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).

 

Gentleness and Reverence?

smiley2Why should Christians want to ask for God’s favor, instead of returning evil for evil, or insult for insult? What is the end-goal? Why should we be prepared to give an account of the hope that’s within us? I covered some of this in Sunday School, as we examined this passage (1 Peter 3:13-17; what follows is my translation):

So, who’ll harm you, if you’re zealous for what’s right? But, even if you do suffer because you’re doing what’s right, God will bless you. So, don’t be afraid of their threats or be intimidated. Instead, reverence the Messiah as Lord in your hearts.

Always be ready to give a defense to every man who’s asking you for an account of the hope inside each of you. But, do this with gentleness and reverence in order to have a good conscience, so that when they keep slandering your good way of life because you belong to Christ, they might be ashamed. Because it’s better to suffer because you’re doing what’s good (if that’s God’s will), than because you’re doing what’s evil.

The audio is below, and the translation notes are here.

Bringing Sanity to a Mad Kerfuffle

packerEvery Christian agrees that, when an unbeliever hears the Gospel, and repents and believes the Good News and becomes a Christian, God gets the glory. Salvation is from Him. All praise goes to Him. Got it.

Yet, Christians have argued about the mechanics of how salvation works for a very long time. I like to explain it like this – imagine you’re attending a play in a theater …

Out on stage, in front of the curtain, everybody sees what’s going on. This is salvation viewed from the outside. An unbeliever hears the Gospel, repents and believes, and becomes a Christian. God gets the glory. But, backstage behind the curtain, all sorts of things are happening to produce the scene out front. Props are brought in and moved out. Costumes are changed. Backdrops are arranged. Backdrops are moved. And so it goes. Christians disagree about what’s going on behind the scenes, in the heart and mind of an unbeliever, to produce repentance and faith.

Generally, people tend towards either:

  1. A more “God alone” understanding of what happens behind the curtain, or
  2. A more cooperative scheme, where man and Yahweh work together, in some form or fashion, to produce salvation

There are great, wide, terrible and heretical ditches on both sides of this divide, to be sure. These are complicated waters, and unwary Christians can read a whole lot of irresponsible garbage by folks on both sides of this unending theological war. Few of the folks you’ll read on the internet know what they’re talking about. Even some who do know write very irresponsibly, at times.

This is why it warms my heart to see a responsible theologian bring some balance to this difficult topic. How can a Christian reconcile God’s obvious control and sovereignty over everything in creation, and man’s clear responsibility to repent and believe the Gospel? Well, I have a book you might like to consider …

Way back when, in a galaxy far, far away, a theologian named J.I. Packer wrote a little book entitled Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Here’s how he introduced this topic …[1]

There is a long-standing controversy in the Church as to whether God is really Lord in relation to human conduct and saving faith or not. What has been said shows us how we should regard this controversy. The situation is not what it seems to be. For it is not true that some Christians believe in divine sovereignty while others hold an opposite view. 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.

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.

People see that the Bible teaches man’s responsibility for his actions; they do not see (man, indeed, cannot see) how this is consistent with the sovereign Lordship of God over these actions. 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 biblical and equally true doctrine of divine sovereignty, and to explain away the great number of texts that teach it.

The desire to over-simplify 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. The irony of the situation, however, is that when we ask how the two sides pray, it becomes apparent that those who profess to deny God’s sovereignty really believe in it just as strongly as those who affirm it.

How, then, do you pray? Do you ask God for your daily bread? Do you thank for your conversion? Do you pray for the conversion of others? If the answer is “no,” I can only say that I do not think you are yet born again. But if the answer is “yes” – well, that proves that, whatever side you may have taken on this question in the past, in your heart you believe in the sovereignty of God no less firmly than anyone else. On our feet we may have arguments about it, but on our knees we are all agreed.

I think Packer does an excellent job presenting this issue from a pastoral perspective. He sounds like a nice grandfather, discussing theology over hot chocolate on a cold winter’s morning …

If this is a topic that interests you, consider picking up a copy of this little book. It’s about 120 pages. You can do it!

Notes

[1] J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 1961), 16-17.

Contending for the Faith

fools talkIn his wonderful book, Fools Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian PersuasionOs Guinness spends some time discussing the challenges that thinking Christians face today. One of the most dire, he believes, is from the fraudulent, revisionist perversion of true Christianity within churches:

Many revisionists in the Protestant liberal churches, followed by the extremes of Catholic progressivism and emergent evangelicalism, have reached the point where their thinkers preach “a different gospel,” some of their leaders are hardly recognizable as Christian, and some have joked that they recite the Apostles’ Creed with their fingers crossed …

Some of today’s deadliest challenges to the Christian faith come from within the church itself, yet in many parts of the church Christian apologetics is weak, poorly understood and openly dismissed as an unworthy and a wrong-headed enterprise.

