Book Review (Rediscovering Holiness)

Packer, J. I. Rediscovering Holiness. 2nd ed. Ventura, CA: Regal, 2009. 286 pp.

This is a review I did for a class some time ago, so it is not as concise as some of my other reviews. Enjoy!

James Innell (J. I.) Packer currently serves as the Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, where he has taught since 1979. Packer received the Bachelor of Arts (1948), Master of Arts (1952), and Doctor of Philosophy (1955) from Corpus Christi College, one of several colleges in the University of Cambridge. Packer has preached and lectured widely in both Great Britain and North America. A prolific author, he has written, among other books, Fundamentalism and the Word of God, Keep in Step with the Spirit, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, Knowing God, and most recently Grounded in the Gospel. Packer is a member of the Editorial Council of Christianity Today, and served as General Editor for the English Standard Version of the Bible. He also served as Theological Editor for the English Standard Version Study Bible.

In Rediscovering Holiness, Packer seeks to recover the biblical emphasis on a life of personal holiness that is found missing “among Bible-centered Western Christian” (9). He plans to do this, not as an innovator, but as archaeologist, unearthing “older Christian wisdom” on the theme of holiness, with an end to convincing his readers of the need for personal holiness in their own lives (14). What is presented in the book is what Packer describes as “a venture in systematic spirituality” (36). By this he means, “a subsection of systematic theology in which one tries to think everything through, and think it all together, in terms of communion with God as the central relationship” (36).

Packer tackles the subject of biblical holiness in eight large chapters and one afterword that utilizes the life of Teresa of Avila to address the problem of “felt abandonment by God” experienced in the lives of some Christians (249). It also contains a chapter-by-chapter study guide and endnotes.

In chapter one, he seeks to describe holiness and convince his reader as to its importance. After briefly noting how the holiness word group is used in Scripture to refer to one being set apart unto God to be made into his likeness, Packer provides a fuller understanding of the scope of holiness in a believer’s life. Holiness has to do with: (1) one’s motives to please God; (2) one’s ability to resists one’s “behavioral flaws to which [one’s] temperament tempts [one]” (25); (3) one’s striving to be as genuinely human as Jesus was human; and (4) one’s relationship to God and others.

He closes out the chapter providing a short survey of what Scripture teaches about the important of holiness and the place it should have in a believer’s life. He notes that holiness: (1) is commanded of God’s people in Scripture; (2) is the goal of the believer’s redemption; (3) is the reason one is saved and made a new creation in Christ; (4) is the evidence of one’s salvation and is necessary for final salvation; (5) thwarts Satan’s schemes; (6) gives credibility to one’s witness of Christ; and (7) leads to joy in the Christian life.

In chapter two, Packer covers where holiness is located in the story of salvation. In short order, he explains the need for salvation (all are sinners by nature and practice), and as a result are lost and cut off from God. God’s plan to rescue a people for himself from sin and its consequences is through the person and work of Jesus Christ. This work includes his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Spirit to give forgiven sinners new life in himself. This new life, based on Jesus’ cross work, results in a new standing (justified before God) and a new relationship (adopted and forgiven child of God). God saves sinners according to “an eternal purpose of sovereign divine love to sinful individuals, a purpose that has its source in God’s own free decision” (52). God saves so that believers may be holy and enjoy him forever. Sanctification is the process God uses to make believers holy. God accomplishes the sanctification of the Christian through ordinary means, such as: doctrine (sanctified by means of immersion in the truth of Scripture), experience (sanctified by means of a life lived with God, believers, and others, which includes one’s victories and failures), and practice (sanctification by means of doing what God requires).

In chapter three, Packer turns to how one should respond to God’s plan of salvation outlined in chapter two. He presents four ways in which Christians should respond to God’s plan of salvation. All of these responses relate to one’s holiness. First, one should be awestruck at the greatness of God, both his person and his plan to save sinners. Dwelling on his salvation plan leads one to praise God, which is essential to holiness. Second, one should express gratitude for God’s mercy and grace, which God displayed most clearly through the cross of Christ. The motivation to live holy is gratitude for salvation. Third, one should be zealous for God’s glory. The goal of the plan of salvation is the exaltation of Jesus, since he is central and supreme in the plan of salvation. There is no holiness without centering oneself on Christ. Fourth, one should live naturally as God intended his children to live. This is living a Christlike life.

