Book Recommendation: Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God

Packer, J. I. Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1961. 126 pp. $11.00.

Introduction

If God has already determined who will be saved, why should I evangelize? This question is the vital one which J. I. Packer seeks to answer in his book Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God. Packer is the Board of Governors Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver. He has written numerous books related to the study of theology, including the bestseller Knowing God (back cover). The main content of this book was originally given as a lecture to the Pre-Mission Conference of the London Inter-Faculty Christian Union on October 24th, 1959. The book in its present form has been expanded to further its usefulness (7).

Summary
Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God, as the title suggests, surveys the topic of evangelism and its relationship to God’s sovereignty. The book consists of four chapters. In chapter one, Packer asserts that all Christians believe in ‘Divine Sovereignty’. In chapter two, Packer explores the antinomy of ‘Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility’. In Chapter three, Packer explains the meaning and practice of ‘Evangelism’. In Chapter four, which is titled ‘Divine Sovereignty and Evangelism’, Packer examines the effect that belief in the sovereignty of God has upon the practice of evangelism.

In chapter one, Packer asserts that all Christians believe in the sovereignty of God. He asserts this, not by arguing for the doctrine theologically, but by stating the practical reality that all Christians pray. “God’s sovereignty is the basis of your prayers” (11). Packer not only asserts that all Christians believe in the sovereignty of God in general. He also insists that all Christians believe in the sovereignty of God in salvation. He knows this for two reasons. First, because “you give God thanks for your conversion” (12) and second, because “you pray for the conversion of others” (15). Thus, all Christians believe in the sovereignty of God, “but some are not aware that they do” (16). As Packer states it, “On our feet we may have arguments about it, but on our knees we are all agreed” (17).

In chapter two, Packer explores the antinomy of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. An antinomy is defined as “an apparent incompatibility between two apparent truths” (18). The antinomy of divine sovereignty and human responsibility exists because they are both “taught us side by side in the same Bible; sometimes, indeed, in the same text” (22). This antinomy creates two great temptations. The first is to disregard the texts which teach divine sovereignty and to have “an exclusive concern with human responsibility” (23). The second is to disregard the texts which teach human responsibility and to have “an exclusive concern with divine sovereignty” (29). Packer’s goal is to “take both doctrines perfectly seriously, as the Bible does, and to view them in their positive biblical relationship” (35). With the conclusion of this chapter, Packer has built a foundation upon which to discuss the topic of evangelism.

In chapter three, Packer explains the meaning and practice of evangelism. This chapter is by far the longest of the four and contains the “proper subject” of the book (9). First, Packer seeks to define evangelism by analyzing the famous definition given by the Archbishops’ Committee in 1918 (37-41) and by examining the apostle Paul’s view of evangelism (42-53). In the end, Packer declares “Wherever, and by whatever means, the gospel is communicated with a view to conversion, there you have evangelism” (57). Second, Packer summarizes the content of the evangelistic message (58-73). It is “the gospel of Christ, and Him crucified; the message of man’s sin and God’s grace, of human guilt and divine forgiveness, of new birth and new life through the gift of the Holy Spirit” (57). Third, Packer lists the two motives which should encourage us to evangelize (73-82). “The first is love to God and concern for His glory; the second is love to man and concern for his welfare” (73). Fourth, Packer discusses the proper means and methods of evangelism (82-91). “In the last analysis,” Packer concludes, “there is only one method of evangelism: namely, the faithful explanation and application of the gospel message” (86).

In chapter four, Packer examines the effect that belief in the sovereignty of God has upon the practice of evangelism. Packer’s conviction is that belief in this doctrine will result in one being able to evangelize better (126). This is so because this doctrine “makes us bold and confident before men, so it makes us humble and importunate before God” (125). Those who question the need to evangelize because of this doctrine need to be reminded “We are to order our lives by the light of His law, not by our guesses about His plan” (96).

