A String of Beads

Four final thoughts…

J.I. Packer opens his book Knowing God with a warning.  My book “at best is a string of beads: a series of small studies of great subjects.”  He is humble about his undertaking, the writing of a “treatise on God.”  He hopes his work coalesces into a single message about God and how Christians live their lives.  As I transitioned from a previous book discussion and moved into Knowing God, [on April 22, 2019] I opened with an illustration he borrowed from another author:  there are two types of Christians, ones who theorize about their faith and ones who walk out their faith.  The theorizers he calls “balconeers” because they are high above the street looking on at the walkway “commenting on the way that travelers walk” below.  The ones on the walkway are “travelers” going from one place to another, trying to figure out how to walk in God’s world.  He intended Knowing God to be a book for travelers.

Indeed as I have worked through his book I feel I have been on a journey.  The book has challenged me.  Along my way I have learned so much about God.  I have been humbled as Packer exposed the weakness of my knowledge, my true lack of communion with Him.

As we head toward the final pages, Packer wants to leave us with four final thoughts.

The first thought is one I have written on before: “If God is for us, who is against us.”  This Scripture from Romans 8: 31 is the first closing idea in his book.

Why did Packer pick Romans 8: 31 as a final idea, so important that it concludes his book?

He says that Paul writes about God in this way to announce that He will always be our sovereign protector.  No matter what we encounter in life, He will always be there.  The Bible is full of examples of God showing His protective nature for those who follow Him.* 

It is a matter of “covenant commitment.”  What God says in Genesis 17 is of maximum importance.  “I am God Almighty;…I will establish my covenant between Me and you…to be your God and the God of your descendants after you….I will be their God….You must keep My covenant [verses 1, 7-9].  “God is for us” is covenant language.  What Romans 8: 31 means is that God is going to uphold and protect His people when circumstances are threatening.  Packer describes Romans 8: 31 this way: “The simple statement ‘God is for us’ is in truth one of the richest and weightiest utterances that the Bible contains” [262].

Paul knows that the Christian life is a struggle at times, obstacles come against all of us which can make our lives a challenge.  Paul knows firsthand that people make fun of Christians, express displeasure for the Christian faith, or even get hostile toward believers.

As in the previous post, he implores believers to THINK!**  Opposition is real and if you do not acknowledge it, you will have problems maintaining your faith in God.  He is begging us to be realistic. 

But also he is begging us to think about our Protector.  Should we be afraid of our detractors?  Paul says “You need not be, any more than Moses needed to be afraid of Pharaoh after God said to him, ‘I will be with you’” [Packer 263].  You need not be any more afraid than Hezekiah was when the King of Assyria had a huge army coming against him.  Hezekiah acted on the faith of the words recorded in Second Chronicles “Do not be afraid…because with us is the Lord our God to help us to fight our battles” [32: 7-8].

What should we do when we are in our time of troubles?

First of all, we should praise God’s word.  No matter what we encounter in life, God’s word tells us that we will be ok.  We don’t have to indulge in “theological fantasies” because we have evidence to the contrary.  Founding our lives on the Bible is a mark of a true believer.  Secondly, we must pray.  This is communion with God and it is essential for all believers.  The person who declares they are “Christian” but never prays does not tap into the greatest power source to help us when we are troubled.  Finally, the Christian who is beset with problems should “pay his vows”, which means express thanksgiving for God’s protection in difficult times.

We truly have an awesome God, one who looks out for us every day, all day long.  He never forgets His promise to the faithful.  As Romans is from the New Testament, one can turn to Psalm 56 to see the same ideas expressed in the Old Testament.  When the psalmist complains that his back is to the wall, he knows that God is there for protection.  Again the phrase “God is for me” shows up in verse nine.  When you read this Psalm, this troubled man knows that God has not forgotten or overlooked his need.  He has confidence that when he cries out, God will turn his enemies back and there is no need for panic.  “When I am afraid, I put my trust in thee….In God I trust without a fear.  What can flesh do to me?” [verses 3-4].  Packer says it this way: “[Whatever] may [happen] to the psalmist from the outside, so to speak, in the deepest sense nothing can touch him, for his real life is the inward life of fellowship with a loving God, and the God who loves him will preserve that life whatever happens” [Packer, 262].

We all know the Christian life is difficult at times.  We think thoughts that are far from edifying.  We say things that we wish we could take back and we do things that are sinful.  Yet we are supposed to summon the strength to continue our walk with the Lord no matter what we do, no matter what others do to us.  You might say we need protection from our detractors and we need protection from ourselves.

With Romans 8: 31 Packer says we have all that we need.  That’s why he calls the Scripture “rich and weighty;” the Apostle Paul is telling us to hold onto the idea that God is always for us.  We have a sovereign protector who is forever giving us what we need.

We don’t have to fear anything.

Our faith does not have to crumble when we sin, for God gives us His grace.

Turn to God and experience new strength for the fight.

“If God is for us, who is against us.”

Indeed…

*Abraham, the nation Israel, Jesus, a sinner who is raised from spiritual death to spiritual life etc.

**September 7  “Possess Your Possessions” from St. John Studies.

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Possess Your Possessions

Many years ago, the teacher of my adult Sunday school class brought a hatbox to class.  Maybe that is why I remember this so well.  Not too many people today even know what a hatbox is.  This was no ordinary box; it was very rigid, made out of very strong paper-based material [stronger than cardboard].  It was circular with a top that fit very tight.  The best word to describe it was “fancy.”  You might say that the box was truly designed to protect its contents, to keep an expensive hat from being crushed or soiled, to keep it in its original form.  My Sunday school teacher taught that day on claiming the gifts that God has given us.  His whole theme was that we go through life in this world and never really open our box of gifts.

I have commented on Romans as the book of the Bible that is the “High Peak of Scripture.”  Study of that book will yield much fruit for the Christian.  I have commented on Romans 8 as the “High Peak of Romans.”  Understanding that chapter in that book is seminal for the Christian who really seeks the most precious nuggets of the Bible.*   In the last chapter of his book Knowing God, J. I. Packer is trying to make the case that our God is adequate.  He is there to meet our earthly needs.  He is there to give us all the gifts that we need to live the best life we can live…right now.

In Packer’s words, the Apostle Paul in Romans “wants us to possess our possessions.”

Psalms 73: 24-26 says “Whom have I in heaven but You?  And earth has nothing I desire besides You.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

This is a very strong statement. 

Packer uses Psalm 73: 24-26 and then asks the question:  “What then shall we say to these things?  He asks that question in what he calls a hortatory manner, not a word I use very much.  Hortatory in preaching means that the preacher makes a statement which is designed to call the congregation to action, to get them to respond.  The pronoun “we” is used by Packer with a very serious purpose.  Paul lays it all out for you; what are you going to do?  How are you going to respond?  What kind of life are you going to live?

He wants his readers to respond by “possessing their possessions.”

Open your box.  Live your lives using God’s gifts.

Paul is writing to the people of his time period but do his words ring true for us today?  He calls on his contemporary Christians to think and apply the facts that he is expressing to their lives.  Packer writes that Paul knew two things about the Christian life:  first all, Christians who are serious about their faith should be committed to “all round righteousness.”  They are seeking to do the will of God, “no halfway measures.”  Secondly, if a Christian is serious about their faith and becomes committed to all round righteousness, they will experience “material hardship and human hostility.”   Packer refers to Acts 14:22 when Luke says “We must go through many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.”

