Book Review: Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God

Packer, J.I. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008.

Summary

In Matthew 28, Jesus gives his disciples the great commission to go to the whole world, teach all that he commanded, and make disciples. Yet, what would be the purpose of doing so if God is sovereign over salvation? Does the understanding of one’s personal responsibility contradict the understanding of God’s sovereignty? This is a question that many have sought an answer. In his book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, J.I. Packer shows that divine sovereignty does not undermine one’s responsibility but gives resilience to do it boldly.

Divine Sovereignty

Packer shows that, whether one says they believe in God’s divine sovereignty or not, one’s prayers reveals that they do. He states, “In effect, therefore, what we do every time we pray is to confess our own impotence and God’s sovereignty. The very fact that a Christian prays is thus proof positive that he believes in the lordship of his God” (18). It is shown to the reader that one’s actions show that the divine sovereignty of God is real. This is apparent in the understanding of salvation as well. No true evangelical would believe that they have done anything within themselves to earn salvation from God. In this understanding, one sees their own weakness and need of God. “Your act of faith when you closed with Christ was yours in the sense that it was you who performed it; but it does not mean that you saved yourself. In fact, it never occurs to you to suppose that you saved yourself”(19). There is a presupposition of God’s divine sovereignty when it comes to evangelism as well. When it comes to salvation for others, one usually cries out to God for their salvation. According to Packer, this is also an acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty.

Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

How does this fit with an understanding of human responsibility though? Packer shows that the answer is that of an antinomy. He states, “An antinomy exists when a pair of principles stand side by side, seemingly irreconcilable, yet both undeniable” (26). This is something that one must come to terms with if one is to understand both truths. One cannot be accepted while the other is denied. Both can stand alone as truths, but neither cannot be thrown out. Packer understands that this is hard for some to grasp and accept, yet, he explains that one cannot deny what God has stated. This is also what Paul argues to those to whom he is writing in Rome. Packer uses Paul’s argument in Romans 9:20-21 to show that one does not have the right to question the will of God. “What the objector has to learn is that he, a creature and a sinner, has no right whatsoever to find fault with the revealed ways of God” (31).  The first problem that Packer addresses is when one’s thinking towards evangelism is exclusively towards human responsibility. If it is one’s responsibility exclusively then, he argues, that the content of the message must be worked out so well that it will draw an irresistible positive response. If it does not, then successful evangelism has not taken place. Therefore, evangelism becomes “pragmatic and calculated” (35).The second problem is thinking that, since God is divinely sovereign, there is no need for man to evangelize. This temptation, of course, is incorrect. Packer states, “No revealed truth may be invoked to extenuate sin. God did not teach us the reality of his rule in order to give us an excuse for neglecting his orders” (41).

Evangelism

With an understanding that one must believe both truths exist and are not contradictory, Packer goes on to discuss and define evangelism. Packer states that the confusion is in the definition of evangelism. He states, “It is our widespread and persistent habit of defining evangelism in terms, not of a message delivered, but of an effect in our hearers” (46). Packer again uses the example of Paul to defend this position. He goes on to show that Paul evangelized as a representative of Christ, teaching truths about Christ, and with an aim to convert hearers to faith in Chris. The truths taught were the gospel including an understanding of God, sin, Christ, and a response in faith. Packer states that the motive for our evangelism is love of God and concern for his glory, as well as, love for man and a concern for his welfare (82). The method that best serves evangelism, according to Packer, is one that “serves the gospel most completely” (99).

Divine Sovereignty and Evangelism

One of the fundamental ways of understanding this antimony is the two distinctions of God’s will. Packer explains, “Older theology distinguished the two as God’s will of precept and God’s will of purpose, the former being his published declaration of what man ought to do, the latter his (largely secret) decision as to what he himself will do” (104). He goes on to say that there are two propositions stated biblically. The first is “that the rule of our duty and the measure of our responsibility is God’s revealed will of precept and not his hidden will of event” (105). The second is that the only hope that we have for evangelism is God’s sovereignty in grace. This shows that evangelism is not pointless because we can know that evangelism can be and will be fruitful.

Critique

Packer does well at deliberately showing that everyone believes in the sovereignty of God whether one confesses it or not. He is wise to use the example of prayer. This is something that every professing Christian is diligent in using their own spiritual life. In using prayer, he does well in showing the reader that prayer is done in dependence on God’s will. He states, “The prayer of a Christian is not an attempt to force God’s hand, but a humble acknowledgment of helplessness and dependence” (17).  He does well at showing the reader that one often prays a prayer of thanksgiving for one’s own conversion. He shows the reader that one’s prayers recognize the fact that one cannot save themselves apart from the work of God’s divine sovereignty of grace. The other prayer that he shows the reader is one’s prayer for God to convert others to His kingdom. This also recognizes the dependence one has on God’s sovereignty and one’s weakness to bring others to conversion. In both of these examples, he breaks down the walls that some believe in God’s sovereignty while others do not. He states, “What is true is that all Christians believe in divine sovereignty, but some are not aware that they do, and mistakenly imagine and insist that they reject it” (22).

