Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God is a classic book by J. I. Packer that explores the relationship between two seemingly contradictory concepts:
divine sovereignty and human responsibility… between what God does as King and what he does as Judge. If God is omnipotent, why should we evangelize? Packer argues that a right understanding of God’s sovereignty should not lead to passivity in evangelism, but rather to boldness and confidence. He writes,
The sovereignty of God is not a doctrine which makes us sit back and do nothing. It is a doctrine which impels us to go out and do everything we can.
Packer begins by defining evangelism as
the proclamation of the gospel to those who do not yet know it. He then goes on to discuss the biblical basis for evangelism, arguing that it is a central part of the Christian mission. He writes,
The Great Commission is not an optional extra for Christians; it is the very heart of our calling.
But the commission to publish the gospel and make disciples was never confined to the apostles. Nor is it now confined to the church’s ministers. It is a commission that rests on the whole church collectively, and therefore on each Christian individually.
J. I. Packer warns of defining evangelism too narrowly—for instance, institutionally—by using the example of an evangelistic meeting during which testimonies are provided and an appeal is made to come to Christ. These special meetings were once very popular among churches as a means of evangelizing, but Packer rightly asserts that evangelism occurs outside of the parameters of official church functions.
The way to find out whether a particular service was evangelistic is to ask not whether an appeal for a decision was made, but what truth was taught at it… Wherever, and by whatever means, the gospel is communicated with a view to conversion, there you have evangelism.
Packer next draws the reader’s attention to the apostle Paul as an example of a great evangelist. He notes that Paul was simply Christ’s herald (in Greek, κῆρυξ, transliterated kēryx)1, and the nature of the apostle’s evangelistic ministry was threefold. First, he evangelized as the commissioned representative of Christ—as steward, herald, and ambassador. Second, his primary evangelistic task was to teach the truth about the Lord Jesus Christ. Third, Paul’s ultimate objective was to convert2 his hearers to faith in Jesus.
The evangelistic message
When defining the evangelistic message—the gospel of Christ—Packer presents four ingredients found in this message.
The gospel is a message about God.
We must first understand who God is and his ownership over creation and our own lives before we can make sense of the rest of the gospel message.
The gospel is a message about sin.
Until we recognize that our sin has offended God and separated us from him, we cannot appreciate the evangelistic gospel message. Packer also notes here that despair of one’s own shortcomings and failures is not the same thing as conviction of sin. Failures and shortcomings are largely socially-based, whereas sin
is a theological concept.
Signs of true conviction of sin
Laying out three signs of true conviction of sin, Packer describes (1)
an awareness of a wrong relationship with God, (2) the conviction of particular sins, and (3) the conviction of sinfulness, or
one’s complete corruption and perversity in God’s sight.
On the third point, Packer references needing a
new heart (Ezekiel 36:26) and a new birth (John 3:3–7). A good model of conviction of sin is Psalm 51, which Packer recommends as a template to discern if true conviction is occurring.
The gospel is a message about Christ.
It is at this point that J. I. Packer gets to the heart of the evangelistic gospel message. Christ is God incarnate, the Lamb of God, the risen Lord, and the perfect Savior. He warns, though, against presenting Christ’s person apart from his saving work, or vice versa.
The historic figure of Jesus does not make sense in the gospel message without the essential doctrines of his incarnation—that Jesus is God made human—his atonement—
that he lived as man that he might die as man for men, and that his passion, his judicial murder, was really his saving action of bearing away the world’s sins—his resurrection, ascension, and heavenly ascension—
that Jesus has been raised, and enthroned, and made King, and lives to save to the uttermost all who acknowledge his lordship.
In the same way, some evangelists have made the mistake of presenting only Christ’s past saving work without acknowledging his present status as our living Savior who longs for an active relationship with his people.
The gospel is a summons to faith and repentance.
The final ingredient of the evangelistic message requires active repentance and faith.
All who hear the gospel are summoned by God to repent and believe. As Packer points out, faith is more than an optimistic feeling, and repentance is more than a regretful feeling. Repentance and faith are both acts, as is made clear in the New Testament.3 Repentance and faith, also, are both required for the Christian. We must have both.