How do we live through these hardships?  One response is to “trim one’s spiritual sails” or just settle for less.  God may be calling you to do more, but we can meet hardship by doing less.  Maybe doing less will make life easier.  Another response is to practice “universal obedience.”  Packer writes that this is a Puritan concept that amounts to being strong in the face of problems: “swimming against the world’s stream all the way.”

Paul knew that when problems come, something happens to all of us.  We resort to emotional thinking.  Problems can cause panic, frustration, fear, doubt etc. etc.  Paul is exhorting us to think instead of feel.  Think about what we know about our God in the Gospel.  Think against your emotional feelings.  Packer writes “let evangelical thinking correct emotional thinking. 

We know these things to be true through the Gospel.  1. If you love God and accept your Christian birthright, you will have peace.  2. If you love God you will have hope.  3.  If you love God you will have joy.  These are the gifts in every Christian’s hatbox; peace, hope and joy.  All we need to do is pull them out of the box and they are ours. 

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Paul appeals to our rational brain, not our emotional brain.  Argue yourself out of the gloom of life.  If you have unbelief, be truthful about it and own up to it.  Lay it before God and He will help you overcome unbelief with faith.  Talk yourself out of letting problems control you.  Let God control you.  We have an indwelling Holy Spirit that insures that we have a chance to be God’s beloved children and heirs [we all know that heirs can inherit the gifts of the estate].

It is not that easy really because the emotional brain does take over from time to time.  That is the popular message of the world.  Even counselors urge us not to develop a habit of being negative about our feelings.  Feelings exist and sometimes they rule us.  That’s ok.   Counselors teach that we must accept feelings, validate them and allow them to emerge so they can be building blocks to stronger relationships.  Some people are told they need to express feelings because they can block taking action in a person’s life.  Others think that feelings are the springboard to action, the motivation for us to accomplish life goals.

Paul just does not go there.  He is trying to tell us “Think, Think, Think” what the Lord has given you!  You don’t have to live a miserable life here on this earth, letting your emotions control you.  With that kind of overemphasis on emotions, life can be miserable.  I have heard of some who feel like life is a veil of tears.  Heaven is where God’s gifts are; surely not here on earth.  Rather than enjoying God’s gifts here on earth, these people look forward to heaven and slog through life here on earth.

“Earth has nothing I desire besides You.”

Where is the strength in Psalm 73: 24-26? 

God is adequate.  He has all that you need to live your best life now.  Think!  Think!  Think!

Open your hatbox…

Possess your possessions…

*  “The High Peak of Scripture”  St. John Studies, August 26, 2020 and “The High Peak of Romans” St. John Studies,  September 1, 2020,

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The High Peak of Romans

Adequacy:  the state or quality of being adequate; sufficiency for a particular purpose.

In J.I. Packer’s book Knowing God, he has painstakingly taken us through chapters dedicated to “knowing our Lord” [part 1], “beholding our Lord” [part 2] and now we are in the last chapter of his book where he has written at length about “if God is for us, who can be against us”?  In fact, this verse from Romans 8: 31 may be the inspiration for the section three title of his book [the final section “If God be for us”].

His final chapter of section three is entitled “The Adequacy of God.”

Is God adequate?  I think about the word adequate and I wonder if it is enough.  Is God more than adequate?  Fully sufficient comes to mind.  Ample is a good word.  Maybe abundant should apply or even liberal or copious.  Is “adequate” adequate?

But no, Packer prefers that word:  adequate.

In my previous commentary, I reflected on Romans as the “High Peak of Scripture”*  He admits that some would object to taking the short cut to the heart of Scripture just by the study of one book of the Bible.  They feel that reading the entire Bible is the only way to really know God.

Now Packer goes even further in “cutting to the bone” of the Bible:  he says Romans 8 is the “high peak of Romans.”

Can we study, meditate, think deeply or focus on one chapter of one book of God’s word and say that is enough to prove the adequacy of God?

He attempts to make the case that we can; sort of.

The reason that I use the phrase “sort of” rests on the idea that some conditions have to be met before we arrive at Chapter 8.  Actually those conditions are dealt with in the chapters that are written before Chapter 8.

First of all, we have to come to grips with the fact that all of us are lost and helpless sinners.  We cannot overcome this “sin” problem on our own.  We need a power much higher than us to help us with our struggles.  We need God.

Secondly, we must believe in the promise [the covenant] that God made with Abraham and its fruition in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Thirdly, we should understand that the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans about his war with the spirit apply to all of us.  When he bemoans the fact that he lives in an earthly body and says “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do [Romans 7: 15] he is speaking of the battle that we all experience daily.

What is the true springboard to what Packer calls the seminal chapter of the Bible?  Here is that “springboard.”  “Who will rescue me from this body that is taking me to death?  Thanks be to God, who does this through our Lord Jesus Christ” [Romans 7: 24].

This is radical…

In Paul’s lifetime context, the law was supposed to be the way to righteous living.  After all, the law was the Jewish way to God.  But Paul writes the words that shock the world: the law is the source of sinning

Paul explains law stirs up the impulse to disobey. How can that be?   The more human beings try to follow a rigid path to righteousness, the more they find they cannot go far enough.  There is no such thing as human perfection and if a “righteous” man thinks he is doing well in holy living, he is sure to fall to the sin of pride [among many other sins].  Paul is just being brutally honest when he pens the words “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out….For in my inner being I delight in God’s law, but I see law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” [Romans 7: 18, 22-23].  Packer says Paul has shared very personal information about himself but he has also spoken for all of us.  We all struggle with this.  We all experience failure and guilt as we try and try and always fall short.  “For sensitive Christians, therefore, who know that God hates sin, to be diagnosed by the law is a miserable and depressing experience” [Packer, 257].  Paul knows that he cannot leave this discussion here.  He has to hold out hope for his readers. 

Romans 8 explains we don’t have to perfect; we don’t have to live a miserable life of trying and trying and trying and failing. 

Here is why God and His Son Jesus Christ are “adequate.” 

God’s grace is adequate.  We have guilt born out of our sin, we face death due to our pitiful behaviors, and we even experience terror as we compare our holiness to the holiness that God expects.  All this causes us to feel weak, to feel despair and unable to pray.  Life can be “meaningless and hopeless.”

Jesus Christ has come so we can live by faith, not the law.  Indeed we can live a righteous life with no condemnation [God knows our human limitations and He still loves us].  God has also given us the Holy Spirit to guide us through our life on earth so He is never far away.  We can consider ourselves adopted into the Divine Family of God [in which Jesus is the firstborn].   Instead of failure and guilt, God has given us security: “a status, plus a dynamic, plus an identity, plus a safe conduct….[this] is more than enough to support a Christian whatever his trouble” [Packer, 258].

Adequate, fully sufficient, ample, abundant, liberal, copious…………..

Let’s not stop with thinking about the gift that we have been given.  Paul calls on his readers to go from gift to Giver.  His theme according to Packer is “the adequacy of the God of grace.”  God becomes as it is written in Genesis 15:1 “your shield, your very great reward.”

Why is Romans the “High Peak of Scipture?”  Why is Chapter 8 the “high peak of Romans?”

