Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Remembering J.I. Packer (some more)

I have previously compiled several remembrances of and tributes to J.I. Packer, who passed away in July of this year.  Those can be found here.  I want to add a couple more.  

The first is by Alan Jacobs (whose blog happens to be the only one that I take the time to read every post).  His remembrance is brief and personal and captures some of why Packer had such a wide influence and why the church needs more people like him.  Jacobs' tribute can be found over at Snakes and Ladders.

The second is a compilation of several remembrances and tributes to Dr. Packer, from colleagues, publishers, former students, friends, fellow theologians and Bible scholars, etc.  There are contributions from many, including Alister McGrath and N.T. Wright, as well as a former student of Dr. Packer who also happened to be one of his care-givers in the days leading up to his death in hospital.  This video memorial can be found here.

Monday, 21 December 2020

Christmas Fears

I recently gave the reflection below to a group of college & university students, some of whom are in their first year.  Many of these students finished up their last year of high school strictly online in COVID conditions, and sadly their first year of college and/or university has been entirely online also.  This is not at all how they imagined beginning life after high school.    

I want to reflect on a major theme of the Christmas story.  It's not one you hear a lot about. 

Almost all of the main characters in the Christmas story have a similar response when they first hear the announcement of the birth of Jesus:  FEAR.

Luke 1:12-13

Zechariah is a priest and it is his shift to serve in the temple.  He’s been trained for this; He’s done this before; but suddenly the unexpected happens.  And angel appears to him in the temple and Zechariah is “troubled” and “fear fell upon him”.  

The angel then tells him, “do not be afraid”, God is answering yours and Elizabeth’s prayers. You will have a son who will announce the Messiah and prepare his way. 

What are Zechariah's fears?  Perhaps fear of experiencing God working in ways he is not used to, in unexpected and new ways.  He also doubts the reality of what Gabriel tells him; he fears that this might not really happen (a fear reminiscent of that of Abraham and Sarah when God promised them a son born in their old age).  Eventually Zechariah’s fear turns to praise when God's words are fulfilled, their son is born, and Zechariah's tongue is loosed.

Matthew 1:20

Joseph finds out that the young woman he is engaged to is pregnant.  He is a faithful Jewish man so he knows he should not marry a woman who has not kept herself for her future husband, but he is kindhearted and he doesn’t want to shame Mary publicly.  

But an angel comes to him and says, “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife because the baby in her is conceived from God.  You shall call him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

What might be Joseph’s fears?  Fear of losing his reputation as an obedient and righteous man according to the Mosaic law.  He very likely might fear what people will think of him marrying a woman who is already pregnant - perhaps they will think Mary slept with another man, or perhaps they will think that Joseph gave in to temptation and couldn't wait for marriage.  Certainly he would fear the uncertainty of the whole situation.  But Joseph obeys the angel and from the little we know of him in the gospels (early chapters of Matthew), he regularly and faithfully obeys God’s leading.

Luke 1:26-30

The same angel - Gabriel - that spoke to Zechariah now comes to a teen aged girl, Mary.  She is a virgin, betrothed to Joseph the carpenter.  Gabriel greets her and says she is favoured by God.  She is greatly troubled because she doesn’t know what this is all about.  

Gabriel says, “Do not be afraid Mary, because you have found favour with God.”  He tells her she will conceive a baby by the power of the Holy Spirit and her boy will be the Messiah, God’s chosen king and saviour.

Mary responds, “I’m God’s servant; let it be to me according to what you’ve said.”  Her life is about to turn upside down.  She really has no idea what this will mean for her.  But she receives God's word to her and accepts his plan for her. 

What could Mary’s fears be?  Like Joseph, she likely fears for her reputation – what will people think of her, pregnant before marriage.  And as with both Zechariah and Joseph, God's announcement to her means huge uncertainty, with the attendant fear of the unknown.  After all, how does one be mother to the Messiah?  She may fear all the unknown ways her life will change from what she thought it would be, married to a carpenter, and now mother of Israel’s true king and Messiah.  But her fear turns to praise.

