The Following is an In-Depth Review of J.I. Packer’s “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God” and the Practical Application for All Believers.
In 2006, as I was traveling as a guest speaker for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, I grew obsessed with the study of man’s free will and God’s sovereignty in the role of evangelism. We were seeing men and women saved in mass proportions at all of our events, just as Billy Graham had seen for decades in previous crusades. The results were inspiring, and it was hard to not grow consumed with trying to answer the question of who is saving these people — are the efforts of human responsibility saving them, or is God divinely persuading them to come? After seeking advice from mentors and pastors, one man told me to read J.I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1961]. With great excitement, I ordered the book and soon, thereafter, consumed it.
It has been over a decade since my first read of this powerful little book. After reading it again this month, I was thankful for this succinct, and sufficient, explanation of God’s vast attribute of sovereignty and the role (or reaction) of our responsibility. The majority of my friendships, pastoring, and reading are with men and women who would consider themselves reformed. In these circles, it is easy for us to allow our high view of God’s sovereignty to be overly emphasized. J. I. Packer does not allow for our views of sovereignty to get in the way of the urgency (97-98) or the necessity (98-100) of sharing the Gospel message. His aim in the book is to combat the belief that sovereignty hinders our personal evangelism; rather, it should strengthen the case for us to continue to evangelize (8, 10).
The book has four parts: Divine Sovereignty, Divine Sovereignty and Responsibility, Evangelism, and Divine Sovereignty and Evangelism. The author makes the case that we already believe in God’s sovereignty if we have prayed:(1) thanking God for our salvation, and (2) asking for the salvation of someone else (12-15). He challenges our thinking that divine sovereignty and human responsibility are somehow opposing ideas. He explains that divine sovereignty and human responsibility, working together, is a mystery and antinomy (24), but they are not opposite ideas (19-20). Striving to make too much sense of one over the other will lead to the exclusion of one, rather than the joining together of both (25-36).
What then is “Evangelism” if both divine sovereignty and human responsibility are at play? It is the biblical act of preaching the Gospel and teaching others about the truth of Christ (46-49). Packer explains that there are many ways that people are evangelized and grow in their knowledge of Christ, such as Bible studies, personal evangelism, Sunday service and corporate gatherings, and the like. The message that is proclaimed should always include information about who God is, our sins, Christ and His work for us, and a call to turn from our sins and have faith (57-73). We should be stirred to continue to evangelize because of our love for God, concern for His fame on earth (73-75), and our care for the eternal wellbeing of others (75-80).
A powerful and useful part of this book is found in Packer’s “Last Analysis” in the Evangelism section, calling the readers to evaluate our evangelistic efforts using five main questions:
- Is this way of presenting Christ calculated to impress on people that the Gospel is a word from God (87)?
- Is this way of presenting Christ calculated to promote, or impede, the work of the Word in men’s minds (88)?
- Is this way of presenting Christ calculated to convey the whole doctrine of the Gospel (89)?
- Is this way of presenting Christ calculated to convey the whole application of the Gospel and not just part of it (89)?
- Is this way of presenting Christ calculated to convey Gospel truth in a manner that is appropriately serious (90)?
After proper evaluation of our evangelism, we are to go forth and share with courage and urgency. The sovereignty of God is not affected by our work, but our work is worthless without it. Grace that saves must be based on the ruling and allocation of a sovereign God. His divine power overcomes man’s fleshly desires and the devil’s schemes to win over our hearts (106-112). Our work to make the Gospel of Christ known is not in vain because of God’s sovereignty; rather, it is more meaningful in light of it (118). We pray, preach, and proclaim the Gospel while acknowledging our dependence on God’s power to do what only He can do, trusting Him with the outcome of our efforts. God’s sovereignty, in grace, gives us our only hope for having any success in evangelism. We can proclaim the truth confidently, knowing that God is ruling over the hearts of men and will ultimately have His way.
Critique — Strengths and Weaknesses of Packer’s Work
It may go without saying, at this point, that I am very grateful for this work. It has influenced my preaching ministry and personal evangelism ministry momentously — now as well as over a decade ago when I first read it. His book is based in Scripture and provides a convincing case for us to share the Gospel while trusting God with the outcome. The book’s strength is in its simplicity of endorsing what we already believe (i.e., prayer, trusting God for our own salvation, etc.) and moving the reader to act on it. It does not negate the fact that there is a role for faith and repentance on the human’s behalf for the sake of salvation; rather, it challenges us to trust in God more fully. I have nothing to mention as far as weaknesses; this book fulfills its purpose. My only request of the author would be to present a fuller set of examples, case studies, stories, or illustrations of sharing the Gospel and trusting God to move sovereignly. However, this would only add to the book’s lasting fortitude. I feel it is sufficient without these; yet, I desire more practical tips for praying, speaking, or sharing the Gospel for the sake of evangelism.
