Is Grace Triumphant in the Theology of J I Packer?

In this essay I will examine J I Packer’s teaching on holiness giving special attention to his view of the role of man and of the grace of God. This will be examined against the background of his Reformed soteriology and in contrast to Wesleyan Theology.
The main aim of this essay is to explore the apparent tension between the triumph of grace in soteriology and the seemingly pessimistic for the life of holiness in the believer’s life of holiness in Packer’s work.
At the outset I want to state the enormous debt I owe to Packer for his writing which has been one of the formative influences on my theological thinking. Because of his great influence on my thinking, both through his own writing and authors that he commends, I have come to hold a very similar view of holiness. This essay therefore is not only a critique of Packer but of my own thinking and the tradition that I have worked within.
Whilst examining the Wesleyan view of holiness, I noticed that there is an optimism of grace whereas Reformed Theology seems to be pessimistic. With this in mind I will (a) outline reformed soteriology as represented by Packer. I shall then look at (b) Packers view of holiness contrasting it with the Wesleyan perspective.
I shall then pose the question, © does sin overshadow grace in Packer’s Theology and in Reformed Theology as a whole?
I will then examine whether it is possible to demonstrate an optimism of grace which is consistent with reformed soteriology.
Packer’s soteriology.
Packer most clearly expounds his soteriology in parts 2 and 3 of Concise Theology where he follows closely the Puritan exposition as set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Packer following reformed tradition deals with the doctrine of sin before that of grace. Packer demonstrates that the result of original sin is spiritual deadness. He says,
“ Total depravity entails total inability, that is, the state of not having it in oneself to respond to god and his Word in a sincere and wholehearted   way(John 6:44; Rom8:7-8). Paul calls this unresponsiveness of the fallen heart a state of death (Eph 2:1, 5; Col 2:13), and the Westminster Confession says: ‘Man by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able by his own strength to convert or prepare himself thereunto’ (ix.3)[i]
It is at this point that Packer shows the triumph of grace in his theology. Where one would expect a total pessimism, Packer believes God’s grace comes with power. Packer states it this way,
Regeneration is monergistic: that is, entirely the work of god the Holy Spirit. It raises the spiritually dead to life in Christ (Eph 2:1-10. Regeneration is a transition from spiritual death to spiritual death to spiritual life, and conscious, intentional active faith in Christ is its immediate fruit, not its immediate cause. Regeneration is what Augustine called ‘prevenient grace’, the grace that precedes our outgoings of our heart toward God.[ii]
The above quotation demonstrates quite clearly Packer’s rejection of any synergistic interpretations of the gospel. Packer affirms that salvation is completely a work of god from beginning to end.
Because man is totally depraved he needs inward renewal before he can come to saving faith. Therefore there is a priority of grace in the scheme of salvation. Packer following the Reformed tradition emphasises effectual calling, it is therefore helpful to look at what Packer has to say on this important and misunderstood subject. Packer says,
Effectual calling is a sixteenth century English phrase that became the title of chapter x of the 1647 Westminster Confession. The chapter begins thus:
“All those who God hath predistinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of the state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone and giving them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace.”
What is being spoken of here is the many sided reality of Christian conversion, involving illumination, regeneration, faith and repentance.  It is being analysed as a sovereign work of God, “effectually” (i.e. effectively) performed by the power of the Holy Spirit.  The concept corresponds to Paul’s use of the verb call (meaning bring to faith) and called ( meaning “converted”) in Romans 1:6;8:28,30; 9:24; 1 Corinthians 1:24, 26;7:18-21; Galatians 1:15; Ephesians 4: 1, 4 and 2 Thessalonians 2:14, and contrasts with the idea of a merely external and ineffective invitation as found in Matthew 22:14.