Have you ever heard the phrase “saving grace.”  That is what we can begin to understand when we study Romans Chapter 8

Packer and God’s words say it best: “If verses 1-30 [of Romans 8] are saying ‘You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will guide me into glory’ then verses 31-39 are saying, ‘Whom have I in heaven but you?  And earth has nothing I desire besides you.  My flesh and heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever’” [from Packer, 259 and Psalms 73: 24-26].

This is the adequacy of the God of grace.

*see August 26, 2020  St. John Studies.

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The High Peak of Scripture*

The Bible, the Holy Book of Scripture, the love letter from God…

The Bible is the most published book in the world.  Look at the number of Bibles sold.  In the past fifty years, 3.9 billion copies have been sold.  The next most published book sits at 820 million and the third most published book has 400 million in that fifty year span.**

Even though it sells the most, many think it is one of the most difficult books to read.  Parts of it seem to be confusing, especially if we try to read it without some guidance*** from others.  Parts of it seem boring, especially books like Leviticus and Numbers (all those detailed laws!).  Bible reading can get stale; familiar parts can get too familiar and readers can go on “auto-pilot” as they read.  Bible reading can also be intimidating.  The Bible is a pretty imposing collection of God’s Words.  How can I wrap my mind around God’s message to man?

J.I. Packer has a suggestion.  If you struggle to read the whole Bible, read the part of the Bible that sheds light on the entire Scripture.

He writes that Bible readers need to concentrate on one book:  Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Packer is not trying to encourage laziness or make life easier for all of us; he is trying to make the point that our God is truly adequate: God is capable of meeting all our needs.  “All roads in the Bible lead to Romans, and all views afforded by the Bible are seen clearly from Romans, and when the message of Romans gets into a person’s heart there is no telling what may happen” [Packer, 253].  Romans is a powerful exposition of the role of God in man’s life.

He tries to make his case by asking what do you look for in the Bible?

“If we are wise, we will have our eyes open for several things and Romans is supreme on them all” [Packer, 253-54].

Christian doctrine:  doctrine means the teaching or explanation of the Christian message of the Gospel and the faith that flows from that Gospel.  The idea of God is the main theme of the Bible, but not everyone is sure about the meaning and significance of sin, the law, judgement, faith, works, grace, creation, redemption etc.etc.  Yes, these ideas matter and sometimes Christians take them for granted or just skate through life hoping no one asks them a fundamental question.  Also, Christians don’t always agree on doctrine.  This past week for example I have heard three Christians ask the same question:  Why do we have so many denominations?  Why don’t we have just one church?  The quick answer is that all churches do not agree on the details of doctrine.  Even though every Christian does not agree on what I call “secondary” aspects of doctrine, we are all bound together by belief in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  We are all in agreement on the sinful nature of man and our need for God’s grace.  Jesus Christ came to this earth to make it possible for us to have a relationship with God through His death and resurrection and to show us how to extend God’s love to other people.

Bible as a book of life:  Packer writes that all of us need explanation about how to serve God.  All of us need explanation about how to find God, especially in times of tribulation.  Paul gives us not only exposition in his book, he provides examples (many of them personal examples) of his struggles with sin, grace and faith.  Packer writes that the book of Romans is the “fullest cross section of the life of sin and life of grace, and the deepest analysis of the way of faith, that the Bible gives anywhere” [Packer, 254].

Bible as the book of the church:  What is the church?  Packer relates that the church is “the true seed of faithful Abraham, Jew and non-Jew together, chosen by God, justified by faith and freed from sin for a new life of personal righteousness and mutual ministry” [Packer, 254].  Many outside of the church don’t understand this but the church is really the family of God.  It is a community of people who are trying to carry out the work that Christ intended us to carry out, the work that can help redeem the world.

Bible as a personal letter to His children:  You can read Romans and feel its unique power to reach within you and search out your soul.  We all have our sinful habits and attitudes, a penchant to be hypocritical, a tendency to be self-righteous and a need to rely on self [not God].  We all have moments of unbelief, moments of frivolous behavior, and half-hearted attempts at repentance.  We get caught up in the world; we get fearful, depressed, conceited and insensitive.  Romans has it all, just as we have it all, but Romans also has “joy, assurance, boldness, liberty and ardor of spirit which God both requires of and give to those who love Him” [255]. We need truthful balance; man is not all devil and not all angel.

Yes, we can all agree that Romans encapsulates many things: doctrine, book of life, book of the church and personal letter, but not everyone appreciates a short cut.  Packer writes that getting to the top of Mount Everest can be accomplished more than one way.  Some think the thrill is in the climb, the long slog up the mountainside.  These people feel that the impact of Romans depends on what has gone before, the diligent dedication to years of Bible study  If a reader digs into the Bible as a whole, the more they will appreciate the intellectual problems of being a Christian that Paul presents in Romans.  The morality of the Christian life will be more appreciated, the “weakness and strain” of being a faithful follower of God will be felt.  Indeed the “long slog” through the Bible will allow you to get even more out of Romans.  Others may just need that short cut to the top of the mountain; standing on that spot at the summit is enough to stimulate Christian growth and encourage further study.  Packer likens a close reading of Romans to a helicopter ride to the top of Everest, skipping all the arduous work to get there.  He argues the result may be the same.

Why concern ourselves with long slogs or short cuts?  Should we care that a Bible reader starts at Romans and even stays there for some time?  Might they deepen their faith and understanding more than a person who tries to read the whole of God’s word?

The end result could be a deeper understanding of the adequacy of God.  Martin Luther writes that Romans is the “clearest gospel of all.”  John Calvin states that “If a man understands it [Romans], he has a sure road opened for him to the understanding of the whole scripture.”  William Tyndale describes Romans as the “light and a way in unto the whole scripture.”

Let Paul usher Scripture into your life with his letter to the Romans.

The high peak of scripture.

*explaining how important knowledge of Romans is, is Packer’s way of beginning his last chapter in Knowing God, entitled the “Adequacy of God.”

**  “The Ten Most Read Books in the World”   From the “Business Insider” website accessed on August 24, 2020.

*** devotion guidance, online guidance from a Bible scholar, book guidance from some respected Bible scholar etc.

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The Unreality of Religion

I found myself in the parking lot of church talking to my friend, someone I have known for thirty years.  I know he has struggles, long term struggles that he thinks disqualify him from joining a church, attending a church or even going in the door for one visit.  I will never forget what he told me that day.  “I am not good enough; all you people in church have your act together and I am not in that category.  I am just not good enough to go in there.”

I did not have the words to convince him otherwise.  He turned his back on his faith, whatever faith he had.  It is not for me to know his level of belief, only God knows that.  What I do know is that he is suffering from what J.I. Packer calls “the unreality of religion.”  He assumes that all people who go to church are “lilly white,” “pure as the driven snow,” righteous people who are truly on their way to heaven.  He believes he is nothing like those people sitting in the pews.

I found myself in his company at a later time hoping to nudge him toward going to church where I hoped he would find God in some form or fashion.  More importantly, I hoped God would help him with his problems, because all the things he was doing himself were leading to failure.  He knows I go to church and he knows I have a personal relationship with God.  I told him of one of my long-term struggles, just to let him know I am not “lilly white.”  I still go to church, sinner that I am.