Personal Response to God’s Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility
God’s Work and My Role
Salvation belongs to the Lord (Psalm 3:8; 61:2; Revelation 7:10). He is working to call people unto Himself by stirring in their hearts the ability to have faith in His Son Jesus Christ (John 6:44). God is sovereignly in control over those who believe in Him, yet a person must have faith to respond to the work of God in his or her life. I believe that faith is trusting in Jesus Christ as a living person for forgiveness of sins and for eternal life with God. Because salvation belongs to God and demands a response from the one being saved, there is a role for me to play in proclaiming to others the sovereign work of God and calling them to believe. At times, God chooses to limit His work of salvation in a person’s life through the diligent and obedient sharing of the Gospel by those who have already been saved (Romans 10:14)
When asked what the proper understanding of the relationship between the truth of divine sovereignty and the task of personal evangelism is, I respond with three main thoughts:
- Divine sovereignty means I can trust God’s Word to work in calling people to believe, but I must share it faithfully and rely on it fully.
- Divine sovereignty means that I can have confidence that God will use both general and special revelation as I call people to respond to the Gospel.
- Divine sovereignty means that I can trust that He will complete the good work He has started when a person responds with repentance and faith.
The Word of God Plays an Indispensable Part in Salvation
The Bible, whether read or preached, is the way that God presents salvation in Christ to us. He has chosen to use His divine power to make His written Word living and active (Hebrews 4:12). It is through faith that we are saved by grace, and His grace is made known in His Word. In Romans 10:14-15, we understand that a person must believe in Christ, but they cannot believe unless someone tells them the Good News of God’s grace. My role in evangelism is to use God’s Word to make known His salvation. The Bible claims its role when it states that, “Through the living and enduring Word of God,” we can be born again (1 Peter 1:23, 25). It is our role to use it as a means of teaching others about Christ.
God Uses General and Divine Revelation Alongside My Sharing
The invisible and eternal God makes Himself known to humans in two ways: (1) through revealing Himself to His chosen people (Ephesians 1:1-3) in the pages of the Bible, which is referred to as special revelation, and (2) through the display of His characteristics through what He has made in creation and all humanity observes and enjoys, which is referred to as general revelation. Both of these come from God and have authority in our lives, making salvation (and the possibility of it) known to us and others.
We can see evidence of God in both creation and our own human conscience. God reveals His power and divine nature (including His wrath and justice) and makes no excuse for those who are not seeking after Him (Romans 1:18-23). His creation of the earth and humans declare His glory. Man is a visible representation of the invisible God, bearing His image (Genesis 1:26-28). However, if we are going to properly understand God’s general revelation, we must have God’s special revelation. The human conscience seems to make us aware that there is a higher power and that there is good and evil, which is a part of the general revelation God has made known to humans. However, it is only by the Holy Spirit’s work and the truth of God’s Word that we can make sense of what we experience in life and how it directs us to glorify God (Romans 2:15; 13:5).
God bears witness to Himself and the way He has made Himself known in the world by providing special insight to who He is to specific people at specific times. His special revelation is not for all, but we should praise Him for making it available. His special revelation comes from the Word of God and the story He has revealed throughout history. As I proclaim Christ to a lost world, I can trust that God is revealing Himself in broad and specific ways alongside my sharing.
God’s Divine Sovereignty Will Prevail Over My Human Efforts
In my personal evangelism, I can be confident that Jesus Christ will restore people to God through His work (Romans 3:22), not my frail efforts. Biblical faith is produced in a person when they take God’s written Word to heart and trust what it says about His Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ (Romans 10:17; John 1:1). I am only asked to be faithful to evangelize through word and deed and leave the results up to Him. I can gain confidence in my role in evangelism by having faith in God’s work of justification in the life of the person to whom I am sharing Christ. I know that we cannot save ourselves or find any other way to God but through Christ (cf. John 6:29; Acts 13:39; Galatians 3:24, Hebrews 11:6, 7; 2 Peter 1:5-8). This sovereign work of God to save a person is what I rest on in the end. Though my words may not always be perfect or my apologetics always persuasive, God will work through my feeble obedience to share the truth of Christ.