J.I. Packer

Book Review: Knowing Christ, by Mark Jones

Knowing ChristKnowing Christ (as the title seems to suggest) is something of a companion volume or follow-up to J.I. Packer’s classic work, Knowing God (which is probably my all-time favorite Christian book). Packer’s Foreword in the beginning of the book makes it clear that he himself enthusiastically commends it.

It is no secret that J.I. Packer is a long-time aficionado of and expert on the Puritans, so it is especially fitting that someone like Jones (whom Packer calls “an established expert on many aspects of puritan thought”) would be the one to take up the proverbial mantel in writing this volume.

The influence of the Puritans is clearly evident throughout the book, as Jones freely cites such luminaries as Thomas Brooks, Stephen Charnock, John Flavel, Thomas Goodwin, John Owen, Richard Sibbes, and Thomas Watson. There are also numerous quotations from other giants in the Reformed tradition, such as John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, B.B. Warfield, Herman Bavinck, Abraham Kuyper, and Geerhardus Vos. Most importantly, Jones grounds everything in Scripture, and backs up much of what he says with references to the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms.

Having said all of that in the above paragraph, what if I told you that this is truly one of the finest devotional books that you will ever read? That is one of the most remarkable things about this book – Jones takes what can be a very complex subject (Christology), brings the writings of some of the greatest theological minds in the history of the church to bear on the subject, and somehow makes it all eminently readable and accessible. And he does all of that in only 232 pages! Perhaps my only complaint (if anything) is that I wish the book were about twice as long. (I also wish it were available in hardback, but I digress.)

There are few things more needful for Christians in our day (or any day!) than to know Christ better. And yet there are (as Jones himself points out in the Introduction) shockingly few books available on that subject. This book will go a long way toward helping to fill that void. It is far and away my favorite new book of 2015.

Get this book. Read this book. Re-read this book.

May the Lord Jesus Christ be pleased to grant this book a wide readership for many years and decades to come. And may many people come to know Christ and/or know Him better through what is found within its pages

A 3-Word Summary of the Gospel

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If you were to attempt to summarize the gospel in as few words as possible, how would you do it?  How would you boil it down to its most basic essence? How many words would you need?

J.I. Packer says that he can name that tune in just three (3) notes. In his book, Knowing God, Packer offers a three-word summary of the central message of the New Testament:

“[W]ere I asked to focus the New Testament message in three words, my proposal would be adoption through propitiation, and I do not expect ever to meet a richer or more pregnant summary of the gospel than that.” (p.214)

Adoption through propitiation. In Christ believers are not only justified and accounted righteous in the sight of God, but also adopted into the family of God (!). And how is that made possible? Through Christ’s work of propitiation, whereby He took the wrath of God that we deserve for our sins upon Himself on the Cross.

Sinners are made children of God because of the death of the Son of God on their behalf! What an amazing truth!  That is the amazing grace of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ!

The Heart of the Gospel

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In his classic book, Knowing God, J.I. Packer includes a chapter entitled “The Heart of the Gospel.”  And what is that chapter all about? Propitiation.

Propitiation (according to Packer) is the heart of the gospel; it is central to the gospel. And yet that word is strangely absent from the vocabulary of far too many believers.  Worse yet, it is often absent in the preaching and teaching of the church.  No doubt the former is largely the result of the latter.

Concerning the vital doctrine of propitiation, Packer writes,

Has the word propitiation any place in your Christianity? In the faith of the New Testament it is central. The love of God, the taking of human form by the Son, the meaning of the cross, Christ’s heavenly intercession, the way of salvation – all are to explained in terms of it, . . .and any explanation from which the thought of propitiation is missing will be incomplete, and indeed actually misleading, by New Testament standards. (p.181)

He even goes so far as to say that “a gospel without propitiation at its heart is another gospel than that which Paul preached” (p.182).

What, then, is propitiation?  What does the word mean? The New Bible Dictionary (Third Edition, IVP, 1996) defines it as “the removal of wrath by the offering of a gift” (p.975). The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Baker Book House, 1984) offers a better definition of the biblical use of this word as “The turning away of wrath by an offering” (p.888).

The Biblical use of the word expresses the idea that on the Cross Jesus Christ took the wrath of God for the sins of His people upon Himself – that God’s wrath for our sin was poured out upon Him in our place. It is the same idea expressed (even if the word itself is absent) in Isaiah 53:5 where Isaiah says that upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace.” 

