I read, not too long ago, the article mentioned in the title of this post, by J. I. Packer, from The Evangelical Quarterly, vol. 27 (1955) 153-167. Packer is reviewing the book So Great Salvation: The History and Message of the Keswick Convention by Steven Barabas. Both Packer and Barabas are neo-evangelicals. Packer’s article was influential when it was written: “There was thus no response from the Keswick faction which rebuffed the critique offered by Packer. It is widely agreed that Packer’s review marked the end of the dominance of the Keswick approach among younger evangelicals . . . the theological weight of Packer’s critique seemed to many to prove unanswerable.” (pg. 79, J. I. Packer: A Biography, A. McGrath. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997). Some of what he said was worth thinking about. I am not going to comment on everything that he wrote (or that Barabas wrote, for I have read his book also) here. I want to point out one particular thing.
Packer’s rebuttal has the serious weakness in that he rejects (pgs. 160-161) what he calls “a mystical doctrine of personal communion with the Holy Ghost” and likewise opposes the idea that a “life in which the Holy Spirit plays no conscious part is sub-normal Christianity.” Packer gives no verses from the Bible for his rejection of personal communion with the Holy Ghost (contra 2 Corinthians 13:14), but simply blows fellowship with Him off as being “magic” by a quote from B. B. Warfield. Packer’s acceptance of a life in which the Holy Spirit plays no conscious part is a dangerous error in his Anglican and Reformed doctrine of sanctification. One wonders if his vehement opposition to the doctrine of conscious fellowship with the Holy Ghost stems from the incredible amount of quenching and grief the Spirit receives from the liturgical and lifeless Anglican communion in which Packer ministers, a denomination that is filled to the brim with unregenerate people and apostasy.
The serious error by Packer of downplaying the communion of the Holy Ghost, while widespread in modern Reformed circles, and recognized as a danger by some modern writers among the Reformed themselves (e. g., Bruce Waltke, professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, wrote: “Reformed doctrine . . . may lead to spiritual deadness by reducing Christianity to a rational system of thought rather than maximizing and realizing the essential ministry of the Holy Spirit in life” (pg. 22, “Evangelical Spirituality: A Biblical Scholar’s Perspective.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 31:1 (March 1988).) does not represent the uniform position of classical Reformed authors. When John Owen wrote Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and spent many pages detailing the believer’s personal fellowship with the Holy Spirit, he embraced a theology of the Christian life notably different from that of Packer. Consider also the warm embrace of communion with the Spirit by the Dutch Second Reformation Calvinist Wilhelmus á Brakel:
[T]he Holy Spirit . . . transmi[ts] . . . the image of God [and] imprint[s] [it] upon the heart of man, who is re-created in this image. . . . The transmission of this image occurs by the operation of the Spirit of God, who imprints the image of God upon man, causing Christ to be formed in them. . . . This sealing, which confirms believers and assures them that they are partakers of the covenant of grace, occurs in various ways.
First, this occurs when the Spirit reveals to believers that He dwells in them as in a temple. The bride requested, “set me as a seal upon Thine heart” (Song 8:6); that is, let me thus be imprinted upon Thy heart, that Thou wouldest continually think upon me and that my appearance would continually be before Thy eyes. In like manner the Holy Spirit sets Himself as a seal upon the heart of believers, making them conscious of His presence and indwelling, whereby He assures them as clearly and powerfully that they are partakers of the covenant of grace as if they were sealed with a seal. . . . Secondly, the Holy Spirit seals them by imprinting the image of God upon them, as well as by showing and revealing to them that the image of God is in them. He convinces them of the genuineness of their initial change, of their being ingrafted into Christ, of their faith whereby they truly received Christ and still do so daily both unto justification and sanctification. He convinces them of the genuineness of their insatiable desire to continually enjoy communion with God, of their spiritual life which, though feeble, is nevertheless genuine, and of their hatred for sin. He makes them aware how it wounds and grieves them when they perceive internal sin, imperfection in their performance of duty, as well as their failure to perform that which is good. He shows them that it is not only all their desire to be holy, but that their utmost effort is to do everything in faith, to be motivated by the love and fear of God, to live in childlike obedience, etc. The Spirit makes them conscious of all this, so that they perceive it in such a manner that they can neither deny it nor be deprived of its inherent comfort. “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God” (1 Corinthians 2:12).
