Get to Know J.I. Packer

James Innell Packer is a rather well-known author in Reformed circles. In fact, many people assume that Packer himself must belong to a Reformed, or at least a Presbyterian, church. Instead, Packer has been an Anglican his entire life, first in England (the land of his birth) and then later in Canada.

The son of working-class parents, Packer was born on July 22, 1926 in Gloucester, England. He became a Christian during his education at Oxford University. Through exposure to Puritan authors like John Owen, Packer also became a convinced Calvinist with regard to the doctrine of salvation. At several points in his life he was tempted away from the Church of England, but he has always remained a member. He was ordained in the Church of England, but only served in parish ministry for a short while before discovering his real vocation as a teacher of theology. In England, he taught at Tyndale Hall, Latimer House, and Trinity College. Finally, in 1979, he skipped over the pond to take up a professorship at Regent College in Vancouver, BC.

WRITER AND EDITOR

Packer has been well known as a conference speaker and writer, but probably less so as an editor. Notably, he’s been the general editor of the English Standard Version Bible, as well as the theological editor of the ESV Study Bible. He’s also served as an editor and advisor for Christianity Today.

One of Packer’s most well-known books has been Knowing God, first published in 1973. By 2001, this book has sold more than 1.5 million copies and been translated into more than 20 languages. It’s a book that puts the doctrine of God in simple language. Even when Packer tackles difficult subjects like propitiation (the turning away of God’s wrath through the cross), he communicates winsomely. It’s really not surprising that some Canadian Reformed pastors have even used Knowing God for their pre-confession instruction. It’s a solid book!

BACK AND FORTH AND BACK AGAIN

While there are many ways in which we can appreciate what God has done through this man, we also have to honestly acknowledge some of his weaknesses and failings. There was, for example, his involvement with a 1994 statement entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). This was an effort to unite Roman Catholics and evangelicals on a common theological basis with a view to taking a stand against societal evils like abortion. Unfortunately, this common basis resulted in the lowest-common-denominator form of essential doctrines like justification. Packer was a key player in the events leading to ECT and a signer.

Subsequently, Packer teamed with up with URC pastor Michael Horton to produce another document, Resolutions for Roman Catholic and Evangelical Dialogue. Now this statement, also from 1994, was soundly orthodox on the issues highlighted by ECT. But then, what one hand gave, the other took away (again!). In 1998, Packer was involved with yet another ecumenical statement along with Roman Catholics, The Gift of Salvation. This statement again compromised on the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

It’s regrettable that Packer has been quite inconsistent on some key biblical teachings. As just mentioned, he claims in some places to maintain justification by faith alone as a foundational doctrine, yet he readily gives this up when working with Roman Catholics. As another example, he claims to hold to the ultimate authority of the Bible, yet is lenient when it comes to evolution. Moreover, Packer has written of his belief that the New Testament prohibitions on women teaching and preaching are not applicable today.  I deplore these aberrations in an otherwise helpful writer.  In his 2015 biography, Leland Ryken writes that he cannot understand why some people get so angry at Packer. It’s no mystery: it’s because of his inconsistency.

STANDING ON SCRIPTURE

However, one of Packer’s greatest controversies did see him taking a very bold stand. In 2008, Packer was pushed out of the Anglican Church of Canada because he refused to endorse same-sex marriage. This came at a great cost – he was defrocked as an Anglican clergyman. We can certainly commend him for his courage. Incidentally, soon afterwards, he was relicensed as clergy and admitted into the Anglican Church of North America. Thus, he continues to be an Anglican, though not in the “mainstream.”

TWO MORE GREAT TITLES

On a personal note, I’ve benefitted from especially two of Packer’s writings. The first I came across was his volume on the Puritans, A Quest for Godliness. This had a huge impact on shaping my attitude towards those saints of old. For many people, this book has been instrumental in overturning misconceptions of the Puritans.

Later, when I pursued further studies in missiology, one of my required readings was one of Packer’s first books, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God. I loved it! This slender book powerfully argued that a Calvinistic belief in God’s sovereignty is anything but a death knell for outreach – quite the opposite. Armed with what I’ve said about some of his inconsistencies, I’d say that this is one author with whom readers should definitely get acquainted.

(An earlier version of this was first published in Reformed Perspective, May 2016)


Pastoral Q & A: Is Catechism Preaching Biblical?

Reformed churches have historically practiced catechism preaching, typically in the afternoon or evening service.  This practice dates back to the Reformation.  However, in today’s milieu the practice is under threat.  Some Reformed churches have long abandoned catechism preaching while others are heading in that direction.  Sadly, even in churches that maintain it (like the Canadian Reformed and Free Reformed of Australia), there are members who not only question it, but actively repudiate it.