Perhaps the key use of the Word in the New Testament is found in Romans chapter 3, where Paul writes,

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:23-25a, ESV, emphasis mine)

God put forth his own Son “as a propitiation by His blood.” The death of Jesus Christ turned away the wrath of God from His people.  We who were “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3) are redeemed, forgiven, reconciled and even adopted as children of God in Jesus Christ because of His death in our place, taking the wrath of God for our sins upon Himself!

No wonder Packer holds this great truth to be central to the Christian faith! It really is at the heart of the gospel. The gospel just isn’t the gospel without the truth of propitiation.

“The True Driving Force In Authentic Christian Living”

 

steam-289008_1280What is the primary motivation for a believer in Jesus Christ to live the Christian life?  What should drive us to (as Paul says in Romans 12:1) offer up our bodies as living sacrifices, “holy and acceptable to God”?

Guilt? Fear? The hope of gain? Trying to earn God’s favor or stay in His good graces?  While we may find ourselves from time to time being motivated by any number of those things in our pursuit of living the Christian life, none of those things are the proper fuel for the Christian’s engine, so to speak.

Trying to live the Christian life through guilt, fear, or the hope of gain is a lot like trying to drive a car with no gas and four flat tires. You just won’t get very far at all.

So what should motivate us offer up our bodies as a living sacrifice?  In Romans 12:1 Paul says that we should do so “by the mercies of God.” In other words, God’s mercy and grace toward us in the gospel of Jesus Christ should motivate us.  So our primary motivation should be, not fear or guilt, but gratitude.

In his book, Rediscovering Holiness, J.I. Packer writes,

The secular world never understands Christian motivation. Faced with the question of what makes Christians tick, unbelievers maintain that Christianity is practiced only out of self-serving purposes. They see Christians as fearing the consequences of not being Christians (religion as fire insurance), or feeling the need of help and support to achieve their goals (religion as a crutch), or wishing to maintain a social identity (religion as a badge of respectability). No doubt all these motivations can be found among the membership of churches: it would be futile to dispute that. But just as a horse brought into a house is not thereby made human, so a self-seeking motivation brought into the church is not thereby made Christian, nor will holiness ever be the right name for religious routines thus motivated. From the plan of salvation I learn that the true driving force in authentic Christian living is, and ever must be, not the hope of gain, but the heart of gratitude. (p.75)

So if you want some practical advice on living the Christian life, one of the most helpful things you should do (although certainly not the only thing) is to consider and mediate upon the mercies of God in the gospel.  In the words of Psalm 103:2, we must “forget not all his benefits.”

The more we grasp the greatness of God’s mercies and grace toward us in Jesus Christ, the more we will be filled with gratitude and love for our God & Savior.  And that will be the true driving force in our discipleship.

God the Judge

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“From thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.” (The Apostles’ Creed)

The just judgment of God on sinful humanity is one of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith.  It is found again and again in Scripture, and is featured prominently in three of the four great ecumenical Christian creeds.

The Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed all explicitly state that the Lord Jesus Christ Himself will come again “to judge the living and the dead.” (Chalcedon being the only exception, which was not a broad summation of the faith like the other three, but was primarily written to state and defend the orthodox understanding of the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ.)

And yet the popular misconception has seemingly always persisted that God will not surely judge sinners.  Rob Bell (in his book, Love Wins) is certainly no innovator in that regard.  In fact, the idea that God will not judge sinners is practically the original lie of Satan himself.  In Genesis 3:1 the serpent questioned the Word of God (specifically the commandment against eating the forbidden fruit, which certainly also implied the punishment threatened for transgressing that commandment – death), and then in v.4 flatly denied the just judgment of God, saying, “You will not surely die.”

That lie has been repeated in one form or another again and again throughout history, with deadly results.

J.I. Packer writes,

“People who do not actually read the Bible confidently assure us that when we move from the Old Testament to the New, the theme of divine judgment fades into the background. But if we examine the New Testament, even in the most cursory way, we find at once that the Old Testament emphasis on God’s action as Judge, far from being reduced, is actually intensified.” (Knowing God, p.140)

God does not change (Numbers 23:19; Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8).  The idea that God is somehow different now than He was during the Old Testament is simply untrue.  The idea that the God of the Old Testament was the harsh God of wrath and judgment, while the God of the New Testament is the nice God of love is simply untrue.  God was gracious in the Old Testament, and God is still the righteous Judge of all the earth in the New Testament.

