me grab hold of two biblical truths in seeming tension and, like Jacob, not let them go until I received the blessing.
His classic essay, “The Logic of Penal Substitution,” taught me that, in speaking of the mystery of the cross—of Christ and him crucified—we cannot be content in “treating half-truth as the whole truth.” We must proclaim the fullness of Christ’s work in all of its multi-dimensional splendor.
Alister E. McGrath, Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion, University of Oxford:
I shall miss Jim Packer. One of the many things I learned from him was the importance of learning from others who have made the journey of faith before us and passed on their wisdom. Jim’s love of the Puritans was not some form of whimsical nostalgia for the past but a firm belief in the ability of their theology to enrich and nourish Christians today. It is by being rooted in the past that we are best equipped to engage the present. Yet Jim did more than point to these theological riches; he manifested them in his own teaching and life. Theology was never an optional extra or an intellectual luxury or a hobby for Jim. It safeguarded the heartbeat of our faith.
Elisabeth Rain Kincaid, assistant professor of ethics and moral theology, Nashotah House Theological Seminary:
I first read J. I. Packer’s Knowing God and Concise Theology in high school. Along with Dallas Willard, Packer illuminated for me the connection between theological doctrine and the daily life of the disciple. In contrast to a focus on affective experience alone—which was the main emphasis of the evangelical camps and youth groups that I attended—Packer showed me the importance of theological knowledge and theologically informed prayer.
Today, it’s a joy to teach theological ethics at a seminary within Packer’s Anglican tradition. My students are exposed to the same idea that I encountered in Packer’s writings so many years ago: There is a deep connection between theology and an intimate, personal, knowledge of God.
W. David O. Taylor, associate professor of theology and culture, Fuller Theological Seminary:
I had the privilege of serving as J. I. Packer’s teaching assistant for three years at Regent College. Among other things, I learned what it means to do theology in service of the church, how all good theology arises from doxology (which is why he began every class with a rousing version of the Doxology itself), and how important humility, wit, and clarity are to the work of a theologian.
While he was never fully respected in the academy for choosing chiefly to serve what he called “the thoughtful Christian,” Packer was precisely the kind of evangelical theologian that the church has needed in these times: capable of crossing denominational and theological lines in service of creedal orthodoxy for the sake of a gracious, generous-spirited witness of Christ.
Emily McGowin, assistant professor of theology, Wheaton College:
Like many others, I cut my theological teeth on J. I. Packer’s Knowing God. I was 16 years old and taking a theology course at a local Bible college. Of course, Knowing God was biblically rich and intellectually rigorous. But more than anything else, it was awe-inspiring. It moved me to worship. God was so much more holy and beautiful than I had imagined! I knew then that I wanted to study theology for the rest of my life. And I wanted to write theology that would stir others to know and love God, too.
Anthony Carter, lead pastor, East Point Church:
I can say without reservation that J. I. Packer had an enormous impact on my early theological development and understanding. Like so many others, I became a student and admirer through his writing and lectures. Three books, in particular, Knowing God, A Quest for Godliness, and Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God shaped my thoughts and practice for many years.
This is the gift that I believe Packer gave to me and, by God’s grace, continues to give to the church: namely, a reminder of the mission of the Christian life, which is to know God and make him known. So thank you, J. I. Packer. You challenged me to know God. I am still on that mission, and due to your influence and legacy, so are multitudes of Christians around the world. Soli Deo gloria.
Mika Edmondson, PhD, lead congregational pastor, Christ Presbyterian Church:
J. I. Packer had a warmth, humility, and generosity born out of the joy of knowing and being known by God. As brilliant as Packer was, his humility was what left an indelible impression on me. Rather than casting himself as an expert on grace, he cast himself as a debtor to grace. The best theologians are debtors to grace.
Ben Witherington III, Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies, Asbury Theological Seminary:
Jim Packer provided us with an example of a fully committed but irenic Christian who was always open to the new things God was doing by means of the Holy Spirit. For me, his impact was twofold: the way he lived out his faith, believing that God’s Word and work were new every morning, and also his strong emphasis on how knowing and loving God was the very highest calling of all human beings.
Krish Kandiah, founding director of Home for Good, author of The Greatest Secret:
I first met J. I. Packer through his writings. As a student, I devoured Knowing God, Keep in Step with the Spirit, and Passion for Holiness. Just this week, I preached on healthy spirituality and found myself citing him from memory. I will never forget the first time I met Packer in person. He was incredibly energetic and encouraging as we talked about our mutual passions: our adopted children, and what he called the “mind-boggling” theology of adoption.