Critical Evaluation
Packer’s stated purpose in the book’s introduction is to discuss evangelism “in relationto the sovereignty of God” (9). The abiding popularity of this book, which has been in print for over forty years, is a testimony to the degree of success Packer had in meeting that goal. I believe that Packer has succeeded in showing that belief in the sovereignty of God in salvation and the practice of evangelism are not mutually exclusive to one another. In the following, I will outline the strengths and weaknesses of this book according to my perspective.

Strengths

Packer accomplishes his purpose by establishing the doctrine of the sovereignty of God and its relationship to human responsibility. He then builds upon this foundation to discuss his “proper subject” of evangelism. Finally, Packer shows the beneficial effects of an individual’s belief in the sovereignty of God on one’s practice of evangelism.

Another strength is the masterful way in which Packer establishes that all Christians believe in the sovereignty of God. He does not try and prove the doctrine. He says, “There is no need; for I know that, if you are a Christian, you believe this already” (11). He argues that all Christians pray and “the recognition of God’s sovereignty” is the basis of their prayers. This proves that “whatever side you may have taken in debates on this question in the past, in your heart you believe in the sovereignty of God no less firmly than anyone else (17).

Another strength of the book is Packer’s description of the Scripture’s teaching on divine sovereignty and human responsibility as an antinomy. Packer suggests dealing with antinomies by noting “what connections exist between the two truths and their two frames of reference, and teach yourself to think of reality in a way that provides for their peaceful coexistence, remembering that reality itself has proved actually to contain both” (21). Since Scripture teaches both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man, we must take them both seriously and “view them in their positive biblical relationship” (35). Their biblical relationship is that of “friends, and they work together” (36).

Another strength of Packer’s book is the way in which he defines the evangelistic message. Packer summarizes the gospel message into four distinct components. The first is that “the gospel is a message about God” (58). The second is that “the gospel is a message about sin” (59). The third is that “the gospel is a message about Christ” (63). And the fourth is that “the gospel is a summons to faith and repentance” (70). These four components provide a helpful summary of the evangelistic message.

A final strength of the book is Packer’s emphasis that the doctrine of God’s sovereignty should serve as a motivation and encouragement to evangelism. After asserting that belief in God’s sovereignty in salvation is not a deterrent to evangelism, Packer argues that God’s sovereignty “gives us our only hope of success in evangelism” (106). Packer elaborates:

the sovereignty of God in grace is the one thing that prevents evangelism from being pointless. For it creates the possibility – indeed, the certainty – that evangelism will be fruitful. Apart from it, there is not even a possibility of evangelism being fruitful. Were it not for the sovereign grace of God, evangelism would be the most futile and useless enterprise that the world has ever seen, and there would be no more complete waste of time under the son than to preach the Christian gospel (106).

The above is true “because of the spiritual inability of man in sin” (106). Therefore, “when we evangelize, our trust must be in God who raises the dead” (117). In the end, Packer acknowledges, “We would not wish to say that man cannot evangelize at all without coming to terms with this doctrine; but we venture to think that, other things being equal, he will be able to evangelize better for believing it” (126).

Weaknesses

One possible weakness is the brevity of the book. Because of its size, neither evangelism nor God’s sovereignty are given adequate space to be developed fully. Packer acknowledges as much in his introduction (9). However, had the book been longer it might not have been read. The importance of this book’s topic required it to be accessible to all who would be interested in either evangelism or the sovereignty of God.

Conclusion

Given the above summary and critical analysis, I believe that Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God is must reading for anyone interested in either the doctrine of divine sovereignty or the practice of evangelism. For those who already value God’s sovereignty in salvation, this book could serve as a needed corrective to those who believe evangelism is unnecessary. On the other hand, for those who see the importance of evangelism, this book could introduce them to a comforting, confidence-giving doctrine which should only energize the evangelism. For me personally, I cannot imagine studying the topic of evangelism without this book serving as the backdrop for every other discussion of evangelism. I do not think anyone should attempt to debate the issues of divine sovereignty and human responsibility without careful consideration of the arguments made by J. I.. Packer in Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God.

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