Original sin renders all human beings naturally dead (unresponsive to Go, but in effectual calling god quickens the dead. As the outward call of God to faith in Christ is communicated through the preaching and explaining of the contents of the Bible, the Holy spirit enlightens and renews the heart of elect sinners so that they understand the gospel and embrace it as truth from God, and God in Christ becomes an object of desire and affection. Being now regenerate and able by the use of their freed to choose God and the good, they turn away from their former pattern of living to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and to start a new life with him.[iii]
The above quotation shows the grace of God triumphing over man’s fallen condition and bringing him into a living relationship with God.  This emphasis on effectual calling shows that God deals with people as individuals and treats them as morally responsible.  This contrasts with the misunderstanding of Reformed thought shown by some Wesleyan scholars who see this doctrine as incompatible with moral responsibility. R S Taylor supplies us with a good example of this misunderstanding when he says:
Human depravity was so total that any spasm of moralism would prove grossly inadequate, while the operation of grace on the elect would be so effectual so as to accomplish its end infallibly without the sinner’s effort.  Therefore personal striving was superfluous. The result was the deadening of any sense of moral responsibility[iv]
This quotation contains a distortion when it accuses the Augustinian position of deadening moral responsibility.  One only has to read Packer’s “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God” or “Concise Theology”to realise that moral responsibility is not nullified by man’s inability. This is not the place to argue this at length but it has to be mentioned in passing if justice is to done to the Reformed position. I will end this section on Packer’s soteriology by quoting from his introduction of “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ” by John Owen. Packer says,
The old gospel is proclaimed in the sure confidence that the Christ of whom it testifies, the Christ who is the real speaker when the Scriptural invitations to trust him are expounded and applied, it is not passively waiting for man’s decision as the word goes forth, but it is omnipotently active, working with and through the word to bring His people to faith in himself. The preaching of the new gospel is often described as the task of “bringing men to Christ”- as if only men move, while Christ stands still. But the task of preaching the old gospel could more properly be described as bringing Christ to men, for those who preach it know that as they do their work of setting Christ before men’s eyes, the mighty Saviour whom they proclaim is busy doing his work through their words, visiting sinners with salvation, awakening them to faith, drawing them in mercy to Himself.[v]
These words show the triumph of grace over sin that even with the most pessimistic view of man’s sin and its consequences, there can be an optimism of grace, a grace that is victorious over sin and effectively brings the sinner to Christ.
Packer’s view of Holiness
Sanctification in reformed Theology is synergistic and emphasises the spiritual battle but expects no triumph of grace before heaven. This is where one seems to move from an emphasis on grace to an emphasis on obedience. Victories are to be expected in the Christian life but any suggestion of perfection is firmly rejected. Packer in summarising his view of sanctification has this to say,
Sanctification says the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q35), “is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.”  The concept is not of sin being totally eradicated ( that is to claim too much) or merely counteracted (that is to say too little), but of a divinely wrought character change freeing us from sinful habits and forming in us Christlike affections, dispositions and virtues.[vi]
He continues:
Regeneration was a momentary monergistic act of quickening the spiritually dead. As such it was God’s work alone.  Sanctification, however, is in one sense synergistic – it is an on-going co-operative process in which regenerate persons, alive to god and freed from sin’s dominion ( Rom 6: 11, 14-18” are required to exert themselves in sustained obedience. God’s method of Sanctification is neither activism (self-reliant activity) nor apathy (God –reliant passivity), but God-dependent effort (2Cor.7:1; Phil.3:10-14; Heb 12:14).[vii]
The above quotations from “Concise Theology” demonstrate the synergistic nature of sanctification as well as the stress on obedience. What is not so clear from these quotations is the problem of the downward drag of sin. Packer wants to assert strongly that there is a real change within but there is always the pull of sin. The change within posited by Packer is vastly different from that of Wesley.  Packer asserts that we should aim to love God with all our heart, soul and strength but we most certainly cannot attain this level of love this side of heaven.  In contrast to this, Wesley says that by the grace of god it is possible to love him with all our being.  Wesley’s optimism of grace is in striking contrast to Packer’s expectations. This is how Packer describes the Christian life:
The principle is clear, the Spirit is with us to empower us, and we know that Christ-like behaviour is now in the profoundest sense natural to us. But still, maintaining Christ-likeness under the kind of pressure I have described is hard. How do we 2by the Spirit…put to death the misdeeds of the body” (Rom 8:13)? This too is hard. It is a matter of negating, wishing dead, and labouring to thwart, inclinations, cravings and habits that have been in you (if I may put it so) for a long time. Pain and grief, moans and groans will certainly be involved, for your sin does not want to die, nor will it enjoy the killing process. Jesus told us, very vividly, that mortifying sin could well feel like plucking out an eye or cutting off a hand or foot, in other words self mutilation. You will feel that you are saying goodbye to something that is so much part of you that without it you cannot live.[viii]
Packer’s comments above show that he is faithfully reflecting the views of Ryle, The Puritans and, indeed, mainstream Reformed Theology. This picture of the Christian life painted by Packer is, in some ways quite dismal and holds out little hope of real change and victory.
