Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God

There have, in our time, been numerous books written on evangelism—both encouraging the zeal and describing the methods of it.  These books are certainly needed.  Besides a lack of zeal and ignorance of evangelistic approaches, however, there exists another contemporary problem, which involves no small debate among Christians.  This seemingly difficult problem has to do with the sovereignty of God, the responsibility of man, and the nature and necessity of evangelism.  Leave it to J. I. Packer to take upon himself such a task and to avoid straying off course (which can be very tempting in this theological debate).

In this book Packer refuses to impose himself, and any man’s thoughts and feelings, upon God’s way of doing things—he simply accepts the clear teachings of Scripture on these doctrinal points as is, not embracing one to the neglect of the other.  Packer brings to clarity this God-ordained relationship between God’s sovereign grace and man’s ethical responsibility in the Christian’s right, duty, and privilege of evangelism.  He not only emphasizes the responsibility of the one evangelizing, but the one being evangelized.  In no way, he argues, does God’s sovereignty in the salvation of sinners negate our responsibility to evangelize the lost, nor does it negate the responsibility of the lost to repent and believe the gospel.  Those who don’t are held accountable.  The moral responsibility of the lost to repent and believe the gospel is not nullified by God’s sovereignty, nor by their inability due to their sinful nature.

The book is divided into four chapters: Chapter One—Divine Sovereignty; Chapter Two—Divine Sovereignty & Human Responsibility; Chapter Three—Evangelism; Chapter Four—Divine Sovereignty & Evangelism.

In Chapter One Packer states what it is he is not arguing for; for, as he declares, “I know that, if you are a Christian, you believe this already.”[1]  These points upon which he does not intend to argue are God’s sovereignty in His world—basically, a belief in God’s general sovereignty—and God’s sovereignty in salvation.  He notes that all Christians already believe these two aspects of God’s sovereignty based on their dependence of God in prayer and the fact that they give thanks to God for their salvation—they do not boast in themselves.

This second point, however, provides some difficulty for at least two reasons.  First, I would have to disagree that all Christians believe so firmly in God’s sovereignty in salvation.  Packer says, “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.”[2]  I must disagree with him on this statement, for there are many who understand the teaching of God’s sovereignty in salvation and clearly reject it (e.g. Arminians).  I do not believe that if a Christian gives thanks to God for their salvation and at the same time believes that they had the final say in whether or not they would be saved by repenting and believing in Christ (having worked it up within themselves to do so), that they are therefore believers in God’s sovereignty in salvation.  At best they are theologically inconsistent, and at worst they believe man’s responsibility trumps God’s sovereignty—perhaps only giving thanks to God for making salvation a “possibility,” that without this possibility they would have no chance of being saved.

Second, Packer in fact does argue that God is sovereign in salvation, as we will see, by presenting the biblical evidence that the conversion of souls—the working of repentance and faith in an individual—is wholly the work of God.  Overall, however, Packer’s main point of this book is to explain and demonstrate the relation between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility in the realm of evangelism, not necessarily to argue for God’s sovereignty in salvation.  So, while his main emphasis is not to argue the biblical teaching of God’s sovereignty in salvation, it is inevitably discussed and supported from Scripture in this context.

In Chapter Two he makes the case that God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility is not a paradox—a play on words meant to unite two opposite ideas—but is in fact an antinomy—an apparent incompatibility between two truths that are in fact truths and cannot be denied.[3]  Packer discusses the two temptations that are easily succumbed to when approaching this antinomy.  It is tempting to exclusively concern oneself with human responsibility to the neglect of God’s sovereignty.  Such thinking, he argues, leads one to think himself fitted with the responsibility and ability to bring about the salvation of sinners (including his own salvation).  It is up to the one evangelizing, in other words, to manipulate and secure the salvation of the lost.[4]  This theological perspective is certainly the root of the many entertainment-driven ministries and shallow gospel presentations so prevalent in America today (contrast with 2 Cor. 4:1-6).