The gospel comes to us and says not “You will not surely die” (Genesis 3:4), but rather that Jesus has died in the place of sinners.  The good news is not that the judgment of God has somehow been done away with or abrogated, but that it has been propitiated – God’s wrath has been poured out upon Jesus Christ on the Cross!  A sinless substitute has been fully punished for our sins in our place!

We are not only saved from judgment, but saved through (or by) judgment – through the Son of God Himself (the Judge!) taking the punishment for our sins!  So if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you no longer need to fear the final judgment, for the Judge of the living and the dead is the One who died for your salvation!  As Paul writes in Romans 8:31-34,

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.

Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect when the Judge Himself is the One who died for our sins and was raised from the dead, and is also the One who ever lives to intercede for His people at the right hand of God the Father!

J.I. Packer on Justification

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J.I. Packer gives us a beautiful  description of what happens in the justification of a sinner through faith in Jesus Christ:

Justification is the truly dramatic transition from the status of a condemned criminal awaiting a terrible sentence to that of an heir awaiting a fabulous inheritance. (Knowing God, p.133)

Much more than just the commutation of sentence, more than even pardon for sin, in justification sinners are actually accepted as righteous in God’s sight.  How is that possible?  It is “only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q.33).

Part of our justification is being accepted by God.  And not just being accepted, but also adopted as the children of God in Christ (1 John 3:1; Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q.34)!   So instead of the well-deserved expectation of judgment and condemnation for our many sins, believers in Christ now have “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4, ESV).

The Apostle Paul also writes about our inheritance in Christ:

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:11-14 ESV)

That is what makes the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ so good!  That is why the grace of God in Jesus Christ toward sinners is so utterly amazing!

The Supreme Mystery of the Gospel

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“[T]he supreme mystery with which the gospel confronts us . . . .lies not in the Good Friday message of atonement, nor in the Easter message of resurrection, but in the Christmas message of Incarnation. The really staggering claim is that Jesus of Nazareth was God made man – that the second person of the Godhead became the “second man” (1 Cor 15:47), determining human destiny, the second representative head of the race, and that he took humanity without loss of deity, so that Jesus of Nazareth was as truly and fully divine as he was human.” (J.I. Packer, Knowing God, p.53)

The Disgrace of the Nativity

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We tend to have romantic notions about the birth of Christ that don’t fit the facts of the actual circumstances involved.  For example, when we see a nativity scene at Christmastime we probably find them beautiful.  After all, people do use them for decorations, don’t they?

While the nativity should certainly remind us of the love of God in Christ Jesus (which is beautiful, to say the least), there is really nothing outwardly beautiful or attractive about the nativity.  If we gave the scene much thought at all, we would be shocked and appalled. We would be outraged to hear of a baby being born in such conditions today, and rightly so.  And how much more so when the baby being born was the Messiah -the Son of God Himself!

J.I. Packer writes,

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell us in some detail how the Son of God came to this world. He was born outside a small hotel in an obscure Jewish village in the great days of the Roman Empire. The story is usually prettied up when we tell it Christmas by Christmas, but it is really rather beastly and cruel. The reason why Jesus was born outside the hotel is that it was full and nobody would offer a bed to a woman in labor, so that she had to have her baby in the stables and cradle him in a cattle trough. The story is told dispassionately and without comment, but no thoughtful reader can help shuddering at the picture of callousness and degradation that it draws.” (Knowing God, p.54).

One can’t help but think that this was the last kind of circumstance that Mary or Joseph would have imagined the Son of God would be born into – you could forgive them for wondering what might have gone wrong. This was the polar opposite of the glory He deserved.

The Son of God, the Savior of all mankind, the King of Kings was born not in a palace, but in a barn of sorts.  As the Christmas song goes, he had “no crib for a bed.”  His bed was a “manger” (Luke 2:7).  In other words, his bed was a dirty food trough that was used to feed likestock.  Not exactly the kind of thing one shops for at Babies-r-us.

So when you consider the birth of Jesus, remember the humility of the Son of God in His incarnation.  Consider what Christ did and suffered in order to save sinners.

