What I’m Reading: Knowing God…with Thoughts on the IX Marks Packer Interview

Knowing GodI haven’t yet read Knowing God, J. I. Packer’s oft-recommended book on God’s character and attributes, so I’m working to amend that. I’m about 150 pages in, and I’m enjoying it very much. I particularly appreciate chapter 13, a description of “The Grace of God.” Despite its brevity, it’s as good a treatment on grace as I’ve read for quite some time, in large part because Packer takes the time to explain the other doctrines that must be understood before grace can be fully appreciated:

1. The moral ill-desert of man.

2. The retributive justice of God.

3. The spiritual impotence of man.

4. The sovereign freedom of God.

His definition of grace includes something which I think we too often neglect:

“The grace of God is love freely shown toward guilty sinners, contrary to their merit and indeed in defiance of their demerit.” (132, emphasis mine)

Aside: Alan Cairns in his Dictionary of Theological Terms emphasizes the same point:

“A mode of the goodness of God, often described as undeserved favour. It is more than that. It is undeserved favour bestowed upon those who are positively deserving of the wrath of God.” (199)


I’ve also listened a few times to Packer’s IX Marks interview. Aside from feeling like I should tuck in my shirt and have a spot of tea (Packer is agonizingly proper in his speech), here are a few quick thoughts on the interview:

* He makes a passing comment in support of female clergy, distinguishing himself from DMLJ, who did not believe women could be active in pastoral ministry. The topic was not pursued further.

* He takes strong exception with Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible, which he criticizes as “distinctly unfriendly” and “slashing,” and which he says “rubbish[ed] the institutions that were wrong.” Packer acknowledges that grave mistakes were made in the institutions Lindsell sited, but he believes that the way to deal with the mistakes should have been “as scholar to scholar.” Lindsell, Packer says, didn’t do that, and therefore “let all of us down by…playing, rather, to a sort of fundamentalist gathering.”

* In critiquing Lindsell, he whacks fundamentalists, whose M.O., he says, was to “impute [sic] the personal dignity of the folk who were wrong.” He says too many evangelicals defended inerrancy in a “swashbuckling, black-and-white, fundamentalist, denunciatory way.” So he essentially defends the well-meaning liberal scholar even as he throws fundamentalists under the bus.

* He believes that John Piper is “one of God’s best gifts to American evangelicalism these last twenty years.”

* He speaks ably on the gospel, the necessity of repentance, and the danger of presenting to sinners a partial gospel and thus promoting false professions.

* I wish he had been asked about his participation with ECT, but he wasn’t. I think it was a particularly grievous omission because so much of the discussion focused on the essence of gospel truth. To criticize easy-believism and church marketing–which they were certainly right to do–while leaving Roman Catholicism out of the discussion, especially with this particular man at this particular time, was curious.


6 Responses

  1. You kept the best ’til last! Your point about ignoring Packer’s own compromise with ECT should be the major feature of any critique of this interview. Disingenuous at best……Packer’s impairment dilutes greatly anything else he has to say to me. Even when I agree with the words coming out of his mouth, they carry no weight.

  2. Aren’t those definitions a confusion of grace and mercy?

    As for Packer…

    What can anyone say in the face of such overwhelming betrayal of the gospel?

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  3. Don, I think the point of the “deserving of wrath” portion of defining grace is this: God’s not just extending His favor to those who don’t deserve it (in the sense of being neutral); He’s extending it to those who deserve the exact oppposite.

    And I don’t disagree with you on Packer. Perhaps someone who knows more about him can comment, but I scratch my head: “How can that happen?”

    I enjoy the interviews from IX Marks very much, but there have been a couple times when I’ve thought that their silence regarding certain issues was deafening. This was one of those times.

  4. It is true that God is not just extending his favor to us. All that you said and that was said in these quotes is true, except I think it confuses the definition of the words. There is a distinction between grace and mercy. Grace is getting a gift I don’t deserve. Mercy is not getting the wrath I do deserve.

    At least, that is what I have been taught is the meaning of the two words. They tend to overlap in our minds, but if you are a theological writer doing the overlap, I think you are guilty of fuzzy thinking, which may have implications elsewhere.

    Anyway, not a big point, but possibly a note of clarification….

  5. I loved Packer’s books, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to respect him personally, much, since I read Iain Murray’s Evangelicalism Divided. It shows in what you report of this interview, too. We should hold opinions, but for heaven’s sake, let’s not be unpleasant about it, or get anyone upset about them.

    Every time I hear how much Packer loves the Puritans, I shake my head. Loves what they said, I guess. But not their passion.

  6. […] Heart of the Gospel” September 11th, 2007 — Chris I’ve put Packer’s Knowing God aside for a time—not out of disinterest, but because I’ve been reading other good […]

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