Having on the one side revealed this to them, He leads them, in the consciousness of this received grace, not only to the Word of God but also to the promises which are made to such persons as they are. He sheds light upon such texts and causes them to acknowledge the infallible truth expressed in them. In this condition He ushers them into the presence of God and by virtue of two propositions—one being deduced from the grace they possess and the other from the Word of God—causes them to come to the conclusion that they are most certainly the children of God and thus will become partakers of eternal salvation. By way of such reasoning, the Holy Spirit not only labors to give clarity and assurance concerning both God’s grace in them and the promises of Scripture for them, but also takes an active part in the formulation of this conclusion. By granting much light, He causes them to be steadfast and assured in this conclusion. By His sealing power He impresses this reality so deeply upon their heart that they believe it with such certainty as if they saw it with their eyes and touched it with their hands—yes, as if they were already in possession of salvation itself. “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God” (Romans 8:16).
Thirdly, the Holy Spirit also occasionally seals in an immediate manner by means of clear and powerful declarations within the heart, such as: “I have loved thee with an everlasting love; Thy sins are forgiven thee; Thou art an heir of eternal life,” and similar passages. Such declarations occasionally occur by means of a Scripture passage which is powerfully applied. At other times this can occur without a specific text, bearing in mind that such a declaration will always be in agreement with Scripture, it being the touchstone for such a declaration. This immediate sealing does not only result in the confirmation of their spiritual state, but the Holy Spirit grants them the immediate enjoyment of the matter itself, which results in peaceful serenity, a pleasant and sweet frame of mind, and an exhilarating joy. This causes such a person to be saturated with love, be in a holy frame of mind, be lifted up in the ways of the Lord, be ready to heroically do battle with the enemy, and walk in the way of God’s commandments. The bride refers to this as being kissed. “Let Him kiss me with the kisses of His mouth: for Thy love is better than wine” (Song 1:2). She further testifies, “He brought me to the banqueting house, and His banner over me was love,” etc. (Song 2:4-6). Such was David’s desire, “say unto my soul, I am thy salvation” (Psalm 35:3). It is this blessing which Christ promises to believers. “I will love him, and will manifest Myself to Him. We will come unto him, and make our abode with him” (John 14:21, 23).
One should know, however, that, although all believers are sealed, [they do not enjoy experiential fellowship with the Spirit] with equal clarity. (pgs. 187-190, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, vol 1.)
Enjoyment of the communion of the Holy Ghost (2 Corinthians 13:14), contrary to the affirmations of Packer, is not only characteristic of better Reformed writers, but it indubitably characterizes historic Baptist theology (which is not Reformed) as well, for conscious, experiential communion with the Trinity is not “magic,” but the plain teaching of Scripture (and so it certainly does not depend upon allegorization of the Song of Solomon of the sort made by Brakel above). When “the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” (Romans 5:5), conscious, experiential fellowship is in view. “God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15)—what is this but experiential fellowship? The Apostles could say, “truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ,” a fellowship as experiential as their fellowship one with another (1 John 1:3). Christ promises: “[H]e that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him. . . . I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. . . . If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him” (John 14:18-23). Does Christ manifest Himself to the believer, and come with His Father to abide with the believer, without conscious, experiential fellowship with His beloved redeemed one? To “know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19) cannot be merely intellectual, but also experiential. When Christ comes in to the believer, to sup with him, experiential fellowship is clearly in view (Revelation 3:20). J. I. Packer’s affirmation that a life in which the Holy Spirit plays no conscious part is not sub-normal Christianity is extremely dangerous and entirely erroneous. It should be rejected. If you feel that it is necessary to read Packer’s writings, do not adopt such terrible theological errors because of a few good things he may have to say on other matters.