One of the chief objections often raised against catechism preaching is that it isn’t preaching on the Word of God.  Instead, churches doing this are preaching on a human document.  In so doing they’re actually repudiating the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura.  The infallible Bible alone should be our “text,” and yet Reformed churches are preaching on a fallible Catechism.

Such an objection arises either from a caricature of catechism preaching or a misunderstanding of it.  The caricature portrays a Reformed pastor who dryly exegetes the Catechism, perhaps even referring at length to the original German vocabulary and grammar, but who fails to open the Bible or even mention the Bible.  In this caricature, the Catechism has indeed replaced the Bible.  I say this is a caricature because I’ve never once encountered this type of “catechism preaching,” nor have I heard of it anecdotally.  I doubt it exists.  If it does, may it soon become extinct.

The common misunderstanding relates to the notion of what biblical preaching is.  Nowhere does the Bible indicate that preaching must be on one isolated text, a verse or perhaps a series of verses.  There’s no reason to conclude that preaching can’t exposit or explain the doctrine found in a number of Bible passages.  In expository preaching, the preacher focusses on one isolated passage (naturally taking context into account as well) of Scripture.  In catechism preaching, the preacher teaches the “whole counsel of God” on a doctrine while taking the whole Bible into account.  If there ever is such a thing, catechism preaching that doesn’t work with the Scriptures is not worthy of the name “preaching,” and it isn’t biblical.   However, done properly it too is the preaching of the Word of God.

In a lecture several years ago at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, I heard Dr. Jason Van Vliet suggest we think of the relationship between regular Bible-text preaching and catechism preaching in terms of nouns, verbs, and adverbs:

The nouns are the same — if done properly, in both instances our subject material is the Word of God.

The verbs are the same — if done properly, in both instances we are preaching the Word of God.

The adverbs are different — in the first instance we are preaching from a single text of Scripture (in what I would call an expository manner); in the second instance we are preaching catechetically from a broader range of God’s revelation in Scripture.

When things are put in this manner, no one should have a difficulty in agreeing that catechism preaching can and should be biblical preaching.

Hosea 4:6 says, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…”  Lack of knowledge, including knowledge of the doctrines of Scripture, is destructive.  Catechism preaching aims to build up God’s people in their knowledge of what his Word teaches.  Catechism preaching is constructive — and so why wouldn’t any Reformed believer cherish it?

(Adapted from chapter 13 of my forthcoming book Aiming to Please: A Guide to Reformed Worship)


Open Your Bible

Imagine a morning worship service.  The pastor reads the text for his sermon.  Then everyone closes their Bible.  Dangerous – I can think of no other word to describe this situation.  Let me explain why.

The Bible teaches us that the preaching of God’s Word is God’s Word.  Nowhere is this made more explicit than 1 Thessalonians 2:13, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”  When the Thessalonians heard the preaching of men like Paul, they heard the voice of God speaking to them.

This is implicit in Ephesians 4:17, “And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.”  The Holy Spirit says that Jesus came and preached to the Ephesians.  But we know that the Lord never traveled to Asia Minor to preach.  So, how can it be said that Jesus preached in Ephesus?  He preached through Paul and others.  When they preached, it was as if Christ was preaching through them.  The preaching of God’s Word is God’s Word.

However, there is a crucially important biblical qualification.  The preaching of God’s Word is God’s Word when it’s done faithfully according to God’s Word.  If the words of the pastor are contradicting God’s Word, they can’t possibly be God’s Word.  The preaching has to be in line with intention and meaning of Scripture.  We see this from the example of the Berean Jews in Acts 17.  Acts 17:11 says, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”  The Holy Spirit commends these Jews for hearing the preaching of the apostles and comparing it with the written Word.  Because the two lined up, “many of them therefore believed.”

There are three reasons why it’s dangerous for believers to close their Bibles when listening to preaching.

First, it’s dangerous for you.  What if the pastor is just feeding you his own opinion instead of preaching the text to you?  How will you tell if you don’t have your Bible open?  When you have your Bible open, you can better discern whether the pastor is preaching the Scriptures or his own ideas.  You can better discern whether the preaching you’re hearing is God’s Word.