Packer in common with other Reformed theologians insists that the law of God is to be the guide and standard of a holy life for the believer. Packer and Wesley share this in common but, once again, the real difference is one of how much can be achieved. Wesley held that by the grace of God, the Decalogue could be observed by those who had been entirely sanctified.  Packer on the other hand believes the believer is called to do that which he cannot possibly achieve. Packer, in his discussion of the law, does not address this issue head on but the whole thrust of his teaching shows that he believes the traditional Reformed teaching is correct at this point.
The pessimism that comes about as a result of the Reformed view leads to a stress on repentance as a way of life. This very often leads to a morbid introspection and a solemn spirituality which shows very little of the joy of the Lord. The example of Bradford as given by Packer, illustrates the danger of this type of thinking. Bradford went beyond repentance to self-denigration, yet Packer holds this up as example of spiritual ardour.
Here again, there is a lesson of profound importance to be learned from Bradford. When he signed letters, as he did, as “a very (i.e. real) painted hypocrite, John Bradford”, “a very hypocrite”, “the most miserable, half- hearted, unthankful sinner”, “the sinful John Bradford”, it was not play acting. He was, in fact, testifying to the intensity of his sense of present imperfection. He longed to advance further along the path of whole-hearted repentance than he had yet succeeded in doing. It is, in fact, a law of the spiritual life that the further you go, the more aware you are distance still to be covered. Your growing desire for God makes you increasingly conscious, not so much of where you are in your relationship with him as where you are not.[ix]
It can be seen clearly here that there is a very pessimistic note running through Reformed Theology, which stand in stark contrast to the Wesleyan expectation of a heart filled with love for god and neighbour. It is at this juncture that it seems apparent that Reformed Theology with its emphasis on the forensic aspects of salvation has largely forgotten the relational aspects. This seems to lead to understanding salvation in legal terms, so that the concentration is put on words such as justification, sin, and atonement. Of course these are all important concepts but they must not be used in isolation from such terms as reconciliation and adoption which are relational terms. The relational aspects emphasise the possibility of real change in not only our standing before God but that we can relate to him as his children.
I have tried to demonstrate above that Packer’s theology is pessimistic in its hopes for transformation in the present. Behind of all this lies Packer’s doctrine of sin to which we now turn.
Packer’s view of sin.
