Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God
By JI Packer
Inter-Varsity Press, 1961, rptd 1991
Category: Theology / Evangelism
126 pages plus Scriptural Index
Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God is a reprint of an address delivered by JI Packer to the Inter-Faculty Christian Union over forty-seven years ago. Although the message itself is dated in years, the content delivered is as much alive and applicable today as it was to its original hearers. Packer’s intent in this address, two years later published by InterVarsity Press was to deliver “a piece of biblical and theological reasoning, designed to clarify the relationship between three realities: God’s sovereignty, man’s responsibility, and the Christian’s evangelistic duty” (1).
I believe that Packer accomplished his purposes in this address and challenged me to think along lines and pathways that I have yet to previously pursue. Packer begins his address with an appeal to the listeners concerning God’s sovereignty. He calls to the attention of his hearers that all true Christians believe in a sovereign God who is “over all, through all and in all” (Eph 4:6). He displays this truth by appealing to the Christian’s manner of prayer. In prayer, Packer argues, we “confess our own impotence and God’s sovereignty” (2). We believe that God hears and answers prayers in His own way, timing, and for the purposes of His glory, and therefore, we admit that the Lord God is supremely sovereign and is reigning as King over His creation. He then appeals to the prayers that are rendered on behalf of the unconverted. When praying for the unregenerate, we pray that God would save them. Not that the Lord would bring to the point that they then may have the ability to weigh the pros and cons of the life in Christ, but that God would override their wills and save them fully. We pray in such a way because we understand the depravity of the unregenerate heart. The unregenerate heart can not choose the ultimate good for himself, which is eternal life with Christ. This is indeed man’s ultimate need.
Having set this fact in place, Packer then begins to refute the idea that the beliefs in God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are at odds or in disagreement with one another. He calls this apparent disagreement an antinomy and defines this as “an appearance of contradiction […] An antinomy exists when a pair of principles stand side by side, seemingly irreconcilable, yet both undeniable” (3). He further clarifies and exhorts his hears to “refuse to regard the apparent inconsistency as real; 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” (4). Scripture is clear to teach both views of God’s sovereignty in salvation and man’s responsibility; for it is Christ who says “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (Joh 6:44). On another occasion, Christ says “you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (Joh 5:40). Those who refuse to come to the Lord will be held accountable for their willful decision to reject Christ. Those who do not come to Christ, indeed, do not want to come to Christ, and freely choose not to do so. Packer sums it this way:
“The Bible never says that sinners miss heaven because they are not elect, but because they ‘neglect the great salvation’, and because they will not repent and believe…Those who choose death, therefore, have only themselves to thank that God does not give them life” (5). All this said, a belief in Divine Sovereignty in salvation and operation does not intrude upon man’s own responsibility to respond to the gospel call and therefore he will receive a just judgment in the final analysis. Moreover, the Christian who believes in the Divine Sovereignty that causes salvation in the elect of God, is not beyond the command to evangelize and share the good news of the Christ’s offer of redemption. Therefore, the Christian must take great pains to ensure that the message he is proclaiming is Scripturally accurate. When faithfulness to Scripture is accomplished, God is glorified, the message is clear, and those who are lost have the opportunity to respond to the gospel. We must then ask, what are the essentials that are to be included the presentation of the gospel? What is the “good news?”
According to Packer, the message must include four lines of truth that are all derived from the same vein. The biblical gospel message is about God, sin, Christ, and a summons to faith and repentance (6). In being about God, the true gospel calls man to the understanding that “In the beginning, God created…” (Gen 1:1). God created the heavens and earth, land and seas, vegetation, light and darkness, and on the sixth day, He created man. And therefore, as God’s creatures, man is therefore naturally under His authority.
“The gospel starts by teaching us that we, as creatures, are absolutely dependent on God, and that He, as Creator, has an absolute claim on us. Only when we learn this can we see what sin is, and only when we see what sin is can we understand the good news of salvation from sin. We must know what it means to call God Creator before we can grasp what it means to speak of Him as Redeemer” (7).We can then move from God as Creator to the subject of sin. Sin may be understood as anything that is contrary to the character of God. The unregenerate has no desire to conform to the character of God until he comes to an understanding that he is not a product of random chance, as proponents of evolutionary theory suggest. The unregenerate must at least have a glimpse of understanding that he was created with a purpose and that purpose is to point back to the glory of the Creator, and thus, come to an acknowledgement that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Packer states that “we never know what sin really is till we have learned to think of it in terms of God and to measure it, not by human standards, but by the yardstick of His total demand on our lives”(8).
Once we have instilled the foundation of the message first concerning God as our Creator and then as our sin resulting in a wrong relationship with Him, we can now acknowledge that the gospel message is also about Christ. Packer is quick to point out that we must never present the person of Christ apart from the saving work of Christ, and consequently, we must never present the saving work of Christ apart from the person of Christ(9). These are two important truths to remember when sharing the gospel. The gospel is more than a “get out of hell free” card. The gospel also gives us the greatest gift available, that is, Christ Jesus Himself. He is the greatest good that man could ever desire. Yes, we avoid the pain and torment of eternity separated from Christ, but the pain exists as a result of the separation. In other words, the separation is what causes pain. The greatest news of the gospel is that we get God, not that we do not get hell and damnation.
