Book Review: Keep in Step with the Spirit

8 07 2008

Keep in Step with the Spirit by J.I. Packer was initially bought by me as a bit of airport reading. In May I travelled across to Durham to take part in the wedding of a friend, and decided to take this book with me as a means of passing the time in the airport and my hotel room. Instead it has become my main reading focus for exactly two months (I began it on 2nd May and finished it on 2nd July), with many profitable hours spent working through Packer’s teaching on the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life. This text has formed part of a larger (and ongoing) tapestry of books which I have been weaving together on the issue of pneumatology, and I hope to post some thoughts on the other titles as time goes by.

Keep in Step with the Spirit was originally published in 1984, and has recently been re-released by IVP with updated materials and an extra chapter. Packer makes no apology for the seriousness of his text, nor of the work required by his reader to get to the bottom of his main thesis about the Holy Spirit. This is not the kind of book which can merely be lifted and sifted to find the author’s ‘take’ on pneumatology, but is rather an extended and interlinked meditation on the Holy Spirit.

The book opens with a sense of caution. The author contends that people can ask for more of the life of the Spirit, without really understanding what they are requesting, nor familiarising themselves with the One whom they are seeking. It is therefore vital to get ‘the Spirit in focus’, coming to a larger, broader, deeper, fuller understanding of who He is. Packer achieves this by paying attention to the Farewell Discourse of John 13-17, and Jesus’ depiction of what the Holy Spirit will do when He is sent. This exegesis is then widened to include an analysis of Pentecost and its implications for believers today. The main argument which Packer makes is that the Holy Spirit mediates the presence of Christ to the believer – a singularly helpful way of summarising his manifold operations, whether in terms of assurance, purity, empowerment or rebuke.

Packer then focuses on the purifying work of the Holy Spirit, and in the process de-constructs Wesleyan holiness teaching, and classic Keswick thought about sanctification. For me, this is where the book was at its most helpful. There is much unhealthy talk in the evangelical world about holiness, and Packer corrects this with Owen-esque precision about how we are to seek to live for God, constantly battling sin, and exercising ourselves to godliness in the power of the Holy Spirit.

In chapters 5 and 6 attention is paid to the Charismatic movement. Refreshingly, Packer shows charity to those within Charismatic circles, highlighting the blessings which they have brought to the church as well as some of the unique problems introduced by them. According to Packer, the positives to be identified within the Charismatic movement are Christ-centredness, Spirit-empowered living, emotion finding expression, prayerfulness, joyfulness, every-heart involvement in the worship of God, every-member ministry in the Body of Christ, missionary zeal, small-group ministry, their attitude toward church structures, communal living and generous giving. Negatively charismatic churches can be characterised by elitism, sectarianism, emotionalism, anti-intellectualism, illuminism, “Charismania”, super-supernaturalism, eudaemonism (the belief that God means us to be well and in a state of euphoria at all times), demon obsession and conformism. In these sections Packer is evenhanded and fair in his assessment, with his commendations of the movement sincerely phrased, and his criticisms pertinent without being unnecessarily pointed.

Chapter 6 is the point at which Packer brings Scriptural analysis to bear on the whole issue of Charismatic Christianity. In incisive and unwaveringly biblical terms he holds up the tenets and trends of modern Charismatic belief and practice to the light of Scripture, asking can it convincingly be equated with the NT picture of spiritual gifts. Surprisingly, given the warm terms in which Packer treats this section of the Church, he concludes that it cannot be equated, and that continuity cannot be traced between the apostolic gifts and those in evidence today. Here Packer is ruthlessly biblical and unequivocal, writing from deep seated conviction.

His final assessment in this chapter and in chapter 7, however, is that the Charismatic experience of gifts should not be denigrated merely on the grounds of its non-correlation to much of what the NT describes. Instead Packer seeks to ‘re-theologize’ Charismatic teaching, suggesting means by which the movement might be drawn more strictly into line with what Scripture says. He also posits a view of the ‘gifts’ on display within Charismatic circles which shows their inherent benefit to individual Christians even if they do not strictly correlate with the NT picture of the Spirit’s work.

It is at this point that I find Packer’s thesis least convincing. It appears that he keeps a foot in both camps, cessationist and Charismatic, refusing to defend modern day gifts in the light of Scripture, nor defame them on the same grounds. One can admire his candid refusal to engage in polemics or posturing in an arena of Christian thought which has seen far too much of both, but such a stance leaves an imbalance in an otherwise excellent book. No doubt Packer’s aim is to help those who are within the Charismatic category to reconsider their position biblically without having to denounce or disown their position experientially, and to encourage those within dead and orthodox churches to seek a greater sense of God’s power and presence. A helpful focus in the section, however, is Packer’s insistence on revival being considered as God’s movement amongst His people as opposed to Charismatic claims to renewal. I remember listening to Geoff Thomas speak of working his way through Grudem’s Systematic Theology and, given its emphasis on Charismatic teaching, feeling disappointed that no mention had been made of revival. In Keep in Step with Spirit Packer manages to assess and commend the notion of revival to the reader as a healthy means of considering God at work.

The book closes with a sermon on Romans 5 which does not develop the argument of the book, but brings an important Scriptural and devotional conclusion to a book intended to highlight the Spirit’s work in the life of the believer. An appendix is included dealing with the identity of the ‘wretched man’ in Romans 7, which is important to Packer’s argument about sanctification in chapters 3 and 4.

In spite of reservations about sections of Keep in Step with the Spirit, I still rate it highly as a treatment on pneumatology. One cannot help but take on board the criticisms which Packer levels at the mainstream church which has made a supreme virtue out of mediocrity and dryness, nor can one fail to admire the way he handles the issue of prophecy as the telling forth of God’s truth, rather than a Christian version of ‘fortune telling’. This book has an important message, as well as considerable failings, and it has richly stimulated my thinking on the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life. As someone who is not Charismatic (although I have many fine Christian friends who are) nor who can fully identify with all that calls itself cessationsist (I find my sympathies more firmly located in experiential Calvinism) this book blessed me and encouraged me to seek a greater work of God by His Spirit in my life.

My next reading project in this area is Iain H. Murray’s Pentecost Today which I hope to work through in August. I hope, God willing, to post a review of it once it’s read.

Keep in Step with the Spirit
is by J.I. Packer. It is published by IVP, and costs £9.99.




3 responses

10 07 2008

Some time when you have a free month (!) you should check out Gordon Fee’s colossal book on the Spirit in Paul, “God’s Empowering Presence.” It’s incredibly detailed and rigorous in its exegesis, but then draws some pretty provocative conclusions for the church today. For my money, Fee is even more direct and challenging than Packer in both directions – against the excesses of the charismatic movement, and against the dryness of forms of Christian faith which deny the experiential power of the Spirit.

10 07 2008
Andrew and Carolyn

Hi!Thanks for the recommendation of Fee: I must look this title out when I’m through some of my other pneumatology reading. Very very helpful.God bless,Andrew

11 07 2008

I should have mentioned that Fee also wrote a shorter book called “Paul, the Spirit and the People of God,” which kind of summarizes his main conclusions, without the detailed exegesis. The longer book is really more of a reference work – he does detailed exegesis on literally every text with even a vague reference to the Spirit. It’s ridiculously comprehensive. (And he’s just done the same thing for Pauline Christology) Happy studying!

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