Nutritionists everywhere tell us that a well-balanced diet fuels our bodies, yet many of us continue to ignore their advice. The same is true for our Bible study habits.
We know that nourishment for our souls lies in the pages of the Bible, but we are often lazy about maintaining our study routine. However, unlike nutrition, many of us don’t know the key to a well-balanced Bible study diet. Learning the key may be the cure to our problem. Dr. J. I. Packer offers us some pointers.
J. I. Packer has spent over 60 years celebrating his personal commitment to Christ and is considered one of the most influential evangelical theologians of our time. His classic 1973 book, Knowing God, is a seminal work for popularizing Christian theology, and a must read for anyone who wants to study spiritual certitudes and the true character of God.
Born in 1926 in Gloucester, England, Packer always loved books, a fondness which he later put to good use as an undergraduate at Oxford University, when he was caretaker of the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union library. After graduating, he taught classical languages until he decided to become an ordained minister within the Church of England. In 1954, he received his doctorate in theology at Oxford, which led to his first published work, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (1958). Over 170 publications have followed including Knowing Christianity, Truth & Power and A Quest for Godliness.
An active participant in the resurgence of Anglican evangelicalism, Packer accepted a position at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, in 1979. Currently he serves there as Board of Governors Professor of Theology. In 2005 he was named by TIME Magazine as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America.
An advocate for Bible study
As an advocate of Bible study for over 60 years, Packer tells Bible Study Magazine he has long believed Christians should read the entire Bible thoroughly at least once every year. To help facilitate Bible study, he recommends Bible study tools such as The One Year Bible, where passages from the New and Old Testaments, Psalms and Proverbs are part of a 15-minute daily reading. “I find that variety, along with the cross-references they suggest, keeps my heart fresh and alert in Bible study. I suppose you can compare it to a balanced diet.”
Packer served as theological editor of the 2,750 page English Standard Version Study Bible (2008), which he says is the most comprehensive study Bible ever published. Packer says, “It contains a whole series of articles on living the Christian life and bearing Christian witness in the modern world in an attempt to make sure every potential difficulty is explained. It’s a tool that will give you wisdom for living a Christian life in our very bewildering, multi-religious modern world that says we are all climbing the same mountain by different paths, but you shall meet at the top. Well, I don’t believe that, nor have Christians as a body believed it until very, very recently. And Christians who are still, shall I say, in the mainstream Christian heritage, still don’t believe it. There are useful articles in the ESV Study Bible that explain why that shouldn’t be believed.”
“The Christian life is absolutely different from all the rest of the world’s religions. The people who are trying to assimilate Christianity into other faiths are on the wrong track entirely. Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Through the power of his resurrection, he leads us and guides us. This takes faith in him and the fullness of life which it brings.”
“In Christianity the founder lives and he entrenches us as we read and study the Bible. He leads us to faith in him. It begins with his love for us and it becomes a circle completed by our responsive love to him. He ministers personally to each one of us and he leads us into the life that he died to win for us—the life of pardon, the life of peace, the life of hope, the life of joy. Even if you feel alone, you aren’t alone. He is with you. ‘I am with you, even to the end of the world’ (Matt 28:18).”
Relating to God through his Word
When Packer studies a passage from the Bible, he says he is “reflecting on what God appears to be doing in this passage and how we can relate to it.” As to how Bible study can nurture daily prayer, he feels all Christian prayer should start with the Lord’s Prayer. “It is working with the outline and words that start with adoration and a God-centered petition—‘Your will be done, Your name be hallowed’ (Matt 6:9–10). In other words, glory be to you, Lord, in everything that happens. Then there are personal prayers, prayers for daily bread, prayers for daily forgiveness, and prayers for daily strength against temptation and all the pitfalls of life (Matt 6:11–14). I never get beyond that pattern.”
“The relationship to God, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the work of the church affects Bible study. Balancing the ups and downs of daily life for believers is ‘a large issue,’ ” admits Packer. “We are disordered human beings in our creative complexity and so you can’t help but wonder if there’s always a danger of head and heart or intellect and emotion getting out of sync with each other. But one of the purposes of God in redemption is our renovation in the image of the Lord Jesus Christ, who, himself, is God incarnate. He is spoken of in the New Testament as being in the image of his Father, as well as setting a model of perfect humanness.”
“All the power to become like the Lord Jesus comes from the Holy Spirit. The Christian calling is a calling to be renewed in the image of Christ who is the image of God. By image I mean morality—virtue, love, faithfulness, holiness, truthfulness, and so on. One goes through the list of the elements constituting the fruit of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life. You can track each one of them in the gospels—love, joy, peace, suffering, patience, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control (Gal 5:22–24). These are all moral properties which you see in the Lord Jesus and which the Holy Spirit reproduces in us.”
“How does he do it? Well, when we become believers, the Lord Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to take up residence within us in both our heart and head. It involves reintegrating the disordered complexity of our human make-up so that ordered complexity takes its place—again in the model of Jesus himself.”
“You can’t properly read the stories of Jesus’ ministry until you discern that there’s joy in the Father’s love and obedience to a loving Father underneath all the burdens and pressures of ministry in which Jesus clearly delighted to fulfill. The crowds pressed around him and the sick were all brought out of their homes on stretchers. They clamored for healing—cripples all around him, lepers all around him.”
Compassion and the Christian life
Packer says that although Jesus had come to Earth to do more than simply heal the sick, there were times when he healed an entire group. Packer terms this compassion in action. “If you look for what undergirded Jesus’ compassion,” he offers, “the answer is not resentment, which is what sometimes undergirds compassion and action in Christian ministry. In the case of the Lord Jesus I don’t believe that. I think what undergirded his compassion was the joy of doing good, the joy of serving his Father by doing good, and the joy of fellowship with his Father. Out of these had come his commitment to service—service of love and laying himself down for the benefit of others.”
“I believe Christian hearts—the hearts of people who are being renewed and have the Holy Spirit in them—are bigger than other human hearts. When it’s a Christian grieving the death of another Christian, well, we know that other Christian has been taken to a greater joy than any of us actually have ever known down here. So we’re not grieving for them as if they’ve gone through something terrible. We are grieving for ourselves because the loss of them leaves such a big hole at the center of our personal being. And grief is the right and proper reaction. But a Christian can be grieving the loss of someone they loved and rejoicing in the Lord at the same time. Focus your thoughts on the Lord and his goodness, and the joy will begin to flow.”
Getting a big-picture view of God’s Word
The best advice Packer can offer a Christian beginner who is studying the Bible is “get to know your way around Scripture as a unit. The first thing I say to you is read the four Gospels, then read all the epistles (New Testament letters), then read the four Gospels again, remembering that they were written for people who already knew most, if not all, of the doctrine taught in the epistles. Then read key books from the Old Testament: Genesis, the book of beginnings; Exodus, the book of the covenant; Isaiah, in which the prophecies deal most with the people of God in trouble because of disobedience, and with promises of a savior—the savior whose coming is set forth in the Gospels, with blessings for both the penitent people and believers in the Savior King whom God has sent. It is all there in the book of Isaiah. Then read, read, and read the Psalter because there you’ve got patterns of praise and prayer—they should become part of the shape of your life.”
“Most importantly, get the big picture. Don’t worry too much at first about specific sentences you don’t quite understand. The details fit when you’ve got the big picture. That is my first and fundamental exhortation with regard to Bible reading and study.”
A version of this article originally appeared with the title “J. I. Packer: A Balanced Bible Study Diet” in the Nov–Dec 2009 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Learn more about getting great content like this with a subscription to Bible Study Magazine.