J. I. Packer

Factors That Empty Grace of Amazing (4/4)

The sovereign freedom of God. Ancient paganism thought of each god as bound to his worshipers by bonds of self-interest, because he depended on their serviced gifts for his welfare. Modern paganism has at the back of its mind a similar feeling that God is somehow obliged to love and help us, little though we deserve it. This was the feeling voiced by the French freethinking who died muttering, “God will forgive – that his job (c’est son metier).” But this feeling is not well-founded. The God fo the Bible does not depend on his human creatures for his well-being (see Psalm 50:8-13; Acts 17:25), nor, now that we have sinned, is he bound to show us favor.

We can only claim from him justice – and justice, for us, means certain condemnation. God does not owe it to anyone to stop justice taking its course. He is not obliged to pity and pardon; if eh does so it is an act done, as we say, “of his own free will,” and nobody forces his hand. “It does not depend on man’s will or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Romans 9:16 NEB). Grace is free, in the sense of being self-originated and of proceeding from One who was free not to be gracious. Only when it is seen that what decides each individual’s destiny is whether or not God resolves to save him from his sins, and that this is a decision which God need not take in any single case, can one begin to grasp the biblical view of grace.

Knowing God, pp. 131-132.

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Factors That Empty Grace of Amazing (3/4)

More goodness from Packer:

The spiritual impotence of man. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People has been almost a modern Bible. A whole technique of business relations has been built up in recent years on the principle of putting the other person in a position where he cannot decently say no. This has confirmed modern men and women in the faith which has animated pagan religion ever since there was such a thing – namely, the belief that we can repair our own relationship with God by putting God in a position where he cannot say no anymore.

Ancient pagans thought to do this by multiplying gifts and sacrifices; modern pagans seek to do it by churchmanship and morality. Conceding that they are not perfect, they still have no doubt that respectability henceforth will guarantee God’s acceptance of them in the end, whatever they may have done in the past. But the Bible position is as stated by Toplady:

Not the labors of my hand
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands.
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears for ever flow,
All for sin could not atone

– leading to the admission of one’s own helplessness and to the conclusion:

Thou must save, and Thou alone.

“No one will be declared righteous in his own sight by observing the law,” declares Paul (Romans 3:20). To mend our own relationship with God, regaining God’s favor after having once lost it, is beyond the power of any one of us. And one must see and bow to this before one can share the biblical faith in God’s grace.

Knowing God, p. 131.

Factors That Empty Grace of Amazing (2/4)

The retributive justice of God. The way of modern men and women is to turn a blind eye to all wrongdoing as long as the safely can. They tolerate it in others, feeling that there, but for the accident of circumstances, go they themselves. Parents hesitate to correct their children, and teachers to punish their pupils, and the public puts up with vandalism and antisocial behavior of all sorts with scarcely a murmur. The accepted maxim seems to be that as long as evil can be ignored, it should be; one should punish only as a last resort, and then only so far as it is necessary to prevent the evil from having too grievous social consequences. Willingness to tolerate and indulge evil up to the limit is seen as a virtue, while living by fixed principles of right and wrong is censured by some as doubtfully moral.

In our pagan way, we take it for granted that God feels as we do. The idea that retribution might be the the moral law foGod’s world and an expression of his holy character seems to us quite fantastic. Those who uphold it find themselves accused of projecting onto God their own pathological impulses of rage and vindictiveness. Yet the Bible insists throughout that this world which God in his goodness has made is a moral world, one in which retribution is as basic a fact as breathing.

God is the Judge of all the earth, and he will do right, vindicating the innocent, if such there be, but punishing (in the Bible phrase visiting their sins upon) lawbreakers (see Genesis 18:25). God is not true to himself unless he punishes sin. And unless one knows and feels the truth of this fact, that wrongdoers have no natural hope of anything from God but retributive judgment, one can never share the biblical faith in divine grace.

– J. I. Packer, Knowing God, pp. 130-131.

Factors That Empty Grace of Amazing (1/4)

Continuing through this great section of Packer’s Knowing God:

The moral ill-desert of man. Modern men and women, conscious of their tremendous scientific achievements in recent years, naturally incline to a high opinion of themselves. The view material wealth as in any case more important than moral character, and in the moral realm the are resolutely kind to themselves, treating small virtues as compensating for great vices and refusing to take seriously the idea that, morally speaking, there is anything much wrong with them.