The majority of chapter four centers on “six differently focused characterizations of the holy life” (90), which are six models of sanctification. Packer attempts to draw together the best (and correct) Christian teaching on holiness to produce a holistic model. The first model is holiness as the redirecting of desire (contemplative model). This model believes that life’s supreme value and glory is to enjoy God. The second model is holiness as the cultivating of virtues (traditional Catholic model). This model views holiness primarily in ethical terms. There is no holiness without upright behavior. The third model is holiness as the following of the Holy Spirit’s urgings (Pentecostal model). The Spirit leads one to show love for God and others by doing what is right out of gratitude for salvation. The fourth model is holiness as the overcoming of sin’s downdrag (Reformed model). Holiness is viewed as increased deliverance from sin, which comes through mortification (killing of sin) and vivification (increasing of Christlike habits). The fifth model is holiness as the exercising of faith for a “second blessing” (Wesleyan & Keswick model) Holiness is viewed as faith-filled prayer to God as one’s real hope. Packer critiques the theology of second blessing theology, without discrediting the experience. The sixth model is holiness as the practicing of spiritual disciplines (contemporary model, e.g., Renovaré, Donald Whitney). The spiritual disciplines are seen as a means of cultivating one’s relationship with Christ. The disciplines are done out of love for God and desire to please him.

In chapter five, Packer focuses on the role of repentance in the pursuit of holiness. Repentance is the downward dimension of growth in holiness, and is something that characterizes the entirety of the Christian’s life. Repentance is a process of: (1) recognizing that one has sinned against God, “doing wrong instead of doing right” (113); (2) “regretful remorse at the dishonor one has done to … God” (113); (3) asking God for forgiveness and help to not sin in the same way again; (4) determined rejection of one’s sin, “with deliberate thoughts as to how to keep clear of them and live right for the future” (114); and (5) mandatory restitution to any party that has suffered loss because of one’s offense. After offering some reasons for continual repentance in the life of the Christian and a model of repentance based upon Revelation 2–3, Packer concludes the chapter with some practical guidance about repenting. He takes special aim at the lack of morality in Western Christianity. He offers two practices to combat this lack of morality. First, the church needs to teach that God hates sin, requires holiness, and is offended by one’s sin, including the sin of taking sin lightly. Second, one must ask God to speak to oneself through his word. This is so that one can see what God requires of one to live a holy life, and to lead one to pray that God would enable one to do what he requires.

Chapter six takes as its starting point the truth that growth in grace is transformation of character. This certainly relates to holiness, as Packer seeks to show. For him, holiness is the healthy, supernaturally aided growth of morally corrupt people into the image of Christ, which includes one’s motives, behavior, and deeds. One can see the connection to holiness and transformation of character. This kind of growth in grace requires a balanced concern for truth (doctrine), experience, and action (practice). This kind of balance is exemplified in the life of Christ. In the remainder of the chapter, Packer provides one list after another in an effort to cover the relationship between sanctification and holiness, ongoing growth in grace, and how one might be able to apply the principles of growth in grace to one’s life.

In chapter seven, Packer is concerned with the empowered Christian life as it relates to growth in holiness. For him, a life changed by the Holy Spirit is the supreme sign and wonder of Christianity. In the remainder of the chapter he seeks to detail what this looks like. He does this by providing five theses on the manifestation of God’s power among his people today, and through four truths about God’s power in believer’s lives. His list of truths includes how one might resolve the tension between one’s praying and God acting in the situation one prays about, and in what manner the Christian may ask God for a miracle. Packer concludes the chapter emphasizing that God’s power is shown most clearly and fully through human weakness. God sanctifies all forms of weakness by enabling the weak to be stronger than seemed possible under the most difficult of circumstances. In working through one’s weaknesses God shows the power of his grace, for the praise of his glory.

Chapter eight focuses on the hard work of endurance in the Christian life. The chapter’s content covers three main areas: (1) endurance; (2) suffering; and (3) fortitude. Each one naturally flows out of the other. Packer begins the chapter noting that Christian maturity is the promised product of endurance. One endures by fixing one’s eyes on Christ as the model and standard of godliness, and because Christ is one’s sustainer and source of strength. Endurance is necessary because Christians above all people will face suffering. Packer defines suffering as “getting what you do not want while wanting what you do not get” (228). Suffering, although unwanted, is something God uses to produce moral transformation in a person, and something he uses for his own glory. Fortitude is “a compound of courage and endurance” (244). The “power to practice [fortitude] comes only from the gospel, through the exercise of faith and hope in Jesus Christ” (244). Fortitude enables one to endure suffering well.

Packer concludes his book on holiness with an afterword that utilizes the life of Teresa of Avila to address the problem of “felt abandonment by God” experienced in the lives of some Christians (249). He does so by briefly looking at the life of Teresa, particularly her experience of felt abandonment for the better part of forty-nine years, succinctly explaining the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions three-stage process of spiritual advancement as it relates to Teresa, the evangelical conception of the life of holiness, and a closing assessment of Teresa’s experience. In his assessment of Teresa’s experience of felt abandonment, Packer concludes that God may have used her experience, as a form of “diaconal discipline,” to enable her to better identify with the poor and sick to whom she ministered to in Calcutta for so many years (262). He concludes his assessment with five biblical truths one may draw from Teresa’s experience.

