Theologian and churchman J.I. Packer dies at age 93
“God saves sinners” was his simple summation of the gospel
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J.I. Packer, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, died on Friday, July 17. He was 93.
Packer authored hundreds of Christian books and articles over more than half a century, but he’s perhaps best known for his 1973 work Knowing God. Publishers have sold more than 1.5 million copies since the book’s release and have translated it into more than a dozen languages.
But for all of Packer’s vast contributions to explaining Biblical doctrine—and championing Biblical inerrancy—the Oxford-educated Anglican offered a gloriously simple summary of the gospel: “God saves sinners.”
James Innell Packer was born on July 22, 1926, in Gloucester, England. His quiet childhood as the son of a railway clerk took an abrupt turn at age 7 when a schoolyard bully chased him from a playground and into the path of an oncoming bread truck.
Packer suffered serious head injuries, but forced seclusion led him into a deeper focus on reading and writing. On his 11th birthday, his parents gave the young boy a typewriter instead of a bicycle. He relished the gift and began developing gifts of his own.
At age 15, a friendship with a fellow chess player led to conversations about religion. Packer began considering more carefully the claims of Christianity behind his nominal Anglican upbringing.
As a freshman at Oxford University, Packer attended an evangelistic service of the Oxford-Intercollegiate Christian Union. A sermon he initially found dull soon turned compelling: By the end of the service and the last verse of “Just As I Am,” Packer had embraced saving faith in Christ.
After becoming a librarian for the Christian group, Packer stumbled onto the writings of Puritan theologians. Biographer Sam Storms called the discovery “a major watershed in his spiritual development.” (Packer eventually wrote A Quest for Godliness—a book about Puritan writings on the Christian life.)
He later studied theology at Oxford and was ordained a deacon and then a priest in the Church of England in 1953. Packer remained a lifelong Anglican.
In 1954, he married Kit Mullet, and the couple raised three children. After a stint as a lecturer and a librarian, they moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1970. Packer taught systematic theology at Regent College, and he continued teaching courses at the school until he was nearly 90 years old.
Over the decades, Packer wrote dozens of books on Biblical truth and personal devotion to Christ. His early writings focused on defending Biblical inerrancy during a time when the doctrine was under attack by many in the church.
In an interview with WORLD founder Joel Belz in 2008, Packer described himself as “an adult catechist.” He explained that a catechist “teaches the truths that Christians live by, and also teaches how to live by those truths.”
Living by the truth of Scripture led Packer to make painful moves during his long career and ministry. In 2002, when the Anglican diocese of New Westminster authorized its bishop to produce a service for same-sex unions, Packer joined a handful of other synod members in walking out of the meeting.
Packer explained the decision in an editorial for Christianity Today: “Because this decision, taken in its context, falsifies the gospel of Christ, abandons the authority of Scripture, jeopardizes the salvation of fellow human beings, and betrays the church in its God-appointed role as the bastion and bulwark of divine truth.”
His church later withdrew from the Anglican Church in Canada and became a member of the Anglican Church in North America.
In 2016, at age 89, Packer announced his vision had deteriorated (due to macular degeneration), and that he could no longer read or write. Ivan Mesa of the Gospel Coalition interviewed Packer shortly after the announcement. “God knows what he’s up to,” Packer told him. “Some good, something for his glory is going to come out of it.”
Packer didn’t dwell on his dimming sight, but he did talk about the importance of the local church in an individualistic era. When Mesa asked Packer for any final words to the church, Packer replied: “I think I can boil it down to four words: ‘Glorify Christ every way.”
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