They tend to dismiss a bad conscience, in themselves and in others, as an unhealthy psychological freak, a sign of disease and mental aberration rather than an index of moral reality. For modern men and women are convinced that, despite all their little peccadilloes – drinking, gambling, reckless driving, sexual laxity, black and white lies, sharp practice in trading, dirty reading, and what have you – they are at heart thoroughly good folks. Then, as pagans do (and modern man’s heart is pagan – make no mistake about that), they imagine God as a magnified image of themselves and assume that God shares his own complacency about himself. The thought of themselves as creatures fallen from God’s image, rebels against God’s rule, guilty and unclean in God’s sight, for only for God’s condemnation, never enters their heads (pp. 129-130).

When Grace Fails to Amaze

Getting ready to preach on the Reformation principle Sola Fide – Grace Alone – and I’ve been really enjoying what Packer had to say in his classic work Knowing God on this topic.

[…] there have always been some who have found the thought of grace so overwhelmingly wonderful that they could never get over it. Grace has become the constant theme of their talk and prayers. They have written hymns about it, some of the finest – ad it takes deep feeling to produce a good hymn. They have fought for it, accepting ridicule and loss of privilege if need be as the price of their stand; as Paul fought the Judaizers, so Augustine fought the Pelagians, and the Reformers fought scholasticism, and the spiritual descendants of Paul and Augustine and the Reformers have been fighting Romanizing and Pelagianizing doctrines ever since. With Paul, their testimony is, “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10), and their rule of life is , “I do not frustrate the grace of God” (Galatians 2:21 KJV).

But many church people are not like this. They may pay lip service to the idea of grace, but there they stop. Their conception of grace is not so much debased as nonexistent. The thought means nothing to them; it does not touch their experience at all. Talk to them about the church’s heating, or last year’s accounts, and they are with you at once; but speak to them about the realities to which the word grace points, and their attitude is one of deferential blankness. They do not accuse you of talking nonsense; they do not doubt that your words have meaning; but they feel that, whatever it is that you are talking about, it is beyond them, and the longer they have lived without it the surer they are that at their stage of life they do not really need it.

– J. I. Packer, Knowing God, pp. 128-129.

More to come…

Created to Know God

What were we made for? To know God. What aim should we set ourselves in life? To know God. What is the eternal life that Jesus gives? Knowledge of God. “This is life eternal, that they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). What is the best thing in life, bringing more joy, delight, and contentment than anything else? Knowledge of God. “Thus saith the Lord, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me” (Jeremiah 9:23). What, of all the states God ever sees man in, gives him most pleasure? Knowledge of himself. “I desire … the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings,” says God (Hosea 6:6).… Once you have become aware that the main business that you are here for is to know God, most of life’s problems fall into place of their own accord.

– J. I. Packer, Knowing God, p. 29.

The Spirit of Christmas

For the Son of God to empty himself and become poor meant a laying aside of glory; a voluntary restraint of power; an acceptance of hardship, isolation, ill-treatment, malice, and misunderstanding; finally, a death that involved such agony – spiritual, even more than physical – that is his mind nearly broke under the prospect of it. It meant love to the uttermost for unlovely men, who “through his poverty, might become rich.” This Christmas message is that there is hope for a ruined humanity – hope of pardon, hope of peace with God, hope of glory – because at the Father’s will Jesus Christ became poor and was born in a stable so that thirty years later he might hang on a cross. It is the most wonderful message that the world has ever heard, or will hear.

We talk glibly of the “Christmas spirit,” rarely meaning more by this than sentimental jollity on a family basis. But what we have said makes it clear that the phrase should in fact carry a tremendous weight of meaning. It ought to mean the reproducing in human lives of the temper of him who for our sakes became poor at the first Christmas. And the Christmas spirit itself ought to be the mark of every Christian all the year round.

It is our shame and disgrace today that so many Christians – I will be more specific: so many of the soundest and most orthodox Christians – go through this world in the spirit of the priest and the Levite in our Lord’s parable, seeing human needs all around them, but (after a pious wish, and perhaps a prayer, that the Lord might meet those needs) averting their eyes and passing by on the other side. That is not the Christmas spirit. Nor is it the spirit of those Christians – alas, they are many – whose ambition in life seems limited to building a nice middle-class Christian home, and making nice middle-class Christian friends, and bringing up their children in nice-middle class Christian ways, and who leave the submiddle-class sections of the community, Christian and non-Christian, to get on by themselves.

The Christmas spirit does not shine out in the Christian snob. For the Christian spirit is the spirit of those who, like their Master, live their whole lives on the principle of making themselves poor – spending and being spent – to enrich their fellow humans, giving time, trouble, care and concern, to do good to others – and not just their own friends – in whatever way there seems need….”You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich (2 Cor 8:9).”

– J.I. Packer, Knowing God, pp. 70-71. (HT:MN)