In this section I need to briefly look at Packer’s doctrine of sin, to determine whether his doctrine of sin overshadows that of grace. I will therefore examine his views of original sin, total depravity and actual sin (see Concise Theology pages 79-86.). Original sin in reformed theology is not only Adam’s first sin but also the imputation of that sin to all mankind. As a consequence of this, the doctrine of total depravity is expounded. Packer, along with Reformed Theology as a whole, does not believe that this means that every man is as bad as he can be, but rather that he is fallen in all his parts. Wesleyan scholars and Wesley himself come very close to this position but generally deny the imputation of the guilt of sin to all mankind. Wesley himself certainly believed strongly in the depravity of man. The major difference between Wesley and Packer concerns what grace can achieve in the saved. Packer, as we have seen above, believes that there is real change in the believer but he rejects any form of deliverance from sin, which, in any way speaks of perfection. His basic presupposition is that man’s depravity clings to him and he has to fight it to the end of his days. Packer at this point appeals to Romans 7 as the norm for believers. Although the debate about this chapter is long and complex, I believe it is helpful to look at an alternative interpretation as set forth by Purkiser. He says,
This then is not the normal regenerate state. In broadest terms, it is the struggle of an awakened person with the sinful; impulses of his own unredeemed heart, a struggle carried on by his own strength of will. Paul takes back nothing he had already said in 6:18, 22 about being free from sin, nor does he undercut what he will say in 8:1-11. William Greathouse writes:
“Clearly the wretched man is the awakened sinner, struggling in vain for deliverance from indwelling sin. To apply these verses to the Christian believer would be to admit practically that the grace of Christ is as powerless against sin as is the law. The thrust of this argument is to demonstrate that the grace of God in Christ can do what the law could not do (8:3), to show that under grace a man has been freed from sin”
However, we may interpret this passage on two levels. There is an echo of this struggle in the experience of any who strive for a consistently victorious life by means of their own self-discipline or their own strength of will. All who depend on self-effort for dealing with inner sin are represented here. These words do away with any scheme of sanctification that relies on “suppression” or “counteraction” as a matter of self effort. Such is only a path to futility”.[x]
This view strongly contrasts with that of Packer. Packer is quite aware of the tensions created by his interpretation of the text. Packer says:
The second section [0f Romans 7] (vss.14-25) is written entirely in the present tense. Grammatically, therefore the natural way to read it would be as a transcript of Paul’s self-knowledge at the time of writing; but its contents seem to make this reading of it quite incredible. It presents the experience of a man who sees himself as constantly failing to do the good which the law commands, and which he himself wants to do, and who reflecting on this fact has come to see the bitter truth which is announced at the outset of the thesis of the whole section- “I am carnal sold under sin” (v14). It is this perception that prompts the cry (Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me…?
What creates our problem is the prima facie contradiction between that state of the wretched man and the Paul of Rom.8.[xi]
Packer defends his view fully in the appendix to Keep in Step with the Spirit. Although I cannot argue the case more fully here, it does seem to me that there is a real transition from a place of defeat (in Rom.7 to a place of victory (in Rom.8)
Packer in A Passion for Holiness, says that the Christian needs to grow downward in repentance (see chapter 5). It is interesting to compare Packer’s view with that of Wesley’s as found in his sermon, “The Repentance of Believers”. Once again we will be looking at how sin overshadows Packer’s doctrine of sanctification. Packer says,
The “law of sin” means sin operating as a driving force, irrationally anti-God in its thrust. The words “I see” tell us how Paul perceives himself and measures his actual achievement – in other words, when he practices the discipline of self-examination. Each time he does so, he sees that his reach has exceeded his grasp, that nothing he said or did was as good and right as it should have been, and that his noblest, wisest, most selfless, pure minded, God honouring acts were all in retrospect were all flawed in some discernible way. In retrospect he always finds that his conduct could and always should have been more Christlike and his motives less mixed. Always he finds that he could have done better than he did.
