Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God by J.I. Packer

November 2nd, 2009

Purchase at Westminster for $9.36

Packer, J.I. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Downers Grover: InterVarsity Press, 1991. 126 pp. $13.00. Purchase at Westminster Books.

J.I. Packer’s book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, wrestles with the age-old problem of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility to share the gospel as well as repentance unto salvation. Specifically, Packer tackles the issue head-on of our command to evangelize the world (Mt. 28:18-20) and the truth that God has elected some for salvation. (Rom. 9:15 and Eph. 1:4-8).

Packer rightly assumes God’s sovereignty over all things since the Bible claims this truth in numerous texts—Gen. 18:14; Ps. 135:6; Dan. 4:35; Mt. 19:26, to mention a few. I believe he crosses a boundary when he takes his assumption one step further. He claims that all Chrisitans believe in the sovereignty of God in salvation. He writes, “Nor, again, am I going to spend time proving to you the particular truth that God is sovereign in salvation. (12, emphasis in original). The proof for this supposition is because everyone gives God thanks (and the credit) for their salvation.

While I whole-heartedly agree with Packer’s assumptions, I do not believe he made a valid presupposition based upon the evidence he cited for support. Yes, every believer I have known gives God praise and glory for his salvation, but not every believer believes that God gets all the credit. Many believe they had something to do with their salvation or the preacher had something to do with their salvation. While Packer may be correct in his assumption, and I believe he is, his use of prayers is not a solid enough foundation upon which to build his argument. Rather, he should have used a Scripture reference such as Col. 1:12 where Paul gives thanks for the believer’s faith at Colossae because God qualified them. If God’s sovereignty in salvation were an open/shut case, I highly doubt there would still be the debate raging between the two extremes today in the church.

The second chapter clarified some of my personal misconceptions regarding a right understanding of God’s sovereignty in salvation and man’s responsibility to evangelize. Here he discusses the difference between a paradox and an antinomy. A paradox is understood to be a seemingly contradictory statement that upon further understanding can be explained such that the two statements do not contradict one another. An antinomy, as defined by Packer as an appearance of contradiction. The problem becomes clearer when we understand that an antinomy is between two truths that cannot be reconciled.

I like that Packer calls the truths of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility regarding evangelism “friends.” That is perhaps the best description of these two truths in relation too one another. Packer explains that as the King, God is in complete control and orders all things (see Gn. 45:8 and 50:20; Mt. 10:29; and, Rom. 9:20). He also shows how as Judge, God holds man responsible for his choices (see Mt. 25 and Rom. 2:1-16).

As he weaves these truths together, he gives the reader some words of caution. He warns against the temptation of concerning oneself exclusively with our responsibility. If we could just present the gospel “that much better” or if we were able to share the gospel more often in better situations, then more people would “accept Jesus.”

Conversely, Packer warns of the exact opposite temptation; that is, an exclusive appeal to God’s sovereignty where man has no role in evangelism. This mindset can be summed up in the following statement: “If God wants to save them, He will do so.” This charge is most often leveled against Calvinists, but must not be so if one is to hold to both truths found in Scripture. Packer offers wonderful insight into avoiding these two extremes by instructing us 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).

Moving from the antinomy previously discussed, Packer next defines evangelism as a means of “presenting Christ Jesus and His work in relation to the needs of fallen men and women” (39). These men and women are without God and are under His wrath. Most often they are living in comfort with their sins and could care less about God. This is the reason why we are to evangelize.
I love how Packer calls us to be stewards of the Gospel message. As children of God, we are called to “go” (Mt. 28:18-20) and in being commanded to go we are commanded to be mindful of the gospel message. Perhaps one of the least applied passages of Scripture is found in Deuteronomy 6:7 where we are commanded to diligently teach the things of God to our children at all times. The underlying principle in this passage as in Mt. 28:18-20 is to be stewards of what has been entrusted to us; that is, the gospel message.

Throughout the third chapter, Packer offers examples of poor evangelism found in the church today. I struggle to call the “evangelistic meetings” a poor example though I realize they have their deficiencies. This may be because I was saved in a “Billy Graham setting” type evangelistic effort where the gospel was shared through a play and then an alter call was given. I responded that evening and know that the Lord saved my soul at that point. Therefore, while I do agree with his statement that “there is only one method of evangelism: namely, the faithful explanation and application of the gospel message” (86), I also that that can take many forms.

The final chapter discusses what the first three chapters have alluded to—God’s divine sovereignty and man’s responsibility in evangelism. Here, Packer introduces the concept of God’s revealed will and His hidden will. For example, His revealed will is “that all may be saved (1 Tim. 2:4); however, His hidden will is that not all will be saved (Rom 9:18). Yes, it is a scary proposition to fall into the hands of an angry God, but this is what Scripture explicitly teaches: not all will be saved unto salvation.

We must not try to reconcile the two truths if we are to have a scriptural understanding of God’s sovereignty in salvation and man’s responsibility to share the gospel. Packer clearly articulates that these two truths are “friends” and not enemies. God is a God of means in that He will save whomever He will save, but He will do so through the sharing of the gospel. Thus, Romans 10:14-15 neatly concludes this discussion:

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?

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