Book Review: Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, by J. I. Packer
If God is sovereign, then why do I share the gospel? If he’s doing the saving, then why bother evangelizing? For me, reconciling God’s sovereignty with my responsibility to proclaim the gospel was not easy. It was a crisis of faith that ebbed and flowed over three years. How could the Bible teach that God is sovereign in salvation and that we must share the gospel?
UNDERSTANDING THE ARGUMENT
Packer’s book offers a concise and compelling argument unpacking how evangelism and the sovereignty of God co-exist, and if properly understood, enhance one another. In this book, Packer isn’t defending the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, per se. He’s arguing that the doctrine of divine sovereignty doesn’t inhibit evangelism, but sustains it and gives us, the evangelists, the “resilience we need to evangelize boldly and persistently” (15).
Packer argues that the supposed inconsistency between God’s sovereignty and the need to evangelize is an imposition on the text of Scripture. This false dichotomy comes from “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” (22). Divine sovereignty (God as King) and human responsibility before him (God as Judge) can both be equally true.
So what should we do with these seemingly irreconcilable, yet undeniable biblical principles? Packer answers, “Accept it for what it is, and learn to live with it . . . put down the semblance of contradiction to the deficiency of your own understanding; think of the two principles as not rival alternatives but, in some way that at present you do not grasp, complementary to each other” (26).
PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER
A God that could be understood exhaustively would be a God in man’s image. Divine sovereignty and human responsibility coexist, and we must affirm both truths from Scripture and let them guide and govern our lives (43). As Packer explains “God did not give us the reality of his rule in order to give us an excuse for neglecting his orders” (41).
Back to my opening question: If God is sovereign, then why do I share the gospel? Here’s the answer: because God ordains salvation and God ordains the means of salvation, which glorifies him no matter the result. The One who saves is the same for all: God. And the means of salvation is the same for all: proclamation of the gospel message. God does the saving (Romans 9), and man does the proclaiming (Romans 10). How unsearchable and inscrutable are the ways of God (Romans 11)!
I’m assured that God is sovereign, and this assurance gives me confidence that he’ll work through evangelism, regardless of results, for we are “the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2 Corinthians 2:15). What a glorious thought! No matter the apparent result of my evangelism (means), one definite result is that I am an aroma of Christ to God. He is pleased. He delights in the proclamation. He is glorified in it. He saves his people through it.
Packer further explains that evangelism is a message delivered, not an effect produced. Evangelism is simply preaching the gospel, irrespective of its effect on the hearer (49). It’s a message about God, sin, and Christ; it’s a summons to respond in faith and repentance. What should motivate us for this task? Primarily the love of God and concern for his glory—followed by love of man and concern for his welfare (82).
A USEFUL DISCIPLING RESOURCE
Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God is considered a modern classic, and for good reason. This little book is brimming with pastoral insight and biblical reflection. As such, it has a number of pastoral uses.
Read this book if you’re timid in evangelism
Perhaps you’re slow to sow the seed of the gospel because you fear man. If that’s you, Packer shows how divine sovereignty ought to make us bold and confident before men as well as humble before God and earnest in our prayer that that he would sovereignly save the lost.
Read this book if you’re anxious in evangelism
The man in Mark 4:26–29 scatters seed on the ground and then is able to go to sleep. He’s not anxious over the seed, staying up all night wondering if it will grow. He’s not trying to coax it to grow. The earth yields produce by itself; the sower’s role was simply to scatter the seed.
Maybe you’re scattering the seed of the gospel, but rather than scattering and sleeping, you’re scattering and stressing. Packer unpacks how divine sovereignty undergirds evangelism and upholds the evangelist by “creating a hope of success that could not otherwise be entertained” (135).
Read this book if you’re slothful in evangelism
Packer’s preaching and pastoral sensibilities can help you if you’ve become lazy in the joyful Christian duty of evangelism. For instance, Packer writes:
You are not on a fools’ errand. You are not wasting either your time or theirs. You have no reason to be ashamed of your message, or half-hearted and apologetic in delivering it. You have every reason to be bold, and free, and natural, and hopeful of success. For God can give his truth an effectiveness that you and I cannot give it. God can make his truth triumphant to the conversion of the most seemingly hardened unbeliever. You and I will never write off anyone as hopeless and beyond the reach of God if we believe in the sovereignty of his grace (128).
For three years, I wrestled with how divine sovereignty and human responsibility could be reconciled. I feared that the absolute sovereignty of God might, in some way, undermine my faith. I feared that if God were that sovereign, then I’d lose my zeal and compassion for the lost.
This book would have been an enormous help to me in those years of theological searching. It’s an accessible and unmatched introduction to the sovereignty of God that also energizes us to share the gospel. The simply explained truths of this book will ignite your desire to pursue the joyful Christian duty of evangelism.