Admittedly, I was never much of a J.I. Packer follower and haven’t read much of his materials over the years. Many people in my circles, however, have and are avid defenders of him. In case you haven’t heard, the famed author and theologian passed away Friday, July 17, 2020 at the age of 93.
Over the last few years, we’ve watched many giants of the faith of the modern era pass away. From Billy Graham to R.C. Sproul. Everyone dies, that’s nothing new. But an interesting phenomenon in the Evangelical Church is that often, the great preachers of this age tend to go soft — or make a complete U-turn — on the gospel in their final years of life.
But the one who endures to the end will be saved. — Matthew 24:13
Probably the most notable example is Billy Graham. Graham, who is known for his stadium-filled crusades, altar-calls, and boisterous preaching with that famous deep Southern voice, himself took a sharp turn in his later years outright denying the gospel and holding to a theology of universalism. When universalist pastor, Robert Schuller asked Graham about the fate of people who’ve never heard of Jesus, he replied,
I think everybody that loves Christ, or knows Christ, whether they’re conscious of it or not, they’re members of the Body of Christ. And I don’t think that we’re going to see a great sweeping revival, that will turn the whole world to Christ at any time. I think James answered that, the Apostle James in the first council in Jerusalem, when he said that God’s purpose for this age is to call out a people for His name. And that’s what God is doing today, He’s calling people out of the world for His name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they’ve been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light that they have, and I think that they are saved, and that they’re going to be with us in heaven.
This is a completely false gospel and a denial of Christ’s very words. Graham never recanted.
Similarly, J.I. Packer made a statement in his book, God’s Words: Studies of Key Bible Themes, that seemed to espouse the very same sentiment toward people did not know Christ:
“We can safely say if any good pagan reached the point of throwing himself on his Maker’s mercy for pardon, it was grace that brought him there. God will surely save anyone he brings thus far. Anyone thus saved would learn in the next world that he was saved through Christ.
So, does that alone make Packer a heretic? This statement is certainly in the realm of heresy. Did he actually believe this? Often, people make contradictory claims at different times, and there are certainly statements that Packer has made that would seem to contradict this. Packer, however, also signed the ecumenical statement known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together — a statement that affirmed that Catholics and Evangelicals believed the same gospel. While it would certainly seem that Packer dabbled in serious error at times, is this conclusive enough to determine that he was actually a heretic?
You can decide.