The reality of religion is that all God’s children make mistakes.  They always have and they always will.  Packer cites four clear-cut examples from the Bible.  God promised Abraham a son, but God made Abraham wait awhile. Abraham got impatient (like all of us do from time to time) and he got Hagar pregnant and they had Ishmael.   God was not happy.  He did not talk to Abraham for thirteen years, but eventually Sarah had a child (God fulfilled His promise on His timeframe, not Abraham’s). 

Moses felt great empathy for his people as they endured slavery in Egypt.  He was a powerful person in the Egyptian hierarchy and could have a positive impact for his people.  Instead of waiting for God to show him the way, Moses killed an Egyptian taskmaster and found himself banished to the desert for decades.  He went from high ranking government official to lowly shepherd.

David was plagued by errors, spying on Bathsheba, seducing her, having her husband killed, neglecting his family etc.  He felt remorse for his individual sins but continued to sin, ramping up his guilt to the point that he felt distant from God.

Jonah got specific instructions from God and instead of doing God’s bidding, he ran in the opposite direction and you know…he found himself inside of a great fish.

These people were people of The Lord, but all of them made huge mistakes.

All people make mistakes, some of them huge.  Even those people sitting in the pews of the church. 

I have been an adult Sunday school teacher for many years and I taught out of a book by Jerry Bridges entitled Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sins We Tolerate.  That was one of the hardest books I have ever used in class as all of us squirmed through every chapter.  We struggled through discussions of anxiety, frustration, discontentment, unthankfulnesss, pride, selfishness, lack of self- control, anger, judgmentalism,  envy.  You get the point.

All God’s “righteous people” [teacher included] were in the same category of those who wanted to stone the woman accused of adultery.  “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”  The crowd melted away.  The message was clear.  “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”  After that book, we knew we would have dispersed with that self-righteous crowd.

People who are looking from the outside of our churches suffer from unrealistic beliefs about religion and sometimes those inside of our churches do too.  I have tried to put on the mask of righteousness in church, realizing deep inside that it was only a mask, a veneer that covered my real penchant to sin.  Christians who give their life to God suffer from the need to be something they cannot be—sinless.  They have Bibles but they don’t meditate on the meaning of the stories of Abraham, Moses, David and Jonah.

God restored Abraham eventually; he became the founding father of the Abrahamic religions, the keeper of The Covenant.  Moses (with the help of God) developed the confidence needed to lead his people out of Egypt.  David repented of his lapses and grew close to God.  Jonah cried out to God in the belly of the whale and lived to fulfill his mission in Nineveh.  God used these men who made great mistakes.

God’s people need to realize that God can do wonderful things out of our mistakes.  Packer cites the expression “It is said that those who never make mistakes never make anything” [Packer, 252].   I have made many bad choices in my life and I have suffered agony from those choices, but as time has passed I see why I went down the wrong path.  Failure is a hard way to learn lessons but sometimes the best lessons are learned when we experience the deepest regret.  Packer writes these episodes of sinning are when we begin to know God’s grace, “we cleave to Him in a way that would never have happened otherwise” [251].

“Unreality of religion is a cursed thing.”  Unreality of religion is the curse of the kind of teaching that Packer has challenged throughout his book Knowing God.  It certainly was a curse for my friend who sat on the outside of church looking in, but it is also a curse for church-goers who sit in the pews trying to be something they will never be—sinless. 

For people who believe that church people are too good for them, get real.  Church people are people with as many burdens as those not in church.  For church people who strive to be perfect and earn their place in the pews, relax, you will never achieve that perfection.  You may become experts in covering up your sins, but the sins are still there. 

Packer writes words of advice directly to all these folks: “Is your trouble a sense of failure?  Go back to God; His restoring grace waits for you…God uses our sins and mistakes to this end.  He employs the educative discipline of failure and mistakes very frequently.”

At the end of our sinning He is there, extending His loving hands to pick us up and send us on our way, hopefully with a more realistic attitude toward religion and toward ourselves.

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Paul’s Source of Strength

Sometimes our problems exist for a reasonably short season and then they improve or go away.  Sometimes our problems last for what seems a lifetime, what I call a long-term problem.  I have had such a problem.  Over a period of approximately fifty years,  I have had what I will refer to as a “life challenge” and I have tried and tried to make it go away.  I have prayed countless prayers, I have tried psychological “tricks” or motivations, I have tried self-disclosure to support groups and the list goes on and on.  Nothing worked.  When I turned to God, I tried numerous approaches, praying many different kinds of prayers, feeling guilt and remorse, seeking forgiveness, receiving forgiveness and then returning to the same old problem.  When I was born again, I thought the trouble would go away but it did not.  I have written many times on this blog about how we can “find Jesus” but the same old troubles follow along behind us after our born again event.   That is what happened.  After giving my life to Christ, I moaned and moaned to God about why He did not take away my problem.

 He chose not to.

Until one day.

He led me to Second Corinthians Chapter Twelve.  I was very familiar with this chapter; in fact I had spent a lot of time thinking about the meaning of Apostle Paul’s words, about his “painful physical ailment which acts as Satan’s messenger to beat me and keep me from being proud.”  Paul says he prayed to God three times to take this ailment away and God’s answer was “My grace is all you need, for my power is strongest when you are weak.”  Paul then writes he is content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties “for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

I found Second Corinthians when I was in the midst of another painful time for me, bemoaning the fact that I had grown weak and indulged in my long-term “problem.”  However, this time was different.  I sensed something was changing this time.  I don’t know where that feeling came from, but I just felt that I was on the verge of taking a new road in my life.  That change began to happen when I was sitting in a pharmacy and as I was waiting for my prescription to be fille.   I looked on the floor and I saw a small slip of paper.  On that paper was 2nd Corinthians, 12: 10.

I knew this specific verse, in fact I had meditated on it many times in the past, but feeling so downtrodden at this time, I saw the words in a different way.  I was stunned.  That’s why I had suffered so long.  That’s why I could not overcome my problem.  God was using it to draw me close.

I still wanted it to go away, and for the first time in fifty years God was going to put this problem behind me.

This day I knew God was giving me strength that I had never had before.  Deep within my being, I started saying new words to myself.  I had kept a big journal of my efforts to stop my problem and it was a record of periods of success and colossal failures.  The main thing is that it was a daily reminder of the fact that this problem existed, that it was a theme of my life, that it owned me.  I got the strong feeling that the best thing I could do that day was shred my journal, and when I did that, new thoughts kept coming up in my mind.  “David, you no long have this trouble.  You are better than this problem.”

It was a major change.  After fifty years, God took away my “long-term problem.”

I knew it was gone…

I don’t miss it.  I know it had to happen on His time, in His way.  It was not me doing this; it was Him.  I had struggled with this long enough.  It was time for God and me to close the book on this struggle.

J.I. Packer* writes that “God does not shield us from assault by the world, the flesh and the devil, nor by protecting us from burdensome and frustrating circumstances, nor yet by shielding us from troubles created by our own temperament and psychology; but rather by exposing us to those things, so as to overwhelm us with a sense of our own inadequacy, and to drive us to cling to him more closely” [250]. 

In other words 2nd Corinthians 12: 10.

So much of the Bible is God telling us that He is strong; He is a firm defense and a refuge for us in our times of trouble.  We are the weak ones, trying to find our way out of problems, but we fail to find the “right road” out of our quagmires.

