Example 13 – J. I. Packer’s ‘Double-Talk’ and the Insincerity of the Gospel


Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence


In his essay titled “The Universal Power of the Atonement,” non-Calvinist Terry Miethe critiques J. I. Packer’s ‘Introductory Essay’ in John Owens’ classic work on the atonement, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.  Miethe comments on Packer’s statements that “Christ genuinely offers himself to all who hear the gospel” and that God’s “invitations are real.”  Packer is a Calvinist and believes in unconditional election, limited atonement, and the effectual call which grants the gift of faith only to the elect.  Miethe makes the following observations and conclusions,

“Packer tries to argue that even though it is a limited atonement, God’s invitation is still given to all people:

‘These invitations are universal; Christ addresses them to sinners, as such, and every man, as he believes God to be true, is bound to treat them as God’s words to him personally and to accept the universal assurance which accompanies them, that all who come to Christ will be received.  Again, these invitations are real; Christ genuinely offers himself to all who hear the gospel, and is in truth a perfect Savior to all who trust in Him.  The question of the extent of the atonement does not arise in evangelistic preaching…’[1]

What incredible double-talk!  What possible sense can this statement make?  Who is the “every man, as he believes God to be true”?

Certainly Packer has not forgotten how he defined points 1 and 2 of the five points of Calvinism:

‘Fallen man in his natural state lacks all power to believe the gospel…despite all external inducements that may be extended to him….God’s election is a free, sovereign, unconditional choice of sinners, as sinners, to be redeemed by Christ, given faith and brought to glory (emphasis added).’[2]

Packer has not forgotten, according to his theology, that man is so lost, so wretched, that God has to give him the power even to believe or repent.  Then by what possible logic does it make sense to say that the “invitations are universal” or that “the question of the extent of the atonement does not arise in evangelistic preaching.”  This is ridiculous!  Of course it does.  For according to Packer’s theology, the same sinner – whether he hears the preaching or not – is still predestined to be saved or damned, and nothing, no “external inducements,” can change that.” [3]

Why is it that what is so obviously “incredible double-talk,” nonsense, illogical, and “ridiculous” to Miethe is not to Packer?  Are Miethe’s phrases – “incredible double-talk,” “what possible sense,” “what possible logic,” “this is ridiculous!” – legitimate observations regarding Packer’s thought process and written statements?  How would we know?  And most importantly, how should our conclusions here inform our hermeneutical principles and interpretive methods?

So, how are we to comprehend Packer’s words given his Reformed deterministic theology?  Is Packer really saying that all men should take the gospel as assuredly applying to themselves and therefore it is a real possibility that any person can be saved?  One would think so.  Miethe thinks so.  But then how does this cohere with what Packer believes regarding God’s sovereign predetermination of “whatsoever comes to pass,” unconditional election, limited atonement, and the effectual call?  Or do Packer’s words, although attempting to convey that the atonement and gospel are universal, real, and sincere, also have a “sub-meaning?”  Are his words subtly nuanced so that they enable Packer, in his mind at least, to hold to his Reformed doctrines which speak of limitation and exclusivity grounded in God’s predetermination of “whatsoever comes to pass” while also claiming the universal invitation to come to Christ is genuine and sincere?  Miethe picks up on this when he asks, “Who is the “every man, as he believes God to be true”?”

I suggest that this “sub-meaning” is a phenomenon of Calvinist thought and speech that enables them to embrace contradictory ideas in their mind and yet state these as if they are not logically problematic.  We saw a similar phenomenon in Carson’s theological reasoning where he came to a point in which he was comfortable speaking two rationally incoherent statements as simultaneously true.  (See examples 5 – 7)  Packer is doing a similar thing here.  Note his use of language.  Observe the generic nature of Packer’s description of the scope of the atonement – “Christ died for sinners” – which is true whether the atonement is limited or unlimited.  But this seems to allow Packer to play both sides of the issue.  It allows him to be non-committal and disingenuous with respect to his Reformed position when the subject matter is the atonement and gospel message, for he could have been very clear and accurate according to his theology and said, “Christ died for elect sinners,” or “Christ died for those sinners predestined to salvation.”  But also note the ambiguous qualifier of the universal “every man” that Packer injects into his explanation – “as he believes God to be true.”  Some men will “believe God to be true” and some men won’t, but can and should all men believe God to be true as they can and should believe in Christ?  This phrase still leaves us wondering what Packer means to say.  Is this meant as a reference to the elect?  According to Packer’s doctrine of unconditional election it must refer only to the elect.  But then why can’t Packer just say what he means?  Is Packer really saying that, “Although I speak about ‘all who come to Christ’ and ‘invitations’ and that ‘Christ genuinely offers himself to all who hear the gospel,’ when I mention the one that ‘as he believes God to be true,’ I am referring to the elect, and they alone are ‘bound to treat them as God’s words to him personally and to accept the universal assurance which accompanies them, that all who come to Christ will be received.”  In other words Packer is simply giving us the evidences of election without providing any assurance that we are among the elect or that we can be saved.  They “believe God to be true,” they “come to Christ” and “trust in him.”  Of course, according to Packer’s Calvinist theology, the “all who come to Christ” can only refer to the elect.  It would seem that coherence of conviction, thought, and word demands that this must be what Packer means.  But this is a confusing and convoluted way of saying what Packer’s theology requires him to say.

