Packer, J.I. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
J. I. Packer’s “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God” provides a clarifying and healthy view for all Christians regarding this relationship between evangelism and the sovereignty of God, no matter what theological or doctrinal background people may hold. When it comes to discussions of how evangelism and the sovereignty of God relates to each other, there is usually a tendency to lean towards one or the other.
For those who focus more on evangelism, there is a danger of not acknowledging the sovereignty of God in the act of evangelizing. For those who focus more on the sovereignty of God, there is a danger of losing the priority and urgency of evangelism. Packer takes time to explain that the relationship between our responsibility and God’s sovereignty is not a paradox, easily dismissed as meaningless, but rather is an antinomy, seemingly contradictory and yet true.
He concludes that in fact, “divine sovereignty and human responsibility are not enemies. They are not uneasy neighbors; they are not in an endless state of Cold War with each other. They are friends, and they work together.” (40) Packer goes on to apply this truth through the lens of evangelism to show that first, “the sovereignty of God in grace does not affect anything that we have said about the nature and duty of evangelism” (93) and second, “the sovereignty of God in grace gives us our only hope of success in evangelism.” (104)
Overall, the critique of Packer’s work explaining the relationship between man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty is affirmed. By creating a strong foundation towards “believing both these doctrines with all our might, and to keep both constantly before us for the guidance and government of our lives” (39), Packer sets out to convince his reader of the definite reality of our responsibility and role in evangelism as well as its definite interplay with the sovereignty of God over the salvation of those being evangelized to. Packer does well to also take time in defining what evangelism is because the duty of evangelism is often relegated to a few leaders of the church as many people and even Christians hold a consumerist worldview in a post-Christian age.
He also points out an important truth that the duty of evangelism is not simply fulfilled by our obedience to share information to those who do not know the gospel and “not simply a matter of teaching, and instructing, and imparting information to the mind… (but) includes the endeavor to elicit a response to the truth taught.” (53) Later on, Packer argues that it is a strong belief in God’s sovereignty that allows us to boldly and confidently fulfill our responsibility of making this important endeavor of eliciting a response to the truth taught. He rightly reasons that if we did not know that God has absolute control, that God was not sovereign over the salvation of the lost, we would not have any hope because man’s heart “has not got it in him to apprehend spiritual realities or to obey God’s law from his heart.” (105)
Packer’s explanation of the relationship between man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty can be considered solid in its biblical approach and a mostly complete introduction to the question of its antinomy. However, one area that may warrant revision is the introduction to God’s divine sovereignty. Packer is quick to disregard proving the particular truth that God is sovereign in his world as well as in salvation but it may be helpful, especially for the future, to take time and explain God’s sovereignty biblically and experientially. Even now, there are so many Christians who are bible illiterate and who are easily influenced by extra-biblical sources of inspiration and encouragement. In light of a social culture where strength, hope and answers can be found from within one’s self, it is not hard to see that some may attribute their salvation in part by their own will and effort. In light of these confusions and misunderstandings, it may be proper for a book with such clarity as well as brevity to extend it’s introduction on God’s sovereignty to address misconceptions and falsehoods of beliefs and lay a stronger biblical foundation to prove God’s sovereignty through the Bible.
I agree with Packer in the fact that if we were to be left to our own decisions, we would never have chosen to come to God. Packer cites 1 Corinthians 2:14 (ESV), “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” as well as Romans 8:7-8 (ESV), “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God,” concluding that the sovereign grace of God is a requirement in salvation. I would also like to add to this reasoning Jesus’ words from John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” Without the sovereign grace of God, no one can come to believe in Jesus. The Jews who were listening to Jesus in this passage also could not receive Jesus. They saw his earthly humble beginnings as Joseph and Mary’s son (Jn. 6:42). They disputed Jesus’ claims of giving his flesh as the bread of life just like God gave manna to Israel in the wilderness (Jn.6:52). Even his disciples grumbled about Jesus’ teachings and many turned back and no longer followed him (Jn. 6:60;66).
Jesus’ commission to all his followers is clear. We are to make disciples of all nations and be the salt and light of this world and proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. This is our duty and it is our full responsibility to fulfill. But without the truth of God’s divine sovereignty of grace in salvation, it is impossible to expect any fruit of salvation. We would be striving for nothing and the relationship between man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty would be a meaningless paradox instead of the awesome truths that they are.
Application in Ministry
Reading on the relationship between man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty, I began to see that there are pitfalls that many Christians can fall into if they do not possess a sound understanding of this relationship. I was convicted to begin preaching on this topic and also address this relationship in discipleship. This relationship between man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty not only addresses the topic of evangelism, but also addresses our work in this world, our involvement in culture and life in general. God’s sovereignty gives meaning to my role in ministry and assures me that in fulfilling my responsibility, successful ministry is not in the results but in my faithfulness to simply fulfill my responsibility for results are all in the hands of God’s sovereign grace. God’s sovereign grace truly “tells man what he should be” and “settles what he will be” (93) and gives us an unshakable purpose as well as an unshakable promise that we can rely on and keep us focused on.
Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God
By J. I. Packer