Book Review – Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God

packer2J.I Packer’s little book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God is a great resource. His aim is to show that divine sovereignty and personal responsibility to repent and believe the Gospel are not mutually exclusive. He explained, “The supposition seems to be that you cannot evangelize effectively unless you are prepared to pretend while you are doing it that the doctrine of sovereignty is not true. I shall try to make it evident that this is nonsense,” (10).

This book is only four chapters long, but it’s probably the best resource you can give a Christian who wants to know more about this topic. Many readers know Packer has a thoroughly Reformed soteriology, and this is clear throughout the book. However, he takes a very irenic tone and isn’t interested in flying a particular theological standard. This approach makes this an excellent gift to Christians of all theological flavors.

Chapter One – Divine Sovereignty

He begins by discussing divine sovereignty. If you’re a Christian, Packer says, you believe God is completely sovereign, no matter what soteriological camp you belong to. You know God is sovereign, because you pray. Simple. You’re acknowledging you’re helpless, and God alone can help and comfort you. “The very act that a Christian prays is thus proof positive that he believes in the Lordship of His God,” (12).

Every Christian also knows God is sovereign in salvation. No believer would ever credit himself with his own salvation. “Thus, in the way that you think of your conversion and give thanks for your conversion, you acknowledge the sovereignty of divine grace,” (13). And, every Christian also prays for the salvation of others. This is yet another acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty (14-15).

So, why the perennial disagreement over God’s sovereignty? Packer explains that “all Christians believe in divine sovereignty, but some are not aware that they do, and mistakenly imagine and insist that they reject it,” (16).

What causes this odd state of affairs? The root cause is the same as in most cases of error in the Church – the intruding of rationalistic speculations, the passion for systematic consistency, a reluctance to recognize the existence of mystery and to let God be wiser than men, and a consequent subjecting of Scripture to the supposed demands of human logic …

They are not content to let the two truths live side by side, as they do in the Scriptures, but jump to the conclusion that, in order to uphold the biblical truth of human responsibility, they are bound to reject the equally biblically and equally true doctrine of divine sovereignty, and to explain away the great number of texts that teach it. The desire to oversimplify the Bible by cutting out the mysteries is natural to our perverse minds, and it is not surprising that even good men should fall victim to it. Hence this persistent and troublesome dispute,” (16-17).

Chapter Two – Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

These two truths appear to be contradictory, but they aren’t. We’ll never figure out a way to untangle this knot, so we ought to “[a]ccept it for what it is, and learn to live with it,” (21). Both are true, and they complement each other. “The Creator has told us that He is both a sovereign Lord and a righteous Judge, and that should be enough for us. Why do we hesitate to take His word for it? Can we not trust what He says?” (24).

This is hard to do, and Packer explains some pitfalls we must avoid:

  1. Don’t be exclusively concerned with human responsibility (25-29). “Our evangelistic work is the instrument that He uses for this purpose, but the power that saves is not the instrument: it is in the hand of the One who uses the instrument. We must not at any stage forget that,” (27). An overemphasis on human responsibility will produce a pragmatic approach that doesn’t honor God. “The spirit of self-reliance is a blight on evangelism,” (29).
  2. Don’t obsess over divine sovereignty (29-35). Packer warmly and graciously explains why some people feel this way. He paints a scenario of a Christian who has only recently come to accept the truth of Reformed soteriology and is zealous for God’s glory. This phenomenon is also known as “cage-stage Calvinism,” a term that came about long after Packer wrote his book! He explained, “They are tempted, therefore, to suspect all enterprise in evangelism, whether organized or on the personal level, as if there were something essentially and inescapably man-exalting about it. They are haunted by the fear of running ahead of God, and feel that there is nothing more urgent than to guard against the possibility of doing this,” (33).

The goal, Packer says, is to make 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,” (35).

This is probably the most helpful section of the book. Packer’s writing is warm, grandfatherly (even though he was a young man when he penned it, in 1961), and thoroughly biblical. The text is punctuated with extended quotations (not just citations) which emphasize both human responsibility and divine responsibility. His point against allowing systems to drive our interpretation is welcome and right. Any Christian will profit immensely from reading this chapter.