We live in a culture where pride is lauded.  It is not appropriate to admit our weakness; that makes us look small in the eyes of others.  When Paul writes “keep me from being puffed up with pride,” he is saying that admitting weakness is his way to lean on God.  “God wants us to feel that our way through life is rough and perplexing, so that we may learn thankfully to lean on him” [Packer, 250].

For so many years, I feel I did not approach my problems properly.  I had a prideful attitude that I could conquer my troubles.   I had too much self-confidence, too much trust in myself.  When I turned to God, I moaned and moaned, asking for forgiveness, knowing all the time that I would return to my problem in the future.  I was not truly repentant. 

What Packer says about this is that most of us need to learn to “wait on the Lord.”

We push, we pull, we weep, we wail, we gnash our teeth and nothing happens.  When will God step in to rectify our troubles?  When He wants to, when the time is right, when we have suffered long enough. 

As we wait for resolution, we must get the most benefit we can out of the wait.  We can draw closer to God and we can have periods of unbelievable strength as long as we know where that strength comes from.  It does not come from us; it comes from Him.

Paul gives credit where credit is due: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

He knew where his strength comes from.

It came from God………

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His Wonderful Wonderful Grace

Recently, I have posted on “inward trials.”  J.I. Packer writes that when Christians have problems, they should rely on their faith to get them through their trouble.  Sadly, many don’t know how to apply the sacrifice that Jesus made to their life challenges.  Packer lists three themes of the Christian faith that should make all the difference: “justification by faith through the cross, new birth through the Spirit and new life in the power of Christ’s resurrection” [Packer, 244].  He says that Scripture is full of truth that will heal a person’s soul, but many Christians misapply that truth.  Misapplication can do more harm than good.  He extends the healing idea by using the metaphor of the Bible as a pharmacy.  If an ill-informed Christian drinks iodine instead of dabbing it on a wound, we all know the result.  More damage will be done than good.

What is the root cause of this misapplication?

Packer describes it this way: “Christians lose sight of grace.”

To understand this specific cause, let’s start with a solid definition of grace.  In the New Testament, grace means “God’s love in action toward people who merited the opposite of love.  Grace means moving heaven and earth to save sinners who could not lift a finger to save themselves.  Grace means God sending His only Son to the cross to descend into hell so that we guilty ones might be reconciled to God and received into heaven” [Packer 249].

Who are these people?

They are you and me.  All of humanity.

Who are these sinners who could not lift a finger?

They are you and me.  All of humanity.

Yes, we are the guilty ones and if you think you aren’t, you are proving by your attitude that you are.  We can’t help it.  We are burdened with original sin, the innate tendency that we all inherited from Adam when he failed to lead a sinless life in the Garden of Eden.  We have to have God’s help to deal with our burden of sin; we have to have His grace.

Here is the “bottom line:” every day we live, we need grace because every day we fall short of the standard set by God and His son Jesus Christ, in other words, every day we all sin.

Here is where we can lose sight of grace.

God does not expect us to “get it right” all the time.  He knows we are not capable.  Where we fail as Christians is that we assume He expects perfection and we don’t see that God’s grace can lead to growth. 

The first mistake is the Christian who professes his faith and then feels that the profession is enough.   I don’t know how to label this mistake.   It is fine to feel that your salvation is not going to be taken away.  There is security in that and we all need some sense of security.  However, there is a big assumption in this idea that God is never going to demand more of us.  We are ok the way we are and we don’t have to change.  We have achieved enough perfection.  We don’t have to do more to further God’s kingdom here on earth. 

This mistake leads into the related problem of the Christian who lives life by going through the motions.  He goes to church, he tithes, he attends Sunday school but when there is a need to step up and volunteer, don’t call this guy.  He had done his duty and that is enough.  Sometimes I feel this type of Christian is not really taking his faith seriously; he does not know that God expects more than just cursory actions.  When a need arises, God wants us to step up and live out our faith.

Maybe I do have a label for these people: Christians in name only.

They are skating their way to heaven.

They lose sight of the growth process in the doctrine of grace.  When we have what Packer calls “indwelling sin,” we are supposed to grow through grace.  Too often [as in previous posts] indwelling sin will stop a Christian in their tracks or put a Christian on the endless treadmill of life, you know sinning, regretting, asking forgiveness and then sinning again.  They don’t realize that God’s forgiveness or grace means that our daily sins are covered.  God does not want us to repeat them over and over; He wants us to know that He understands our “innate tendency.”

What is the purpose of Grace then?  It is to restore  our relationship with God.  God wants to live in fellowship with us and if we don’t understand the power of grace, we can easily feel so downtrodden by our sinful ways that we can never know God better over the time we live our lives on earth.   We begin to feel distant from Him because we are unworthy.  When Paul says in First Corinthians 15: 31 that “I face death every day–yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord” what does he mean? He is not referring to a literal death; he is referring to his need to die to his daily sin.  He is “resurrected” every day by God’s grace. 

Packer writes that “this is what all the work of grace aims at—an ever deeper knowledge of God and an ever-closer relationship with Him” [249-50].  Grace is God’s way of drawing us sinners closer and closer.

We all struggle with inward trials.  The point is that when they occur, our faith should help us through the trying times.  When I wrote about how some pastors oversell being born again on July 13th, it was really about how naïve “newborn” Christians think that professing their faith means a life on “easy street.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  To borrow a cliché, the rain of life falls on the “saved” Christian and the unsaved unbeliever alike.  There is no reason to be disillusioned with a “new” faith just because hard times continue after a profession.  When I wrote about how Christians feel “substandard” when they sin on July 21st , these are Christians who don’t understand that God knows we are sinners and He does not expect us to be perfect.  He expects us to turn to Him for help when we fall short.  Due to our innate bent toward sinning, we cannot erase the permanent stain of sinning from our being.  We can’t work our way to heaven.  We have to accept our limitations.  We have to rely on God and get closer to Him.  That is how sanctification occurs; the growth of our faith and the transformation of the believer.

We grow through His wonderful grace, His wonderful wonderful grace.

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God and My Inward Trials

Inward trials…

That’s what J.I. Packer calls troubles.  That’s what he calls times when we are confused by life and our response to it and we can begin to doubt our faith in God.  That’s when we lose our peace about our lives, when things are not right.  That is not the life of a Christian is it?   Loss of peace?   Our inward trials can come from how we handle the temptations in life, when we spiral into sinning and feel distant from God.  We ask ourselves “Why did I do that?  How did I get here? and How can I overcome this impulse to do wrong?”     

Does this sound familiar?

Sadly, it does for me and I am a born again Christian who gave his life to Christ twenty-two years ago.

All of us have “inward trials.”  These times are a part of life.  Before I became a believer, I struggled to get through hard times.   After I became a believer, I struggled to get through hard times.

Before I believed, when I experienced problems in life I suffered from stress and anxiety.  There were times when I felt great fear about my life and certainly great fear about the future.  When problems came [depending on their severity], I even had times when I had depression.  I never plunged headlong into chronic depression; my depression for the most part was situational.  There were times when I was even saddened to the point of having to go for help [short term counseling and short term medication help]. 

Before I believed, I did not deal well with the temptations of life.  I was a regular “church-goer” but mostly I attended out of a sense of duty.  I listened to countless sermons that seemed addressed to someone else.  I attended countless Sunday school classes that gave me some socialization with good people but I rarely took the message of the lesson personally. 