This discovery, calling as it does for the constantly renewed repentance that I advocate, is unquestionably depressing. Hence Paul’s agonized cry in Romans 7:24, “what a wretched man I am! Who will rescue from the body of this death?” Yet we should note, is followed by the triumphant shout of Romans 7:25, as Paul looks to “the redemption of our bodies” in the life beyond (Rom 8:23: “Thanks be to God (that one day he will rescue me) through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  Partial present deliverance from sin the power of sin, which is the other side of his experience (see Rom&:5-7) makes him long all the more for the total future deliverance that God has promised. Meanwhile, however, he grows downward in deepening humility as he becomes more and more aware of how sin in him still thwarts his aim of perfectly pleasing God in this he is the model for us all.[xii]
Wesley and Packer hold much in common when they diagnose man’s condition but the solution is radically different. Wesley holds out an optimism of grace for the present. In his sermon “The Repentance of Believers” Wesley says,
Thus it is that in the Children of God repentance and faith exactly answer each other. By repentance we feel the sin remaining in our hearts, and cleaving to our words and actions. By faith we receive the power of God in Christ purifying our hearts and cleansing our hands. By repentance we are still sensible that we deserve punishment for all our tempers and words and actions. By faith we are conscious that our advocate with the Father is continually pleading for us, and thereby continually turning aside all condemnation and punishment from us. By repentance we have an abiding conviction that there is no help in us. By faith we receive not only mercy but “grace to help in every time of need”. Repentance disclaims the very possibility of any other help. Repentance says “without him I can do nothing” faith says “I can do all things through Christ strengthening me”. Through him I can love the Lord my God with all my heart, mind, soul and strength: yea’ and walk in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of my life.[xiii]
The contrast between these two quotations is enormous when it comes to the final outcome. For Packer there is no hope for final deliverance in the present, whereas for Wesley, he sees rich possibilities flow from God’s grace.
I have tried to demonstrate that the Reformed doctrine of sanctification as advocated by Packer is overshadowed by the doctrine of sin. Because of this there is no real cleansing from sin available but only a “partial deliverance” from sin. Packer says that there has been a radical change of nature caused by the new birth but that the new nature is still hampered and hindered by sin. One must question whether this does full justice to the many promises of cleansing and renewal contained within scripture. When one looks at Packer’s soteriology, one sees clearly the triumph of grace. There does seem to be a real tension within Reformed Theology at this point. This is made even clearer when one considers the teaching about salvation being all of grace from first to last. In contrast to this is the emphasis on the power of sin in the believer’s life. The problem is not solved by accepting an Arminian framework for then the triumph of grace is not held in the area of soteriology. Of course this paper cannot deal with the debate of this issue. Having made this statement I realise that this would be disputed by the Arminian and one must acknowledge that some views of prevenient grace come very close the Reformed doctrine of effectual calling. Both the Reformed and the Arminian are determined to maintain the priority of grace but come to very different conclusions.
Toward an Alternative View
In the following paragraphs only a brief outline can be given of what I believe is a tenable alternative view of holiness with a Reformed framework. I will presuppose a Reformed soteriology in what follows.
 This outline of an alternative is developed from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The letter to the Ephesians speaks of the glory and power of god’s grace as bestowed upon the believer. Paul firstly expounds the plan of salvation and its application to his readers, he then moves onto outline the godly life. We will also look briefly at his prayers.
Paul in his letter brings his readers face to face with the glory of God’s grace. Predestination was not some abstract doctrine for the Apostle but rather a demonstration of God’s grace. Paul is eager to communicate the riches of the grace of god, looking backward to eternity past and looking upward to receive that grace Christ Jesus in the present. Paul shows the pastoral connection between election and daily living when he says,
For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love .  (Eph 1:4)..
This connection between God’s sovereign grace and holiness is also seen in Eph. 2:1-10 in this passage Paul shows that salvation is all of God’s, he then closes the passage by saying,
“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.  (Eph 2:10)”.
Although Paul expected moral transformation, he was also aware of the eschatological tension between the already and the not yet, he says
When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14       who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession (Eph 1:13–14).
Paul’s prayers I this letter show that he expected a great measure of transformation in believers. In his first prayer he speaks of,
the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19       and his incomparably great power for us who believe.  (Eph 1:18–19).
Paul’s second prayer if anything goes beyond his first prayer, as he prayed,
that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.  (Eph 3:19).
Paul is surely praying for what he thinks is attainable and if this is so then he expected a very clear knowledge and experience of the love of God. Springing from these prayers and the teaching of the first two chapters are the calls to holiness in Ephesians 4-6.