The fourth ingredient that Packer states as a requirement for an authentic gospel presentation is an appeal to faith and repentance. Both “repentance and faith,” according to the Baptist Faith & Message, a statement adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention, “are inseparable experiences of grace” (10). Repentance by itself is merely a turning away of wrong habits and thinking, but it is faith that then turns towards something. And that something in a Christian’s conversion is the person of the Lord Jesus Christ who offers Himself as the gift of salvation. Consequently, faith by itself is merely belief in a set of facts and conditions, which by itself is not sufficient. As James says, “even the demons believe and shudder!” (Jam 2:19b).
Having laid the foundation for the essential ingredients to a faithful gospel presentation Packer moves on to the motives that should be the driving force behind any individual or corporate evangelism effort. The first motive should be out of a desire to glorify God and the second motive should be out of a love for our neighbor (11). As all things are to be done in order to glorify the Father (1 Cor 10:31; Col 3:17) this should be our aim in our evangelistic efforts as well. Out of love for our neighbor we will respond with the desire for their eternal state to be realized before the Day of Judgment appears. It is unhealthy for any Christian to desire the judgment of eternal separation to fall on any man, regardless of the heinousness of any sins he or she may have committed. Therefore, it should be the desire of all Christians to see the spread of the truth of the gospel to all nations and all peoples, first for the glory of the Father and the Son whom He sent, and second out of a genuine concern for humanity. It is a true statement that all societies would benefit if all of its members were genuine Christians. Packer confronts those who may not indeed have a genuine concern for the glory of God and the good of his or her neighbor by reminding us that “if we find ourselves shrinking from this responsibility, and trying to evade it, we need to face ourselves with the fact that in this we are yielding to sin and Satan” (12). As one who struggles with his evangelistic efforts, this was a sobering reminder. I must be reminded that there is no neutral ground when dealing with matters of salvation. If I am a faithful witness for Christ out of a compulsion to see Him glorified in all things and out of overflowing love for my neighbor, I am essentially denying the grip of sin on my life and reminding Satan of his impending doom. However, if I am not a faithful witness for Jesus Christ as a result of my message not being clear, or if my motives are not properly Christ-centered, then I am an advocate for the enemy and Christ is not honored.
Packer then concludes his argument with two simple, straightforward statements that must always be at the forefront of any discussion concerning the Sovereignty of God and Man’s Responsibility as it relates to evangelism. He says, “1. The sovereignty of God in grace does not affect anything that we have said about the nature and duty of evangelism"(13) and “2. The Sovereignty of God in grace gives us our only hope of success in evangelism” (14). He says, in essence, because God is sovereign and is therefore ultimately in control of the eternal destinies of each of His creatures, this fact does not negate the need for His children to evangelize a lost and dying world. The reality still exists that God has chosen to use men and women throughout redemption’s history in order to magnify the Lord and bring others into a saving relationship with Him. Ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit who effects a work of regeneration in the life of an unbeliever, and it is the Holy Spirit who divinely intervenes to enable conversations concerning spiritual matters to even begin or develop. Also, it should always be remembered that it is because of God’s sovereignty that we evangelize, not in spite of it. As Packer says, the only hope of any success is that God has sovereignly chosen to set His grace on those of His elect. As a result, “as many as were appointed to eternal life” (Acts 13:38) will respond to the gospel at the proper time. The sovereignty of God should be a staunch motivator to compel us to share the gospel with others. Yes, our message must be clear, but ultimately, it is the work of the Sovereign God who brings us to repentance.
Evangelism & The Sovereignty was a delight to read and refreshment to my spirit. Over the last few years, the Lord has brought me into an understanding that He truly is sovereign, and that He truly is Lord of all. However, at times this has been to my detriment as I have neglected my personal duty and delight in witnessing to the great news of Jesus Christ. I have failed to boldly proclaim His truths among the nations and have erred on the side of seeing God’s sovereignty as a means to which evangelism would be stunted. I have known that this is erroneous thinking, and Dr. Packer has helped me to put these thoughts back into a proper, God-honoring, biblical focus. I take from this reading a reminder to always be about my Father’s business and that business is to do all things for His glory and for the purpose of making Christ known. Every conversation is to be full of grace and seasoned with salt (Col 4:5) and I pray “that God may open a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ” (Col 4:3) and that I may be bold in the power Christ and for the purposes of Christ, to walk through such a door.
1 Packer, JI. Evangelism & The Sovereignty of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1961. p 7.
2 Ibid. p 12
3 Ibid. p 18
4 Ibid. p 24
5 Ibid. p 105-106
6 Ibid. p 58-73
7 Ibid p. 59
8 Ibid p. 60
9 Ibid p 63-66
10 The Baptist Faith & Message. Nashville, TN: LifeWay Press, 2000. p 11.
11 Packer, JI. Evangelism & The Sovereignty of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1961. p 73-82
12 Ibid. p 77
13 Ibid. p 96
14 Ibid. p 106