Luke 2:9-10

Tax time - thanks Caesar.  Government policies have always been inconvenient.  Joseph takes Mary and they travel to Bethlehem.  She’s nine months pregnant – should she really be making this journey?  She doesn’t have to go with Joseph, so why does she?  Probably they are afraid the baby will come when Joseph is away and they want to be together.  Mary is an unwed young mother who may not have many people willing to support her.  So she and Joseph make this difficult and inconvenient journey together. 

When they arrive in Bethlehem, there’s no place for them to stay.  But the baby isn’t waiting for them to find a place – Mary's water breaks and she goes into labour.  When the baby boy is born, they swaddle him and lay him in an animal feed trough. 

There are shepherds near by, watching their sheep on a dark, chilly night.  Suddenly an angel appears to them and a bright light shines all around them.  The shepherds are “filled with fear”.  No kidding.  Two seconds ago it was just another ordinary night in the fields - probably cold, tired, hungry - doing a thankless job.  Suddenly there's a blazing heavenly messenger standing before them.

I sometimes wonder if angels enjoy showing up suddenly and surprising people half to death.  That is certainly the context for the fear of Zechariah and Mary - one minute they are alone and the next minute an angelic messenger suddenly appears and speaks.  I can picture the angels gathering around to hear Gabriel recount his mission to Zechariah - "so, I waited until he had reached over to grab some more incense and then when he turned back around I was standing there..." --Hahahaha-- "you should have seen his face!"

But the angel tells the shepherds, “Fear not!”  Why fear not?  Because, the angel says, “I bring you good news of great joy for all the people.  Unto you is born right now in Bethlehem a Saviour, Christ the Lord.”  The angel announces the good news – the gospel – to the shepherds: the Messiah has been born.  And it is good news for all people. 

Then a whole host of angels appears praising God and saying, “glory to God”.  The shepherds were awestruck.  They rush into town to see Jesus, and everyone they meet is filled with wonder when they hear the shepherd's report about the angels and the baby Messiah.  And eventually the shepherds fear turns to praise.  They return to their flocks glorifying God, and the night is a bit less chilly and much less dark.


All these character’s fear turned to praise and joy when they heard the announcement that a saviour, a king, the Messiah was to be born.

But there are some other characters who, when they heard the news, were also troubled and fearful, but it did not turn to joy and praise.

When the wise men came from the east, they asked around in Jerusalem where they could find this king of the Jews whose sign they saw in the sky.  When King Herod heard this, he was troubledthe same word used for Zechariah and Mary – and all Jerusalem with him.  Herod gathers all the religious leaders together and asks them where this Messiah was to be born.

What does Herod fear?  A potential challenge to his power.  Like many selfish, power-hungry, political leaders, Herod would do anything to cling to power.  We know from history that he had some of his own wives and sons murdered when he suspected them of plotting against him.

And the religious leaders were troubled also.  Look at their response to the wise men. They know their Bibles: they can tell Herod and the wise men exactly where the Messiah would be born, but they don’t go to welcome him. 

Herod’s trouble and fear turns to wrath and murder and he wipes out all baby boys up to two years old near Bethlehem to prevent a challenge to his power.  The religious leaders' fear turns to complacency: none of them go with the wise men to visit this Messiah. What a terrible response to finding out their Messiah is to be born.

We never hear of the wise being afraid.  They just faithfully search out the Messiah, give him their gifts, and fall down before him in worship.

The good news of Christmas is the same now as it was when the angels first announced it: Jesus is born for you.  He came to save people from their sins.  To reconcile us to God and to bring peace between people. 

But Jesus is also Lord.  He calls us to follow him wherever he leads us. And he seldom lets us know very far in advance where he will lead us. 

That can be a fearful thing: if you surrender your life to God’s control, like Mary did, you don’t know where he might lead you or what it might cost you. 

But if you welcome Jesus, your fear will turn to joy and praise, even when you follow Jesus through uncertain seasons or God does unpredictable things in your life. 

That’s all.  I just want to encourage any of you who are feeling fearful or troubled, feeling uncertain, that your response to Jesus makes all the difference.  

