Wednesday, October 19, 2011

J.I. Packer--A man who loves the Puritans

In 1950, J.I. Packer, O. Raymond Johnston and the legendary D. M. Lloyd-Jones began what would be known as the Puritan Conferences. These conferences lasted for roughly 20 years and are undoubtedly the reason for the resurgence of puritan theology and puritan reprints. Here is an excerpt from the mouth of Packer himself:
“The interests of the Conference are practical and constructive, not merely academic. We look on the Puritans as our fellow-Christians, now enabled to share with us, through the medium of their books, the good things which God gave them three centuries ago…And the question which we ask is not simply the historical one; what did they do and teach? (though, of course, that is where we start); our questions are rather these: how far is their exposition of the Scriptures a right one? And what biblical principles does it yield for the guiding of our faith and life today? The second half of each session of the Conference is devoted to discussing the contents of the paper that has been read, from the standpoint of these two questions.”  (This excerpt is found in Packer’s foreword to A Goodly Heritage: Puritan and Reformed Studies Conference, 1958)
But why did J.I. Packer have such a deep love and affection of the Puritans?

First, Packer loved the Puritans because it helped him understand his battle with sin.

Many people, including J.I. Packer, were influenced by the Keswick (also known as “Victorious Living”) movement, which began around 1875. This movement focused on the concept of “full or total surrender”, which when embraced would supposedly lead to a sustained victory over sin. The mantra of Keswick teaching is to “let go and let God”. According to their teachers, this consecration would eventually produce victory over sin.

Packer became increasingly discouraged because of his inability to make any spiritual steps. This is when he found the great work by John Owen, On the Mortification of Sin in Believers. Owen’s approach was different. He argued that “sanctification is progressive and requires the Christian to “kill” sin at its root” (Col. 3:5). In this approach there was finally relief for Packer, because now he had a clear, biblical plan of attack, which gave him hope through the renewing power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 12:2).

Christians today need to read the Puritans we need to be reminded of the destructive reality of indwelling sin. To them it truly was their enemy, their nemesis, not simply a spiritual hangnail that causes some discomfort. Some accuse the Puritans of being too scrupulous or having a morbid focus of sin. This perception of the Puritans is the popular view, but it is from those who are ignorant of the historical facts. Certainly there were some that tipped the scale in the direction of morbid introspection, but again that was the exception, not the rule.

Second, Packer loved the Puritans because of their balance of theology and spirituality.

Packer once said that modern evangelicals are dwarfs compared the Puritans, who are like redwood trees. If this is true, why it is? Though one answer is likely too simplistic, yet I would agree with Packer when he states it is ‘their balance of theology and spirituality’. One of my favorite quotes of Packer is this:
“If our theology does not quicken the conscience and soften the heart, it actually hardens both.”
Packer asserts that the majority of the Puritans would agree with this sentiment. Yet at a broader level, the desire of the “true” Puritan is a God-centered life, a life that put everything under the Lordship of Christ. Every activity, every hour at work, every meal with the family was an opportunity to speak of God and live for Him.

So how does American Christianity resurrect this balance? The same way the Puritans did….by actively being transformed by the renewing of the Holy Spirit, which begins with a correct understanding of the gospel. When a Christian fears God, he will hate sin. When a Christian saturates his mind with the Word, he will love Christ more. When a Christian commits to pray, he will see how personal and imminent God is with His creation. 

Third, Packer loved the Puritans because they believed this life was transitory.

For the Puritan, life was likened to a gymnasium. It was a training ground, a preparation for eternity. With this mindset, eternal life was always sweeter than this earthly, sin-ridden life. Their discipline made sense with this perspective. It was not to earn the righteousness of Christ, but to gain it and to proclaim it (Phil 3:8-14).

How does the Christian retain or generate this mindset? Mark Dever gives a simple answer:
“Lose your hope in the return of Christ and you will lose your way in the Christian life”.
Are you ready for His return? What have you done with your stewardship of the gospel? Have you told your neighbors about Jesus? Would you smile at the sound of the trumpet, hide from His perfect face or ask for more time?

For me, it is the untimely departure of a loved one that brings me back to reality. It is no wonder that the men of old thought often about their death. I leave you with the words of Jonathan Edwards:
“Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.”

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