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9 ESV)

The Message of Christmas

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What is the message of Christmas?

J.I. Packer writes,

The Christmas message is that there is hope for a ruined humanity – hope of pardon, hope of peace with God, hope of glory – because at the Father’s will Jesus Christ became poor and was born in a stable so that thirty years later he might hang on a cross. It is the most wonderful message that the world has ever heard, or will hear. (Knowing God, p.63)

You cannot truly understand the manger apart from the Cross.  And so you cannot truly understand Christmas apart from the gospel.

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9 ESV)

Is Something Missing from Our Message?

In Acts chapter two, Peter preaches a very powerful sermon to a large crowd at the temple.  He preached about the Lord Jesus Christ – His death, resurrection & ascension.  He pulled no punches, even reminding the crowd that they themselves were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (v.23).

Look at the reaction of the crowd that had previously been mocking the preaching of the apostles. Verse 37 says, “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Notice two (2) things about their response to the preaching of Christ crucified: First, they were cut to the heart. They were convicted of their sin and guilt before a holy God. Second, they no longer had any delusions of trying to only come to God on their own terms.

May I be so bold as to say that this is precisely where much of today’s evangelism goes wrong. Sometimes today’s evangelism goes wrong in that it simply does not involve preaching the gospel; it does not include the message of Christ crucified and risen from the dead.  But at other times it goes awry in that we are so desperate for results that we are quick to accept almost anything and everything as being indicative of saving faith.  No real conviction of sin? No problem. Our hearers only “coming to Jesus” in order to address felt needs or in order to help them straighten their lives out? Sounds great! No repentance? Some preachers today even go so far as to say that repentance is completely unnecessary or, worse, that it is an attempt to add our works to the grace of God in salvation. Nothing could be further from the truth. And nothing could be further from the gospel that we find in Scripture.

What was Peter’s answer? Peter pointed them to the promise of God in Jesus Christ. Verse 38 says,“And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  He tells them to “repent.” This is truly (and sadly) one of those precious words that has been slowly disappearing from the Christian vocabulary. You will rarely hear of repentance in sermons today. And that should clearly not be the case.

Peter preached repentance in that first sermon in Acts chapter 2. Was that an isolated instance?  By no means.   What was the very first message that the Lord Jesus Himself preached?  Mark 1:14-15 says,

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Similarly, Matthew 4:17 says,

“From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.””

So the kingdom of God and the call to repentance were clear and consistent themes in the preaching of Jesus Christ from the very beginning of his earthly ministry. Not only that, but our Lord Jesus Christ clearly taught the apostles that repentance was to be an essential part of their preaching. At the end of Luke’s Gospel, he includes his account of the Great Commission.

Luke 24:45-48 says,

“Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

So Jesus opened their mind to understand the Scriptures, showing them that His death and resurrection were at the heart of the Old Testament from beginning to end. And what else did He help them to understand about the Scriptures? That from beginning to end the message of salvation has always been characterized by the preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins in the name of the Christ.

So repentance has always been an essential part of true Christian preaching, an indispensable part of the gospel message, and a necessary component of faithfulness to the Great Commission. One writer has said,

Repentance is a missing link in much present-day evangelism; yet it is part of the doctrinal content of our message. It is not new methods that we need. It is the very message of evangelism that needs to be restored; not just a ‘tune-up,’ but a complete overhaul. (Ernest C. Reisinger, Today’s Evangelism, p.37)

But what does it mean to repent? The Westminster Shorter Catechism gives us a very helpful definition of what it calls “repentance unto life.”

Q. 87. What is repentance unto life?
A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.

It is no wonder that in his book, Rediscovering Holiness, J.I. Packer writes, “Repentance is in truth a spiritual revolution.”  It is a total change of mind, heart & disposition toward sin and toward God.  It is the ultimate u-turn.  To use military imagery, it is a spiritual “about-face.”

Have you understood the depth of your sin and guilt? Have you turned from your sin and turned to Christ by faith? If not, you may be a lot of things, but a Christian is not one of them.  Turn from your sin unto Jesus Christ by faith so that all of your sins may be forgiven, cleansed by the blood of the Savior.

May we in the church learn to faithfully proclaim the same message that the Lord Jesus & His Apostles did, And may we see the same results – the Lord adding daily to his church those who are being saved (Acts 2:47).