It’s also dangerous for your pastor.  Every human being needs accountability, including pastors.  When pastors face a congregation where everyone has their Bible closed, the likelihood they’ll get away with preaching their own opinions is far greater.  In 1 Corinthians 9:16, Paul wrote, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”  In Galatians 1:8, he wrote, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”  Accursed means “damned.”  In other words, damned be the pastor who preaches another gospel.  As a preacher, those words make me tremble and bring me to beg for the accountability of my listeners.  I want them to hold me accountable to preach only God’s Word.  They can do that far better when they listen to me with an open Bible.

Finally, it’s dangerous for the gospel.  All Christians want the gospel to move forward.  We all want the gospel to touch hearts and transform lives.  But if God’s Word is not being preached faithfully, how is that going to happen?  Preaching is a means of grace.  It is a way through which the Holy Spirit graciously brings people to Christ.  Yet it only does that as the preaching is faithful.  If we love the gospel, if we long to see people saved through it and lives transformed through it, then we all have a vested interest in ensuring that the preaching we hear is the preaching of the Word of God.  That’s done best when you have your Bible open in front of you.

It’s not just the responsibility of elders to ensure that the preaching is faithful.  All believers have a calling to hear preaching, but also to think about whether it is faithful, biblical preaching.  When we close our Bibles and blindly trust our pastor to do what’s right, we’re actually not too far off from the medieval church.  In the medieval church, many people just uncritically trusted what the priests were saying.  Look where that led.  The Reformation put preaching front and centre.  But the Reformation also put the Bible in people’s hands.  Regular Christians could again follow the example of the Bereans.  Not only would it be sad, it would also be dangerous if we would dial back the Reformation’s gains by listening to preaching today with a closed Bible.


What’s Wrong With Hillsong?

Hillsong is one of Australia’s most well-known exports.  They’re known not only for their praise and worship music brand, but also for attracting celebrities like Justin Bieber.  Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently spoke at a Hillsong Conference.  He’s a member of a church that belongs to the Australian Christian Churches, to which Hillsong also belongs.

Hillsong is not just a church – it’s a global phenomenon.  Around the world, over 130,000 people attend Hillsong each week.  That could be a great thing if Hillsong was faithful to the Scriptures.  If they were faithfully preaching the gospel and following the Word of God, Hillsong could have a powerful impact.  But are they?

Last week, the ABC featured a piece on modern Pentecostalism in Australia.  This is how it opens:

It is Sunday morning at Hillsong’s megachurch in the Sydney suburb of Alexandria, and Pastor Natalie Pingel pauses mid-sermon to conduct an impromptu Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson look-a-like contest.

She selects a group of buff parishioners and members of the band to line up on stage. Each takes turns flashing the crowd the actor’s signature raised eyebrow, to approval and gushing laughter.

Pastor Pingel then leads the congregation in prayer, the band plays anthemic rock music and the big screens either side of the stage light up with suggestions for what people can pray for.

The suggestions include financial stability, luck with job applications and visa approvals.

In these few words, there’s plenty indication that things are seriously wrong with Hillsong.  Even though they’re Pentecostal and, as such, claim to give more attention to the Holy Spirit, in reality they’re missing some key things the Spirit says.

Let’s start with the pastor.  The Holy Spirit says in 1 Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”  Yet Hillsong flouts the Holy Spirit’s teaching and has a woman delivering a sermon.

What about the “look-a-like” contest?  Search the Spirit’s book to see if any such thing was ever done by the apostles.  In the Bible, did the apostles pursue “approval and gushing laughter”?  Surely not.  Instead, the apostles preached the Word of God and left these sorts of comedic antics for the theatre.  They followed the leading of the Holy Spirit who said, simply, “Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2) – they didn’t add or take away from that.  They simply preached the Scriptures.

Next, notice the stage and “anthemic rock music.”  What associations do we commonly make with such things?  Entertainment.  Together with the comedy act, this doesn’t portray serious Christian worship in the presence of the Holy God, but an entertainment event.  What is this but “the itching ears” described by the Holy Spirit in 2 Timothy 4:3?

But most concerning of all in the ABC article is the portrayal of Hillsong as a purveyor of prosperity gospel teaching.  This is well-known.  Hillsong teaches that God wants believers to experience prosperity in this life.  This can manifest itself in different ways:  financial, health, relationships.  Becoming a Christian opens up access to all these blessings.  Christ died and rose again victorious to give Christians these blessings.  From time to time, they may still talk about the cross and give something of the true biblical gospel.  However, the emphasis falls on prosperity and success as the good news.