When I fell into sin I knew I was doing something wrong.  Yet I had no idea about how to deal with it other than feeling some vague sense of guilt.  I knew about heaven and hell and of course I preferred heaven as my final destination.  Death seemed a long way off and I figured I had time to find some strength from somewhere to straighten out my life.  I sure did not feel strength coming from the church, because the teaching did not seem relevant for me.  Others seemed to be getting something out of it, or at least they were very good at faking their enthusiasm about the teaching.  I even doubted the sincerity of their “Christian” lives.  Everything was just too perfect.

Life was just unfolding for me, the church goer, but when hard times came, I struggled.

As I wrote above, before I believed in God I met my “inward trials” with stressful responses and anxious responses.  Life for me was not a continual succession of problems.  I had times when things went well and I could relax; rarely is life totally dreadful.  My life before finding God was not totally dreadful.

Twenty-two years ago I experienced something that dramatically changed my life.  Dramatic change is not something that all people can relate to.  They don’t come to Christ due to some trauma, or some colossal mistake that they make.  Sometimes God does call to us in the midst of drama.

He spoke to me in such a time.

I found myself confronted with a problem that was beyond my ability to handle.  It crushed me.  This is not an exaggeration when I say that my life could be compared to an airplane.  My “plane” was climbing higher and higher [or so I thought] and suddenly it started heading back to earth.  It was in a tailspin, a rapid out of control descent.

I was in the middle of the greatest inward trial of my life and I had nothing to help me get through it, nothing. 

I remember the morning when the problem became obvious.  I plunged headlong into a traumatic response.  Panic set it.  I knew my life was never going to be the same, but I had to do something with that day.  I had to go to the college where I was a full-time faculty member.  I had to teach class, meet with students, grade papers [all that teacher stuff I was paid to do]. 

My problem was so life altering that some would say I could justify taking some time off from my job.  My problem was so distressing that some would say I could justify anger and hatefulness.  I could have ruined lives.

God said “go to work.”

Some will read that and think how stupid.  Here we have another Bible-believing fanatic who thinks God spoke to him and in his delusion he is making a big deal out of three words that he probably just imagined he heard.  The problem is that I was not a Bible-believing anything.  I was just a guy who was meeting the inward trials of my life with stress and anxiety, not really knowing what to do.  I just worked my way through my problems with little to help me and here I was: facing the biggest problem of my life and “go to work” was a surprise.

I really felt God was telling me to carry on with my life, not upsetting a great number of people.  I did not need to unleash information that would make life harder for others.  I needed to keep my problem to myself, but I did do one thing.

For the first time in my life, I cried out for help for me to do His will.

Everyone has heard of “fox-hole prayers.”  Those are prayers that are prayed when things are at their most difficult, when you are pressed beyond your ability to handle the situation.   In desperation “the soldier” cries, help me out of this God.  Quid pro quo usually occurs because the soldier promises God that he will do better, change something that needs to be changed. 

My prayers that morning were fox hole prayers because I was in a situation that was impossibly difficult but little did I know that God would reward me the way He did for obeying His command that morning.

I did His will.  I went to work.

That morning, that traumatic morning was the beginning of my life with Christ.

Was it instantaneous?

No.

It truly was just a beginning.  I had no idea what was going to happen in my life due to this event.  I had no idea that God would put a platoon of Christians in my life to get me started down the road to know Him.  These people loved on me, empathized with me and steered me toward the Bible and toward a relationship with God.  To this point I never understood those crazy Christians who loved to talk about relationship with God.  What did that mean?

Suddenly Church was not a duty.  I wanted to go and every sermon seemed to relate to me, my problem and my spiritual growth.  I started attending a Sunday school class and those people welcomed me in their midst and as some of them heard about what I was going through, they did not judge me.  The showed me with what some would call “unconditional love.”  I sought other opportunities to learn about God, attending workshops and retreats.  I am a teacher so a big part of my experience was learning about God, not just experiencing Him.  I wanted to know more.  Eventually after attending a retreat, the power of our Savior was so strong at this retreat that I made a public declaration of my belief and upon returning home, I was drawn to a book I had never seriously read before: my Bible.  I read the New Testament like my life depended on it.  Every page held helpful information; I could not get enough.

Twenty-two years ago.

The greatest spiritual highs came from the lowest point in my life.  If I had not had to cry out to God I would have never found Him, I would have never taken Him seriously.

I have had several “inward trials” since my born again experience but those trials were met head on with some power that I have now that made all the difference.  I experience less stress and anxiety today due to my growing faith.  Trauma has occurred and will continue to occur but I have a God who helps me now to meet trauma head on.  I can tell anyone of His presence in the midst of my troubles if they care to ask and they want to listen.  His power is real.

As scripture that I read twenty-two years ago became my mantra:  “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” *

I give God total credit. 

We often hear the misquoted adage “God works in mysterious ways.”  We think it is from the Bible but it’s not. **   The closest Scripture to this sentiment I can find is in Isaiah 55:8-9, “ ‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord.”  He does work in ways we don’t understand but that is ok.  He is God; I am a man, but I am more than just a man.  I am a believer in God, a child of God. 

Inward trials are a part of my life.  They are a part of everyone’s life.  When troubles come I may be a bit confused but that does not mean that I am ready to doubt the existence of God.  When I lose my peace about life, I don’t think that is a permanent problem; I turn to God in prayer and more often than not, I can get some peace to return.  When I fall prey to temptation, I can get distant from God because I am disappointed in my behavior, but I remember that I am a man who has many faults, but God loves me despite my faults.  He wants to help me work through my problems; He wants me to grow beyond where I am today.  He wants to extend His loving grace to me, a believer.

As we begin to close Chapter twenty-one of Packer’s Knowing God he pinpoints the reason that Christians have problems with inward trials. 

They lose sight of grace.

Twenty-two years ago I did not even understand grace.  I do today and I am thankful that I know what it means.  In the next post, we will explore what happens to all believers who lose sight of grace.  For me, grace is all about growth in faith, growth in belief, for we are bound to fall short in life.

We may do things to hurt our relationship with God, but He wants to have a relationship with us anyway.  He does that through His grace. 

Certain expressions make an impression on us and as I recall my past, I recall an expression that has meant so much to me, an expression of growth: “I am not where I should be but I am sure better than where I used to be.” 

I want to continue to grow, continue to learn more about God, continue to strengthen my relationship with Him.

Part of that growth is how God and I handle my inward trials.

*Philippians 4:13

**from William Cowper’s poem “Light Shining out of Darkness”

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The Inward Trial of Sinning

One of the most common misconceptions about becoming a Christian is that when you give your life to Christ, you no longer have fun.  Another equally perplexing misconception is that when you have frustrations in your faith it is because you have “substandard Christianity.”

The first misconception is often voiced by the unbeliever, the person who is looking at Christian faith “from the outside.”  The second misconception is voiced by the believer who is going through struggles and they really don’t know what to do about their problems.

Both are horribly wrong.

Most of us have highlights in life, times when we are extremely happy and life seems to be going right.  I can point to a few highlights, my marriage, the birth of my son, getting hired for an exciting job, completion of a degree, but none of these compare to the time in my life when I discovered I was a child of God, that God was my Savior and the death of His Son had wiped away all of my sins.  Fun?  Maybe that is the wrong word.  Maybe the word is joy, joy in the knowledge that I was beginning to live the life I was intended to live, a life for Jesus Christ.  I became His servant.  The burden of my sin-filled life was lifted.