Therefore, according to Packer’s underlying theology, what he has said is quite duplicitous.  If we are correct, Packer should have more seriously considered whether he was speaking forthrightly with respect to his theology, and if he found that he could not, then he should have inquired more carefully and honestly into the validity of the driving force in his theological position that caused this rational incoherence.  The crucial questions to grapple with here are, “Does the Scripture require Packer’s deterministic conclusions and justify his statements here?”  And, “Is it possible that the Scripture presents such a deterministic soteriology if it results in such incoherence and contradiction?”

In reading Packer, and knowing his underlying theology, we get the sense that we are being tossed about on a tempestuous verbal sea of conflicting ideas.  Why do we have to engage in such semantic gymnastics to reconcile his words with his theology?  We have to strain our minds, read between the lines, stretch definitions, and completely ignore the incoherence, to give Packer the benefit of the doubt as to the biblical accuracy and credibility of his theological position.  This is what Miethe observes and feels disqualifies Packer’s theology as “double-talk” and renders it “incredible.”

Indeed, if Miethe chose to do so, he could point out more of Packer’s inconsistencies, for Packer continues in his “Introductory Essay” to make these astonishing remarks,

“Accordingly, in applying the message, the old gospel, while stressing that faith is man’s duty, stresses also that faith is not in man’s power, but that God must give what he commands.  It announces, that not merely men must come to Christ for salvation, but also that they cannot come unless Christ himself draws them.”[4]

Christians, at first glance, might acquiesce to Packer’s statements out of reverence for the God who alone has accomplished salvation on our behalf and the fact that they too believe that faith is impossible apart from God’s work in Christ and his gracious initiative and “drawing” that comes through the proclamation of the gospel.  But let us be clear.  As a Reformed Calvinist this is not what Packer means.  Packer means that God has predetermined that only certain people will be saved and in order for that to happen God must cause them to have faith.  But upon careful consideration the coherence of stating that “the old gospel” message “stresses that faith is man’s duty” while also stressing that “faith is not in man’s power” is puzzling from both a logical, moral, and biblical point of view.

Again, if Packer feels that sovereign, unconditional election (“they cannot come unless Christ draws them”) gives God all the glory for salvation, he ought to strive to remain logically consistent with his fundamental theological beliefs.  The word “duty,” in this context, implies the expectation and ability to perform what is required – to believe.  To say that the gospel message imposes faith as a duty on the hearer, while also stating in that same gospel message that the hearer is unable to perform that duty, is indeed double-talk and distorts the gospel as “good news.”  It is nonsense in the true meaning of the word.  What is the meaning of “duty” if not something that can and should be performed?  Ought implies can.  “Duty” implies the ability to do what is required and the possibility of contrary choice.

Also, when Packer says “God must give what he commands” he is saying that we must wait for him to work in and through us the fulfillment of what he has commanded us to do.  What then is the meaning of the word “command?”  The word is rendered vacuous if the one commanding is both the source and cause of the fulfillment of the command.  The meaning of “command” is turned into a kind of self-reflective statement and action whereby God unerringly plays out on the stage of our lives his own will and “command” through us and others.  Man is only an entity or physical conduit through which God unfailingly performs his own will.

This incoherence is the predictable result of a Reformed universal divine causal determinism.  We see how its fundamental doctrines drive the mindset in which descriptions like this take shape.  Calvinists attempt to squeeze libertarian free will into their theistic determinism, but all this does is squeeze out the logical consistency from those statements.  They become logically inconsistent theological and soteriological propositions.  Those descriptions must be judged incoherent.

Therefore I suggest that the fundamental doctrines they seek to reflect are flawed interpretations of the biblical texts.  Language and definitions are distorted as they bow in the service of a monolithic, deterministic theological paradigm.  For instance, the phrase “God must give what he commands” is theologically redundant, for according to theological determinism, God’s “command” is included in the “whatsoever comes to pass” that he ordained.  In essence, God is giving commands to himself.  We have lost the meaning of the word “command” in that God predetermines and causes “whatsoever comes to pass.”  If all things are predetermined by the will of God alone then there is no will outside of himself to which he can issue a “command” and have it mean just that.  The word “command” presupposes libertarian human freedom and is incoherent with the ‘compatibilist’ freedom required of theistic determinism.  There is nothing that will occur through the command that has not already been decided by God with respect to that command.  If Packer were to speak consistent with his theology he would say that “God must cause to occur whatever God has commanded that men do, therefore they may or may not do that which is commanded depending upon whether or not God has predetermined it, either working or not working its causation.”  The point is that the words “command” and “duty” are rendered meaningless when swallowed up by Calvinism’s theistic determinism.  It is as I. Howard Marshall has pointed out, that language fails, becomes distorted, and is incoherent when an attempt is made to use certain words and concepts in the context of a Reformed theistic determinism.[5]

Furthermore, Packer states that the “old gospel…announces, that not merely men must come to Christ for salvation, but also that they cannot come unless Christ himself draws them.”  Non-Calvinists would not disagree with this statement, but we would not interpret “unless Christ himself draws them” with “unless they are among the elect and effectually called.”  But this is precisely what Packer means by this “drawing” of Christ.  Coming to Christ is the result of one’s unconditional election and therefore only happens in the elect.