Without faithful and courageous apologists, men and women who are prepared to count the cost, the church is vulnerable to the challenges it faces internally as well as externally. Can there be any question that today’s “grand age of secular apologetics,” which is both post-Christian and pluralistic, is no time for Christians to be voiceless and lacking in persuasion?

If ever there was a time when it was vital for all Christians to be bold and winsome advocates on behalf of their faith, it is now. No one can fail to see the blizzard of challenges sweeping down on the Christian faith today and calling for a clear response.

From questions about the origins of the universe (Leibniz’s “Why is there not nothing?”) to the challenges of scientism, to attacks on the existence of God and the person of Jesus, to the exposure of the sins and hypocrisies of the church, to recurring questions about evil and suffering raised by natural disasters, to the validity and importance of truth, to the contested place of religion in public life, to the purported irrationality and menace of religion of any kind, to the relationship of the Christian faith to other religions and the response of Christians to new technologies and alternative lifestyles—the church faces an unprecedented barrage of questions, challenges and attacks on its core message, its view of the world and its way of life.

Not surprisingly, such grave assaults from the outside have led to serious erosions on the inside too, and all this at a speed and on a scale that is without precedent in Christian history (210-211).

In today’s environment, many “Christians” are moving rapidly towards the exits, anxious to leave the hard truths of the “rule of faith” behind. As soon as it begins to cost something to identify as a Christian, we’ll see the pretenders stop pretending and seek to “revise” the faith. Indeed, Guinness makes the point that the term “revisionist” is much more accurate than “liberal,” (222-223).

He then turned to one important task for Christians today:

Christian advocates, then, must be ready to focus their attention on those inside the church as well as those outside—resisting modern revisionism just as St. Paul resisted ancient Gnosticism and St. Athanasius stood fast against Arianism and the world of his day.

Are today’s evangelists and apologists prepared to count the cost and pick up their crosses again and truly be contra mundum—even to the point of scorn, shame, and perhaps imprisonment and death?

Let there be no misunderstanding: the greatest crisis now facing the church in the West today is the crisis of authority caused by the church’s capitulation to the pressures of the sexual revolution, and in particular to the bullying agenda of the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Queer coalition.

It will not do for evangelists and apologists to keep silent for fear of losing opportunities to present the gospel. As Luther made plain in his day, to fight the battle at any point other than where the battle is being fought in one’s day is to lose the battle (226).

 

Guinness’ book isn’t about fighting the culture wars. It’s an encouraging, thought-provoking and profoundly moving book about recovering the lost art of persuasion as a tool for engaging the our friends, neighbors, co-workers and communities with the Gospel. It’s probably the most helpful apologetics book I’ve ever read, but it’s much more than that. I’ll write a full review on it soon.

How a Church Ought to do Evangelism

I don’t intend to really answer the question here, but I do want to suggest a tentative way a congregation ought to structure its efforts for evangelism. Here it is; the picture says a thousand words . . .

Organization for Church Evangelism

A few points:

  • I emphasize deliberate corporate evangelism, because these efforts should be about intentionally giving the Good News to people. I don’t believe touchy-feely events, where you try to “friend” people into God’s coming Kingdom, are the best way to go. This is best reserved for interpersonal relationships on a personal level. This isn’t a tactic a church should use for corporate evangelism.
  • I also focus on deliberate personal evangelism, because your goal should be to get to actually telling the person the Gospel. You shouldn’t be somebody’s friend for 20 years, and hope “one day” to have an open door. Deliberately plan to work the Gospel into conversation, as appropriate. Don’t be like this.

Ciao.

Different Strokes . . . for Different Churches?

 

Evangelist
Don’t be like this guy . . .

When it comes to how a congregation does corporate evangelism, there are four basic approaches or philosophies a church will take. I’m confident nearly every church will fit one of these four categories. I understand why different church leaders take each approach, but I believe only one of them is gutsy enough to be faithful to Christ. I think the other three are negligent, cowardly, and foolish, in that order.

 

Here they are – and I’ve even given them names to be extra offensive:

The church that doesn’t evangelize at all

This is the church that does nothing. Yes, you heard me – nothing. This church has no tracts for members. No literature. No training. No programs. No planned events. No mention of the Gospel on its website. No encouragement and exhortation to evangelize.

Nothing.

The pastor might mention evangelism every once and a while, in passing. But, it’s always vague and rather meaningless.

Pastors are pulled in many different directions, and its impossible for one guy to do everything well. I get that. But, still . . . nothing? Really?

The church that’s ashamed of the gospel

This church really, really wants to be your friend. It wants you to know it’s not like that other church; you know the one. These folks are different – they just wanna love on you and show you how nice Christians are. They’ll have public events, but somehow never mention Jesus or His Good News at all. Don’t want to offend, you know!

They’ll likely not distribute evangelistic literature at all. If they do, it’ll be so sanitized and purged of all possible offense so as to be meaningless. The “Gospel” in these presentations is typically more airbrushed than an aging starlet on Instagram.

