J.I. Packer (Photo: Sue Careless)
Interview By Ivan Mesa
“Over Christmas macular degeneration struck so that I can no longer read or write.”
For many who have appreciated and benefited from James Innell Packer’s writing ministry – the author of more than 300 books, journal articles, book reviews, dictionary entries and innumerable forewords – this will come as especially saddening news.
Packer, 89, will no longer be able to write as he has before or travel or do any regular preaching. Macular degeneration is an incurable eye disease that causes the loss of vision. While for now Packer still retains peripheral vision, it’s doubtful he will ever regain the ability to read.
“God knows what he’s doing,” Packer recently told me in a phone interview. Rather than being paralyzed by fear or self-pity, Packer is confident that “this comes as a clear indication from headquarters. And I take it from him.”
Whether his response stems more from the British stiff upper lip or decades’ worth of sanctification, Packer is living out a truth he has long believed and proclaimed: God is sovereign and good in all things.
“God knows what he’s up to,” says the author of Knowing God and Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. “And I’ve had enough experiences of his goodness in all sorts of ways not to have any doubt about the present circumstances.” He adds, “Some good, something for his glory, is going to come out of it.”
The rest of my conversation with Packer is transcribed below. May it serve as an encouragement even as we pray for this dear brother who has faithfully taught and lived for many decades of gospel ministry.
IM: Is losing the ability to write, read and preach especially hard?
JIP: No, in the days when it was physically possible for me to do these things I was concerned, even anxious, to get ahead with doing them. Now that it’s no longer possible I acknowledge the sovereignty of God. “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away” (Job 1:21). Now that I’m nearly 90 years old he’s taken away. And I won’t get any stronger, physically, as I go on in this world. And I don’t know how much longer I’ll be going on anyway.
IM: Has this been a hard trial emotionally?
JIP: Emotionally, it doesn’t make an impact on me because after all I’m nearly 90, and I would have had to stop those things soon anyway because my strength would not have continued. God has been very good to us [he includes his wife, Kit], and none of us has been struck as so many people of our age by any form of dementia. We’re both blessedly free of that in a way that other folks of our age known to us are not. When you’re preserved from something other people actually have to work their way through you recognize that this is a mercy and are thankful.
IM: Ecclesiastes is a book of the Bible you have especially treasured and have gleaned much wisdom from over the years. You’ve said Ecclesiastes cured you of youthful cynicism. On this side of life what has the old sage taught you? Does the final chapter of Ecclesiastes – chapter 12 – hold more resonance at this stage than, say, 40 years ago?
JIP: The author of Ecclesiastes has taught me that it is folly to suppose that you can plan life and master it, and you will get hurt if you try. You must acknowledge the sovereignty of God and leave the wisdom to him.
It tells me now what it told me 40 years ago, namely, that we wear out, physically we come apart. You get old, and getting old means the loss of faculties and powers you had when you were younger. And that is the way God prepares us to leave this world for a better world to which he’s taking us. The message of Ecclesiastes 12 is “Get right with God as early in life as you can; ‘remember the creator in your days of youth’ (Eccl. 12:1). Don’t leave it until some time in the future when you’re not likely to be able to handle it well at all.”
IM: What role does a sense of calling play in these latter days of life for you?
All that I can say is that as one’s powers of mind and body diminish so one’s understanding of what one can do – should do – in fulfillment of one’s calling has to be adjusted in terms of, “I can’t do that anymore.” And Christian realism kicks in at that point. God doesn’t call us to do what is no longer within our power to do.
IM: How does the reality of heaven affect – or how should it affect – our calling in this life? Is it true you ponder on heaven 30 minutes a day?
JIP: In positive terms, the essence of eternity as I conceive it – as it lies before me as my destination – is quite simply the joy of being with the Lord.
Here in this world he gives us things to do, and we affirm our identity as his children by tackling the tasks that he gives us. There, the relationship we have with him is closer (closer in terms of realization than ever it’s been in this world). So that’s where I envisage the emphasis being in eternity and as one who is in God’s hands all along the line I wait to see how it will actually work out.