We have here a direct Reformed statement about the content and nature of the “old gospel.”  Note first that according to Calvinism the phrase “unless Christ himself draws them” must mean “unless they are elect.”  It speaks of unconditional election.  Therefore, to speak in a universal sense, saying that “men must come” can only refer to the elect among men.  Of course the elect are a subset of the universal men and therefore it is possible to say that men must come to Christ, but the point is that it’s not clearly reflective of Packer’s Calvinism.  He is not being straightforward.  He may be sincere, but he is not being linguistically forthright.  Packer’s use of the word “must” with respect to “men” coming to Christ, which would normally be understood as “all men” or “any individual” is misleading.  Again, all men cannot come to Christ, so how can Packer also say that “men must come to Christ?”  Perhaps Packer is expressing only an idealistic concern for all men as sinners.  Nevertheless, the universal and imperative phrase “men must come” is inappropriate and rendered meaningless in light of the fact that “they cannot come” unless Christ draws them, which again means “unless they are among the elect.”  What Packer is saying by the phrase “men must come to Christ for salvation” is that men’s salvation is found in Christ alone for the elect.  He cannot mean that a man can come to Christ for salvation as if being invited or commanded and therefore able and responsible to do so as the sole author of that act of faith with the ability of contrary choice.  The “must” loses its plain import, purpose, and meaning in the Calvinist context.  Packer’s theology requires the phrase “men must come to Christ” to be understood simply as an informative statement about what must occur, and surely will occur, for a limited number of elect persons.  These elect persons “must come to Christ” to be saved.  And of course, they will.  God will irresistibly cause it to be so.  So in the end Packer has really said that the gospel is the message that tells people that “they must come to Christ but cannot come unless they are elect.” 

Now we must ask ourselves, “Is this the biblical gospel of “good news” to all?  What would the message be if it was consistent with Packer’s Calvinist soteriology?  It would hardly be “good news.”  I submit that the Calvinist “doctrines of grace” are not the biblical gospel of “good news.”  The dynamic of the assurance of God’s love and personal decision of a salvation that can be found “in Christ” is reduced to static information and lack of assurance regarding one’s predestined end.  Therefore, the “gospel” that Packer proclaims is antithetical to its biblical definition as “good news.”  The “gospel” is not “you cannot come to Christ unless you are elect” but “Come to Christ and be saved for he is drawing, enabling, inviting and commanding you to do so!”  The whole gospel message has been turned on its head by Reformed deterministic sovereignty and human inability.  The result is intellectual, verbal and theological incoherence.

Packer continues by describing the purpose of the gospel,

“Thus it labours to overthrow self-confidence, to convince sinners that their salvation is altogether out of their hands, and to shut them up to a self-despairing dependence on the glorious grace of a sovereign Saviour, not only for their righteousness but for their faith too.”[6]

That is to say, the gospel message to the sinner is that as a sinner you cannot believe in Christ.  Period.  But faith in Christ will come upon you if you are among the elect.  Yet Packer can say a paragraph later,

“To the question: what must I do to be saved? the old gospel replies: believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.  To the further question: what does it mean to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ?  Its reply is: it means knowing oneself to be a sinner, and Christ to have died for sinners; abandoning all self-righteousness and self-confidence, and casting oneself wholly upon Him of pardon and peace; and exchanging ones natural enmity and rebellion against God for a spirit of grateful submission to the will of Christ through the renewing of one’s heart by the Holy Ghost.”[7]

The fundamental theological error here is a misconception regarding the nature of biblical faith.  Based upon the Calvinist’s doctrine of total inability, Calvinists conclude that if faith is attributed to the sinner in any manner whatsoever, as in a willed decision to believe, then it constitutes a meritorious contribution that the sinner makes to their own salvation, thus robbing God of all the glory in salvation.  I submit that this reasoning is biblically untenable.  Note that Packer is intent on “overthrow[ing] self-confidence” in sinners.  The way to do this is to make sure “salvation is altogether out of their hands.”  This in turn will “shut them up to a self-despairing dependence on the glorious grace of a sovereign Savior.”  But it seems to me that the end goal here are wrong-headed.  The end goal is to have the sinner affirm the Calvinist’s divine determinism.  The realizations that the sinner needs to embrace seem correct.  But they are produced by the content of the “good news” not through the acceptance of divine determinism.  To define the gospel and present it as an unconditional election and an effectual call will, I submit, only “shut them up to a self-despairing epistemological anxiety as to whether or not they are among the elect.”  It is “to shut them up” to acquiesce to Packer’s doctrines of predestination and unconditional election.

What produces the overthrow of self-confidence in sinners is not Packer’s hopeless deterministic doctrines of predestination and an effectual call.  Rather, it is the truths of the gospel as “good news” that produce humility in sinners as they hear about God’s love for them and grace in providing for their salvation in Christ.  The work of salvation on their behalf is “altogether out of their hands,” but it is unbiblical to teach that sinners cannot humble themselves and believe in the gospel when God, through that message, invites them to do so.  The “overthrow of self-confidence” happens when sinners hear the “good news” that Christ took their sins upon himself on the cross so that they might be forgiven and have eternal life.  He provided a salvation that we could not provide for ourselves and showed us his love and grace when we did not deserve it.  While we were enemies of God, Christ died for us all.  These, and many other truths of the gospel are what sinners need to hear.  Only these truths can rightly “shut them up to a self-despairing dependence on the glorious grace of a sovereign Savior.”  They still need to “depend” upon God and Christ for salvation, therefore they need to know God loves them and desires their salvation.  Calvinist determinism cannot produce the love and faith God wants to freely receive from his human creatures in response to his love and grace to them.  God wants genuinely reciprocal love, gratefulness and worship, not a love that he has predetermined and causes to be within a limited number of elect persons. Therefore, there are those who hear the gospel but willfully reject it.  Each person is responsible for their believing or rejecting the “good news.”  Faith, therefore, is the God ordained response to God that comes from the sinners own free will.  Even as a free will response it is appropriate and acceptable to God because it is a self-surrender to his way of salvation.  It is a serious misperception to think it meritorious if not caused by God as the result of an unconditional election and effectual call.  