God calls you to receive Jesus, to accept his leading in your life.  Christ calls you to follow him in faith and hope, and he never guarantees smooth sailing or comfort or predictability.  But if you receive Jesus' guidance in your life, if you take up your cross and follow him, although a sword will pierce your soul too (Luke 2:35), Jesus will prove a faithful Lord, a loving master, whose Spirit will makes Christ's yoke easy and his burden light.  And as you receive Jesus as Mary did, in utter trust despite her fears, God will turn your fear to joy and praise. 

If anyone reading this feels like they could use a little more hope this Christmas, I would encourage you to check out an Advent & Christmas service series that our church, St. John's Vancouver, is doing.  The series, Held by Hope can be found here.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

R.I.P., J.I.P.

I began writing this post the week following J.I. Packer's death on July 17th.  Considerable time has passed and much has been written about Dr. Packer in the weeks following his passing.  I am going to keep the original wording from this post as I began to write it in July......

Last Friday, just before noon, Dr. J.I. Packer went to be with Jesus.  Jim Packer was in his hospital bed, his wife Kit and one of his pastors praying at his side.

Upon hearing the news of Dr. Packer's passing, it was hard not to see this as the end of an era.  Jim Packer was a giant within the Evangelical Christian world in his own right, but he also connected the current generations of Evangelicals with some pretty significant heroes of the faith from the past. Whether one considers his personal working relationships with people like D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Stott, and F.F. Bruce, or whether you consider that Packer was part of the generation of Oxford students who were deeply influenced by hearing C.S. Lewis speak in person, Jim represented the remaining presence of an influential generation of some very significant Christian stalwarts.

A truly practical and personal treasure...

I count it a great privilege and blessing to have studied under Dr. J.I. Packer.  Several years ago, I took a two-week summer course he taught at Regent College.  It had long been on my theological bucket list to take a class with Dr. Packer after learning so much from his writings over the years.  His books, Knowing God, Growing in Christ, and Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God were particularly influential for me.  The class I took with him on Paul's (underappreciated) epistle, 2 Corinthians, formed the material behind Packer's richly devotional little book, Weakness is the Way.  Each class session began with Dr. Packer having the class stand and sing the doxology (as he did with all his classes).  He believed that theology was for doxology, that sound doctrine and deep devotion were inseparable. 

But I have been influenced by Packer's teaching in indirect ways also.  I remember Knowing God on our bookshelf at home as a kid, and I remember my mother spoke highly of it (despite her firm Baptist heritage).  Later in life, Ian McPhee was a one of my professors and an important mentor in my theology undergrad studies at Peace River Bible Institute.  Ian himself had been strongly influenced by Dr. Packer.  Ian was clearly a disciple of Dr. Packer not only in his doctrine, but also in his own teaching career, for, in imitation of Packer, Ian taught books of the Bible (from both testaments) as well as doctrinal theology, biblical theology, and contemporary theology classes.  If there was a controversial theological issue that needed to be dealt with at college, it usually fell to Ian to address it.  In his ability to deal fairly with the varying opinions in a thorny theological debate, Ian was charitable in his criticism, humble in his arguments, and always gracious in his critique of an idea or theological stance that he disagreed with while recognizing that many who held to it were his Christian brothers and sisters.  This spirit of humility and charity permeated Packer's work.  I always liked to hear Ian's reminiscences of being a student at Regent, gathered on the patio at the Packer's home for informal times of fellowship and discussion.  Ian would often slip into Packer's pristine English accent and quote a snippet of ingrained Packerian wisdom.  As I recall, we sang some of Ian's favourite hymns to begin classes and some of them (probably from Ian's Presbyterian heritage), though rick in theology, were largely unknown to the students.  Sadly, Ian died of cancer while I was in the second to last year of my undergrad. 

Everything Jim Packer did in his life-long ministry was done with Christ at the center, Scripture as foundation, and the church in focus.  Jim served as a Canon and an honourary minister at St. John's Vancouver Anglican church (Anglican Network in Canada) as well as teaching for many years at Regent College.  His church ministry was to help lay people love God with all their minds as well as hearts, and his college teaching was to help Christian academic pursuit be aimed at the instruction, edification, and unity of the church.  

