Book Review: "Keep in Step with the Spirit" by J.I. Packer

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J.I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit: Finding Fullness in Our Walk with God, Second Revised Enlarged Edition. Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2005, 256 pp.

reviewed by Karl Dahlfred

There are a number of books that provide a theology of the work of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, there are also a number of books that critique the charismatic movement, pointing out its excesses and disputing its biblical foundation.  However, it is rare to find a book that both affirms that God is at work in the charismatic movement and also rejects the major claims of that very same movement.  But in “Keep in Step with the Spirit: Finding Fullness in our Walk with God”, J.I. Packer has done just that.  In just 200 pages or so, Packer lays out a positive theology of the work of the Holy Spirit and issues challenges to both cessationists and charismatics.  So what will you find inside?  Let me give you an overview.

Before Packer begins to lay out a theology of the Spirit or assess charismatic claims in depth, he uses chapter 1 to highlight and question some assumptions about the operation of the Spirit which are common in charismatic circles.  First is the question of power (p.24-6). The Spirit is often viewed as something which you “switch on and use” (p.26 emphasis original) and which helps one to “perform” better, be that holy living or miraculous gifting (p.27).  This focus on power for performance instead of on purity results in a man-centeredness which “does not take us to the heart of the truth about the Spirit” (p.31).  Rather, the work of the Spirit is to glorify Jesus.  This primary work of the Spirit is highlighted in John 16:13 (“He will take what is mine and declare it to you”), a verse which Packer returns to frequently throughout the book.

Following on from his thesis that the primary role of the Spirit is to glorify Jesus, Packer lays out his understanding of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in chapter 2.  To help readers understand how the Holy Spirit and Christ relate, Packer uses the illustration of a floodlight (p.57).  A well placed floodlight does not call attention to itself but instead casts light upon some other object.  The Holy Spirit’s role is to direct the attention and faith of Christian believers to the person and work of Christ, not to Himself.  The Spirit gives us new birth in Christ (p.58), teaches us about Christ, and causes us to confess & follow Christ (p.65). The witness of the Spirit makes us “sure that the apostles’ Christ is real and is ours” (p.65). The Spirit assures us of Christ’s love for us poured out at the cross (p.66).

After reaffirming in chapter 3 the spotlight ministry of the Spirit, and reminding us of the attention given to personal holiness by previous generations, Packer spends chapter 4 laying out three primary understandings of sanctification within evangelicalism, namely the Augustinian view, the Wesleyan Perfectionist view, and the Keswick view (named after the annual Bible conference which formerly emphasized this teaching).  The Augustinian view acknowledges man’s continual struggle against sin and temptation, even after conversion, and emphasizes the believer’s need to actively fight against sin while optimistically expecting the Spirit to empower and progressively free one from sin.  Wesleyan Perfectionism claims that it is possible for believers to reach a point where, in a single moment, the Holy Spirit roots out of their hearts all motives but love. Though originally taught by him, John Wesley never claimed to have attained this state of “sinless perfection”.  The Keswick view, which grew out of Wesleyan Perfectionism, also affirmed the possibility of “sinless perfection”.  In contrast to Wesley’s view, Keswick taught that the way to attain perfection was not through active seeking, but through passivity.  Those who desire a holy life should “let go and let God” by entirely consecrating themselves to Him.  After comparing the strengths and weaknesses of each, Packer asserts his belief that the Augustinian view is the most well grounded, in both Scripture and reality.  Packer reaches this conclusion not only by biblical and rational arguments but by reflection upon his own personal experience as a new Christian at Oxford in the 1940s.

“he had heard and read his teachers describing a state of sustained victory over sin. It was pictured as a condition of peace and power in which the Christian, filled and borne along by the Holy Spirit, was kept from falling and was moved and enabled to do things for God which were otherwise beyond him... But [his] experience as he tried to follow instructions was like that of the poor drug addict whom he found years later trying with desperate concentration to walk through a brick wall.... According to the teaching, all that ever kept Christians from this happy life was unwillingness to pay the entry fee - in other words, failure to yield themselves fully to God. So all he could do was repeatedly reconsecrate himself, scraping the inside of his psyche till it was bruised and sore in order to track down still unyielded things by which the blessing was perhaps being blocked. His sense of continually missing the bus, plus his perplexity as to the reason why he was missing it became painful to live with, like a verruca or a stone in your shoe that makes you wince with every step you take. (p.128-129)

Though Packer is a brilliant theologian, it is pastoral rather than academic concerns that drive this book, clearly illustrated by passages like this one.  As a young Christian, Packer was tormented by the “unrealities of overheated holiness teaching” (p.129) and longs to see others find the same freedom that he did.  

In chapters 5 and 6, we see that though there are surface differences, charismatics and non-charismatics have similar experiences of seeking God and being transformed by his love and his truth.  However, they have different names for what they experience.  Rather than dismiss the charismatic movement entirely, Packer concludes that “God is in it” (161).  However, when charismatic experience is pointed to as proof for certain beliefs that are biblically mistaken, problems arise (p.162).  There is insufficient Biblical evidence for a second blessing or baptism of the Spirit that believers are to seek. Tongues in Scripture are actual languages that are used for edification, and able to be interpreted.  Modern tongues however are often not actual languages and their “[i]nterpretations prove to be as stereotyped, vague, and uninformative as they are spontaneous, fluent, and confident” (p.171).  However, tongues can still be a blessing.  But when they are, the source is “not the glossalalia as such but the state of mind of which it is said to be the evidence, or... the seeking for a greater fullness of the Spirit which preceded it.”(p.171).  In sum, Packer suggests that “the right way to theologize and explain these experiences is as in essence deepened awarenesses of the Spirit of adoption bearing witness to the Father's love in Christ (see Rom. 8:15-17) and of the coming of the Father and the Son, through the Spirit, to make themselves known to the obedient saint (see John 14: 15-23)” (p.180).  Following this assessment, Packer rounds out the book by restating the Christ-centeredness of the Spirit’s ministry and listing some questions that charismatics and non-charismatics need to address.

The major strength of the book is Packer’s attempt to give a balanced presentation while still coming down firmly on a particular side of the debate.  He does this winsomely, looking for the positives of the charismatic movement and expressing throughout his thankfulness for what God is doing in the charismatic movement.  Another strength is his attempt to make sense of what is really going on when people speak in tongues or give a prophecy, if it is not a direct word from God.  Rather than brushing it off as a work of the Devil, Packer tries to reconcile a Biblical theology that doesn’t support modern tongues and prophecy with the claimed positive spiritual benefit that people derive from these practices.  I have often wondered how one would reconcile these two things and I found Packer’s explanations convincing.  Not all readers will be convinced but Packer’s explanations present a more formidable challenge to charismatics than those who dismiss the whole charismatic endeavor as demonic.  Packer doesn’t dream of making such an assessment but throughout the book assumes that charismatic believers, by and large, are motivated by a deep love for God.

Balanced, Biblically grounded, and pastorally sensitive, Keep in Step with the Spirit is a book that I plan to keep on my shelf, not only for reference but also to share with others.  Finally, there is a book that on charismatic issues that I would feel comfortable giving to a charismatic friend.

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