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 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 predestinated 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]
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]
In a previous version of this essay I said,
Packer’s comments above show that he is faithfully reflecting the views of Ryle, The Puritans and, indeed, mainstream Reformed Theology.
I am beginning to question this statement in the light of reading some of the comments made by other Reformed thinkers, including Thomas Watson, Charles Hodge and J C Ryle. I will include here part of Charles Hodge’s discussion of the doctrine of Sanctification.
Sanctification therefore according to this representation, consists in this gradual triumph of the new nature implanted by regeneration over the evil that still remains after the heart is renewed. In other words, as elsewhere expressed, it is dying unto sin and living unto righteousness. ( 1 Peter 2:24[ix]
This picture of the Christian life contrasts with that painted by Packer. In some ways the picture painted by Packer is 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. [x]
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”[xi]
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”.
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. [xii]
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. [xiii]
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. [xiv]
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.
Packer’s view of union with Christ.
Packer deals with the subject of union with Christ only briefly but he tends to emphasise the forensic elements of this doctrine but not the relational and experiential aspects of it. Unfortunately Packer here misses the opportunity to see the more optimistic outworking of the Biblical teaching. His concept of adoption leaves one with the clear impression that is more a change of status than an experiential reality. Early Reformed thinking had quite an emphasis on Union and Communion with Christ this seems to have been largely lost in modern times[xv]. This has led to a more negative view of sanctification yet Packer himself demonstrates that this need not be the case. Packer says,
“ we need then, to realize and remember that the believer’s holiness is a matter of learning to be in action what he already is in heart. In other words, it is a matter of living out the life and expressing the disposition and instincts (that is the new Nature) that God wrought in him by creating anew in Christ. Holiness is the naturalness of the spiritually risen man, just as sin is the naturalness of of the spiritually dead man, and in pursuing holiness by obeying God the Christian actually follows the deepest urge of his own renewed being. His Godward-better, Fatherward-love, loyalty, and devotion form the motivational image in him of the risen Christ, who lives to God(see Romans 6:10,11: we could call it his Christ nature or his Christ instinct.”[xvi]
Yet here again we see the fact that Packer’s stress is on the forensic and when he talk about the application of this to life in terms of learning to put into practice what God has already placed yet he seems to miss the relational dynamic of union with Christ. This can be seen even more clearly in what he has to say in Concise Theology,
“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 ongoing cooperative 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(2 Cor 7:1} Phil:3:10-14, Heb 12:14. Knowing that without Christ’s enabling we can do nothing, morally speaking, as we should, and that he is ready to strengthen us for all that have to do (Phil 4:13), “we stay” ( remain, abide) in Christ asking for his help constantly-and we receive it(Col 1:11; 1Tim1:12; 2 Tim. 1:7;2:1).”[xvii]
What is strange about this teaching is that there is no conscious association of the biblical concept of union with Christ as being central to the doctrine of sanctification. Yes allusions are made to abiding in Christ but they are never fully worked out. The Wesleyan Theologian Richard S Taylor offers a more compelling picture of union with Christ he says,
“The kind of discipleship that belongs to salvation is specified by Jesus “By this my father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples” ( 15:8). The difference is that while followers of a teacher on the natural plane can transmit his ideas, they cannot recreate his spirit. The bond between Jesus and His disciples must be closer-as close as that of the vine to the branches. What disciples produce is by means of inner life, not fleshly labor. No metaphor more aptly conveys the complete dependence of believers in Christ, or the vital nature of union with him.”[xviii]
Here we see an acknowledgement of the dynamic nature of union with Christ and this is seen to be of a relational nature. The contrast with Packer’s position is important to perceive. Although Packer speaks of the relational, in practice and in the outworking of his teaching the forensic has the dominance. Indeed in his discussion of the believers adoption into god’s family, he constantly refers to as our “adopted status”[xix], this emphasis on the status of adoption tends to miss the biblical emphasis that because we have received the status of son we have moved into a new relationship with God. When the relational aspects of union with Christ are rightly stressed we can develop a more optimistic view of God’s grace in the life of the believer.
Toward an Alternative View
In the light of the above discussion of union with Christ an alternative way forward can be found which is still true to reformed doctrine and yet is not so negative in its view of the scope and power of God’s grace in sanctification. Calvin and early statements of the reformed position are much more positive in their statements. This can be illustrated from this article of the Netherlands Reformed Congregations Confession of faith (1618), article 24 says
“We believe that this true faith being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God and the operation of the Holy Ghost, doth regenerate and make him anew man, causing him to live a new life and freeing him from the bondage of sin.. Therefore it is so far from being true, that this justifying faith make men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self- love or a fear of damnation. Therefore it is impossible this holy faith can be unfruitful in man: for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith, which is called in scripture, a faith that worketh by love, which excites man to the practice of those works, which god hath commanded in his Word. which works are as they proceed from the good root of faith are good and acceptable in the sight of God, forasmuch as they are all sanctified by his grace howbeit they are of no account towards our justification…”[xx]
The above statement is much more positive than more recent Reformed statements and teachings, although union with Christ is not mentioned as such , the whole statement can be seen as an out working of the believers union with Christ.
