October 1, 2020 Standard Bearer preview article
Reformed Free Publishing Association
This article is written by Rev. Clayton Spronk and will be published in the October 1, 2020 issue of the Standard Bearer.
J. I. Packer (1926-2020)
The obituary posted (July 17, 2020) on Christianity Today’s website by Leland Ryken reports, “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.”1 Packer’s fame and influence makes his death worthy of notice in the Standard Bearer.
Packer is well known by most of us because of his writings. His books Knowing God, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, Fundamentalism and the Word of God should be on your reading list, if you have not yet read them. He also wrote numerous articles and essays that are worth reading.
Packer is well known because he was a capable teacher. According to Ryken, Packer was “dedicated to the systematic teaching of doctrine for the ordinary Christian.” Bruce Hindmarsh describes Packer as “the Robin Hood of Evangelicalism” because he “was able to retrieve riches from the past and employ them for the purpose of renewing the life of Christians in the present.”2 Theologians who focus on instructing “ordinary Christians” rather than impressing fellow theologians with their scholarly abilities are too rare and admirable.
Because of his fame and influence, it is not surprising that much ink is being used to praise Packer in commemoration of his life and work now that he has died. It is bad form to attack a dead man who cannot defend himself. I have no wish to attack a dead man. But I agree with R. Scott Clark that, when it comes to the legacy of Packer, we do have to note his deplorable involvement in the attempt to heal the rift between Romanism and Protestantism in the project known as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT).3
Packer signed the two important documents that this project produced: ECT and ECT II. Clark writes, “In both [documents], to different degrees, evangelicals signed and affirmed as the gospel and the doctrine of justification equivocations that subverted the Reformation (emphasis added).” Clark is right that these documents did not heal the rift between the Reformation and Rome. In these documents the men on the “Reformed” side did not meet the Roman Catholics in the middle. Nor did the Roman Catholics repudiate their position and join the Reformed in confessing justification by faith alone without works (which is the only way truly to heal the rift between Protestantism and Romanism). The “Reformed” men abandoned justification by faith alone and joined Rome in tolerating, if not openly teaching, the idea that works play some role in a man’s justification before God. So Packer, as part of this group, “subverted the Reformation.”
Yes, this is a severe criticism of Packer. We may even want to criticize Packer more sharply than Clark who wrote, “Let us all be reminded that all our heroes have feet of clay.” A man who compromises with Rome on justification by faith alone demonstrates more than that he has feet of clay; he demonstrates that he is not worthy of the status of a hero.
Yet the point is not to focus on Packer and criticize him, but to focus on what we should learn from the legacy of his life and work. Sadly, his compromise of justification by faith alone demands criticism and a negative emphasis when we evaluate Packer’s life and work. As Clark points out, the Reformed hold the doctrine of justification by faith alone to be the “article of the standing or falling of the church.” Packer compromised on the doctrine of the Reformation, the doctrine that sparked the Reformation, the doctrine the Reformation identifies as the heart of the gospel and that distinguishes between a standing and a falling church. There are those who want to laud Packer for teaching evangelicals that doctrine is important, as well as spiritual experience. But Packer’s compromise of the doctrine of justification by faith alone spoils any attempt to laud him as a teacher of sound doctrine. Additionally, by his involvement in ECT, Packer has left the legacy that, for him, unity was more important than doctrine, unity with the Roman Catholic Church was more important to him than the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Therefore, Packer’s legacy is not Reformed. His legacy is not the same as that of Luther and Calvin. The legacy of Luther and Calvin is that they would not compromise their confession of justification by faith alone; they would find their oneness only with those who confessed justification by faith alone with them; they would willingly part ways with those who confess justification by faith and works; they loved the truth that justification by faith alone put the emphasis on God’s glory and the believer’s comfort; they hated Rome’s lie of justification by faith and works that robs God of His glory and gives it to man’s work, replacing comfort with the terror of always doubting whether one has done enough works to be justified before God. We need to know these two legacies, that of Packer and of the Reformers, because we have to decide which legacy we will follow and which legacy we will give to our children. May God give us the grace to reject the legacy of doctrinal compromise and false ecumenism and to follow the legacy of the Reformers, holding tenaciously to the truth as the only basis for unity, especially the truth of justification by faith alone.