Book Review: Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God by J. I. Packer
J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2008). 136pp. Paper.
J. I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God remains a staple in the field of evangelism fifty years after it was first published. Packer walks the line between an overemphasis on God’s sovereignty, which leads some to deny any need for evangelism, and an overemphasis on human responsibility, which rests the eternal destiny of individuals on the persuasiveness of a gospel presentation. A correct understanding of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility provides the proper motivation and approach to evangelism.
Packer begins the book by disarming any potential objections to God’s sovereignty. He explains that all Christians believe that God is sovereign as evidenced by their prayers. Thankfulness for personal conversion and prayer for the conversion of others also demonstrate the all Christians hold to the sovereignty of God in salvation. No Christian can take credit for his or her conversion, and no Christian claims that others will be converted apart from a miraculous work of God. Our actions demonstrate a belief in God’s sovereignty even if our lips do not.
God’s sovereignty does not relieve humans of responsibility with regard to evangelism. Packer carefully details how God’s sovereignty and human responsibility form an antimony. These two truths work together in perfect harmony despite apparent contradiction. Packer urges, “Accept it for what it is, and learn to live with it” (21). Appropriately, maintaining both of these realities proves crucial to biblical evangelism.
Packer unpacks this concept throughout the remainder of the book and reveals how an understanding of the antimony affects the method, motivation, and evaluation of evangelism. In contrast to those who view unbelievers as someone to be conquered for Christ and the next notch on their spiritual gun-belt, Packer proposes that Christians pursue genuine friendship with non-Christians. Only after they have established a relationship and have demonstrated respect and interest in the other person should believers purposefully broach the subject of Christ in conversation. We must earn the right to share the gospel by genuinely caring for our fellow human beings.
Writing during the era of Billy Graham’s evangelistic crusades, Packer counters the mass-evangelism approach. Although they can be effective, they tempt some to leave the task of evangelism to the “professionals” like Graham. Large campaigns also run the risk of distorting the message of the gospel with human cleverness and showmanship.
Packer emphasizes the personal aspects of evangelism over against the large productions, but I would like to have seen more focus on the local church. I understand that he wants to empower individual Christians to evangelize, but we must maintain the focus on the preaching of the gospel as the ordinary means of the Holy Spirit to create faith in the hearts of sinners (Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 65). Very little of the book concerns the evangelism that takes place every Lord’s Day in a local congregation. Similarly, the book lacks a description of the duties of a minister with regard to evangelism. What does Paul mean when he exhorts Timothy to do the work of an evangelist? (2 Timothy 4:5). Packer provides no explanation of evangelism done by all Christians in their general office compared to ministers in their ordained office. Even if he denies a distinction, a detailed defense as to how he comes to that conclusion would be helpful.
Every Christian should consider purchasing this classic work on evangelism. A better understanding of God’s sovereign act of drawing people to himself coupled with the responsibility of humans to proclaim the gospel will benefit Christians at every stage of maturity.