Calvin in his Commentary on Johns Gospel, also seems to have a greater optimism of the working og God’s grace in the lives of believers than most Reformed thinkers today, He says,
V4 Abide in me. He again exhorts them to be earnest and careful in keeping the grace which they have received, for the carelessness of the flesh can never be sufficiently aroused. And indeed, Christ has no other object in view than to keep us ‘as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, (Matt xxiii.37} lest our indifference should carry us away, and make us fly to our destruction. In order to prove that he did not begin the work of our salvation for the purpose of leaving it imperfect in the middle of the course, he promises that his Spirit will always be efficacious in us, if we do not prevent him, Abide in me, say he, for I am ready to abide in you. And again, he who abideth in me beareth much fruit. By these words he declares that all who have a living root in him are fruit-bearing branches.[xxi]
These two quotations show that there is a deep vein within the Reformed tradition that sees the grace of God being powerfully at work in his people as he sanctifies them. This having been said we need to move on to the articulation of an outline of an alternative view to that of Packer.
In keeping with the above comments it seems to me that we need to develop a view of holiness which does justice to the biblical teaching of union with Christ, this theme is strongly taught especially in Paul’s letters but can be found throughout the New Testament. The idea of union with Christ is one that transforms the Christian’s sense of identity because it shows the richness of what Christ has done for a believer. In this essay I am able only able to give some hints of how this can be worked out.
Paul as he looked at Christ as the new Adam clearly teaches about the power of God’s grace,
Because of this, just as sin entered into the world through one man, and death through sin, so also death spread to all people because all sinned. 13 For until the law, sin was in the world, but sin is not charged to one’s account when there* is no law. 14 But death reigned from Adam until Moses even over those who did not sin in the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who is to come. 15 ⌊But the gift is not like the trespass⌋, for if by the trespass of the one, the many died, by much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ multiply to the many. 16 And the gift is not as through the one who sinned, for on the one hand, judgment from the one sin led to condemnation, but the gift, from many trespasses, led to justification. 17 For if by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through the one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one, Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:12 17 LEB)
Paul clearly teaches here that God’s grace is powerful to the one who is united to the New Adam ,he describes the grace given as being abundant grace, this idea that grace is abundant strongly contrast with the typical reformed view which seems to limit the power of God’s grace in the believer.
Paul develops his argument in chapter six of Romans where once again he contrasts the power of sin and of God’s grace, Paul says,
Therefore we have been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so also we may live ⌊a new way of life Romans 6:4
Here Paul is contrasting the way we lived before conversion with the possibilities of grace in the present because we are united to Christ. In the following chapters Paul develops his argument culminating in the favourite text of reformed people Romans 8:28ff,
And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose, 29 because those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he should be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined, these he also called, and those whom he called, these he also justified, and those whom he justified, these he also glorified.
31 What then shall we say about these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 Indeed, he who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, together with him, freely give us all things?
Once again Paul is talking about the Christians union with Christ as a demonstration that we share Christ’s victory. The same can be said of the teaching of Ephesians 1 where once again we see the mention of predestination, looking carefully at this passage one sees that predestination is not just an abstract concept but one that indicates the power of God’s grace towards the believer, I have quoted below a long section of this passage because it clearly demonstrates what Reformed people need to grasp about the grace of God.
Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, 4 just as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him in love, 5 having predestined us to adoption through Jesus Christ to himself according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of the glory of his grace that he bestowed on us in the beloved, 7 in whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace, 8 that he caused to abound to us in all wisdom and insight, 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he purposed in him, 10 for the administration of the fullness of times, to bring together all things in Christ, the things in the heavens and the things on the earth, in him 11 in whom also we were chosen, having been predestined according to the purpose of the One who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 that we who hoped beforehand in Christ should be for the praise of his glory, (Eph 1:3–12).
The above passage agrees that God’s plan is to transform sinners into saints by the working of God’s gracious power.
Many other texts within Paul’s letters testify to the grace of God working in practical ways, as he applies his teaching to the lives of believers there is to be a transformation of conduct because of the fact that in Christ we are a new creation ( 2 Cor 5:17). The life of the Church is shown to be based on union with Christ as can be seen in Romans 12.
But perhaps the most important teaching in the New Testament is that of our Lord himself in John 15, even a superficial reading of the text shows the importance of union with Christ for the Christian life, Jesus clearly shows that our holiness flows from our union with him. If we do not abide in him, we will not be fruitful. This passage should be at the centre of holiness teaching because it shows that Jesus knew that only as we abide in him, true holiness will come into being.
The whole concept of union with Christ links keen theological insight with daily living and because of this gives us an alternate starting point without having to abandon a Reformed soteriology. I therefore believe that this starting point will be a fruitful one and unlocks some of the problems that have been explored in the discussion above.
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 have used the concept of union with Christ to demonstrate this.
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”.
[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] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology vol 3 page 224 (reprinted 1977 Grand Rapids, Eerdmaans Publishing)
[x] J I Packer A Passion for Holiness 138
[xi] W T Purkiser Exploring Christian Holiness vol 1 (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press 1983) P142
[xii] J I Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit (Leicester: Inter-varsity Press 1984) 264
[xiii] J I Packer A Passion for Holiness 150-151
[xiv] John Wesley “Sermon 14 The Repentance of Believers in Bicentennial Edition of the works of John Wesley (Nashville, Abingdonn,1975) 349-350
[xv] Todd Billings, Union With Christ (Baker Academic 2011)see Chapters 1 and 2
[xvi] J I Packer, Keep in step with the Spirit 107 (IVP Leicester 1984)
[xvii] J I Packer, Concise Theology p170 -171
[xviii] Richard S Taylor in God, Man and Salvation p448-449 (Beacon Hill Press, Kansas City 1977)
[xix] J.I Packer Concise Theology P167
[xx] Doctrinal Standards of the Netherlands Reformed Congregations. Grand Rapids 1963
[xxi] John Calvin, Commentary on Johns gospel, chapter 15 (Calvin translation society edition) His comments on the whole chapter are worth reading. Also see The Institutes of the Christian Religion book 3