But due to Packer’s Calvinist version of human sin as “total depravity,” his attempt to cast faith as having nothing to do with the response of the sinner that involves their will, and to secure what the Calvinist has defined as God’s glory in salvation, he has thrown himself into theological incoherence and perplexity regarding the full biblical data on the nature of faith.  In contrast to the idea that God must give a person faith and that he only gives faith to the elect, the Bible presents faith as the sinners humble self-surrender and trust in the sovereign Savior who loves them and died for them.  These are the truths they hear preached in the gospel of the “good news” of their salvation.  But these are truths that cannot be proclaimed on the basis of “the doctrines of grace.”  Packer cannot abandon his deterministic theology or adjust his Reformed Calvinist presuppositions, so he speaks incoherently trying to maintain some semblance of human freedom and responsibility.  But he ultimately must deny that faith amounts to a decision of the individual’s will in response to the gospel message.

Observe the incoherence of thought and word here.  “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” has been provided as the answer to a question that specifically includes the elements of an imperative (“What must I do to be saved?”) along with a personal act of the human will to actually do something (“What must I do to be saved?”).  “What must I do…” is a question presupposing the individual self’s ability to will, decide, and personally act or respond.  Now note Packer’s answer.  If he were to speak consistent with his Calvinism his answer to the question “What must I do to be saved?” should be, “Absolutely nothing.”  For as Packer has made it clear above, a function of his deterministic doctrine of predestination is to “shut them up to a self-despairing dependence on the glorious grace of a sovereign Saviour, not only for their righteousness but for their faith too.”  So the sinner can do absolutely nothing, not even believe.  This is the meaning of Packer’s Reformed Calvinist doctrines of unconditional election and an “effectual call” or “irresistible grace.”  Packer said that the gospel “labours to convince sinners that salvation is altogether out of their hands.”  Even faith has to be granted, and it is only granted to those recipients of “the glorious grace of a sovereign Saviour,” which is a Calvinist euphemism for the unconditionally elect.  Therefore only the elect will be saved.  So who is Packer referring to with this elaborate description of what it means to believe?  It refers to the elect only.  And even then it is only descriptive of what God will cause to happen to them.  “What must I do to be saved?” and “What does it mean to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ?” have no possible relevance to the non-elect.  Whoever may be asking these questions, to many they simply will have no relevance or potential for realization, even though Packer’s answer would lead us to think otherwise.  Thus, in a Calvinist theological context, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” as the answer to “What must I do to be saved?” is at best incomplete and at worst misleading and disingenuous, regardless of our ignorance of who is elect and who is not.

William G. MacDonald comments on the flaw in Calvinist thinking about the sinful state of mankind that leads to this idea that it is God that must grant faith to the elect sinner for them to be saved.

“We do not magnify God if we say that God gives a gift that only he can receive, that he extends his gift from one position and then turns 180 degrees to receive it from man also, because – so the reasoning goes – man, being “dead in sins,” is absolutely dead, metaphysically as well as morally.  Neither scripture, nor history, nor experience warrant the notion that the mortal state of sin means the metaphysical impossibility of faith.  It is not a question, of whether the sinner can choose the good, or remake his life, or act at the level of his highest aspirations.  It is the question of whether he can receive a gift for which he cannot take credit, a question whether he exists as a sinful man or merely exists as a sinful abstraction.”[8]

So according to Packer one cannot believe yet one must believe to be saved.  But this leaves us baffled as to who is doing the believing and how it is coherent for God to give a command to believe to those who cannot do so.

What needs to be stressed is that Packer doesn’t value logical or theological coherence.  To the question, “What must I do to be saved?” he should have answered, “Absolutely nothing.  You must simply wait for God to either grant to you or continue to withhold from you the “gift” of faith.”  To the question, “What must I do to be saved?” Packer, as a Calvinist, provides the theologically incoherent answer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.”  But according to his theology you cannot believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.  Now of course Packer has to say “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” because that is the biblical answer.  He is caught between his theology and the biblical injunction.

The point is that this answer, although biblical, is incoherent with his fundamental theology and this does not seem to make a difference to him.  On the basis of his own ignorance of their elect status, Packer feels comfortable telling all persons, many whom God may have no intention to save, “to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ”.  For if “believe” is not something I can actually do, then the answer to “What must I do to be saved?”, put this way, is disingenuous, for it can never be a reality for the non-elect, whether we know who they are or not.  Our ignorance does not affect the correspondence of the words to the truth of the situation.  This proclamation of the gospel is an ontological issue at its core as well as an epistemological one.  In light of the Reformed doctrine of an eternal decree and predestination, either what is being said is true or it is not true with respect to the hearer.  The hearer is unalterably either among the elect or the non-elect.  He will either be granted faith or he will not.  He will either experience the “effectual call” or he will not.  The ethical concern lies in the fact that it is God speaking in the gospel message and he is the God of truth and his word is truth.  Therefore, if these words can be said to any man then they must indeed be true for them.  If they can be said to all, then they are true for all.  God’s word must correspond to reality.  So if God says “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” then that is true for the hearer and they must be able to believe and be saved.  Would Packer defend the thesis that none of the non-elect ever hear those words proclaimed as “good news” to them?

