Growing in Christ
By J. I. Packer
Reviewed by Dr. James Rosscup
6.1 (Spring 1995) : 111-113
This companion book to Knowing God was issued in 1977 under the title I Want to Be a Christian (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House). Packer has 64 chapters—usually 2-4 pages each—in four divisions: Affirming the Essentials (The Apostles' Creed); Entering In (Baptism and Conversion); Learning to Pray (The Lord's Prayer); and Design for Life (The Ten Commandments).
Typically, Packer is lucid, often illustrates well, and is orderly. The book has more help for building up a young Christian's knowledge than it is an effort to guide Christians in how to grow, as the title suggests. If one wants a fairly easy book to follow, he finds that here. It is often, though not always, written in a way to arouse the attention of readers who are not persevering.
Many statements are quite helpful. A good definition of faith, on p. 19, is "trustful commitment and reliance." Faith in a doctor involves submitting to his treatment and such is faith in God (20). Packer slowly reasons, step by step.
Not all will agree with Packer's taking Christ's preaching to the spirits in 1 Pet 3:19 to be a proclamation of His kingdom and appointment to be the world's judge, made before He arose from the dead. Packer sees the preaching to be to fallen angels, defined as the "sons of God" in Gen 6:2, 4. Of various views on the passage, many believe that the preaching occurred in spirit (or Spirit) back in the days of Noah, and was to unbelievers who rejected and are now in prison (i.e., death). Packer does firmly reject basing universalism on what the 1 Peter passage says (57).
A good brief discussion appears on what would be true for Christianity if Jesus had not risen (59): faith would be futile and sinners still in sins; they would have no hope of resurrection; Jesus, not being alive, could not reign and return; and there could be no salvation and fellowship in a living Lord. Packer also has good reasons Christians can validly believe that Jesus did rise (60). A number of other fine discussions are helpful, such as what heaven means, Christ's public future coming, the Holy Spirit, forgiveness, bodily resurrection, everlasting life, baptism, baptism in the Spirit.
Some will be troubled by Packer's defense of churchmen who say, after infant baptism, "Seeing how this child is regenerate" (133). Packer says that such phrases "denote only the ceremonial making over to us of spiritual rights and privileges, which if it is ever to be effectual must be confirmed by faith in Christ." But this slides away from the issue. If the infant will not be "regenerate" until faith in Christ some day, it is incorrect biblically to say that he or she is "regenerate" now. Why not use wording that expresses what is unequivocally true?
Packer at times allows intrusion of his ideas in the way of practical realism. An example is when he opens his section on the prayer Jesus taught His disciples with his (Packer's) reasons why many go through only a form of prayer or have given it up. The reason, he offers, is that people are uncertain whether God exists, or whether He is personal, good, in control, or concerned about ordinary folk (155). These are part of the reasons for unbelievers. But for them and believers for whose growth the book appears mostly to be written, why leave out a smiting of guilt over sins with its inability to feel confident coming to God? Or why leave out the fact that even believers can avow firm belief in all the things Packer lists, yet be so much at high speed on the fast lane in the barrenness of a busy life that they keep telling themselves they have little time to pray to God? Such problems plague even Christian leaders; a meaningful regularity of prayer is often fairly smothered by things that clutter life. If growing in Christ is the idea, these problems in prayer are more bothersome than things Packer mentions.
One needs a lot of imagination to realize how some prayers fit with "every prayer of ours should be a praying of the Lord's Prayer in some shape or form" (156). And is this really "The Lord's Prayer" if He taught it to be the disciples' prayer? The Lord's Prayer which He Himself Prayed is in John 17. The book overstates things, too, in saying that this one model of prayer "not only is . . . the Lord's first lesson in praying, it is all the other lessons too" (158). Such sweeping generalities needlessly claim too much to be practical guides. One has to take them with a grain of salt.
Another inaccuracy is that the prayer "Thy kingdom come" is for His saving grace to be experienced "till Christ returns and all things are made new" (160). Jesus here meant His Messianic Kingdom, and spoke of prayer that this kingdom might come when He returns, not that (or just that) it would be experienced "till" He comes, as if it is not to be realized after that. It is good that Packer does clarify later, in a whole chapter on the kingdom, that the kingdom has a future aspect. There his wording conveys quite a different idea. For "Thy kingdom come" now looks on to that day (177) and is not all realized prior to and "till" that day.
The work has a two-page subject index that will help one find discussions. Overall the book is a fairly good survey of fundamentals Christians should believe. It is not of great help specifically on how they can grow in Christ, though it offers some assistance. Many will not notice the generalizations that lack the definitive precision of which Packer is capable. Others can be bothered by their frequency even while they profit from many good aspects. On a scale with ten at the top, the rating here is about an eight.