I am a man on a mission. I am tracking down all the people who have impacted my life for Christ so that I can thank them. So when Bernice and I were in Vancouver in 2010, we visited with J. I. Packer. He was one of a number of profs who had taught and mentored me when I was at Regent. And I had the privilege of hosting him and Kit (Mrs. Packer) a few times when they visited Malaysia. We wanted to take him out for lunch but he treated us instead. We went to one of his favourite restaurants, The Cheshire Cheese Inn. Kit was out of town and couldn’t join us. I took great pleasure “showing off” Bernice to him and introducing Bernice to a key person in my pilgrimage.
During lunch, Packer let on that his ministry credentials had been removed by his Anglican diocese. I guess that’s what you get for persistently asking your leaders to repent. The issue is a familiar one by now. Packer had taken a stand against the church endorsing and blessing same-sex unions. He saw this as something that was clearly against the teaching of the Bible. He considered the support of homosexual practice heretical. He called his Anglican Diocese to repent of their sinful support of unrepentant homosexual activity. Now they had pulled his ministry credentials.
What struck me when Packer reported about the removal of his ministry credentials was this: Here was a man in his 80s. He had fought many wars for the Lord in his long ministerial career. Surely he deserved to kick back a bit and enjoy this chapter of life. Surely he deserved a break from the wars. Surely he deserved the peace to pursue some of the things he enjoyed. (I knew that he enjoyed reading mystery novels—who-dun-its—and listening to jazz music among other things.) Sure, he could teach a course here and there and maybe pen a book or two. But he needn’t be at the front line taking bullets for the team anymore. But here he was doing precisely that.
Taking a stand for the truth even when it is unpopular was what Packer did when he wrote his first book, “Fundamentalism” and The Word of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1958). He was 32 then. It was a time when evangelicals were caught between an anti-intellectual fundamentalism on one side and a dominant theological liberalism on the other. His book was a robust statement and defence of a biblical view of Scripture. More than 50 years later it is clear that Packer’s first book was a key book that helped define and defend biblical faith. Evangelicalism has much more cred these days. But when “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God first appeared, it was a brave book, written by someone not afraid to speak up for biblical truth even when it was not popular. In his 80s, Packer continues to do the same.
I was thinking of Packer recently because I was getting nervous. I had written an essay that called for Christians in Malaysia to work for political change. That essay had been translated into Malay and was getting wider distribution. Would this get me unnecessary notoriety? And in recent times I had to revisit the issue of a biblical position on homosexuality. This is the hot topic of the day with people passionately holding on to different views, even within the body of Christ. Unlike the Soo Inn of yesteryear, I no longer find myself energised by conflict. Would speaking and writing on this get me into conflict situations? Politics and homosexuality; I had been writing on these hot topics and I was getting nervous. Should I pull back? Should I stick to safer topics? In the midst of my nervousness I remembered Packer, and in remembering I press on.
In 2 Timothy 3:10, Paul writes:
You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance . . . (NIV)
Paul understood that one does not teach by words alone. One teaches by one’s life. Paul wanted to teach Timothy about the cost of discipleship: “… everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted …” (2 Timothy 3:12 NIV). Paul instructs through his writings but he teaches through his life: “You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them.” (2 Timothy 3:10-11 NIV). I was speaking to a group of youth workers recently. I told them that the primary way to teach the young about how to live the Christ-life is to show them. Of course we need to instruct, but people remember our lives.
After Packer told us that his ministry credentials had been removed by his own diocese, he said, with a twinkle in his eye, that another Anglican province had approved his ministry credentials the very next day and his ministry had continued. And all this from a man who was 84 (2010). Lord may I have half that fire when I am that age.