The Missing Element
In a blurb commending the book, Ray Ortlund says this about J.I. Packer, “When we face a debated theological topic, we need a guide who has no ax to grind, who is fair, honest, reasonable, and—above all—carefully biblical. We Christians do debate the ministries of the Holy Spirit. But we have a reliable guide in J.I. Packer.” I read that in opening the second of my 10 out of 5 books from 2021, and found small dispute with Ortlund on this point: Packer does take sides in debate. In the volumes that have enriched me, Mr. Packer always takes the side of the biblical text. Unlike so many other authors, he does not read his theology back into the text, instead allowing his position to be discovered inductively. This trait (exhibited by so many of our senior scholars and theologians) makes reading a pleasure and his positions trustworthy.
If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25
So Packer enters the theological scrum concerning a biblical understanding of the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit. His aim in this book is to restore the centrality of the Holy Spirit in the Church, a ministry that is often tossed and torn between the intellectualism of theologians and doctrine and unrestrained charismatic practices. Packer envisioned the book as a corrective to these extremes, a biblical call to Christians to restore the place of the Spirit and His gifts in their faith and lives. Unlike other authors that plant both feet in their camp and refuse to consider positions other than their own, Packer takes a much more irenic tone, insisting that the Bible speak louder than he does.
A point that Packer makes that is important for the reader to engage is that the Holy Spirit is not a discrete ministry on His own. The Spirit is inseparable from the Godhead and will always act in concert with the Father and the Son. He mediates Christ (John 16:14) to us. All the Spirit’s power and gifts are Jesus working through the Spirit in us. It is in the self-effacing nature of the Spirit’s ministry that we gain the perspective to evaluate spiritual claims attributed to the movement of the Spirit. He will always be directing attention back to the Son, and anything that does not achieve that end is to be considered much more carefully.
The mediation of Christ to His people involves the Spirit in spurring on holiness in their lives. We often refer to this growth using the term sanctification, and it is yet another idea that gets drawn to the edges of the Church. In some quarters it is a practice through which we grow intellectually through Bible study and discipleship. At the other side of the yard, the term sanctification points to a growing perfectionism in behavior. Packer draws the idea back to the center, saying that holiness in the Bible is evidenced by growth in the fruit of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit conforming us to Christlikeness and our pursuit of holiness is governed by our beliefs about the Spirit.
Packer takes this axiom to his examination of modern charismatic theology and practices, giving support where appropriate and critique where warranted. This evaluation includes a valuable chapter on different schools of thought and practice pursuing holiness. This part of the book is valuable from two different directions. First, when we locate our generalized tribe within the chapter it helps the Christian to see where their beliefs on this subject derive from. The reader that approaches the text fairly finds a second benefit in learning where other tribes have come from as well, preventing some of less loving criticisms that find their way into our speech. It seems to be Packer’s hope that brothers and sisters in Christ will find their own attitudes becoming as irenic as the one he displays in his words.
Keep in Step with the Spirit is a valuable contribution to the church and written at a slightly above popular level. It is worth every effort in working your way through the text, bible close by so you can read the many references in full context. More than reading the text and placing the book on your library shelves, let it affect your meditation on the Holy Spirit and His work in your life. He was never meant to be divisive within the Church. His ministry is to draw us all closer to Christ as we grow together in the Lord’s image. If this book contributes in some small way to unity within the body, Packer’s efforts will be the blessing it was intended to be.