The call to holiness and moral exertion spring from Paul’s experience of the grace of God that is why he appeals to believers to be full of the Spirit and to stand in the strength of Lord. He then applies his teaching to marriage, family and work.  What is of great interest here is the combination of optimism and the expectation of conflict.
Paul’s teaching about spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6, gives insight into the nature of the optimism of grace. Paul does not pretend that conflict ceases but rather that god enables the believer to
be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. (Eph 6:10).
The apostle recognises the weakness of the believer but he demonstrates the optimism of grace by his expectation that the believer will be able to stand in god’s strength. Linked very closely to the armour of God is Paul’s is the importance of prayer.
I have tried above to outline an optimism of grace which takes seriously man’s weakness but also takes seriously the power of God’s grace. At this point I am not sure that I can follow the Wesleyan tradition with its two moments of grace but at the same time I believe that the Wesleyan contribution forces one to face to the fact that the New Testament contains an optimism of grace.
I have tried above to give a careful analysis of Packer’s theology as it relates to the triumph of grace in conversion and also in his doctrine of sanctification. I believe that Packer rightly stresses the triumph of grace in conversion but there is a real tension when it comes to the doctrine of sanctification. Sin seems to overshadow grace in a way that does not reflect the New Testament’s expectation of victory over sin.
I have also tried to demonstrate briefly an alternate view could be developed. I used the letter to the Ephesians because it contains many of the themes of Reformed Theology while at the same time demonstrating an optimism of grace.
I believe that when it comes to the doctrine of sanctification, Reformed Theology is inconsistent with its doctrine of grace which is powerful in conversion but weak in its application to holiness. There is therefore a real need to develop a more consistent view of God’s grace which will do greater justice to the Reformed slogan, “Salvation is of God from first to last”.
End Notes

[i] J.I Packer Concise Theology (Leicester Inter-Varsity Press,1993), 84
[ii]  J I Packer Concise Theology  (Leicester, Inter-varsity Press 1993), 158
[iii]  J I Packer Concise Theology  (Leicester, Inter-varsity Press 1993) 152-153
[iv] R Taylor, Exploring Christian Holiness Volume 3 (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1985) 76
[v]  J I Packer  Introduction to The Death of death in the death of Christ  by John Owen (Banner of Truth, 1959} 22
[vi] J I Packer  Concise theology 169
[vii] J I Packer Concise Theology 170
[viii]  J I Packer A Passion for Holiness(Cambridge, Crossway Books, 1992) 174-175
[ix]  J I Packer  A Passion for Holiness 138
[x]  W T Purkiser Exploring Christian Holiness vol 1 (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press 1983)
[xi]  J I Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit (Leicester: Inter-varsity Press 1984) 264
[xii]  J I Packer A Passion for Holiness 150-151
[xiii]  John Wesley “Sermon 14 The Repentance of Believers in Bicentennial Edition of the works of John Wesley(Nashville, Abingdonn,1975) 349-350

About pneumaandlogos

David Rollings was born in Luton in1949 and raised by my Christian parents in the Gospel Standard Strict Baptist denomination( Hyper-Calvinistic} in the sixties I rebelled against this background and got involved in left-wing politics. I became a Christian in 1969 and soon started reading Francis Schaeffer's books and came to embrace a Christian Worldview. I had the privilege of being on the staff of L'Abti Fellowship from1975 - 1979. After L'abri I studied at London School of Theology where I gained my BA.(1983) A few years later I studied for my MA by distance learning with The Nazarene Theological College Manchester (1999) For the last 25 years, I have been an elder of Shoreham-by-Sea Baptist Church. I also regularly attend the Christian Doctrine Study Group of the Tyndale Fellowship.
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1 Response to Is Grace Triumphant in the Theology of J I Packer?

  1. Pingback: Is Grace Triumphant in the Theology of J I Packer? | Pneuma and … – Charismatic Feeds

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