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J.I. Packer at his Regent College office in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2009.
Ron Storer/Genesis Photos
J.I. Packer at his Regent College office in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2009.

J.I. Packer: The lost interview

Q&A | From a recording that disappeared in transit five years ago, the octogenarian theologian shares how God shaped him first and foremost as a catechist

Five years ago, WORLD founder Joel Belz suffered a journalistic disaster. He had traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia, to interview octogenarian J.I. Packer, author of many terrific books on theology. Joel recorded 90 minutes of conversation and placed the recording in the side pocket of his suitcase. Somewhere on his luggage’s journey back to North Carolina, someone or something ripped off that side pocket. Joel lost his Bible and the recording.

After a long search, Joel sadly concluded the interview was not meant to be—yet last year he received a package containing the lost items, without a senders name or return address. Joel had the interview transcribed but suspected it was dated. This past week he sent me the transcript and modestly (as always) suggested, “There might be some excerpts that could be useful. I read the interview and found all of it useful. Joel asked good questions and Packer, now 87, was both wise and charming. Please read and enjoy. —Marvin Olasky

If you don’t take it as an insult, I would like to ask you the question that I ask newcomers to my own congregation—because I think this is something that people don’t know about J.I. Packer. When somebody comes to our congregation and says, “I want to be a member of your church,” my fellow elders and I ask them these three questions. We say, “Tell us when you first believed, and tell us what you believed then, and tell us what you believe now.” You see the point? I don’t think a lot of people have ever heard how J.I. Packer came to faith in the first place. Do you mind sharing that? Not in the least. At my age I have nothing to hide. And, in fact, the story of my conversion is a perfectly straightforward one, as you will note here. At age 15 at school I was a member of the chess club, and I played chess regularly with the son of a Unitarian minister. He got me thinking what is true in Christianity because he tried to sell me the Unitarian bill of goods, and that was the first occasion in my life when I asked myself what is true in Christianity. Is he right?

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I had been brought up an Anglican Church attendee, but in the Anglican Church where I was nurtured, if that’s the word to use, I was never taught anything. I thought of Christianity as on a par with cleaning my teeth, mainly something that you regularly did, but you didn’t think about it, not even when you were doing it. But anyway, he left me with the question that this can’t be true because it’s a position that only holds together by willpower. If you are going to deny the divinity of Christ, which is so central to the New Testament, you also deny all the rest of it. If you are going to affirm that the ethic of Jesus is the best thing since fried bread, well then you ought to take seriously what the New Testament says about who He is. That got me going.

I read some C.S. Lewis, I read a good deal of the Bible, and I read a number of books of all schools of thought relating to Christian faith. Two years on after this started, a friend of mine who had gone to university a year before I was due to go, he got suddenly converted through the Intervarsity [IV] people, and when next we met, and thereafter, he took it on himself to try and explain to me that I didn’t have faith. By then I had got to the point where I was prepared to stand up for the creed in debate—we had a 12th grade atheist; most schools do—and we used to have fairly intense arguments. I argued for truth of the creed and I took for granted that since I believed the creed, that’s what it meant to have faith as this friend of mine naturally had. Came the day when I was due to go up to Oxford and he said very quickly before he went off to the university where he was studying, “I haven’t been able to explain it to you very well, but when you get to Oxford, link up with the Intervarsity people. They will be able to make it clearer than I have been able to do.”

At Oxford the Intervarsity people were out on the hunt and we met right at the beginning of my time. They organized a periodic evangelistic preaching service at the university. The first such preaching service that I attended the sermon lasted three-quarters of an hour and was preached by an elderly gentleman who within the first 20 minutes bored me. Then he started telling at length the story of his own conversion and suddenly everything became clear. I am not a person who gets much in the way of visions or visuals, but the concept called up a picture which was there in my mind was that here I am outside of the house and looking through the window and I understand what they are doing. I recognize the games they are playing. Clearly they are enjoying themselves, but I am outside. Why am I outside? Because I have been evading the Lord Jesus and His call.

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