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Notable and Quotable - J. I. Packer

Gavin MacKenzie

J. I. Packer

J. I. Packer is Professor of Theology, Regent College, Vancouver, Canada and was named by Time Magazine as one of the twenty-five most influential evangelicals alive.

The Bible meant nothing to me at all as a child. I was brought up in a churchgoing family and taught two prayers to say each bedtime, but my parents were not Bible-readers. Bible teaching was never discussed at home, and I had no Bible of my own until at sixteen I commandeered a stout, board-bound Edwardian King James Version that belonged to no one in particular, and began, off and on, to read it.

Why did I do that? An Austrian Jewish refugee family had come to our town, and the oldest and brightest of their three sons was a peer of mine in the sixth form, the school’s top grade. He was a science student who argued vigorously for atheism, as at that time many well-known scientists did. I found myself propelled into championing the historic Christian faith (I had been reading some C.S. Lewis), and thought I had better get on terms with the Bible, to make sure I knew just what I was talking about. My reading, however, was spasmodic, and made no difference at all to the way I lived.

However, in 1944 I went up to Oxford, heard the gospel for the first time, and experienced the Lord Jesus Christ breaking in and reshaping everything. The group that discipled me stressed the importance of reading and meditating on Scripture daily as a means of communing with my Saviour, and they started me on John’s gospel. The Lord Jesus was good to me, as so often to young converts, and knowing him through Scripture became a constant joy. And then, six weeks after my conversion, I went into a Bible exposition meeting assuming, as I had always done until now, that the Bible, wonderful as it was proving to be, was a mixed bag of wisdom and fantasy. I came out however, inwardly certain that the whole Bible, while fully human, was also wholly divine, and to be revered as such. I remember feeling bemused at the suddenness and strength of this conviction. It has never left me, and is part of my identity today.

First, then, I read and value the Bible as a letter, one that I re-read annually and parts of which I read much more often than that. Kierkegaard wrote somewhere: “When you read God’s Word, you must constantly be saying to yourself, ‘It is talking to me, and about me.’” That expresses exactly what I have in mind as I label my Bible a letter from my Lord. It is always and in all its parts, a divine communication addressed to me.

Second, I read and value the Bible as a listening-post, the place where I go to hear the voice of God through the Holy Spirit.

Third, I read and value the Bible as God’s law, the standard for faith and practice, a model for praise and prayer, a compendium of wisdom for pleasing God and serving others, and thus a syllabus for saints.

Fourth, I read and value the Bible as a light in what it has led me to regard as the darkness of my life. Non-Christians often think of life as straightforward, but believers know better. Says Psalm 119:105 (NKJV): ‘Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.’

See the picture! Life, yours like mine, is a journey across open, unfamiliar rough country. As we travel we are constantly at risk, for the terrain is treacherous and it is dark. The easiest thing in the world will be to stumble and fall over obstacles or into potholes that are invisible in the dark, and so do ourselves serious damage. We know that a path is there, but however much we screw up our eyes and glare into the blackness we cannot see it. We need a light and God in his mercy puts a flashlight into our hands. We shine it, and now we can see, not indeed our whole route, start to finish, but the next bit of the path, so that now we know where to put our feet. We walk without stumbling or falling. We move forward step by step towards our destination.

Walking by the light of Scripture is not like walking by daylight, any more than shining your flashlight ahead of you is like the sun coming up. Beyond the little circle of vision that the flashlight gives you, darkness continues to surround you, and it is through this darkness that we must travel as long as we are in the world. Which brings me to my final thought.

I read and value the Bible as my lifeline. Have you ever been near to drowning? I have, and in using this image I do not think I overstate. Deep down life has always felt frustrating in the way that the writer in Ecclesiastes describes. The proverb rightly says, while there’s life there’s hope, but the deeper truth is that only when there is real hope is there anything you call real life. To moderns like me, drowning in hopelessness, disappointed, disillusioned, despairing, emotionally isolated, bitter and aching inside, Bible truth comes as a lifeline, for it is future-oriented and hope-centred throughout. The triune God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, is the lifeguard, who sees us drowning and comes to rescue us; and the Holy Scriptures are the lifeline God throws us to keep us connected with him while the rescue is in progress. The hope that Scripture brings arrests and reverses the drowning experience, generating inward vitality and joy and banishing for ever the sense of having the life choked out of us as the waves break over us.

Excerpted from What the Bible Means to Me: Testimonies of How God's Word Impacts Lives (Christian Focus, 2011).

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