Packer is convincingly clear that what the Bible teaches must be accepted even if one finds it hard to believe. In demonstrating to the reader an understanding that all Christians believe in the sovereignty of God, Packer needs to deal with human responsibility. He knows that this is hard to reconcile. “Now, we need to recognize right at the outset that this is no easy assignment. All theological topics contain pitfalls for the unwary, for God’s truth is never quite what man would have expected; and our present subject is more treacherous than most” (25). He knows that the reader will have to deal with something that “finite, fallen minds are more than ordinarily apt to go astray” (25). He gives a well-defined explanation of an antinomy. In so doing, he proves to the reader that what seems to be a contradiction is, in reality, not one at all. He is also helpful in using the study of light and how there is evidence that it consists of waves as well as particles. He states, “It is not apparent how light can be both waves and particles, but the evidence is there, and so neither view can be ruled out in favor of the other” (26). Using this example, he argues that the reader must accept an antinomy for what it is and that one needs to learn to live with it. He goes on to argue that this is ultimately what one must do with what God teaches through His Word and one must learn the balance. He argues well that one cannot rely purely on human responsibility nor can one only believe in the sovereignty of God.

“By making it our business to believe both these doctrines with all our might, and to keep both constantly before us for the guidance and government of our lives…What the Bible does is to assert both truths side by side in the strongest and most unambiguous terms as two ultimate facts; this, therefore, is the position that we must take in our own thinking” (43).

Packer clearly defines “evangelism” to show that it is successful not when there are conversions but when one has been faithful to present the gospel. He does well to show that one’s thinking must change if we are to believe both in the sovereignty of God’s grace and one’s responsibility to evangelize. He shows the reader that one cannot bring others to life the way that God does, therefore, successful evangelism cannot be determined in this way. He correctly states, “Evangelism is man’s work, but the giving of faith is God’s” (48). He goes on to say, “But the way to tell whether in fact you are evangelizing is not to ask whether conversions are known to have resulted from your witness. It is to ask whether you are faithfully making known the gospel message” (50). He uses the examples of Paul and the gospel message itself in his reasoning which are shown in the summary above.

In laying the foundations, Packer drives home the point well that these two subjects bring confidence in evangelism. He argues well that divine sovereignty in grace does not excuse our own duty to evangelize in that God has commanded us to do so. He also argues well that because God’s sovereignty in grace is our only hope, one can know that God will call some to whom we evangelize to himself. With these understandings, Packer states,

“First, we must admit that we were silly to think that any evangelistic technique, however skillful, could of itself guarantee conversions; second, we must recognize that, because man’s heart is impervious to the Word of God, it is no cause for surprise if at any time our evangelism fails to result in conversions; third, we must remember that the terms of our calling are that we should faithful, not that we should be successful; fourth, we must learn to rest all our hopes of fruit in evangelism on the omnipotent grace of God” (122).

Personal View and Application

I remember once in a youth group, the youth minister put a big target in the youth room with the outer ring showing that a friend was invited to church; the second ring was seeing the friend ask questions about Jesus; the last ring showing that friend accepting Jesus as their Savior. I remember striving for all three rings. In the end, my friend told my youth minister that the reason he was accepting Jesus was that he wanted my pin to be in the middle of the target. It was an epic fail in my personal evangelism.

I, too, now believe that there is nothing that I, personally, can do to raise another from spiritual death. My convictions of this are based on Ephesians 2: 4-5, “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace!”[1] This verse clearly shows that it is only by the power of God that one is raised up. It is only by his grace that we receive this spiritual resurrection. Therefore, successful personal evangelism cannot be measured by those who come to Christ.

I also now believe that those who come to Christ come because of God’s doing and not my own because he controls all things and wills all things. Some of the foundations for this belief is found in the Old Testament. In Genesis, there is no indication that Abram chose to follow God first before God called him out of the sinful culture in which he was dwelling. Genesis 12 indicates that God called Abram first and Abram followed. Also, Genesis 50:20, shows that God is in control of even the evil that is done within the world. In the New Testament, there is plenty of evidence that all things are under God’s control. Matthew 10:29 states, “Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s consent.” This example shows man doing something with what God allowed. Another example and probably the most controversial is Romans 9:20-21in that Paul tells his readers that they have no ability to talk back to God for doing what he wills. God makes some vessels for honor and others for dishonor. Yet, I also believe that I am completely responsible for my sin. This is clearly stated in Romans 1-3 and shows that my need for Christ is great.

I also believe that I have been entrusted with the message of the gospel. This is shown in numerous references in the New Testament including 1 Tim 1:11-12; 1 Tim 6:20; and 2 Tim 1:13-14. The message must be preached and taught to others (Acts 20:20; 1 Cor 9:16; 2 Cor 5:10-11). Yet, even in the preaching and teaching, faith is not based on my wisdom but on the power of God (1 Cor 2:1-5).

I believe that successful evangelism is based on the faithfulness of proclaiming the gospel and not on conversions because of where the English word for “evangelism” is derived. In the Greek, εὐανγελιον (trans., euangelion) and its various forms, means “to preach the gospel” and not “the conversion of others”. This can be seen in 1 Corinthians 1:17, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel (euangelizomai)—not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ will not be emptied of its effect” (emphasis my own).

There are many more examples of Scripture that I could expound upon but these are some of the foundational references that shape my theology towards God’s sovereignty and evangelism. It is encouraging to me to know that my responsibility is to share Christ and it is God who causes the regeneration. I end with 1 Corinthians 3:7, “So then the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”[2]

[1]The Christian Standard Bible. Copyright © 2017 by Holman Bible Publishers.

[2]Ibid.

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