Review: “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God” by JI Packer

Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God

JI Packer

Inter-Varsity Press, Westmont, 2008. 136 pp.

Recently republished as part of the ‘IVP Classics’ series, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God by JI Packer remains as relevant today as when it was first published in 1961. Well, so I’ve been told; I wasn’t born until 1985. But, assum­ing it was relevant when first published, Evangelism remains relevant today.1

As a general rule, I dislike it when people start off a book or sermon by telling me what it is not going to be about. Maybe I’m oversensitive, but DA Carson seems to do it all the time; by about the fifth description of what ‘this is not…’ I’m thinking to myself, “Come on Don, I know this keeps your academic conscience clear, but no one is actually worried about points six through thirteen of these isn’ts, except you.” I just want to get to the what-it-is, which is usually gold. Though Evangelism does begin with a few this-is-nots, Packer clears his academic conscience with brevity before launch­ing into what it actually is.

Phillip Jensen regularly describes books from JI Packer as “Packer by name, packer by nature”, and that’s true of this particular volume as well. There is plenty of content, and yet, because its focus is on addressing a single question, the new edition comes in at around 130 pages and is easily digested in a couple of hours.

The single question that concerns the book is pretty much contained within its title. If God is sovereign and in control, and will save whomever he has predestined to save, then why would anyone bother to evangelize? As Packer explains in his introduction:

The supposition seems to be that you cannot evangelize effectively unless you are prepared to pretend while you are doing it that the doctrine of divine sovereignty is not true. I shall try to make it evident that this is nonsense. (p. 14)

While Packer achieves his goal, the answer to this common question is both satisfying and unsatisfying at the same time.

I had really high expectations for this book, and to be brutally honest I was a bit disappointed. Not in the sense that the book was of poor quality (e.g. the disappointment delivered by The Matrix’s sequels), but more of a general dissatisfaction that my ideals were not met (e.g. the feeling that comes six months after your wedding, when you realize that getting married didn’t solve all your problems). That is, the quality was great, it just wasn’t what I’d expected and hoped for.

It all sounds a bit glass-half-empty at the moment, but let me spoil the end of the review for you now; you should definitely read this book! Evangelism was disappointing because it was really so biblical and balanced. Meanwhile, I was expecting magic-bullet answers for the particular questions that I had. I wanted the tensions that existed in my head regarding God’s sovereignty and my evangelistic efforts to be clearly dealt with. I wanted Packer to succinctly draw all my queries together into a simple combined proposition that answered all my questions, that I could then place into a rigid box, tie it closed with a nice little bow, and sit it on the shelf to admire. The answer, as it turns out, wasn’t that succinct, and it wasn’t that simple. But it was biblical.

We cannot know all of God’s ways, and so we must assume that within our understanding of God there will be areas of mystery. This is especially true when it comes to God’s sovereign will and our work here in this life. Packer explains clearly that we mustn’t place distinctions where the Bible does not. When we come across what we assume to be a contradiction, namely that a) God will save whomever he chooses, and b) we are called to evangelize people in order for them to be saved, we ought to pause to consider. Rather than a paradox, we are actually dealing with an antinomy: a seeming contradiction between two reasonable logical conclusions.

As we humbly submit to scripture, we must acknowledge that there are areas of our understanding that will be insufficient. We can’t fit everything into a nice little box. This was a discouraging discovery.

In spite of this, in the next breath I found Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God to be inherently satisfying. The truths contained here are profound, and yet made simple. This is evident right from the introductory words, which calmly argue that if you pray at all then you believe God is sovereign (even if you like to argue with Calvinists in the debating chamber). Packer explains: “… all Christians believe in divine sovereignty, but some are not aware that they do, and mistakenly imagine and insist that they reject it” (p. 22).

It may come as a shock to you to discover that Packer is so persuasive; even the fiercest Arminian would no doubt be convinced that, since they pray, they really are Calvinist (although Packer is careful to avoid these labels as much as possible).

Packer argues well. And if he wasn’t right, this could be a real problem. The great strength of this style is the end result; as the truths of Scripture are put forward, you become convinced by the sheer reasonableness of the argument. It really is so simple. Divine sovereignty and human responsibility are not enemies but allies. You have no need to reconcile them, because you can’t reconcile friends. The book’s argument is unveiled in a logical manner, with the conclusion that, far from divine sovereignty excluding the need for evangelism, it is this sovereignty that drives it: “Our evangelistic work is the instrument that he uses for this purpose, but the power that saves is not in the instrument: it is in the hand of the One who uses the instrument” (pp. 34-35).

The ongoing debate over divine sovereignty and human responsibility is often characterized by extremes. Yet Packer suggests the ground to occupy in these discussions is in the middle. The biblical account holds both these truths together, therefore our intellectual framework must be able to do likewise.

For me, one of the more unexpected challenges of reading this book came out of the manner in which it addresses evangelism. I know it shouldn’t have surprised me considering the title, but Packer provides a fundamental framework for analysing the ‘success’ of all evangelistic endeavours. Included in this is consistent analysis of the evangelistic frameworks that were current when the book was written in the 1960s, which the present-day reader soon realizes remains current today. After outlining the evangelistic events vs evangelistic weekly services debate, Packer provides an exhaustive list of questions to ask of any effort. He then concludes:

The principle is that the best method of evangelism is the one which serves the gospel most completely… which bears the clearest witness to the divine origin of the message… which makes possible the most full and thorough explanation of the good news of Christ and his cross… which most effectively engages the minds of those to whom witness is borne… What that best method is in each case, you and I have to find out for ourselves. (p. 99)

This is a firm challenge to anyone championing their methods and style over all others.

Another benefit I found from reading this book has been the way it has again reframed my attitude to prayer. At a number of points, as attention is drawn to the theological understanding required for the topic, Packer points out things we should be praying for. The language of ‘should’ is often dangerous, and yet the only conclusion I could draw when faced with the theology and argument is that, yes, I really should be praying for those specific things. So I did. This book helped me to pray.

Alongside the praying though, is the doing. It would be a crass misunderstand­ing to finish this book without actually getting out there and again proclaiming Jesus that people might be converted. Packer’s opening words express just such a purpose: “Always and everywhere the servants of Christ are under orders to evangelize, and I hope that what I shall say now will act as an incentive to this task” (p. 13).

Unlike Packer’s most famous book Knowing God, which began life as a series of journal articles, Evangelism started life as a series of sermons. This is evident throughout, as the readability, theology, application and illustration are perfectly balanced. But don’t be fooled, for most average Joes out there Packer requires a little extra lifting, for the dictionary you need to carry around with the book. So be prepared to look up the occasional word.

In summary, if you’re looking for easy answers to the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, perhaps you’d be better off think­ing about the ‘tulip’. No, not as an acronym for the five points of Calvinism, just start picturing the flowers. This is to distract you from thinking about anything more meaningful, because if you were to engage your brain by thinking about the five points, you’d realize that there are no easy answers, and be as disappointed as I initially was. If instead you want an easy-to-read treatise on this issue, which seeks to clarify what the Bible teaches in a brief and accessible manner, then Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God is for you.

I give this book 4.5 out of 5 (points of Calvinism).


1 I have chosen to abbreviate the title to Evangelism rather than the more obvious, but kind of gross-sounding, EatSoG.

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