There is a difference between leadership and influence. There have been many popular leaders whose influence is ephemeral. But Packer’s quiet, steady output of books, and his behind-the-scenes work in movements that were led by others, have probably solidified and deepened the evangelical and Reformed resurgence with greater effect than that of many more visible leaders. He knew that the job of a theologian is really not very glamorous.
J.I. Packer wrote a postcard to me dated December 18, 1990, which included this sentence in his tiny handwriting: “Creep up behind your wife, whisper in her ear Ellis Peters, Elizabeth Peters, Andrew Greely, Ralph McInerny, William Kienzle, Charles Merrill Smith, and see how she reacts.”
These are all contemporary mystery novelists. There’s a backstory.
Raising a Banner
In the late 1980s, I felt a midlife restlessness. Not to leave my wife, or sail around the world, or buy a motorcycle, but to find fellowship with other pastors across denominations who really cherished the sovereignty of God in salvation. Pastors who treasured Calvinism with a little “c” and a big joy — “inexpressible joy,” as Peter calls it (1 Peter 1:8).
I knew pastors like that were out there somewhere because little bands would gather at the Southern Baptist Founders conferences and the Banner of Truth conferences. But there was a certain tone I wanted to set. Really serious — blood-earnest serious. Really joyful — charismatic joyful. Really rooted in history — the lineage of Luther, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones, Packer. Richly contemporary — with the best big-God worship songs. Really passionate about global missions and unreached peoples. Really in love with the local church. Really courageous — ready to say out loud, “Killing babies in the womb is abominable, and racial respect and justice and harmony really matter.”
That’s the banner I wanted to fly. I wanted to see who would come and sing with me under that kind of Bible-saturated preaching and Reformation theology.
How could I pull that off? How could I help pastors take that seriously? Nobody knew me. Why would they come? I needed a speaker whom pastors knew and respected, and who would believe in the vision. I wrote to J.I. Packer. To my amazement, he was willing to come. And in the spring of 1988, we held the first Bethlehem Conference for Pastors. It has met every year since then. He did that sort of thing again and again for no-name churches and no-name conferences. He was a servant.
Inclined to Serve
Back to the mystery novelists.
While he was here for the conference, Noël and I invited him and the other speakers to our house for dinner.