But baby Christians are naïve creatures.  They act like they are dead to sin from the point when they are born again, but nothing could be more untrue.  Sin is still alive in the world and it is very powerful, maybe more powerful since the baby Christian is trying to avoid it.  Unbelievers are continuing on in their profligate lives right in front of the new Christian and the fun times they are having can be awfully tempting.  “I can have a few drinks and be ok.”  “I remember taking that drug; it sure relaxed me and I am sure feeling pressure now (maybe I can just try a little).”  “Oh who cares if I look at those naked people on my computer; I like the way it excites me and everybody is doing it.”

The urge to sin is not dead.  When you dedicate your life to Christ, old sinful habits don’t go away like turning off a light bulb.  Those habits are strong and they must be dealt with.  Packer* writes that this inward trial is a struggle but too many young Christians don’t label it as a struggle; they label it as a defeat.  They are plunged into a miserable life because of their guilt.

I have been there as well as many of you.  I don’t want to sin but the opportunity to do so always presents itself.  Maybe a common activity of life serves as a trigger.  When the activity occurs, the human brain goes immediately to the sinful activity and maybe I think it will be fun, no big deal.  I will just do it this once.  I do the sin and soon after I begin to feel the guilt.  “Why did I do that?”  “What was I thinking?” “Now I feel awful.”  In my case, I have trouble talking to God when I sin.  “Why would He want to talk to me?”  “Here I am asking for forgiveness again, for the same sin I have done for years”.  “How many times can I ask Him to forgive me?”  “Why won’t He take this sin away?”

We are not talking about people who once believed and they have fallen away from God.  Those people are apostates; they have renounced their faith and they may be cheerful in their lives [at least on the surface].  The truly miserable person is the “backslider;” they wonder where the joy went, the blessed feelings they once had when they truly met God.

The “backslider” can get on what Packer calls a “treadmill life,” a constant cycle of sin, misery, eventual forgiveness and then sin again.  “Why can’t I get that old excitement back, when I was free from sin?”  I often think of this as going round and round a mountain.  I desire to climb closer to the top, but I can’t go higher due to my sinning nature.  I just keep going round and round.  Maybe Packer’s imagery of the old Chinese habit of binding girl’s feet will serve to help us understand.  This practice was cruel, but it got the desired results.  The small foot represented the height of female refinement in China but it arrested physical development of the child’s foot.  God does not want to bind us with a lifestyle that inhibits spiritual development any more than He would want us to bind our feet in order to shape them into a ridiculously small shoe.  A life in Christ is about freedom.  It is about growth.

It is also about strength.  What happens when a Christian is confronted with powerful sins and goes through the process of confession and acceptance of forgiveness?  The Christian can grow.  They realize that evil is a part of life and it has to be dealt with.  When problems occur, God does not want us to return to our babe like state when we were young Christians.  He wants us to learn to deal with sin.  He wants us to grow in Christ.  He wants us to become adults.    Packer writes that God is not pleased with a “childish, grinning, irresponsible, self-absorbed breed of evangelical adults.”  Neither is He pleased with Christians who suffer from “morbid introspection, hysteria, mental breakdown and loss of faith.”  Like God did to Job, He “exposes Christians to strong attacks from the world, the flesh and devil, so that their powers of resistance might grow greater and their character as people of God can become stronger” [Packer, 248].

Struggles with sinning are a part of life but there is such a thing as victory over sin.  However, it is not instant victory, nor is it easy.  In my opinion, common human will-power will not rid a person of a persistent sin.  External rewards can only motivate a person so far.  Psychological techniques can help but they won’t do it alone.  In my opinion, it is God who will push a person higher up on that mountain.  It is God who will do it when He wants and how He wants.  Praying for a cessation of temptation and resultant sinning may be of use, but when it is God’s will for you to triumph over a particular sin, it will happen. 

What is the Christian to do until they are “dead to sin” [Romans 6:1].  Packer writes “when problems and temptations come [he must learn the habit] of handing them over to Christ to deal with for him.  If he does this (it is affirmed) he will find himself once more, in the theological as well as the metaphorical sense, on top of the world.”  To put this in common terms, know you will sin because you are human.  [Being born again does not rid you of your humanity].  When you do fall, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move forward in Christ. 

The fact that you are miserable from your sinning is not unusual.  You want to return to God’s good graces.  Choosing to stay miserable is not a good option because God does not want His believers to live lives of painful frustration.  Choosing to renounce your faith is not a good option; turning your back on God and delighting in sin will get you nowhere. 

We all have this inward trial and with patience and perseverance, this trial will eventually lead to victory, not defeat.    

Oh! for a closer walk with God,

     A calm and heavenly frame;

A light to shine upon the road

     That leads me to the Lamb!

Where is the blessedness I knew

     When first I saw the Lord?

Where is the soul-refreshing view

     Of Jesus and his word?

What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!

     How sweet their memory still!

But they have left an aching void,

     The world can never fill.

Return, O holy Dove, return!

     Sweet the messenger of rest!

I hate the sins that made thee mourn

     And drove thee from my breast.**

*J.I. Packer  Knowing God

**From William Cowper’s Hymn  “Walking with God”

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“Glorify God Every Way”

Sometimes in life, one has to pause…

Some of you are aware that on Friday, July 17, J.I. Packer passed away. I will not post my thoughts on his book Knowing God today. I will share words from Leland Ryken who has written a biography of Packer. This material is from Christianity Today accessed on 7/20/20. My comments will continue tomorrow [7/21/20].

Leland Ryken obituary for J.I. Packer

“James Innell Packer, better known to many as J. I. Packer, was one of the most famous and influential evangelical leaders of our time. He died Friday, July 17, at age 93.

J. I. Packer was born in a village outside of Gloucester, England, on July 22, 1926. He came from humble stock, being born into a family that he called lower middle class. The religious climate at home and church was that of nominal Anglicanism rather than evangelical belief in Christ as Savior (something that Packer was not taught in his home church).

Packer’s life-changing childhood experience came at the age of seven when he was chased out of the schoolyard by a bully onto the busy London Road in Gloucester, where he was struck by a bread van and sustained a serious head injury. He carried a visible dent in the side of his head for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, Packer was uncomplaining and accepting of what providence brought into his life from childhood on.

Much more important than Packer’s accident was his conversion to Christ, which happened within two weeks of his matriculation as an undergraduate at Oxford University. Packer committed his life to Christ on October 22, 1944, while attending an evangelistic service sponsored by the campus InterVarsity chapter.

Although Packer was a serious student pursuing a classics degree, the heartbeat of his life at Oxford was spiritual. It was at Oxford that Packer first heard lectures from C. S. Lewis, and though they were never personally acquainted, Lewis would exert a powerful influence on Packer’s life and work. When Packer left Oxford with his doctorate on Richard Baxter in 1952, he did not immediately begin his academic career but spent a three-year term as a parish minister in suburban Birmingham.