The unbelievers who do come to these events will leave thinking these Christians are nice people. That’s sweet. The lady at the donut shop is nice, too. So is my cat. These churches have their hearts in the right place, but they’ll likely accomplish nothing positive. Their entire approach is to tiptoe softly, tenderly, and ever so apologetically towards some vague, generic conversation about Jesus.

Though it’s leaders wouldn’t put it quite this way, one must conclude they believe a sinner will come to faith in Jesus through a combination of vague “love,” lots of free food, and by never mentioning the Gospel at all.

The angry church

This church wants you to know you’re goin’ straight to hell. Don’t pass go. Don’t collect $200. Go straight to hell. The flames await, so enjoy your time burning, sucka.

These people are so passionate about the Gospel, they’ll tell you:

  1. You’re a sinner, and goin’ right to the flames of hell
  2. God loves you, and Jesus came to save you
  3. He died for you
  4. Pray this prayer, and you’ll be saved
  5. Praise God! You’re saved!
  6. Bye, now.

As Daniel Strange has observed:

Here there is a tendency when questioned simply to trot out verses like Acts 4: 12 and John 14: 6 with little explanation or apologetic defence (because we don’t have one), or to give the impression of ‘self-righteousness’, implying we have achieved total enlightenment on these issues and that there are simple and easy answers when it comes to this topic. We use a machete to bludgeon when what is needed is a scalpel to subvert. While these approaches may be doctrinally orthodox, none are winsome or persuasive.

Daniel Strange, Their Rock Is Not Like Our Rock: A Theology of Religions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014; Kindle ed.), KL 431-434.

Like deranged Neanderthals, they bludgeon with gusto and frighten everyone away. These are the guys the first group doesn’t ever want to be confused with.

The nice church that isn’t afraid

This church does something really, really crazy. It cares enough to understand the world it operates in, understand the mindset and culture of the people it seeks to reach, tries to show Christian love, and yet still boldly proclaims the Gospel. This approach combines the best intentions of the last two flawed approaches (above), but doesn’t drive off the cliff into madness in the process.

Perhaps a better approach, and one in keeping with the tenor of much apologetic teaching in the New Testament, is one that both defends and proclaims Christian exclusivity with what might be called a ‘bold humility’, a stance that seeks first to understand the world of religion and religions through a biblical worldview before then applying unique and satisfying gospel truth to a world of pseudo-gospels that promise much but can never ultimately deliver. We are to give a reason for the hope that we have, but to do so with gentleness and respect (1 Pet. 3: 15). In other words, fortiter in re, suaviter in modo (boldly in action, gently in manner).

Strange, Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock, KL 434-439.

This kind of church plans and executes corporate evangelistic events, and boldly but lovingly proclaims the whole Gospel without caring who is offended. But, it also trains its members to understand theology, understand God, understand the Bible in a deep, meaningful and comprehensive way.

It teaches its people to show real Christian love to unbelievers, so they, too, might come to faith in Christ. But, this love never comes at the expense of a clear and unapologetic proclamation of Gospel truth.

It teaches its people how to share the Gospel. It explains what sin is, what repentance is, who Jesus is, what the building blocks of the Gospel are, and aggressively engages with its community in corporate evangelism. It’s out there, in the marketplace of ideas, pushing Jesus in a winsome way.

Which are you?

I could flesh out more, but I’m not trying to write a biblical theology for corporate evangelism. I’m simply making this point – your church will have to choose which approach it will take:

  1. It can never do evangelism at all. Eventually, the church will die – and it will be all your fault;
  2. It can be have benign events, never mention the Gospel at all, and pray that (magically) the person will hear it by accident one day;
  3. It can be an angry Neanderthal, and bludgeon people with the Gospel without any intellectual reflection or interaction with the people it’s speaking to;
  4. Or, it can simply tell people the whole Gospel in an unapologetic fashion, while showing Christian love and understanding to people at the same time

In my experience, churches will usually take options #1 – #3. Let’s stop being afraid. Let’s stop being brute Neanderthals. Let’s take option #4 for our churches.

Dereliction of Duty?

deverMost Christians don’t ever share the Gospel. If you’re a Christian, you should start planning to stop this failure. You should decide to do something about that, to change it. But, I really mean that you should plan to stop. Don’t plan for this the same way you “plan” to start a new workout program. We all know how that last time went, don’t we?

Mark Dever, in his wonderful little book The Gospel and Personal Evangelism, offers some advice on how to plan to start doing evangelism in your daily life:

Pray. I think many times we don’t evangelize because we undertake everything in our own power. We attempt to leave God out of it. We forget that it is His will and pleasure for His gospel to be known. He wants sinners to be saved. Simply put, we don’t pray for opportunities to share the gospel, so how surprised should we be when they don’t come? If you’re not evangelizing because you think you lack opportunities, pray and be amazed as God answers your prayers.

Mark Dever, The Gospel and Personal Evangelism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 24.