Great men inspire greatness, both in their lives and in their deaths. Such is true of James Innell Packer (1926–2020), whose life and ministry has forever marked my own. He and I only met once, and I have only read a handful of his books. But in this age, he is one who has shown me what it means to share in Christ, having held on to his original confidence firm until the end (Heb 3:14). J. I. Packer ever exerted a bold yet restful confidence in the authority and veracity of holy Scripture. He also loved Jesus deeply and cherished and proclaimed his substitutionary atoning work on our behalf. In a sea of contemporary voices, his stood out to me because it was ever matched by a gentle and lowly spirit that longed for holiness and that embraced weakness. I so deeply pray that, if God keeps me into my 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, I can humbly embrace Christ and remain faithful to his Word as Packer did unto his death.

For Packer, what was not yet has become more the already, as he passed from death to lasting life in the presence of his Savior on Friday, July 17, 2020, at age 93. But for the grace and purposes of our sovereign God, he could have died at age 70 as a result of my own youthful distraction. As a tribute to Packer’s enduring faithfulness, I want to thank the Lord for what he taught me through him that day so long ago.

It was the late 90s, and I was a young seminary student at Gordon-Conwell. Dr. Packer gave a series of lectures at the school, and I remember celebrating that the Lord would let me meet the author of Knowing God (1973, 1993). I don’t recall his message topic or text, but I do remember his humility was of a type that embraced God’s absolute bigness and treasured Christ’s atoning work on his behalf. My wife helped organize conferences and set up that I would drive Packer back to the airport. What an honor; I was excited. But I was also a little embarrassed….

This leader of the faith was going to ride for twenty-five minutes in our red, two door Ford Escort that had a lightning bolt on the side. Nevertheless, when I pulled up and greeted him, Packer did not hesitate but hopped into the car and, with his ever-present British accent, expressed gratitude for the ride. I was in the midst of my ministry training; he had already been training men like me for at least four decades.

“Dr. Packer, as one in the latter half of your ministry, what would you say to one like me who is early on in my ministry training?” This seemed like a good start. I had twenty-five minutes with him, and I wanted them to count.

He began to share about his early years of training and ministry, and I found myself completely captivated. I was fully engaged, mulling over every word…. Then at some point while he was sharing, red flashed under my visor. Then four lanes of traffic, pointed at us from the left and right, bolted our way. Breaks screeched, and horns rang out, as we swerved and sailed through the stop light of a major intersection.

Both Dr. Packer and I were stunned; I sat in silence, trying to take in what just happened … and what could have been. “I am so sorry,” I said. “Well,” he responded, “at least we’re still alive!”

After both of us made a few deep breaths, he continued with words like these, which have ever stuck with me: “Early on in my ministry, I committed to two things that have guided me all my years: First, I decided to write and teach only things that the church requested or that I believed the church needed. Second, I determined to say, ‘Yes,’ to invitations to speak or write only when I believed God had given me a unique or distinctive contribution to make. If someone else could do it as well or better than me, then he or she should, and I should say, ‘No.’”

Packer embodied a life lived for the church, and he knew both his limits and his God-given purpose. When we read Scripture or journey through this life, the lives we should seek to emulate are those that reflect that wonder and greatness of God as revealed in Jesus (Matt 11:29; 1 Cor 11:1; 1 John 2:5–6). For me, Packer was such a man. And while his two guidelines have not always been easy to follow, they have served my wife and me well over the last quarter century in helping us determine when and what to write and speak.

I think that the first book I ever read of Packer’s was during my college days––Rediscovering Holiness: Know the Fulness of Life with God (1992). The Lord used it to awaken within me a greater hunger and thirst for living in a way that honored him. Then I read Knowing God, and the object of my highest pleasure became clearer. The latest book I read of Packer’s was just last year––Weakness Is the Way: Life with Christ Our Strength (2013). I went here after my wife directed me to some humble reflections he made after going blind. These books encapsulate what I have seen in the life of this man, whom I have sought to emulate from a distance and who now knows God more fully, even as he has been fully known (1 Cor 13:12).

The following words capture what I long to see realized in my life and what now has been realized in a greater way in Packer’s: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:8–11). J. I. Packer is now truly resting in peace, reigning with Christ and enjoying the first resurrection (Rev 20:6). Because Christ overcame death on his behalf, Packer will not face the second death but will ever enjoy the crown of life in presence of his King (Jas 1:12; Rev 2:10).