So both the biblical question (“What must I do to be saved?”) and the biblical answer (“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.”) are ontologically, logically, morally, and epistemologically problematic for Packer’s theology.  This is a sign that this theology has gone amiss.  For look what happens if we hold consistently to Packer’s theology.  The whole question “What must I do to be saved?” would change to, “What will be the evidence of my election?”  The consistent Reformed Calvinist answer would also change from the injunction “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” to a mere description, “Believing on the Lord Jesus Christ.”  On Calvinism we have, “What will be the evidence of my election?  Believing on the Lord Jesus Christ.”  So why doesn’t Packer ask the question in a manner consistent with his theology?  Because, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” is the biblical answer to the biblical question “What must I do to be saved?” and Packer certainly knows this.  The biblical question is “What must I do to be saved?” and the biblical answer is not “There is nothing you can do to be saved.  God has chosen only certain people to receive his salvation.  Therefore, you must wait for God to regenerate you thereby granting you the gift of faith.”  There is no “good news” in that response and therefore it is not the biblical gospel.  But that is Packer’s theology.  Rather, the biblical answer is “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…”

Things become even more difficult for Packer in the follow-up question, “What does it mean to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ?”  This question too can only refer to evidences of what God will produce in his elect because “believe”, as Packer understands “believe,” cannot be something a person themselves can do in response to the gospel.  The Calvinist answer to the question “What does it mean to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ?” is therefore, “To be granted such belief by God with subsequent evidences.”  Again, hardly the biblical answer.  Packer’s phrase, “it means knowing oneself as a sinner” is generic and impersonal enough to be understood in Calvinist terms to mean “God will show you that you are a sinner.”  Packer leaves the words open and vague enough to be thought of consistently with his Calvinist theology if he chooses to do so while remaining at least compatible with the non-Calvinist position.  Note that impersonal nature of the Calvinist view.  “Knowing oneself to be a sinner” doesn’t stress the need for you to admit you are a sinner.  There is no personal, individual confrontation or challenge to the sinner to know, act, and make a decision about what they are hearing.  Rather, this knowledge needs to be given to you, for election is unconditional.  So again, “knowing oneself to be a sinner” has no reference to a personal response to hearing the message proclaimed that “you are a sinner,” but is only informative with respect to the fact that those who are elect will come to “know [themselves] to be a sinner.”  Again, for the non-Calvinist the words could also be taken to mean that persons should admit about themselves what is being told to them about themselves that is objectively true – that “you are a sinner!”  But this would presuppose a different understanding of God’s sovereignty, election as conditional and the nature of faith as a real possibility for each individual.  This is very different than the Calvinist faith that needs to be granted by God as part of one’s election.  Rather, it is faith that is a person’s genuine, individual response to what they are hearing in the gospel.  So Packer has not stressed the imperative to believe because faith is a “gift” that has nothing to do with the person themselves.[9]  But yet Packer will state that the answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” is “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Again, this biblical answer is inconsistent with Packer’s Calvinism because it cannot be genuinely spoken as a possibility for that person hearing these words in the sense that they can and must believe.  Therefore Packer’s Calvinism does not properly reflect the biblical answer.  This indicates that Packer’s theology is flawed.

Although Packer says that a person can do nothing with respect to their salvation, yet he provides a list of things he calls upon the sinner to do.  “Abandoning all self-righteousness and self-confidence,” “casting oneself wholly upon Him,” “exchanging one’s natural enmity…for a spirit of grateful submission to the will of Christ.”  But to be consistent with Packer’s Calvinism, all these must be descriptions of what God does in the elect, not what anyone can and must do themselves upon hearing the gospel as “good news.”  Yet the sense inherent in Packer’s language is that of either an exhortation or command for the person themselves to act.  Packer speaks about what a person are to do which presupposes that an act of the person’s will is required for the realization of these exhortations.  But this is inconsistent with his comprehensive predetermination, unconditional election, and effectual call.

So Packer is perplexing here.  He strives to remain consistent with his Calvinist soteriology and doctrine of limited atonement and yet also affirm the “universal,” “genuine” and “real” offer of salvation to “all who hear the gospel.”  His determinism is of course the dominant theme, so a times he is directly contradictory, but he also crafts his language to be sufficiently ambiguous to encompass both.  But we can see this for what it is – an attempt to affirm determinism and at the same time give a nod to human freedom.  The problem is his determinism is incompatible with human freedom and responsibility.  When he gives the biblical answer to “What must I do to be saved?” as “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” and tells us that this “invitation” to salvation is “universal,” “genuine” and “real” he speaks incoherent with his own deterministic soteriology and his doctrine of limited atonement.  When he attempts to remain consistent with his deterministic soteriology of total inability, limited atonement and unconditional election which restricts faith to only those elect persons that God grants the ability to believe, he speaks incoherent with his own words about the “invitation” to salvation being “universal,” “genuine” and “real.”  The result is rational incoherence.  It is as Terry Miethe described above – it is “double-talk.” 

