J.I. Packer on the Old and New Gospel

Today there is widespread interest in evangelism. That concern often seems to be directed more toward getting practical results than toward bringing the gospel message by the methods the gospel itself demands. When in this situation some are attacking the Reformed doctrines of the Sovereignty of God as hindrances to evangelism and many more are ignoring those doctrines, these observations made by Dr. James I. Packer may be especially helpful to set matters straight They appeared 19 years ago in his introductory essay of the Banner of Truth reprint of the 200-year old book of John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.

Dr. Packer wrote, “There are signs today of a new upsurge of interest in the theology of the Bible: a new readiness to test traditions, to search the Scriptures and to think through the faith.” Packer felt that in this situation Owen‘s old book (on the extent of the atonement) might be helpful “in one of the most urgent tasks facing Evangelical Christendom today the recovery of the gospel.”


There is no doubt that Evangelicalism today is in a state of perplexity and unsettlement. In the practice of evangelism, the teaching of holiness, the building up of the local church life, the pastor’s dealing with souls and the exercise of discipline, there is evidence of widespread dissatisfaction with things as they are and of equally widespread uncertainty as to the road ahead.” “If we go to the root of the matter, we shall find that these perplexities are air ultimately due to our having lost our grip on the biblical gospel. Without realizing it, we have during the past century bartered that gospel for a substitute product which, though it looks similar enough in points of detail, is as a whole a decidedly different thing. Hence our troubles; for the substitute product does not answer the ends for which the authentic gospel has in past days proved so mighty. The new gospel conspicuously fails to produce deep reverence, deep repentance, deep humility, a spirit of worship, a concern for the church. Why? . . . The reason lies in its own character and content. It fails to make men God-centered in their thoughts and God-fearing in their hearts because this is not primarily what it is trying to do. .  . It is too exclusively concerned to be ‘helpful’ to man—to bring peace, comfort, happiness, satisfaction and too little concerned to glorify God. The old gospel was ‘helpful’ too—more so, indeed, than is the new -but incidentally, for its first concern was always to give glory to God. It was always and essentially a proclamation of Divine sovereignty in mercy and judgment, a summons to bow down and worship the mighty Lord on whom man depends for all good, both in nature and in grace. Its center of reference was unambiguously God. But in the new gospel the center of reference is man.” “Whereas the chief aim of the old was to teach men to worship God, the concern of the new seems limited to making them feel better. The subject of the old gospel was God and His ways with men; the subject of the new is man and the help God gives him. There is a world of difference. The whole perspective and emphasis of gospel preaching has changed . . . for the new gospel has . . . reformulated the biblical message in the supposed interests of ‘helpfulness.’ Accordingly man‘s natural inability to believe God’s free election . . . and Christ dying specifically for His sheep are not preached. These doctrines, it would be said, are not ‘helpful’ . . . .”

“Part of the biblical gospel is now preached as if it were the whole of that gospel; and a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.” “It needs to be said with emphasis that this set of twisted half-truths is something other than the biblical gospel.” “To recover the old, authentic gospel, and bring our preaching and practice back into line with it, is perhaps our most pressing present need.”

There is much more in this introductory essay of Packer as he deals with the “five points of Calvinism,” the occasion for their formulation, their relation to the whole of Biblical teachings, and their implications and application in evangelistic activity that will prove very rewarding to the reader who will study his splendid 25-page essay. The churchesrenewed faith and practice of this biblical gospel could be the means of bringing Reformation. That is the way the Lord has given it in the past.

Note: Although the Owen book is out of print the introductory essay by Packer is now printed separately and is available for 60¢—a bargain—its title: Th e Introductory Essay to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.