May 2018 Credo
Some time ago, I read a book on the writings of J. I. Packer. It is Packer on the Christian Life: Knowing God in Christ, Walking by the Spirit by Sam Storms (Crossway, 2015).
Packer is a writer who has influenced me significantly in my growth as a theologian, pastor and Christian. His deep roots in Anglican theology and liturgy, Puritan spiritual theology, and the evangelical emphasis on the authority of Scripture and the necessity to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ have been greatly helpful to the 20th and 21st century church.
His logical consistency as a systematic theologian, godly way of life and the steadiness of views held over a long period with conviction, together with his wide-ranging writings on the many practical issues related to Christian living have been most useful, and ought to be celebrated by us, especially as Packer has now lost his eyesight and is quite old – he turned 90 on 22 July 2016.
My men’s group was richly blessed when we studied his book Rediscovering Holiness some years ago. In our discussions I mentioned Packer’s interpretation of Romans 7 – that it is a description of Paul’s own personal experience as a saint struggling to overcome sinfulness in his quest to be freed from its influence.
This is in line with the view of St Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Karl Barth, and so on. Packer’s views are discussed in chapter 6 and in the appendix of Packer on the Christian Life. If you have a copy of Packer’s Keep in Step with the Spirit, check out the appendix; it also discusses Rom 7.
Packer is a realist emphasising sin’s stubborn stickiness to the soul, that it takes a lifelong battle against it in our hearts to achieve Christlikeness and holiness. Because of his views, he seems to dismiss Wesleyan teaching on Christian perfection. He rightly understands Wesley’s definition of perfection as not including moral perfection or perfection in making decisions or discernment.
For Wesley, perfection has to do with loving God with all our hearts and loving our neighbours as ourselves. This is an imperative that Wesley argued can be achieved at any given time by the actions of God’s grace through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.
For Wesley, this was a growing and dynamic perfection, in the sense that on the basis of our growing knowledge of God and His ways, and the availability of God’s grace, our love for God can also grow in growing perfection, like the way a balloon can grow as a perfect sphere in different degrees.
Wesley’s take on Romans 7 is contrary to that of Packer’s. He follows the Church Fathers before Augustine, and the Arminian position (Jacob Arminius) that Rom 7 describes the experience of a man before conversion. No doubt, one’s theological position affects one interpretation of such difficult biblical texts. One has to fit one’s interpretation to the overall scheme of one’s theological system.
Packer is a Calvinist while Wesley was an Arminian. Wesley emphasised the need to strive towards Christian perfection and victory over sin by cooperating with the grace of God. There was no place for spiritual laziness, procrastination and defeatism in his view. He thus preached often from 1 John 3:6 to emphasise that the Christian must stop deliberately continuing in sin.
On his part, Packer was wary of Wesleyan holiness movements and Keswick teaching on the higher life, that they offered perfection too easily without taking into account the fierce and lifelong battle with our sinfulness. The danger of spiritual daydreams is that they tend to deny the actual reality. This may be seen in the songs we sing in church which speak about loving God or surrendering to Him in ways that do not reflect reality and make us hypocrites or liars.
So who is right, Wesley or Packer?
How can I as a Wesleyan pastor respond to Packer’s view of Rom 7? I think one way to understand this is to establish some facts. Packer is not one for spiritual sloth, and emphasises the importance of spiritual effort and seriousness in pursuing holiness – hence his problems with Keswick teaching which he considers too quietistic and passive for his liking. Wesley who also considered the Moravians later in his life as too quietistic, would agree with Packer on this count.
At the same time, though Wesley urged Christians to seek perfection because God is perfect (Mt 5:48) and holiness because God is holy (1 Pet 1:16), he was only too aware of how difficult this can be. He himself assessed his own life regularly and found faults. In his own sermons he spoke against the lack of seriousness found among some Methodists, and did not hesitate to expel them temporarily from the Methodist societies until they showed serious repentance.
Thus if you assess both Wesley and Packer you may find that there is greater agreement between them than is superficially noted. We need to recognise that Scripture speaks to all conditions and possibilities.
Where there is easy triumphalism and the stubbornness and the devastating effects of sin is not taken seriously, then we need to turn to Packer’s interpretation of Rom 7, that the fierce struggle with inner sin begins with Christian conversion and is the experience of the saint who learns to hate sin and seeks to be free from it.
Where there is sad defeatism that sin will always have the upper hand and that we will never overcome it, or when this idea turns to inner permission and an excuse to remain in sin, bringing with it spiritual sloth, then we need to turn to Wesley’s emphasis on how we need to grow in Christlikeness and “participate in the divine nature” by making every effort to grow from faith to love (2 Peter 1:3-11).
Notice how we need both correctives, lest we face the danger of pushing either position too far, ending in less than helpful Christian deviations. Both Packer and Wesley will vehemently reject such deviations.
I wonder how Wesley and Packer would meet in heaven. I suspect that they would find much agreement (Packer sharing Wesley’s emphasis on holiness and Wesley sharing Packer’s realism), and that the perceived gap between them would narrow to a thin line across which they can heartily shake their hands in mutual respect and brotherly affection
Bishop Emeritus Robert Solomon served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.