The relation of God’s sovereignty to evangelism
Packer then turns to the question of how Christians should understand God’s sovereignty in relation to evangelism. He argues that God is sovereign over all things, including the salvation of souls. However, he also says that God has chosen to use human beings as his instruments in bringing about salvation. This means that Christians are responsible to share the gospel, even though they know that ultimately it is God who saves people. He writes,
God does not save men without their cooperation, but he does not save them by their cooperation either. Evangelism is our duty, despite our ignorance of God’s plan.
We are to order our lives by the light of his law, not by our guesses about his plan.4
The things that God is pleased to keep to himself (the number and identity of the elect, for instance, and when and how he purposes to convert whom) have no bearing on any man’s duty. They are not relevant in any way for the interpreting of any part of God’s law.
Packer next notes that God’s sovereignty does not affect the necessity or urgency of evangelism, the genuineness of the gospel invitation, the truth of the gospel promises, or the responsibility of the gospel’s hearer.
Evangelism is necessary because in order for a person to call on the name of the Lord, they must hear and believe the gospel message preached to them. This requires a person to deliver the gospel message.5 Evangelism is urgent because all who do not repent and believe in the Christ will perish.6 As Packer says,
Is not their need urgent?
does not affect the genuineness of the gospel invitations, or the truth of the gospel promises. Regardless of one’s view of atonement theology or election, God’s mercy and salvation are available to all who place their faith in Jesus the Christ.7
It is true that God has from all eternity chosen whom he will save. It is true that Christ came specifically to save those whom the Father had given him. But it is also true that Christ offers himself freely to all men as their Savior, and guarantees to bring to glory everyone who trusts in him as such.
The sinner is responsible for their own response to the gospel message, regardless of one’s view of election.
Unbelief in the Bible is a guilty thing, and unbelievers cannot excuse themselves on the grounds that they were not elect.8
Packer concludes by arguing that a right understanding of God’s sovereignty should lead to boldness and confidence in evangelism. He writes,
We are not to be anxious about the results of our evangelism, but we are to be diligent in it. We are to trust God to work in the hearts of those to whom we speak, but we are not to sit back and do nothing. This confidence should make us bold, patient, and prayerful. We can trust that God’s sovereignty assures us of the fruitfulness of our evangelism, rather than rendering it pointless.
J. I. Packer provides a well-reasoned and biblically-based defense of the importance of evangelism. Packer’s book is a must-read for any Christian who is serious about sharing the gospel with others. He notes two primary motives for evangelism that the Christian should observe: love of God9 and love of man10. The entire book reveals Packer’s own passion for both.
Insofar as we really love our neighbor as ourselves, we shall of necessity want him to enjoy the salvation which is so precious to us.
Packer is a clear and concise writer who brings together two concepts in a way that is both helpful and challenging. His academic writing style is not for everyone; I recommend taking notes while reading any J. I. Packer book.
Overall, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God is a valuable resource for Christians who are seeking to understand the relationship between these two important doctrines. It is a well-written and thought-provoking book that will challenge and encourage Christians who are seeking to be faithful in their evangelism.
1 Timothy 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:11 ↩
J. I. Packer notes three New Testament uses of the word ἐπιστρέφω (transliterated epistréphō), which means to convert or turn. All three uses refer to a preacher and not to God himself. ↩
See Luke 13:3, 5; John 3:16, 6:29; Acts 10:43, 17:30; 2 Thessalonians 2:11–12; James 2:19; 1 John 3:23; Revelation 22:17. ↩
See Deuteronomy 29:29. ↩
See Matthew 22:1–14 and Romans 10:14. ↩
See Luke 13:3, 5. ↩
See Matthew 11:28; John 3:16, 6:37–40; Romans 10:13; 1 Timothy 1:15; and 1 John 2:1–2. ↩
See Ezekiel 18:31; John 3:19, and 5:40. ↩
Psalm 96:2–3; Matthew 22:37, 24:14, 28:19–20 (note that
to the end of the agerefers to all those believers coming after the apostles); Mark 13:10; John 14:21; 1 Corinthians 10:31; 1 John 5:3. ↩
Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27–37; John 1:40ff; 2 Corinthians 5:14; Galatians 6:10. ↩