I won't repeat what has been said about Jim elsewhere (see the links below - just a sample of what has been written about him after his passing).  But I will share four memories I have of him.

The first face-to-face conversation I had with Dr. Packer was when I took the 2 Corinthians summer class at Regent.  Each student was given 20 minutes to discuss a possible paper topic with him.  After we discussed my subject (that weakness and suffering is a sign of true apostolicity in Paul's writings), we discussed the crisis in the Anglican Church.  Again, you can read in some of the links below the controversy that Packer was involved in because he (along with many others) was holding to the authority and veracity of Scripture in a denomination that was fast abandoning it.  But our family had been part of an Anglican congregation in northern BC that was experiencing the same type of division for the same reasons.  He was very encouraging and very firm on Scripture as authoritative for the life of the church in the face of an increasingly post-Christian culture and a culturally compromised Anglican church.  

Another memory I have is from my time working part-time on staff at St. John's Vancouver (Packer's home church) while studying at Regent (I am still doing both of these things).  I had the privilege to preach several times at the 7:30 am prayer book service at St. John's.  This service is about 45-50 minutes long and typically has between 25-40 people.  It is a holy communion service every Sunday, straight from the BCP.  It is the service that Jim attended.  My memory is of preaching several times with one of my heroes in the faith sitting in the third-from-front pew, listening.  Sometimes I wonder what he was thinking..... 

I couple years ago, I attended a three-day conference on the Puritans hosted at Regent College.  Several world-class church historians and theologians were on hand to deliver lectures on various Puritans or aspects of Puritan theology.  The two Jims, James Houston (founder and first president of Regent) and James Packer, were in attendance as well.  It was generally recognized by all scholars in attendance that Packer had done more than anyone else to set off the 20th century revival in Puritan study and for renewing a knowledge of the Puritans among lay Evangelicals.  Houston and Packer were interviewed as part of the conference and, along with his trademark good humour, Packer still spoke in complete paragraphs composed of sentences with three or four subordinate clauses each, without so much as an "um" or an "uh".  Such command of English and such clarity and organization of thought.

This image (from Crossway) reminds me of the conversation in the Packer's living room - lit only by Vancouver winter-afternoon light

My fourth memory is a conversation over tea in Jim's living room in late February of this year, not long before Covid became a global reality and would have made such a conversation impossible.  In my time at Regent I have studied a fair bit of Richard Hooker's work. That day in Jim's living room, he was quite exhausted from sorting through his library and setting aside many (more) hundreds of his books to donate to Regent College's library.  His health had already been failing, and he was tired, and I offered to postpone, but he said that we should still meet.  We discussed Hooker and his contemporary, Richard Field (who I learned of through an old set of Packer's class notes from when he taught Anglican history and theology), and the relation of their respective work.  Amidst Jim's exhaustion, he still took time to meet with an aspiring theologian and to discuss the great riches of the church's past and ways that it might benefit the church today.  Jim Packer loved Christ and his church and he longed to inspire that dual love in others.  I was only one of many hundreds (probably thousands) of people he made time for and engaged with not in a condescending "professional theologian" way, but in an encouraging, personal, humble, and ordinary way.  Jim Packer was an extraordinary ordinary mere Christian. 

Below are links to some remembrances of Jim Packer upon his ushering in to Christ's presence, where I have no doubt he heard those weighty words, "Well done, my good and faithful servant."