Now Packer recognizes this problem in his theology and must face the next logical question head-on.

“And to the further question still: how am I to go about believing on Christ and repenting, if I have no natural ability to do these things? it answers: look to Christ, speak to Christ, cry to Christ, just as you are; confess your sin, your impenitence, your unbelief, and cast yourself on his mercy; ask Him to give you a new heart, working in you true repentance and firm faith; ask Him to take away your evil heart of unbelief and to write His law within you that you may never henceforth stray from Him.  Turn to Him and trust him as best you can…watch, pray, read and hear God’s Word, worship and commune with God’s people, and so continue till you know in yourself beyond doubt that you are indeed a changed being, a penitent believer, and the new heart which you desired has been put within you.  The emphasis in this advice is on the need to call upon Christ directly.”[10]

Packer’s answer to, “how am I to go about believing on Christ and repenting, if I have no natural ability to do these things,” is simply to do these very things!  All that Packer is describing and exhorting is precisely what it is to believe on Christ and repent!  Packer instructs those who are under the impression they can do nothing to believe, to do just that – believe!

So to the non-Calvinist Packer is incoherent.  And according to our thesis this is a reliable indication that Packer has gone biblically astray somewhere.  Where has he gone astray here?  His presupposition regarding faith is faulty.  Packer has included faith in the biblical category of meritorious human works which of course cannot provide salvation so therefore faith must be part of one’s unconditional election.  Faith cannot be the condition that is of the sinner upon which salvation is appropriated to the sinner.  God must grant faith to the elect sinner otherwise it would be a human “work” contributing to one’s salvation.  And if God grants faith for salvation unconditionally he therefore has chosen certain people to save and all others cannot be saved.  Therefore, given man’s absolute inability to believe apart from God granting faith in the elect alone, if Packer’s answer to the question “how am I to go about believing…?” is anything other than, “you cannot,” he is bound to contradict his stated doctrines of total inability, unconditional election and effectual call.  And he does just that.  Packer first states that a person cannot “go about believing” except that God grants them this “believing,” yet he then proceeds to tell a person what they can do “to go about believing.”  It is interesting that all the things Packer tells the sinner to do are certainly attitudes and actions that would already confirm that the person does believe.  But Packer can have none of that.  He cannot have the sinner believing.  We must somehow be able to discern that they have been given faith by God.  But all the things Packer lists above are just what it means to believe.  We can see that the emphasis has shifted drastically to searching for a divine happening that is based in an unknowable unconditional election from the call to believe in Christ and be saved.  So Packer’s deterministic soteriological doctrines cause him to contradict himself.  Packer is bound to be soteriologically incoherent if he says anything other than “you can do nothing” to the question “how am I to go about believing on Christ and repenting?”

Packer’s exhortations to the sinner here are inconsistent with his deterministic doctrine of “total inability” which teaches that sinners have no inclinations whatsoever for God and can make no motions towards God or do anything of spiritual benefit for themselves.  And yet, Packer tells the sinner to,

 “…look to Christ, speak to Christ, cry to Christ, just as you are; confess your sin, your impenitence, your unbelief, and cast yourself on his mercy; ask Him to give you a new heart, working in you true repentance and firm faith; ask Him to take away your evil heart of unbelief and to write His law within you that you may never henceforth stray from Him.  Turn to Him and trust him as best you can…watch, pray, read and hear God’s Word, worship and commune with God’s people, and so continue till you know in yourself beyond doubt that you are indeed a changed being, a penitent believer, and the new heart which you desired has been put within you.”

Packer’s incoherence with his doctrine of “total inability” is astounding!  Moreover, this smacks of a “works righteousness” approach to becoming saved.  The sinner is to

“…continue till you know in yourself beyond doubt that you are indeed a changed being, a penitent believer, and the new heart which you desired has been put within you.”

You earn your new heart by doing all these spiritual exercises that Packer’s doctrine of “total inability” tells us the sinner cannot do.

All this is really confused.  It is a far cry from the simple “good news” of the gospel that teaches sinners that God in Christ loves them and that Jesus died in their place and that this salvation is received by simply believing.  They can be saved by putting their faith and trust in Christ.

And it get even more confusing.  In contrast to the simple gospel, within Packer’s soteriological context these things can only be a list of the “manifest evidences” caused by God in elect persons, not things a person does “to go about believing on Christ and repenting.”  Given “total inability” we would think that such evidences indicate that the person already has a “new heart” put within them by God.  Yet Packer advises sinners to “continue” to do them “till you know in yourself beyond doubt that you are indeed a changed being…and the new heart that you desired has been put within you.”  Why aren’t all these “doings” evidence that the person already believes and is saved?  Why can’t such a person believe and know that they are indeed saved?  What is the person who is doing all these things waiting for?   When will the sinner who is doing all these things know that a new heart has been put within them?  Why is it that all these things need to be done to get this “new heart?”  In fact, Packer’s advice smacks of the meritorious works the Calvinist so assiduously seeks to avoid.  Isn’t the biblical gospel of the “good news” of salvation stated above sufficient to save?  Not for the Calvinist whose “gospel” is tossed to and fro logically, spiritually and psychologically by their deterministic “doctrines of grace” until there is no “good news” left.

