J. I. Packer Answers Questions for Today

J. I. Packer Answers Questions for Today

by J. I. I. Packer, Wendy Murray Zoba




No doubt you've had questions about the Bible and the Christian life. But where can you find answers? This compact volume offers real questions—even difficult challenges—asked by real people. Answers are given by one of today's premier theologians of Christianity: J. I. Packer. The result is a fun-to-read book, jammed with practical advice on many of the issues confronting struggling Christians today. J. I. Packer's answers are warm, relevant, and biblically solid. Finally, a readable resource for faith and life questions!

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780842336154
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
Publication date: 01/28/2001
Pages: 144
Product dimensions: 5.51(w) x 8.22(h) x 0.31(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Righting Our Compass

Why are you so devoted to studying the Bible and finding out about God?

When you commit yourself to Christ, you're adopted into the family of Christ's heavenly Father, who now becomes your heavenly Father. And when you realize that this means you gain life out of death—and you really do—you feel overwhelmed and find that you very much want to know your heavenly Father as well as you can, and to understand his mind, his will, his plans, and his goals. For that to happen, you have to work with the Bible, which is his Word.

It seems to me that the most natural thing in the world would be that when you are taken into a family, you get interested in the family—particularly in the head of the family. I should be a strange child of God if I wasn't interested in the Bible. I should be showing myself ungrateful for the grace that has brought me into the family and made me a new person and an heir of glory.

When I became a Christian more than half a century ago, I got stuck straight away into soaking up all I could learn about God from the Bible, and that has been a sort of passion with me ever since. Frankly, it still is. Some passions subside as you get older, but not this one.

Why do so many people find the study of God and the Bible burdensome and boring?

Too often these things have been taught in a rigidly defensive way: "This is the stuff you are to believe and share; these are the errors you are to recognize and reject." Simply projecting orthodoxy that way doesn't give much stimulus to the mind, because the conclusion is determined before you've asked the question. Devotionally it is so barren that even Christians get turned off by it.

Such an approach actually shrinks the soul. Focusing on the greatness of God, though, enlarges the soul. Paradoxically, it makes you a greater person by making you a smaller person. It makes you humble. It lowers you in your own self-estimate. I've always tried to present truth in such a way that it will humble the sinner and exalt the Savior. This produces a Christian who is of larger stature than one who just knows orthodoxy and is prepared to recite it on demand.

What does Christianity, which exalts God and diminishes individual rights, offer a culture like ours that aims to exalt the self?

Religion, in many circles, has become the business of trying to make people happy. Anything that enlarges my comfort zone is regarded as good, godly, proper, and to be integrated into my religion.

North American culture, both secular and churchly, zeroes in on the "right to happiness." But a true study of God challenges that notion, for it calls on us to deny claims of self and to exalt God instead. God promises that if we pursue holiness, happiness will come. And it does come, in the form of a joy that the world knows nothing about. Christian self-denial produces more joy and happiness than secular self-indulgence ever does. People who don't know God don't believe that, but it's true.

Is it legitimate to think that Christianity is a means to personal fulfillment?

It is legitimate, once I've guarded myself against the mistake that makes such thinking illegitimate. The mistake is to think of myself as the center of the universe and that God exists for my comfort, convenience, and merely to bless me. That assumption has to be junked.

We exist for God. God, in his great mercy, has promised that blessedness will accompany discipleship, but it's got to be God first.

Without that understanding, to say that Christianity is the secret of happiness is dangerous. Often evangelists who preach that way leave the wrong impression and affirm our self-absorption, and then we end up trying Christianity only as a formula for happiness. That kind of teaching is likely to produce substandard saints.

You don't actually help the butterfly emerge from its chrysalis by cutting the chrysalis. If the butterfly doesn't struggle from inside to get out, it comes out as a butterfly that isn't strong enough to fly. People who get into the Christian life without ever being challenged to repent of their self-absorption are, at best, likely to remain stunted as Christians.

Does the materialistic and entertainment culture in North American impede our ability to have an active interest in what it truly means to be a Christian?

I don't think that this is a North American problem at all. I think it is a human problem and it has been a human problem since the fall. We were all created to be God's image-bearers. That means that we were created to seek and find God through seeking and finding the truth about God. We are made in such a way, I believe, that we are only at peace with ourselves when it's God's truth that our minds are grasping and consciously obeying. Human life is lacking dignity until you get to that point.

Is it appropriate to use guilt to motivate people to repent?

We can't help it. When people wake up to the fact that they've been defying and dishonoring God all these years, they'll feel guilty. The Spirit working in their hearts will see to that! They will know that God is telling them they have lived wrongly, that they must change, and that they need to have the past washed out.

The next question will be, "How can I get straight with God?" This means, "How can I get rid of my guilt?" That's when we can talk about how Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; how he redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.

