Humble and holy – what it was like to study and serve with J.I. Packer

A personal tribute to Packer from a student – and sister in Christ

I studied under J.I. Packer at Regent College in Vancouver from 2006–2010.

I also had the privilege of going to church with him at St John’s Shaughnessy Anglican Church in Vancouver, where I served as a ministry intern during my studies. As part of our training we got to hear his insights on vocational ministry, and to serve alongside him in leading services and preaching at the early morning Sunday service at St John’s.

We had learned Packer’s primary lesson: ALL theology is for doxology – for the glory of God.

Packer was the reason I’d chosen to study at Regent College. I’d read Knowing God and a number of other Packer titles, and in the front of each of these books I’d read a phrase: J.I. Packer works at Regent College, 5800 University Boulevard, Vancouver.

On a working holiday, I went to check out the home of J.I. Packer, and discovered the wonder of Regent College, its gifted faculty and wonderful learning community.

The thing I responded to in Packer’s books was not just his clarity of thinking and his ability to explain deep truths of the gospel in clear and relatable terms, but also his obvious and genuine faith. This faith shines through all his writing, and motivated his years of service in writing and teaching for the worldwide church.

In the introduction to Knowing God, he related a story about a person walking along, and sharing with a friend that it didn’t matter what else happened in life, because he had “known God” as the deepest truth and joy of his life. That was a knowledge Packer himself clearly shares.

Even now, remembering that story has the power to make me tear up.

When I arrived at Regent I was keen to study under Dr Packer and I began with his class ‘Systematic Theology Overview’. He would start every class with the doxology. “Arise friends,” he would say, and everyone would have to stand and sing. At first we all felt very self-conscious, and the singing was patchy and embarrassed. We only did it because, well, who says no to J.I. Packer! But by the end of the semester we sang together sincerely and tunefully because we had learned Packer’s primary lesson: ALL theology is for doxology – for the glory of God.

Here was a once in a generation mind, an unparalleled published author and theologian, and always his focus was on Jesus Christ his saviour, in making the name of Jesus great. Packer’s focus was on seeing Jesus honoured. His theology came out of a desire to help others understand the “glory” and profundity of adoption into God’s family.

J.I. Packer, who loved to refer to himself in class in the third person as “Packer”, had an amazing mind, and a photographic memory. He might start speaking about the fifth century fathers, and you would watch him gaze up and to the left – you could almost see the cogs turning as he accessed the file in his mind, and then he would continue talking for an hour or two without notes, in incredible detail about the history of the church and its theology. But it was when we got to the Puritans that you got a glimpse into Packer’s soul.

As he talked about the Puritans, and their devotion to God and holiness, he would begin to tear up. The great J.I. Packer, happy to show his deepest love of God and emotion in front of snotty nosed graduate students, because he couldn’t hide his love for Jesus even when lecturing.

His humility and pastoral heart was an example of faithfulness in following Christ and a willingness to be involved in all the mundanity of church life and relationship.

At Regent there was an expression that “you take the professor not the course.” During my time at Regent, I gradually came to understand that the great gift of any Regent course, no matter the subject matter, was getting to know the professor, and getting a glimpse into their faith and spiritual practices, as well as how their unique mind shaped their theological approach. Packer and his faith, along with many other professors, were a lasting gift of encouragement to perseverance and faithfulness (as those in Hebrews 11).

Although known primarily as a theologian and author, Packer was a pastor at heart. He faithfully served under Rector David Short at St John’s Shaughnessy as an honorary assistant. He helped out with leading services, and preaching, as well as adult education and bible studies. His humility and pastoral heart was an example of faithfulness in following Christ and a willingness to be involved in all the mundanity of church life and relationship.

I well remember something that happened after a service at St John’s. We were finishing up and an elderly lady accosted J.I. before he could even remove his surplice [a liturgical outer garment], regaling him with her maladies for a full 20 minutes. Not once did Packer try to move her on. He listened attentively, and compassionately, and this attitude I saw repeated with students at Regent, whether they be outrageously loud and demanding, or those with pressing theological questions.

Packer loved the liturgy and the depth of insight and faith it fostered through its recitation week after week in church. Well known for personally reciting the morning and evening prayer services as part of his spiritual practice, he was also one of the best people I have ever seen lead liturgy. Despite having recited the Communion service from the Book of Common Prayer hundreds if not thousands of times, every week he spoke it afresh. He never hurried, but imbued it with expression and meaning as though it was the first time he was reading it.

And as he recited the communion introduction, this 80+ year old saint, who looked like a gust of wind would blow him over, would fall to his knees on the hard flagstones, despite it no doubt paining him. He was humbling himself before his God in faithful service, week in week out, as he led God’s people in worship.

I admit that what I wanted most was to impress Packer, to knock the socks off him with my preaching prowess …

As part of my training at Regent, and part of my duties as an intern at St John’s, I was required to preach at the 7.45am service. The first time I had to do this, having been allocated my passage, I sweated for weeks over the preparation. I had never preached in a church before, and now I would be preaching while J.I. Packer led the liturgy. What an incredible privilege, and what a daunting task!

I admit that what I wanted most was to impress Packer, to knock the socks off him with my preaching prowess – and of course the insight and depth of my biblical exposition. But the reality was I was a completely inexperienced preacher, who no matter how hard I tried would almost certainly not impress. I duly gave my mediocre sermon, and many more, and Packer, while never effusive, never failed to make an encouraging comment or thank the preacher for their words and work.

I have one memory of Packer in particular that I will treasure all my days. After preaching one Sunday, he said to me “God has blessed you with the gift of preaching, so you must continue faithfully, and use the gifts he has given you to be a blessing to others, both here and in Sydney.” So when people question the hard choices I have made to continue to be Anglican, and to continue to answer God’s call to preach, I always think of the humble and holy J.I. Packer, that great servant who has gone before us to show the way.

It is not just his legacy as a writer, teacher, pastor, and theologian that will remain, but his example as a good and faithful servant, motivated in all things to honour and proclaim his Lord – the Lord he has known and pursued for all those many years, and is finally seeing face to face.

Upon her return from Regent College, Nerida Peart worked as an Assistant Minister (Young Adults) at St Matthew’s Anglican Church, West Pennant Hills, Sydney, for six years. She now speaks and preaches itinerantly for churches and parachurch organisations, while looking after her three small children.