Even though the Spirit says it (Isa. 45:7, Lam. 3:38, Ps. 60:1-4, Ps. 66:10-12, Ps. 119:71), the idea that God would send adversity into the lives of believers because he loves them and wants to shape them is foreign to prosperity gospel churches. The Holy Spirit made most of the Psalms laments, but the prosperity gospel doesn’t know what to do with them.  In the New Testament, the Spirit-filled Jesus told his disciples that they would have to take up their cross and follow him (Matt. 10:38).  In Acts 14:22, Paul and Barnabas told the early Christians, “…through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”  But the idea of bearing the cross before wearing the crown doesn’t register in the prosperity gospel message.  Instead, it’s all about glory here and now.

Moreover, what’s missing is the biblical gospel message which the Spirit gave through Paul:  “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).  And what did he come to save us from?  According to Romans 5:9, we are saved by Christ “from the wrath of God.”  That note is rarely, if ever, heard in prosperity gospel churches.

Let me conclude with a question someone is sure to raise:  could someone be genuinely saved at or through Hillsong?  Perhaps.  God can do amazing things despite people.  He does amazing things despite me.  So he could save people through Hillsong too and I sincerely hope he does.  But that’s beside the point.  If a Christian is looking for a more consistently biblical, gospel-preaching church, I’m afraid Hillsong just doesn’t fit the bill.  If a Christian is looking for a church aiming to follow what the Holy Spirit teaches about worship and the offices of the church, one can do far better than Hillsong.


Listening As If For the Last Time

In his book Expository Exultation, John Piper describes how he prays right before preaching.  As an elder is reading the text for the sermon, Piper pleads with God for strength and effectiveness in the pulpit.  He understands the significance of what he’s about to do and so he begs God for help.  I can relate to that.

I’ve been preaching now for over 20 years.  In earlier times, I’d usually pray beforehand, but back then it was mostly because of nervousness and fear.  My first time on a pulpit in a Canadian Reformed Church was in my home congregation in Edmonton.  At that time (1999), it was the largest Canadian Reformed Church – over 600 members.  I was petrified.  What if I said something wrong?  What if I messed up the order of worship?  I had everything I had to say written down, just in case.  And I prayed and prayed.

As time went on, I became more comfortable with preaching and leading worship.  Only then did the momentous significance of what I was doing on the pulpit begin to really grip me.  It was a process.  Somewhere along the way I read the words of Richard Baxter, “I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.”  Along the way, I experienced more than once that a person heard me preach on one Sunday and then, by the next, they were no longer there.  God had called them out of this life.

The event that most impacted me was how God called home a United Reformed colleague, Rev. Eric Fennema.  I didn’t know him personally.  But I heard about him from a close friend who did.  One Sunday he was preaching as a guest minister in the URC in Lynden, Washington.  He preached a powerful, amazing sermon on the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt. 25:1-13).  You can still listen to it here.  He exhorted the congregation to always be ready to meet the Lord.  If you were to make one sermon your last, you would want it to be that one.  It was his last.  Late the following week he was playing golf and had a heart attack.  He never preached again.

Thus I gradually learned the urgency of preaching.  Preaching is life and death.  I now approach each sermon with two thoughts in mind.  First, what if this is the last sermon I ever preach?  Second, what if this is the last sermon someone in the pews will ever hear?  Those thoughts drive me to make sure I preach the gospel each time.  They also drive me to prayer far more than my early nervousness ever did.

Late last year and early this year, I enjoyed a sabbatical of several months.  I love preaching, but having that burden of urgency off my shoulders was refreshing.  I was blessed to have my old pastor, Rev. Richard Aasman, on the pulpit for a good portion of my sabbatical.  I could just sit and listen – and ponder.  I then learned there’s a flip-side to the urgency of preaching.

Listening to the preaching of God’s Word is also a matter of momentous significance.  If you knew that this was the last sermon you would ever hear preached, how would you listen differently?  But you don’t know.  It could be your last sermon – and that’s how you ought to approach it.  You should approach it prayerfully.  Ask God to help you treat it as the life-and-death proclamation of his Word to you.  Ask for the Holy Spirit to help you listen as if your life depends on it.

Eric Fennema’s passage from Matthew 25 certainly warns us, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (v.13).  You don’t know when the Bridegroom will appear with the clouds of heaven, but you also don’t know when he will call you to himself.  Therefore, you need to be watchful.  Part of being watchful is giving heed to his every word to you.  Urgently hang on his words as he speaks to you through preaching.  As our Lord says in another place, “Pay attention to what you hear…” (Mark 4:24).

To drive home the urgency of listening to God’s Word preached, we could rephrase Baxter’s dictum:

I listened as if never sure to listen again, and as a dying man listening to a dying man.”

It’s a lesson better learned sooner rather than later!