…Pessimistic About The Possibility Of Moral Progress (Packer)

Keep in Step with the Spirit - Packer, J I - 9781433572807

In the first chapter of his book, Keep in Step with the Spirit, J. I. Packer explained five different emphases people have put on the work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life. All five ways have foundations in Scripture, but often they become one-sided because they fail to incorporate or discuss other aspects of the Spirit’s work in our lives. For example, the Holy Spirit does empower God’s people to trust and obey Christ, but there’s more to his work than just that. We don’t want to overemphasize the empowering work of the Holy Spirit and neglect the other aspects of his work.

One other emphasis Packer mentioned was the Bible’s teaching that the Holy Spirit purifies God’s people from sin’s defilement and pollution by helping us do what’s right and helping us resist evil (cf. Gal 5:17, Rom 8:13, Col 3:5, etc.). This puts the focus on our moral struggle against indwelling sin and the duty to obey the Lord. Packer wrote, “Stress on the reality of struggle as by God’s grace one’s life is progressively cleansed and purged is fully scriptural and entirely proper.”

But for all that, experience shows that pitfalls surround those who make moral struggle central in their thinking about the Holy Spirit. Their tendency is to grow legalistic, making tight rules for themselves and others about abstaining from things indifferent, imposing rigid and restrictive behavior patterns as bulwarks against worldliness and attaching great importance to observing these man-made taboos. They become Pharisaic, more concerned to avoid what defiles and adhere to principle without compromise than to practice the love of Christ. They become scrupulous, unreasonably fearful of pollution where none threatens and obstinately unwilling to be reassured. They become joyless, being so preoccupied with thoughts of how grim and unrelenting the battle is. They become morbid, always introspective and dwelling on the rottenness of their hearts in a way that breeds only gloom and apathy. They become pessimistic about the possibility of moral progress, both for themselves and others; they settle for low expectations of deliverance from sin, as if the best they can hope for is to be kept from getting worse. Such attitudes are, however, spiritual neuroses, distorting, disfiguring, diminishing and so in reality dishonoring the sanctifying work of God’s Spirit in our lives.

This is good for us to reflect upon. I think Packer is right. Yes, the Bible clearly talks about the moral struggle Christians have against indwelling sin. And the Bible also talks about the Spirit’s work helping us in and through that life-long struggle. But if we are overly or exclusively focused on this aspect of the Spirit’s work, we become one-sided and miss out on the other biblical and comforting ways the Spirit works in us, through us, and for us. In the other parts of Keep in Step with the Spirit, Packer explains the work and role of the Holy Spirit in our lives in a balanced and biblical way. Check it out for more info!

The above quote (emphasis Packer’s) is found on pages 50-51 of Keep in Step with the Spirit.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002