Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God by J.I. Packer

Evangelism. The Great Commission is so important which is why people get upset when it’s done differently or wrongly or not according to what the Bible teaches.

Sovereignty of God. Arguably the greatest of all the great doctrines. And people do argue about it, what it means and how it changes our lives.

Put Evangelism and Sovereignty of God together and it’s like the fusion of two atoms. You get a tremendous release of energy that can either power up or destroy your faith.

Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God” by J.I. Packer. 122 pages, published by Inter-Varsity Press, the first edition was published in 1961. You can get the 2012 edition via Amazon for USD10.25 or via Logos.com for USD9.99. Don’t have ten bucks to spare? A pity cause it was only USD1.99 a week ago! To make sure you don’t miss out on great book deals, subscribe to this podcast or follow me at Twitter. You can find details at www.readingandreaders.com. That’s www.readingandreaders.com.

J.I. Packer passed away in 2020 at the age of 93 years old. He wrote “Knowing God”, revived the Puritans and gave us the ESV Bible translation.

In my mind, J.I. Packer is the theological-equivalent of an explosive engineer or bomb expert. Where ever there is a theological controversy, there he is, calmly, precisely defusing the bomb. By careful design, he channels all that destructive energy and puts it to good use.

I give you one example, one of the hottest topic in the recent past is the charismatic/pentecostal movement. It was so hot that churches were splitting left and right on this issue. Yet, any hothead, regardless of where he stands on the issue, will find good sense in Packer’s book “Keep in Step with the Spirit”. He has the uncanny ability to describe the issue in a fair way, bring out the essence of the debate and channel all the energy towards mutual edification.

Evangelism and Sovereignty of God are as explosive as any doctrine can be. But under J.I. Packer’s pen, Evangelism and Divine Sovereignty come together in a way that shines forth the glory of our awesome God.

Divine Sovereignty

Let me read an excerpt from the first chapter, titled, “Divine Sovereignty”:

I do not intend to spend any time at all proving to you the general truth that God is sovereign in his world. There is no need; for I know that, if you are a Christian, you believe this already. How do I know that? Because I know that, if you are a Christian, you pray; and the recognition of God’s sovereignty is the basis of your prayers. In prayer, you ask for things and give thanks for things. Why? Because you recognize that God is the author and source of all the good that you have had already, and all the good that you hope for in the future. This is the fundamental philosophy of Christian prayer. The prayer of a Christian is not an attempt to force God’s hand, but a humble acknowledgment of helplessness and dependence.

When Packer says, “I do not intend”, we hear his strong voice coming out of the pages. He knows where the issue lies and here he believes that every Christian whether they admit it or not, in their heart of hearts know that God is sovereign simply because they pray; simply because they credit God for their salvation.

I find Packer here to be generous to a fault. While no Christian would ever deny the Sovereignty of God, they have a different definition and deny that God has absolute control over all creation. But why deny it?

Packer writes:

The root cause is the same as in most cases of 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. People see that the Bible teaches man’s responsibility for his actions; they do not see (man, indeed, cannot see) how this is consistent with the sovereign lordship of God over those actions. They are not content to let the two truths live side by side, as they do in the Scriptures, but jump to the conclusion that, in order to uphold the biblical truth of human responsibility, they are bound to reject the equally biblical and equally true doctrine of divine sovereignty, and to explain away the great number of texts that teach it. The desire to oversimplify the Bible by cutting out the mysteries is natural to our perverse minds, and it is not surprising that even good people should fall victim to it. Hence this persistent and troublesome dispute. The irony of the situation, however, is that when we ask how the two sides pray, it becomes apparent that those who profess to deny God’s sovereignty really believe in it just as strongly as those who affirm it.

Packer concludes Chapter 1 by fervently asserting that those who deny Sovereignty of God actually believe it. And he knows the sticking point. If God is always in control, how can humans be responsible for their actions? And that is where Packer brings us to in Chapter 2.

Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

As I read through this second chapter, I find myself sympathetic to Packer’s attempts to convince the reader of the truth. It took me years to reach what Packer hopes to achieve with the reader in these pages.

The truth is, well, listen to how Packer puts it:

God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are taught to us side by side in the same Bible; sometimes, indeed, in the same text. Both are thus guaranteed to us by the same divine authority; both, therefore, are true. It follows that they must be held together, and not played off against each other. Man is a responsible moral agent, though he is also divinely controlled; man is divinely controlled, though he is also a responsible moral agent. God’s sovereignty is a reality, and man’s responsibility is a reality too.

Packer recognises that it sounds like a contradiction. He calls it an antimony. And rather than attempt to solve the supposed contradiction, Packer attempts to convince us that what we really need is to know God is wise in ways that we are not. What we see as a problem is not a problem in the mind and counsel of God. What would be wise for us is to accept this is the way it is and we should work with what we got.

But we don’t.

We are tempted to only focus on human responsibility. Or in the other extreme, we only focus on divine sovereignty. And Packer shows us the folly of falling into such temptations.

Instead what we should do, is as Packer exhorts:

…, we shall try to take both doctrines perfectly seriously, as the Bible does, and to view them in their positive biblical relationship. We shall not oppose them to each other, for the Bible does not oppose them to each other. Nor shall we qualify, or modify, or water down, either of them in terms of the other, for this is not what the Bible does either. What the Bible does is to assert both truths side by side in the strongest and most unambiguous terms as two ultimate facts; this, therefore, is the position that we must take in our own thinking.

As I revisit this controversy, not I think for the last time, I thought of an illustration. Have you been to a 3D cinema where you have to put on glasses to see the images pop out from the screen? If you saw the image with only your left eye, you will not see the 3D image. Same goes if you tried looking with only your right eye. You need to look with both eyes to see the image pop in front of you.

