In my reading of the works of J. I. Packer I’ve come to greatly appreciate the Christocentric focus of his life and theology. This Christ-centeredness reverberates throughout virtually every page of everything he has written and echoes in nearly every word he has spoken. Continue reading . . .
In my reading of the works of J. I. Packer I’ve come to greatly appreciate the Christocentric focus of his life and theology. This Christ-centeredness reverberates throughout virtually every page of everything he has written and echoes in nearly every word he has spoken. For Packer, it is not enough to affirm the existence of “God” or to be theocentric in one’s overall perspective. The Christian life is one in which the revelation of God is centered in his Son, Jesus Christ. All true knowledge of God is first and foremost knowledge of Christ. This is surely what Jesus himself had in mind when he declared, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). We read again in 1 John 2:23 that “no one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.”
But what precisely does it mean to “know” Christ Jesus? It certainly begins with a solid and extensive grasp of the truths revealed in Scripture about the person and work of Christ. Yet, even non-Christians can study the Bible. Even Satan and his demons possess accurate understanding of the identity of Christ. Thus, at the center of Christian living for Packer is a very real, vital, personal engagement with Jesus himself, not as a distant figure of ancient history but as the living Lord who loves and gives and guides and encounters us in Scripture. I should let him unpack this for us himself:
“More particularly, Christianity (so it is affirmed) is a prolonging and universalizing for all disciples of that one-to-one relationship with Jesus which his first followers enjoyed in Palestine in his earthly ministry. There are, indeed, two differences. First we know more of who and what Jesus is than anyone knew before his passion. Secondly, once Jesus is now physically absent from us, our connection with him is not via our physical senses, but through his own inward application of biblical material to mind and heart in a way which is as familiar to believers as it is myterious to others. But the actual sense of being confronted, claimed, taught, restored, upheld and empowered by the Jesus of the gospels has been the essence of Christian experience over nineteen centuries, just as it is demonstrably of the essence of what New Testament writers knew, promised and expected. To assume, however, that Jesus is alive, universally available, and able to give full attention simultaneously to every disciple everywhere (and this is the biblical and Christian assumption) is, in effect, to declare his divinity” (“Jesus Christ the Lord,” 26).
For Packer, and rightly so, Christian faith means far more than merely acknowledging Jesus’ deity. One must also seek out and find a personal relationship with him “in which we receive of his fullness and respond to his love in the devotion of discipleship” (ibid., 27). What the Christian is claiming is that Jesus Christ, “the risen and enthroned Lord, is, though physically withdrawn from us, none the less ‘there,’ indeed ‘here,’ by his Spirit, in terms of personal presence for personal encounter. From such encounter (so the claim runs) trust in him, and love and loyalty to him, derive. . . . Fellowship with Jesus is not a metaphor or parable or myth of something else, but is a basic ingredient of distinctively Christian experience” (ibid., 35). In the following we find Packer at his best, making the point with unmistakable clarity and force:
“Whatever cultural shifts take place around us, whatever socio-political concerns claim our attention, whatever anxieties we may feel about the church as an institution, Jesus Christ crucified, risen, reigning, and now in the power of his atonement, calling, drawing, welcoming, pardoning, renewing, strengthening, preserving, and bringing joy, remains the heart of the Christian message, the focus of Christian worship, and the fountain of Christian life. Other things may change; this does not” (“Jesus Christ the only Savior,” 46).
Reading Packer is a wake-up call to anyone who may erroneously conclude that Christianity is little more than a world-view or religious philosophy or a commitment to embrace the ethics of Jesus in daily life. The essence of Christianity is neither a set of beliefs nor a pattern of behavior. It is “the communion here and now with Christianity’s living founder, the Mediator, Jesus Christ” (“A Modern View of Jesus,” 65). And what does Packer mean by the word “communion”? In what sense do men and women on this earth experience that sort of relationship with someone who is in heaven? Says Packer,
“Invisibly present to uphold us as we trust, love, honor and obey him, he supernaturalizes our natural existence, re-making our characters on the model of his own, constantly energizing us to serve and succor others for his sake. When life ends, whether through the coming of our own heartstop day or through his public reappearance to end history with judgment, he will take us to be with him. Then we shall see his face, share his life, do his will, and praise his name, with a joy that will exceed any ecstasy of which we are now capable and that will go on literally forever” (ibid., 65-66).
Being a Christian, therefore, is a matter of constantly reaching out to the invisibly present Savior by words and actions that express three things: “faith in him as the one who secured, and now bestows, forgiveness of our sins, so setting us right with the God who is his Father by essence and becomes ours by adoption; love for him as the one who loved us enough to endure an unimaginably dreadful death in order to save us; and hope in him as the sovereign Lord through whose grace our life here, with all its pains, is experienced as infinitely rich and our life hereafter will be experienced as infinitely richer. It thus appears that Christianity is Christ relationally. Being a Christian is knowing Christ, which is more than just knowing about him. Real faith involves real fellowship” (ibid., 66).
Again, Christianity is Christ relationally. If there is a center or hub to all of Packer’s thought on the Christian life, and ought to be in ours as well, it is here. Christian living is living in conscious, joyful, trusting relationship with Jesus of Nazareth.