I hear evangelists say that people today simply don't respond if you teach guilt and then highlight the Cross as God's act of putting away guilt—they don't think of themselves as guilty. Well, if so, that's our fault because we haven't told them of their guilt. We haven't made them recognize how thoroughly they've been dishonoring and defying God. We've left them on the egocentric happiness track. We are wrong to do that.

Isn't telling people about hellfire passé?

There has been a strong reaction in Christian circles against imaginative presentations of hell, the endless fire and all of that. But people do need to know that lostness is a fact.

My concept of hell owes much to C. S. Lewis, whose key thought is that what you have chosen to be in this world comes back at you as your eternal destiny; if you've chosen to put up the shutters against God's grace rather than receive it, that's how you will spend eternity. Hell is to exist in a state apart from God, where all of the good things in this world no longer remain for you. All that remains is to be shut up in yourself, realizing what you have missed and lost through saying no to God.

In Jean Paul Sartre's play about hell, No Exit, four people find themselves in a room they can't leave, and they can't get away from one another. What Sartre presents is the ongoing, endless destruction of each person by the others. Though Sartre was an atheist, his nightmare vision of this process makes substantial sense to me as an image of hell—one aspect of it, anyway. The unending realization of God's displeasure and rejection has to be a reality in hell, too.

How do you talk to people from the Bible when they might not care what the Bible teaches?

I haven't got a ready-made formula for doing that. All I know is that when people have a passion to know God and to deepen their relationship with God—just as a chap who's fallen in love has a passion to deepen his relationship with the girl—then everything in Scripture becomes interesting.

I don't know any quick and easy technique for getting people to study the Bible. So I try to preach about the goodness and greatness and glory of God, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, in a way that I hope will generate the passion. But ultimately, I can't produce that effect. Only the Holy Spirit himself can.

Is it wrong to present God as the answer to all of our problems? Or, to put it another way—is it wrong to bring a therapeutic dimension into our understanding of who God is?

I don't now believe—indeed I'm not sure I ever believed—that Christians could rely on the Holy Spirit to keep them free from mental and emotional troubles and all need of therapy on that level. The people who convinced me of that were the Puritans. I started reading the Puritans within two years of my conversion. I found that they recognized, straightforwardly, that a lot of people in this world who profess faith will have various kinds of mental and depressive trouble.

As I move around, I do, frankly, find myself shocked and depressed—this is not clinical depression, you understand, merely discouragement—at the amount of feel-good preaching that goes on in Bible-believing churches. I don't believe it can do much good, and I don't believe it can bring much glory to God. It inescapably encourages an ungodly form of the self-centeredness I spoke of earlier: the notion that I and my feelings (which hopefully will be good feelings) are the most important things in the world. It also encourages the idea that God's agenda is to give me good feelings. As a result, if I find that there are no good feelings, it's almost inescapable that I would conclude that God somehow has let me down, has failed, has gone to sleep, or has fallen off his throne. It's a thoroughly unhealthy emphasis.

Again and again God's will for those of us who need healing of body or mind is that, by his strength, we should live with our complaint as long as this life lasts. Remember, the apostle Paul had a "thorn in his flesh," which he asked—three times—to be removed, and it wasn't (2 Cor. 12:7).

What indicates that a person has moved from self-absorption toward godly maturity?

Maturity is exemplified by people whom I would characterize as great souled. There is a sense of stature, a sense of bigness about them that is directly related to the quality of their discipleship. It gives them dignity, poise, and searching insight. It means that when others abuse them or even martyr them, they generate respect.

Sometimes, though, they generate robust hatred first. Richard Baxter, the seventeenth-century Puritan, is a man I very much admire. He was a man of stature who got under people's skin simply by his poise, passion, and integrity. Just by being a good man and faithfully serving God, he made people feel bad, and they gave him a very hard time as a result.

What part does the study of God and the Bible play in our maturing?

Truth about God and his gracious ways is food for the hungry soul. What we have in the Bible is the raw material, the makings of the meal. We who preach and teach are like the cooks, and it's our business to shape the meal and make it appetizing. Good teaching and preaching will come as a meal for the soul. Thinking over the truth that has been taught or found in our Bible reading—talking to God about it, measuring ourselves by it, and resolving to let it guide our lives—is the process of spiritual digestion. Digesting good meals on a regular basis sets the body on track for growth and maturity, and digesting good spiritual food does the same for the soul. Spiritual anorexia (not taking in the food we need) and spiritual bulimia (not letting ourselves digest it after we have received it, however large the quantities) will keep us from real spiritual health and progress. So it is important not to fall victim to either.

Table of Contents

1Righting Our Compass1
2Getting to Know the Bible25
3Drawing Near to God43
4Living in Today's World55
5Answering Some Hard Questions73
6Knowing Packer87

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