But the natural man is blind. Or partially blind. In one eye or both. The solution is to read and study the whole counsel of God, so that we can see with both eyes the reality of Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility.

We have not talked about Evangelism. Let’s go to that now.


Chapter 3, titled “Evangelism” is, to me, the most surprising chapter of the book. 60 years after this book, and still the questions Packers poses here is still as relevant as ever. What is evangelism? What is the evangelistic message? Why do it? And how?

The chapter is surprising because it scratches an itch I have had for a while and Packer managed to describe the itch and give me the relief.

I have some misgivings on evangelistic rallies but I never sat down to arrange my thoughts on the subject because everybody accepts it. They have accepted it for a long time. To question evangelistic rallies would be to question the work of people like Billy Graham and to question such faithful servants of the Lord seems petty and mean.

I don’t know what is Packer’s opinion of Billy Graham’s ministry but this book was published in 1961, six years after Billy Graham launched a big evangelistic rally in London. Evangelistic rallies were drawing big crowds and many thought organising special meetings was the way to bring people to Christ.

Packer writes:

If in our churches “evangelistic” meetings, and “evangelistic” sermons, are thought of as special occasions, different from the ordinary run of things, it is a damning indictment of our normal Sunday services. So that if we should imagine that the essential work of evangelism lies in holding meetings of the special type described out of church hours, so to speak, that would simply prove that we had failed to understand what our regular Sunday services are for.

Packer does not condemn evangelistic rallies. Nor is he just listing the pros and cons. He looks at the essence of the matter.

And gives us this wonderful gem:

Evangelism is to be defined not institutionally, in terms of the kind of meeting held, but theologically, in terms of what is taught, and for what purpose.

Ah, what clarity! There are whole pages here that I would like to read to you, pages of methodical reasoning and thought-provoking questions that every Christian should consider, but I will just read to you two paragraphs.

So, in the last analysis, there is only one method of evangelism: namely, the faithful explanation and application of the gospel message. From which it follows—and this is the key principle which we are seeking—that the test for any proposed strategy, technique or style of evangelistic action must be this: will it in fact serve the word? Is it calculated to be a means of explaining the gospel truly and fully and applying it deeply and exactly? To the extent to which it is so calculated, it is lawful and right; to the extent to which it tends to overlay and obscure the realities of the message, and to blunt the edge of their application, it is ungodly and wrong.

Later, he writes:

We need to remember here that spiritually it is even more dangerous for a man whose conscience is roused to make a misconceived response to the gospel and take up with a defective religious practice than for him to make no response at all. If you turn a publican into a Pharisee, you make his condition worse, not better.

Again, “If you turn a publican into a Pharisee, you make his condition worse, not better.” And how are our misguided efforts to evangelise to blame? At its root, it’s because we don’t know what is evangelism. For the details, you got to read the book.

Divine Sovereignty and Evangelism

Before I go into the fourth and last chapter, just a brief recap:

Chapter 1 confirms that we all believe in Divine Sovereignty.
Chapter 2 assures us that Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility are both true and we should not pit one against the other.
Chapter 3 brings us to the heart of evangelism.

In chapter 4, how does everything come together? God controls everything including Man’s ability to respond to his call, yet he also command us to make that invitation? Since God has absolute sovereignty over everything, why should we bother?

I think the force of the argument in chapter 4 does not really work unless one has properly read and appreciated chapter 1, 2 and 3.

This is how Packer puts it.

The biblical answer may be stated in two propositions, one negative and one positive.

The negative is:

The sovereignty of God in grace does not affect anything that we have said about the nature and duty of evangelism.

He breaks it down into subsections, titled:

  1. The belief that God is sovereign in grace does not affect the necessity of evangelism.
  2. The belief that God is sovereign in grace does not affect the urgency of evangelism.
  3. The belief that God is sovereign in grace does not affect the genuineness of the gospel invitations, or the truth of the gospel promises.
  4. The belief that God is sovereign in grace does not affect the responsibility of the sinner for his reaction to the gospel.

Each part is explained in Packer’s powerful and concise ways to support the negative statement: The Sovereignty of God in grace does not affect anything that we have said about the nature and duty of evangelism.

The positive statement is:

The sovereignty of God in grace gives us our only hope of success in evangelism.

Packer believes if we are certain, if we are confident that God is in control this will make us bold, patient and prayerful in our evangelism. And so we note, we began the book by prayer and we end the book with prayer.

I also said in the beginning that Packer is the theological-equivalent of a bomb expert because of how calmly and effectively he deals with explosive topics.

I didn’t realise when I started that explosions is a good way to describe these controversies.

For it got me thinking: What is the most explosive thing in our solar system? It’s not dynamite, C4 or even the nuclear bomb. The answer is hinted in the question. In our solar system, the Sun is this giant ball of fire, a perpetual chain of nuclear explosions powerful enough to destroy all life on Earth many times over yet also the only source of heat and light for us to live.

And perhaps that’s one way to think of these difficult doctrines. We try to figure out how they work and sometimes it ends up well, sometimes not. But we should not forget that the doctrines are expressing something greater than us, realities that to a certain extant will always be beyond us.

Packer reminds us of these truths in this book. No wonder it is considered a Packer classic.

Today I review “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God” by J.I. Packer. 122 pages, published by Inter-Varsity Press, the first edition was published in 1961. You can get the 2012 edition via Amazon for USD10.25 or via Logos.com for USD9.99.

Book List

  • “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God” by J.I. Packer.Amazon. Logos.