Packer had a varied professional life. He spent the first half of his career in England before moving to Canada for the second half. In England, Packer held various teaching posts at theological colleges in Bristol, during which he had a decade-long interlude as warden (director) of Latimer House in Oxford, a clearinghouse for evangelical interests in the Church of England. In that role, Packer was one of the three most influential evangelical leaders in England (along with John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones). Packer’s move to Regent College in Vancouver in 1979 shocked the evangelical world but enlarged Packer’s influence for the rest of his life.

Although Packer was a humble man who repudiated the success ethic, his life nonetheless reads like a success story. His first book, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (published in 1958) sold 20,000 copies in its first year and has consistently been in print since. In 2005, Time magazine named Packer one of the 25 most influential evangelicals.

When Christianity Today conducted a survey to determine the top 50 books that have shaped evangelicals, Packer’s book Knowing God came in fifth. His fame and influence were not something that he set out to accomplish. He steadfastly refused to cultivate a following. Instead, he made his mark with his typewriter (which he used to compose his articles and books throughout his life).

James Packer has had a considerable influence in America because he has written and said what evangelicals have most needed to hear.

J. I. Packer filled so many roles that we can accurately think of him as having had multiple careers. He earned his livelihood by teaching and was known to those who were his students as a professor. But the world at large knows Packer as an author and speaker.

Packer’s fame as a speaker rivaled his stature as an author. In both spheres, his generosity was unsurpassed. No audience or venue was too small to elicit Packer’s best effort. His publishing career was a case study in accepting virtually every request that was made of him. His signature book, Knowing God (which has sold a million and a half copies), began as a series of bimonthly articles requested by the editor of a small evangelical magazine. His first book, Fundamentalism and the Word of God, began as a talk to a group of students (the publisher requested a pamphlet but Packer wrote a book). Perhaps no one in history has written more endorsements and prefaces to the books of others than Packer did.

In both his publishing and speaking, Packer was famous as a Puritan scholar, but he was also a dedicated churchman who said that his teaching was primarily aimed at the education of future ministers, and he spent countless hours serving on church committees. For a quarter of a century, Packer’s involvement with Christianity Today gave him a platform as an essayist who frequently turned to topics of cultural critique. Packer had a career as a controversialist (by necessity rather than choice, he confided to me). Despite this range, Packer consistently self-identified as a theologian, which we can therefore regard as his primary vocation.

When we speak of the legacy left by a deceased person, we think misleadingly in terms of a speculative posthumous legacy that is impossible to predict. J. I. Packer’s primary legacy is the influence he held over events in Christendom and over people’s lives during his lifetime. That is his indisputable legacy, and I will highlight what I believe to be the most important ways in which Packer affected the direction of Christianity during his life.

Packer’s first book was a defense of the authority of the Bible, and this became both a lifelong passion and one of Packer’s most significant contributions to the evangelical church. Packer had an extraordinarily strong commitment to the view that the words of the Bible are the very words of God. He championed the out-of-vogue doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. He published books on the reliability of the Bible. He served as general editor of the English Standard Version of the Bible, calling that project the greatest achievement of his life.

J. I. Packer gave evangelicals a place to stand in regard to the authority of the Bible. Personally, no Packer legacy has been more important to me than this one, starting from the moment I pulled a paperback copy of Fundamentalism and the Word of God off a bookshelf in a Christian bookstore in my hometown as a college student.

The way in which Packer became a spokesman for conservative evangelicals in the face of liberalizing trends and assaults is another important contribution that he made during his lifetime. When Packer looked back with satisfaction on his decade of leadership with the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, he spoke of “holding the line” for inerrancy. That metaphor applies to multiple causes to which Packer devoted his best efforts. Packer helped to hold the conservative evangelical line on numerous theological issues, such as the nature of Scripture and its interpretation, women’s roles in the church, and the church’s position regarding homosexuality. He was a traditionalist who looked to the past for truth. In Knowing God, he quoted Jeremiah 6:16, with its image of the “ancient paths … where the good way is,” claiming that his book was a call to follow those old paths.

Another unifying theme in Packer’s life was his elevation of the common person, and this, too, is part of his legacy. Packer never lost the common touch that he absorbed in his upbringing, and the same spirit was fostered by his identity as a latter-day Puritan. Although Packer could write specialized scholarship with the best, his calling was to write mid-level scholarship for the layperson. He was utterly devoid of careerism. The title of a Festschrift published in his honor got it exactly right: Doing Theology for the People of God.

When Alister McGrath labeled Packer a theologizer rather than a theologian, Packer experienced it as “quite a discovery” that led him to conclude that he was “an adult catechist,” dedicated to the systematic teaching of doctrine for the ordinary Christian. Packer was not as pained as some scholars have been by never having completed or published his systematic theology because he regarded his informal theological writings for the layperson to be his calling.

Another part of Packer’s legacy during his lifetime was his exemplary Christian character that served as a model and inspiration to those who knew him. His godliness was apparent at every moment, and his presence was a benediction on people who spent time with him. His words were words of wisdom. He was hardworking, but at the same time generous with his time. Like the Puritans he loved, Packer believed that the Christian faith is based on clear thinking while at the same time engaging the heart. Packer spoke with precision in the best British manner but he also exuded spiritual warmth. For those fortunate enough to have met him, we immediately experienced Packer as a kindred spirit in the faith and a fellow traveler of the Way. The authentic spiritual note was apparent.

Packer’s writings show what mattered most to him, and what he also thought the church must value most. Part of Packer’s legacy was thus helping Christians set the right agenda and concern themselves with the right things. Packer’s list of priorities included the Bible, the church, correct theology, holiness in life, and vocation. The reason Packer wrote on such a broad array of subjects is not only that he had an active and capacious mind but also that he was concerned that Christians think correctly on all subjects that relate to life. Packer had a passion for truth in every sphere.

J. I. Packer was also a man of paradoxes. He was a lifelong, devoted Anglican, but he moved with equal ease among the nonconformist wing of evangelicalism and was perhaps most influential in Reformed circles. He was quintessentially British but lived half of his adult life in Canada, and in an additional twist, the sphere of his greatest influence was the United States. Packer became one of the most famous evangelicals of his day, but he never held a prestigious post at a major university and never filled a high-visibility pulpit on a permanent basis. He was a mild man with a peaceable disposition, but he consistently found himself at the center of controversy and was often maligned.

If we ask how a quiet person who minded his own business became so famous and influential, the answer is that Packer’s publishing was the vehicle by which his ideas were disseminated. His life therefore stands as a tribute to the power of the written and published word. On the strength of his writings, Packer became a widely known speaker as well. In both writing and speaking, his content was always thoughtful, logically packaged, clear, and substantial, and he routinely overestimated the amount of time he had available to present the extensive amount of material he had prepared.

Packer himself ascribed the fame and success that he achieved to divine providence, and it is obvious that this is the case. He did not set out to be famous. He simply did the task that was placed before him and left the outcome to God. Speaking to teenagers in a living room was as likely an assignment for him as addressing a packed auditorium. J. I. Packer was above all serviceable to the kingdom and its King.

His ministry concluded in 2016, when he became unable to read, travel, or speak publicly due to going blind from macular degeneration.

When asked late in life what his final words to the church might be, Packer replied, “I think I can boil it down to four words: Glorify Christ every way.” That can serve as an epitaph for what Packer did in his lifetime and what he is doing now.”

Leland Ryken is Emeritus Professor of English at Wheaton College, where he taught for half a century. He has written a biography of J. I. Packer, titled J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life.

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