Packer claimed that “adoption is … the highest privilege that the gospel offers.” These words encouraged me often in my work of inspiring Christians to consider adopting children from foster care. They were also the prompt for my own book. This intellectual giant with an infectious, persistent wonder at God’s grace was a gift to our generation. Long may he be remembered.
Cynthia Bunch, associate publisher, director of editorial, InterVarsity Press:
In July 1988, while finishing up at Northern seminary, I started working at InterVarsity Press. That summer, I registered as a guest student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in order to take J. I. Packer’s three-week course on Puritanism. Little did I know that some years later I would acquire two books from him: Never Beyond Hope and Praying. I was also able to collaborate with him on a number of Knowing God-related books and Bible studies. When we launched Never Beyond Hope, a group of us from IVP went to hear jazz with him at Preservation Hall in New Orleans . He was passionate about the music and immersed in the experience.
A little-known fact is that we did have one more book contract awaiting completion. That was Knowing Christ. He never finished that work. Now his experience of knowing God in the three persons of the Trinity is fully realized.
Julie Canlis, author of A Theology of the Ordinary and Calvin’s Ladder:
J. I.’s practice of starting every theology class with singing the Doxology (“arise, friends!” he would say) felt at the time quaint. It wasn’t until much later that I realized what he was doing: he was taking preemptive measures to strengthen our hearts. Many of us students were hard-pressed, as our faith was undergoing the unique detox of seminary.
We sometimes found ourselves critical, disoriented, and judgmental of the church. But Packer’s desire for us was not a critical spirit but the Holy Spirit. He didn’t want our theology classes to train us in being right but in being loved. And so … the simple doxology. Inch by inch, refrain by refrain, we were moved unknowingly to the place all seminary students long to return to: a place of childlike faith and gratitude.
Rennis Ponniah, Bishop of Singapore, The Anglican Church:
“Not deity reduced but divine capacities restrained.” This description of Jesus’ humanity by J. I. Packer has remained with me since my undergraduate days when I read Knowing God as a 20-year-old. Many decades on, when I met Packer for lunch during my clergy sabbatical in 2016, he had one over-riding concern: namely, that pastors pursue the “teaching of all age-groups in our churches,” so that we do not lose ground in evangelism and discipleship in the postmodern world.
Packer was a pastor at heart. His warmth, care, and humility—combined with his clarity of thought, confidence in God’s word, and tenacity for truth—made him a model for me and many other pastors. Anglicans have very few outstanding pastor-theologians on the contemporary world stage. Packer was one of them. He will be sorely missed on this side of eternity!
Mark Galli, former editor in chief of Christianity Today:
Precision in language—that is what impressed me most about J. I. Packer. As an executive editor for CT, he would visit the offices between two and four times a year. We'd hand him a pile of manuscripts to review, many of which were in the final stage of editing. He would make not just theological comments but very often also note how an author used a word in one sense in an early paragraph and in another sense by the end of the piece. It was frankly embarrassing when I had been the point editor of the piece! I’m grateful that this man was an exemplary theologian who also modeled excellence for us journalists.
Sharon Galgay Ketcham, professor of theology and Christian ministries, Gordon College:
At a time when my friends and I naïvely enjoyed framing our theological debates into “either-or” positions, my college professor assigned J. I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. I was stopped in my tracks by Packer’s caution: Our tendency to overvalue logical consistency through “rationalistic speculations” resists making room for God. With that idea, Packer invited me to set aside my focus on apparent contradictions and instead embrace paradox as a pathway for faithfully speaking about God’s movement among us.
Timothy George, Distinguished Professor of Divinity, Beeson Divinity School:
For some 35 years, I was privileged to work closely with Jim Packer at Christianity Today, with the organization Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and at Billy Graham’s Amsterdam 2000 conference, among other contexts. What T.H.L. Parker once wrote about Karl Barth I can say of Jim: “He taught me the meaning of what I believed.” I was grounded in the fundamentals of the faith as a young Christian, but Jim showed me how doctrine connected to life and how theology and spirituality were co-inherent.
Jim walked in step with the Spirit (the title of one of his many books) and lived in the presence of Christ in a way befitting a saint. I loved to hear him pray. He knew that we all live our lives—including the pulls and tears—coram deo, or “in light of eternity.” He taught us that theology is for doxology and devotion and at its best “when it is consciously done under the eye of God of whom it speaks, and when it is singing to his glory.”