A low-quality recording of Jim Packer's funeral is available to watch at St. John's Vancouver's website

Packer biographer, Leland Ryken, remembers J.I. Packer at Christianity Today

 Regent College remembers J.I. Packer

Bruce Hindmarsh, who was both a student of J.I. Packer and taught alongside him at Regent College, remembers J.I. Packer as the Robin Hood of Evangelicalism at Christianity Today

Justin Taylor remembers J.I. Packer at The Gospel Coalition 

Leland Ryken has 10 things you should know about J.I. Packer at Crossway

Hans Boersma, who for years held the J.I. Packer Chair of Theology at Regent College (and who also began his classes by singing the doxology with his students), remembers Dr. Packer as a great Puritan at First Things

Carl Trueman remembers Dr. Packer's personal influence on his life at The Gospel Coalition

Mark Noll remembers J.I. Packer at Desiring God

Gerald Bray of Beeson Divinity School appreciates Dr. Packer

And Timothy George (fellow Evangelicals & Catholics Together member with Packer) remembers J.I. Packer

This personal remembrance of Packer at Mere Orthodoxy

And another lovely personal reflection on Dr. Packer at Reformation 21 

And Justin Taylor at The Gospel Coalition reminds us of just how practical Packer's theology really is for everyday life  


I suppose this list could go on but I have to stop it somewhere.  And I haven't even linked to any of Dr. Packer's own writings.  Some day I hope to follow up with more reflection on the books and essays of Dr. Packer's that have influenced me the most.  For now, I hope some of the above commemorations and reflections inspire others to pick up a J.I. Packer book and read. 




Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Ravi Zacharias (1946–2020)

I was in high school when I first heard of Ravi Zacharias.  I read Can Man Live Without God? perhaps in or after my first year of Bible College (at age 21 or 22) and it was very formative for me.  Not only was Ravi defending the reasonableness of Christian truth but he was doing it all the while demonstrating Christ-like love for those he was speaking to (much like C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer).  Over the years I've read several other of his works and listened to him speak.  I have always been impressed by his gentleness, humility, and kindness when he is engaging others with the life-altering message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Today Ravi has gone to be with his Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ after a lengthy time of suffering with cancer.  We might say that he has entered into his well earned rest, and Ravi might agree, but he would clarify that it was Jesus who both earned his rest, and who ushered him in to it.

Below are some links to help us remember, mourn, and celebrate Ravi's life:

Ravi's obituary at RZIM

Ravi's daughter, Sarah Davis, at RZIM

Justin Taylor at the Gospel Coalition

And this beautiful beautiful recollection by Alan Jacobs of an impactful conversation with Ravi when Jacobs was a young student.

I appreciate Ravi's ministry so much.  He helped me learn that Christianity was reasonable and existentially satisfying, and that defending Christian belief could be irenic and winsome even while it was intellectually rigorous.  Ravi modeled that the truest way to share the gospel of God's gracious love to us in Jesus Christ was to share it lovingly and graciously; to imitate Christ while sharing the message of Christ. 

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Comfort from a Catechism

Christian catechism - learning doctrine by question and answer - has long been one of the major ways the church has taught and formed Christians in correct doctrinal or theological understanding and formulation.  When done rightly, catechism can be part of robust Christian formation or disciple-making, incorporated with other Christian practices such as corporate and personal worship, liturgical formation, preaching and studying Scripture, the sacraments, prayer, meditation on Scripture, along with Christian fellowship and mutual Christ-like sisterly/brotherly love in action.

Not all catechisms are created equal, of course.  Several branches of the church have produced various versions of catechisms over the centuries.  These catechisms have often been produced in response to the theological debates or church issues of their day.  Reading them today can be an interesting experience.  It can tell us a lot about the doctrinal convictions of the opposing sides in theological conflicts.  But beyond just the theological or ecclesial controversies, reading catechisms can tell us a lot about what Christians were dealing with in the place and at the time a catechism was written. 