Furthermore, Packer’s advice implies that the sinner may continue to do those things and never know themselves to be a changed being and never have a new heart put within them because they are not among the elect.  Packer puts forward a false hope to the non-elect.  This is disingenuous.

So Miethe is right.  “…According to Packer’s theology, the same sinner – whether he hears the preaching or not – is still predestined to be saved or to be damned, and nothing…can change that.”  So whatever anyone does cannot alter what was predetermined by God to be.  And as it was with the concepts of “command” and “duty,” so it is here too.  Any language of action that speaks of personal decision and responsibility, i.e., “look,” “speak,” “cry,” “confess,” “cast yourself,” “turn,” “trust” and  “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ,” is rendered meaningless.  Packer’s gospel amounts to a “wait-and-see” approach to salvation.  “Continue till you know in yourself beyond doubt that you are indeed a changed being, a penitent believer, and the new heart which you desired has been put within you.”  This amounts to “be a penitent believer so that God can make you a penitent believer.”  Packer states,

“To the question: what must I do to be saved? the old gospel replies: believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

This is the biblical response and it is sufficient.  Certainly, more can be said as when Packer writes,

“To the further question: what does it mean to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ?  Its reply is: it means knowing oneself to be a sinner, and Christ to have died for sinners; abandoning all self-righteousness and self-confidence, and casting oneself wholly upon Him of pardon and peace; and exchanging ones natural enmity and rebellion against God for a spirit of grateful submission to the will of Christ through the renewing of one’s heart by the Holy Ghost.”

 God, Christ and the Holy Ghost are all involved in this “good news” to sinners. All have their role and function and the sinner’s response of “knowing,” “abandoning,” “casting” and “exchanging” are decisions of the will that the sinner must make that are summed up in “repent and believe the gospel.”  The gospel remains “good news.”

For the non-Calvinist, this active, personal faith and trust in Christ assuredly appropriates the salvation Christ secured on their behalf.  It is what it means for a sinner to know that their salvation can be found “in Christ,” not in a premundane salvific decision of God which is unknowable to the sinner which wreaks havoc with the gospel as “good news.”

On Calvinism, one is reduced to a self-oriented introspection that waits to become a “changed being” and for God to put a “new heart” in them.  Even the desire for a new heart must come from God.  Does this desire guarantee one’s election?  Who knows?  At what point would anyone “know in yourself beyond doubt that you are indeed a changed being?”  According to Packer’s theology that would be to “know in yourself beyond doubt that you are among the elect.”  So the emphasis of the gospel and salvation shifts from looking to Christ in whom it can assuredly be found, to an unknown decision of God made in eternity past regarding your eternal destiny; a destiny none of us has anything to do with.  This makes the doctrine of the unconditional election of individuals to salvation is an irrelevance to the sinner and believer alike.

Is this a new kind of salvation by introspective, self-oriented works of humility and acts of contrition, which are supposed to confirm what can never be known, that is, one’s unconditional election?  Does a person do these things as a litmus test for their election?  It seems so, but Packer presented them as the means by which the sinner we might know if they are among the elect or not.  They would have to wait for that confirmation in having a “new heart” having been put within them.  Certainly there are evidences if a person has been regenerated by the Spirit of God.  But they are evidences of a regeneration that occurs subsequent to believing the “good news” of one’s salvation that is found “in Christ.”  Upon believing a new heart is put within the believer by God. There is “the renewing of one’s heart by the Holy Ghost.”  Packer is attempting to speak consistent with his Calvinism but there is too much of human decision and “doing” in his advice to be coherent with his theology.  And his determinism distorts and distracts from the simple faith the sinner is called upon to exercise when Christ is presented to them because their salvation is found in him.  A sinner’s salvation is not found, indeed, it cannot be found, in a premundane decision of God either to save them or not to save them.

Where does Packer go wrong?  I submit that his theology is actually christologically deficient, for according to Calvinism, ultimately our salvation does not reside “in Christ” in the sense that salvation can actually be found by all in him through faith in his work on the cross on our behalf.  According to the Calvinist, ultimately one’s salvation rests in the decision of God in eternity past to either save an individual through the death of Christ or assign them to hell by not electing them to salvation.  Christ simply implements God’s premundane decision to save certain elect persons.  Salvation is not available “in Christ” to all sinners as sinners who need a savior.  The focus has shifted from the possibility and potential for salvation actually residing “in Christ” and available “in Christ,” to the decision of God in eternity past and the self-examination for “manifest evidences” of one’s election.  Christ is no longer the source of a presently available salvation for all sinners – a salvation that can be appropriated by any sinner through faith.