The other temptation is to exclusively concern oneself with God’s sovereignty to the neglect of man’s responsibility—commonly referred to as Hyper-Calvinism.  By an overzealousness of God’s sovereignty, and a deep desire to not detract any glory from God, many wrongfully conclude that evangelism is not necessary.  Surely, God will save His elect without our help, they may claim.[5]  Packer rightly notes that such who think this way have forgotten that “God’s way of saving men is to send out His servants to tell them the gospel, and that the Church has been charged to go into all the world for that very purpose.”[6]  In other words, God uses means—the means of the Church in the proclamation of the gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16; cf. 1 Thess. 1:4,5; 2 Thess. 2:14,15).

After laying these foundational points, Packer moves on to discuss the biblical gospel and the nitty-gritty of evangelism in light of the sovereignty of God in Chapters Three and Four.

Chapter Three focuses on evangelism.  Packer points out that evangelism is to be defined in terms of the message delivered—the gospel—not in terms of results.[7]  Evangelism involves sharing the message of Jesus Christ, who is Lord and Saviour, as the only means of salvation; and it also involves calling on people to respond with repentance and belief.[8]  In regards to the biblical teaching of the Christian’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty, Packer declares: “Evangelism is man’s work, but the giving of faith is God’s.”[9]  Indeed, evangelism, argues Packer, is the responsibility of all believers, in various degrees, not a duty of a select few.

The remainder of this chapter consists of an examination of the apostle Paul’s own understanding of his evangelistic duties, an examination of evangelistic meetings, the contents of the evangelistic message, the motivation of evangelism, and the means and methods of evangelism.

Chapter Four deals with the duty of evangelism in relation to God’s sovereignty.  How does the fixation of all things by the decree of God bear on our duty to evangelize?  This is indeed a troubling question, and if answered too hastily, without looking to the Scriptures, we will most likely end up in one of the two extremes discussed in Chapter Two—an exclusive embrace of man’s responsibility or an exclusive embrace of God’s sovereignty.

Packer examines the biblical evidence in the way of two propositions—one negative and one positive.[10]  In the first proposition Packer states, “The sovereignty of God in grace does not affect anything that we have said about the nature and duty of evangelism.”[11]  What he means by this is that the command of God to share the gospel is His revealed will to us and therefore does not negate our duty as Christians to spread the Good News, not only out of obedience, but out of joy.

Second, Packer says, “The sovereignty of God in grace gives us our only hope of success in evangelism.[12]  Instead of deterring evangelism, the sovereignty of God actually compels evangelism.  Apart from God’s sovereignty in the salvation of sinners, there would be none to respond in repentance and faith; for, as the apostle Paul declares, “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8; cf. Eph. 2:1-5).  In fact, if God were not sovereign in salvation, then there would be no Christians to perform evangelism, for none would be saved!  The only reason we have any hope of success in our evangelistic duties is the biblical teaching and truth that God is sovereign in salvation.

J. I. Packer has produced an excellent work that fairly examines the biblical evidence in regards to these two apparent contradictory teachings.  Instead of running from it, he boldly holds both truths to be equally valid—man is responsible and God is sovereign.  Packer’s underlying point is that such clear teaching ought to increase our zeal, urgency, and confidence to evangelize, not confuse or hinder us in the matter.  This book has served to open my eyes all the wider to these glorious truths of God’s word, and as a result has been a blessing to me in evangelism.  May it be so to you as well.


[1]   Ibid., 11, 12.

[2]   Ibid., 16.

[3]   Ibid., 18, 19.

[4]   Ibid., 27.

[5]   Ibid.; 29-32.

[6]   Ibid.; 33.

[7]   Ibid.; 37.

[8]   Ibid.; 39.

[9]   Ibid.; 40.

[10]   Ibid.; 96.

[11]   Ibid.; 96.  Emphasis his.

[12]   Ibid.; 106.  Emphasis his.

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