We don’t often get to meet our heroes in the faith. But after twenty-five years, I did have the privilege of a face-to-face encounter with one of mine: Dr. J.I. Packer. He is much taller than I’d imagined, more energetic than I’d expected and every bit as charitable as I had hoped. And even knowing that I am on “the other side” (his phrase) of the atonement debates,1 he generously signed the presentation page of my new ESV Bible and later acknowledged me as a brother.
Thus began an evening of revelations (hosted by House of James2) that started with the topic of Christian unity and climaxed in a discussion of evangelicalism’s current hot button topic: penal substitutionary atonement. As he shared, Dr. Packer made it clear that on the core points of classic Reformed Puritan tradition, he has not budged. Yet when he tenderly presented his sense of the Father’s heart towards Jesus during the crucifixion, I think we all felt God’s presence in the moment. On this point, I believe that the good doctor moved beyond the Reformers so as to carry the discussion forward in important ways. As I take up Dr. Packer’s exhortation to test the truth of his words, I hope to suggest how this is so.3