For the non-Calvinist, Packer’s advice is very different than the proclamation that all may look to Christ and find there God’s salvific will towards them and complete salvation in him.  Packer’s approach is evasive and empty of hope.  What purpose is there to these exhortations to humility and penitence if they devolve into an anxious hoping that you are among those chosen to receive a “new heart” that you must wait for God to “put within you?”  Despite Packer’s attempt to introduce something a person can do in response to God, his theology cannot tolerate it, and he strains to bring to people a “gospel” that is sincerely and truly “good news” for those hearers.  He strains to construct a message that includes the surety of God’s love for all.  But Packer ultimately is unconvincing.  His soteriology offers no point of contact between God and the sinner whereby the sinner is confronted with the love of God which demands a response of acceptance or rejection, the former resulting in life eternal and the later resulting in remaining under the condemnation and judgment of God.  There is no objective salvation “in Christ” for the non-elect, and therefore when a sinner believes, it is only subsequent to that decision that they can embrace Calvinist by presuming their own unconditional election.  But in unconditional election there is no demonstration of the love of God by which the individual sinner can be assured of God’s love.  Contrary to Romans 5:8, Christ does not demonstrate God’s love to all sinners.  There is no personal dimension between God and sinners or objective demonstration whereby any sinner can be assured of God’s love and kind disposition towards them, thereby gain the assurance of their salvation by faith.  According to unconditional election nothing a person does or fails to do influences their eternal destiny.  That is fixed by God alone.  You must be one of the elect to be saved.  We have crossed the line from salvation found “in Christ” and the hope of biblical faith, to the anxiety and despair of a predetermined fate.

Recall Miethe’s observation which seems very accurate after all and applicable to Packer’s “advice” here.

“Packer has not forgotten, according to his theology, that man is so lost, so wretched, that God has to give him the power even to believe or repent.  Then by what possible logic does it make sense to say that the “invitations are universal” or that “the question of the extent of the atonement does not arise in evangelistic preaching.”  This is ridiculous!  Of course it does.  For according to Packer’s theology, the same sinner – whether he hears the preaching or not – is still predestined to be saved or damned, and nothing, no “external inducements,” can change that.” [11]

Note again that Miethe is baffled by Packer’s “logic.”

Dr. William G. MacDonald provides a more biblical perspective than Packer on the nature of faith and salvation and how God works by his Word and the Spirit through the proclamation of the gospel.  He writes,

“When God and man meet in the proclamation of the gospel on the plains of decision, both the Word and the Spirit come into focus at God’s end of the field and sin and spirit at man’s end.  God’s messenger unsheathes the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God.  In short, by that word man is slain, and by the Spirit he is created anew.  God’s call to him is a summons to repentance (Acts 17:30), but on the other hand, it is an invitation to receive grace (John 3:16; Rev. 22:17). As Creator God rightfully commands man to confess his infidelity in sin.  As Savior God graciously appeals to man to look to him and be saved.  The former is judgment; the latter is grace…The initiative belongs exclusively to God.  God calls man by “the word of his grace” (Acts 14:3)…His repentance and faith is entirely shaped, then, by the word on which it is based.  But he does his own repenting before God and believing.  In response to faith – trusting commitment of God – he receives the Spirit as the guarantee of abiding grace.  The whole experience may be depicted thus with man’s response surrounded by God’s Word and Spirit:

[Word (repentance, faith) Spirit]

This coming of the Spirit in regeneration is what is really new in the “new” covenant made in Christ’s blood…God cannot – and to say the same thing – will not regenerate a heart that will not admit him.  God respects the sovereignty-within-limitations with which he endowed man at creation…In the Old Testament faith preceded justification.  In the New Testament faith also precedes justification.  Additionally, in the New Testament with justification comes regeneration – the “spirit of life” – and sanctification – “the spirit of holiness.”  It does violence to the clear tenor of Scripture to reverse the order in the interest of a theological system and demand that regeneration precede faith rather than follow.  That order makes faith virtually meaningless.  It also would mean that justification and sanctification are separable states from regeneration.  But if they all be considered simultaneous, then “faith” seems at best redundant.  Does God even believe for us?

It is beautiful and true to say that salvation from sin is all of God.  But it is untrue to deny the necessity for man to respond in personal faith to God, or to say that because man is “dead in trespasses and sins” that he cannot respond in faith, or in any way – absolutely.  Therefore it is said:

               Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light. (Eph. 5:14)

One without God sleeps in the death of his sins, but when God’s call awakens him, he can respond in faith, or he can resist the Spirit and go back to sleep.

Man, even in his sins and rebellion against God, is constantly putting his faith somewhere.  It is his nature to be a believer.  Not the possibility of faith, but the object of his faith, then becomes the important consideration.  Believing permits the Holy Spirit to work and grace to be received.”[12]

That is the truly “good news.”


Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence / Table of Contents / Home


[1] John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), J. I. Packer, “Introductory Essay,” 18-19.

[2] Ibid. 4.

[3] Terry L. Miethe, “The Universal Power of the Atonement,” in The Grace of God, The Will of Man: A Case For Arminianism, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 83-84.

[4] J. I. Packer, “Introductory Essay,” in John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1985) 20.

[5] See I. Howard Marshall, “Predestination in the New Testament” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975).

[6] J. I. Packer, “Introductory Essay,” in John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), 20.

[7] Ibid. 21.

[8] William G. MacDonald, “The Spirit of Grace” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 89.

[9] And if Arminians have erred on the side of inappropriate manipulation in evangelism, Packer has certainly shut down the free offer and hope of salvation provided in the gospel.  Hence, I suggest that the confusion over the gospel in the evangelical church today has resulted in the biblical gospel being ignored and/or distorted, with the emphasis being put on the sensate rather than substance, comfort rather than content, and psychological well-being rather than proclamation of the “good news,” conversion, and spiritual transformation.

[10] J. I. Packer, “Introductory Essay,” in John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), 21.

[11] Terry L. Miethe, “The Universal Power of the Atonement,” in The Grace of God, The Will of Man: A Case For Arminianism, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 83-84.

[12] William G. MacDonald, “The Spirit of Grace” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 84-87.

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