The person who meditated for half an hour every day, without fail it seems, was Richard Baxter, the 17th-century Puritan who lived in pain with various painful physical conditions that in his day could not be cured. But with pain he lived in peace because of the strength of his hope, the hope of glory.
IM: Is there any specific thought of our eternal future in God’s presence that especially grips you now?
JIP: I have to say no rather than yes. Any part of God’s revelation may come alive for me in a new way as a pointer to and integral element in my hope. There’s no limiting what of his revelation may have that impact at any particular time. When you walk with God there are moments when he gives you special delight, an especially deep sense of peace and pleasure in being his child – well, those things have happened to me and they happen, I think, to all other real Christians. There’s nothing special about that.
IM: Is there any physical sight that would be hardest to forego if you were to entirely lose your vision?
JIP: Again, the answer for me would be no. I think I could learn to live without any of the sights I’ve ever seen.
IM: You’ve spent decades meditating on and memorizing God’s Word. What does your pursuit of these spiritual disciplines translate into in this stage of life?
JIP: I find it more possible to concentrate on God himself and his plans, purposes and performance than I used to do. I suppose that all these things have rooted themselves more deeply in my mind and heart. And I trust there’s less superficiality than there used to be.
I have nothing striking to report; steady advance, I believe, into the realization of the reality of all that the Bible talks about – all the realities, I mean, of the experience of communion with God.
I’m not a spectacular person as far as I understand it. And I don’t think my experience of the Lord’s grace has been spectacular. I’ll say it’s been steady and I thank God for that.
IM: How do you evaluate the Young, Restless, Reformed of recent years? And what word of encouragement and exhortation would you offer this fledgling movement?
JIP: Remember that what God plans – what the whole economy of grace is shaped for – is the perfection of a Church that will be the bride of Christ and, in a grand sense, the image of Christ. And God is not in the business of individualism. There is a distinction that not all evangelicals pick up between individualism and individuality. Being a Christian ripens and extends your individuality, but individualism is a form of sin and, it seems to me, still a temptation for the Young, Restless, Reformed folk.
The vital movements of Reformed Christianity – with their rediscovery of the doctrines of grace and the life of grace – all of that needs to have the individualism squeezed out of it, and as the movement matures that’s what’s going to happen. The folk involved in these movements need to be very clear all the time that God’s purpose is a Church that celebrates his glory. If for the moment we are giving our time non-churchly or to trans-denominational movements, well, that should be seen as a step, a venture, towards churchliness rather than towards individualism.
Individualism, no. Churchliness, yes.
IM: Overall, would you say you’re encouraged?
JIP: Yes, I don’t see how any Christian under any circumstances can’t be encouraged who focuses on God. I don’t see how any Christian can be discouraged, because God is in charge – God knows what he’s doing, all things work together for good for those are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28), and our hope is in Christ. Those things don’t change, and those are the things to focus on.
IM: Going back to the centrality of the Church, I suppose the Puritans are instrumental in centering our attention on the Church.
JIP: The Puritans were churchly to their fingertips. They were intensely individuals. They made as much of Christian individuality as any community of believers have ever done, I think. But they were churchly. It was all for building up the Church as the body of Christ and as the goal of all of God’s purposes of grace. I still think we need to learn that – and learn it for the first time, perhaps.
The great thing, which the Puritans saw as central, is communion with God, which they understood as communion with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They weren’t marked by the imbalance that you so often see even among Puritans’ supporters these days – I mean, people focusing on Christ to the exclusion of the Spirit, or on the Spirit to the exclusion of Christ.
The Puritans, I think, were wonderfully balanced. Their published work expresses it and is very maturing. There is the same relation to the goal of godliness as proper coaching, physical training, is to producing a player who is in full physical shape for the role that he is called to play.
IM: What would be your final words to the church?
JIP: I think I can boil it down to four words: “Glorify Christ every way.” TAP
–Ivan Mesa is the editor of The Gospel Coalition www.thegospelcoalition.org. This interview is reprinted
with his permission.