Chapter Three – Evangelism

Evangelism is preaching the Gospel. It has nothing to do with the response; that’s God’s business. “Anyone who faithfully delivers that message, under whatever circumstances, in a large meeting, in a small meeting, from a pulpit, or in a private conversation, is evangelizing,” (41). The Apostle Paul saw himself as a commissioned representative for Christ (42-46) and as such his goal was to teach the truth about Christ; “the news of the incarnation, the atonement, and the kingdom – the cradle, the cross, and the crown – of the Son of God,” (47).

Packer focuses like a laser on the teaching aspect. The Good News doesn’t exist in a vacuum, without a context:

To teach the gospel is his first responsibility: to reduce it to its simplest essentials, to analyze it point by point, to fix its meaning by positive and negative definition, to show how each part of the message links up with the rest – and to go on explaining it till he is quite sure that his listeners have grasped it (48).

The ultimate goal is to covert the hearers to Jesus (49-53).

But, what exactly is the evangelistic message? Packer does an excellent job, and I encourage every Christian to read this section. I don’t have space to do it justice, so I’ll present his answer in outline form (57-:

  1. God
  2. Sin
  3. Conviction of sin is (a) an awareness of a wrong relationship with God, (b) a sense of guilt for particular wrongs done in the sight of God and (c) a sense of personal corruption and perversity before God
  4. Christ; with the person and work of the Savior presented together
  5. A summons to faith and repentance

Packer explains that we evangelize to glorify God and because we love our neighbors (73-82). He takes pains to point out that personal evangelism grows naturally out of friendships:

The right to talk intimately to another person about the Lord Jesus Christ has to be earned, and you earn it by convincing him that you are his friend, and really care about him.

And therefore the indiscriminate buttonholing, the intrusive barging in to the privacy of other people’s souls, the thickskinned insistence on expounding the things of God to reluctant strangers who are longing to get away – these modes of behavior, in which strong and loquacious personalities have sometimes indulged in the name of personal evangelism, should be written off as a travesty of personal evangelism (81).

Packer has an outstanding section on what methods are legitimate in evangelism (81-92). He makes many practical applications, and every pastor would benefit from considering what he says.

The principle is that the best method of evangelism is the one which serves the gospel most completely. It is the one which bears the clearest witness to the divine origin of the message, and the lifeand-death character of the issues which it raises. It is the one which makes possible the most full and thorough explanation of the good news of Christ and His cross, and the most exacting and searching application of it. It is the one which most effectively engages the minds of those to whom witness is borne, and makes them most vividly aware that the gospel is God’s word, addressed personally to them in their own situation (90-91).

Chapter 4 – Divine Sovereignty and Evangelism

How does God’s sovereignty impact our duty to evangelize? Packer answers (92-126):

  • It doesn’t affect the necessity of evangelism
  • It doesn’t affect the urgency for evangelism
  • It doesn’t affect the genuineness of the gospel invitation, or the truthfulness of the gospel promises
  • It doesn’t affect the sinner’s personal responsibility to the gospel
  • It’s our only hope for success in evangelism. God’s sovereignty ought to make us bold, patient and prayerful

Packer’s book is a breath of fresh air; a gentle, Reformed fireside chat from a man who has some important things to say. He writes plainly, simply and clearly. He aims at ordinary Christians, and anyone can read this book and profit from it. This isn’t a partisan work; it’s an irenic plea for a God-honoring understanding of evangelism. In the modern conservative evangelical world, Norman Geisler1 and James White2 stand at opposite soteriological poles and are often seen as the champions of their respective systems. Packer is also Reformed, but he’s not interested in system or labels. It makes his book better.

Notes

1 Norman L. Geisler, Chosen but Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010).

2 James White, The Potter’s Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal To Norman Geisler’s Chosen But Free, revised ed. (Calvary Press, 2011).

 

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