Packer has written a thorough treatment on the theme of holiness. On the one hand it appears that Packer has met the purpose for which he wrote the book, namely, to recover the biblical emphasis on a life of holiness that is found missing “among Bible-centered Western Christianity” (9). He has clearly and compellingly drawn out holiness as a major biblical theme, one in which all Christians should personally be concerned about. On the other hand it is difficult to say if he has been successful in reviving an emphasis in a life of holiness “among Bible-centered Western” Christians (9). Only time will tell if he has achieved this.

One could list several ways in which Packer’s book is helpful and refreshing to the reader. Only two are mentioned. First, Packer has a way of interweaving scriptural teaching with biographical data from Christians of yesteryear. By doing this he not only grounds his book in the authority of Scripture for the Christian life, but he also provides snapshots of how a particular truth is worked out in the Christian life through past saints. One example of this occurs in chapter 5 on the life of repentance. After providing a biblical definition of repentance and the process of repentance as described in Scripture (112–114), Packer turns to the life of John Bradford as an example of one who followed a biblical process of repentance (114–123).

A second helpful aspect of Packer’s book are the three stick figures he uses to describe unhealthy spiritual growth (154–157). The pictures reflect one who may overemphasize doctrine at the expense of experience and practice, or experience at the expense of right doctrine and practice, or proper practice at the expense of doctrine and experience. For instance, the first stick figure is pictured with an enormous head in proportion to the rest of the body, thus illustrating an unhealthy emphasis on doctrine to the neglect of healthy experience and Christian practice. The two remaining figures feature one with an enlarged abdomen and gigantic legs. These images are hard to forget and serve as a quick reminder to the kind of balance that must be maintained for healthy spiritual growth.

While Packer provides a thorough and compelling treatment of the theme of holiness, and the need for it in one’s personal relationship with God, there are still some areas that need to be addressed. The first area of concern is what seems to be a poor choice of language in a few cases. In chapter two, Packer uses the phrase “prevenient grace” essentially as a synonym for regeneration (52). While he does define precisely what he means by “prevenient grace,” it may still have been better to choose another term given its widespread usage in the Wesleyan Arminian tradition. In chapter seven, he describes Jesus’ raising back from the dead Jairus’ daughter, the widow of Nain’s son, and Lazarus as “resuscitations” (189). Once again, he qualifies what he means by “resuscitation,” meaning those raised back to life would eventually die again (pp. 189–190). However, this does not seem to do justice to how Scripture would describe each of these instances, and many others like them, particularly the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Part of the Jesus’ delay in raising Lazarus may have been to solidify that what in fact took place was a genuine resurrection of a person’s life, as opposed to merely resuscitation. Packer could have used to term “resurrection” in these instances and still made his point that the believer’s future resurrection is patterned after Christ’s, who was raised to life never to die again.

The second concern relates to the overall layout of the book. Some of the chapters are quite large. The largest chapters are overrun with lists. While many of these lists are helpful and illuminating, they may discourage the casual reader from finishing the book. This seems to be apparent to Packer who regularly encourages the reader to keep reading.

Finally, there is the inclusion of the afterword focusing on the life of Mother Teresa. Packer’s use of her to illustrate the “felt abandonment” by God that some Christians may experience while serving God faithfully may prove helpful to such persons (249). However, some within the evangelical tradition may be turned off not only by the afterword, but Packer’s entire book for using a Roman Catholic nun to address this difficult topic. Perhaps he could have used a figure that would have been better received not only by evangelicals, but any Christian interested in the very practical topic of sanctification. On a personal note, this reviewer had no problem with him using Teresa’s life to discuss the topic.

All in all though, Packer’s Rediscovering Holiness is a strong addition to Christian literature on the theme of holiness. It situates itself in the tradition of the Puritan’s from whom Packer refers to often. Although accessible to the determined reader, most Christians entering into a discussion on biblical holiness would do well to start with a briefer work, perhaps Jerry Bridges’ The Pursuit of Holiness (2006) or Kevin DeYoung’s The Hole in Our Holiness (2012). For the student who has already tackled Packer’s book and desires to explore the theme of holiness even more may wish to pick up a copy of J. C. Ryle’s classic Holiness. This reviewer would recommend this book to some, but not all Christians given its length. It is a book that seems would be most beneficial for mature and disciplined believers. It may be useful in a small group setting led by mature believers. The latest edition contains a study guide that would facilitate this purpose.

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