Considering just the catechisms of the Reformed churches of the 16th and 17th centuries is an interesting practice.  Some years ago, I read through this very good harmony of the Reformed Confessions and catechisms.  Some are more theologically oriented, sometimes getting very granular  on particular points of doctrine and seeking precise formulations on theological issues.  This was the case for the Westminster Confession (1647) and so also the Larger Catechism that later accompanied it.  Others tend to be written from a more inclusive standpoint, aiming at a broader acceptance and subscription.  One is not necessarily better than the other.  Comparing them is informative.  The first question of the Westminster Larger Catechism (1648) is:
Q. 1:  What is the chief and highest end of man?
A.:  Man's chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy Him for ever. 
(Rom. 11:36; 1 Cor. 10:31; Ps. 73:24-28; Jn. 17:21-23)
That is a precious truth.  However, for daily life and for existential, experiential usefulness, I prefer the Heidelberg Catechism to the Westminster, especially in a time of difficulty, suffering, or crisis.  There is doctrinal truth in both, and right doctrine is helpful, pastoral, and comforting.  Right doctrine trains our minds and shapes our hearts, it forms our thinking such that we begin to act in light of the truths we learn as they sink deep down into the core of our being.  But the  Heidelberg catechism has a more personal, devotional, pastoral, and more down-to-earth, everyday-life sort of feel.  The Westminster (Larger & Shorter) Catechisms should never be thought of merely as right theological things to think - they were meant by the pastors and theologians who wrote them to shape what Christians believe and be the truths in whose light we live.  But their language can sometimes sound like the correct answers to a theological final exam.  The Heidelberg Catechism puts the answers in the first person, so that "I" am answering.  These are my thoughts, my answers, my convictions - this is my faith, not merely the faith. 

Many times over the last weeks, when reading news reports about COVID-19 or Christian reflections about it, I have been reminded how greatly Christians today could benefit from committing the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) to heart:
Q. 1:  What is thy only comfort in life and death?
A.:  That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with His precious blood, hath fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto Him.
(1 Cor. 6:19-20; Rom. 14:7-9; 1 Cor. 3:23; 1 Pet. 1:18-19; Jn. 1:17; 1 Jn. 3:8; Heb. 2:14-15; Jn. 6:39; Jn. 10:28-29; Lk. 21:18; Matt. 10:30; Rom. 8:28; 2 Cor. 1:22; 2 Cor. 5:5; Rom. 8:14; Rom. 7:22)
It helps us to remember that one of the things the first few generations of Protestant Reformers frequently had to do was to pastor their own families and congregations through times of plague and pandemic.  As historian Bruce Hindmarsh likes to remind his students, these times were
pre-anesthetic, pre-analgesic, and pre-antiseptic.  Pain was a big part of life.  Death, including death of children, or death of loved ones from plague, was common.  I can't help but think that those who wrote the Heidelberg Catechism had such times in mind when they formulated the first question and answer.

What is your only comfort in life and death?

May we all be able to answer in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism:
 That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ...

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

COVID-19 and the Church Throughout History

Bruce Hindmarsh, who is the James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology and Professor of the History of Christianity at Regent College, has written a very helpful historical and theological reflection about the Church in the face of disease and pandemic-like crises.  Bruce highlights some of the church's responses to such human health crises throughout its history - both the good and the (tragically) bad. 
St. Elizabeth of Hungary washes a sick man, from the altar of St. Elisabeth Cathedral in Kassa, 15th C. Source: Wikipedia
The article notes,
"This Christian instinct to care for those who suffer from communicable disease and all its devastating physical, social, and economic consequences runs deep in the history of the church."
Although the article is primarily historical reflection, it is instructive and so very pertinent for our moment. 

I also note his repeated 'for now', in reference to the social distancing and self-isolation policies currently being advised by health professionals and government agencies and (rightfully) adhered to by churches as an act of loving our neighbours.  However, there may come a time when most flee from helping the suffering and it would then be the church's calling to take up more active roles in caring for the sick and dying. 

Let us pray for a swift resolution to the current crisis, but let us also pray for the eyes of faith and the heart of courageous trust required of Christians should things continue to get worse. 
Here is the whole article.

Monday, 23 March 2020


This morning in his email newsletter, Alan Jacobs included this encouragement in our strange times of COVID-19 in the form of a quote from Matthew Henry, the famous Bible commentator, written 300 years ago:
No, whatever our condition is, we must bring our minds to it, be thankful for its comforts, submissive to its crosses, and make the best of that which is.
It could be understood as a merely stoic sentiment, but having read a fair bit of Matthew Henry, I know it comes from a firm faith that God is sovereign, that he is good, and that he is working everything out for his glory and the good of his people.

Peace be with you, and with your spirit.