A Book Review

J. I. Packer is a theologian of great import. He is widely considered to be one of the most influential evangelicals in America[1]. As a profuse and proficient writer it has been said that the world has become ‘Packer’s classroom through his writing’[2], especially through one of his most famous compilations, Knowing God[3]. Currently he serves as the Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. This giant in evangelical circles has addressed the, so-called dichotomy, between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility in evangelism through the book aptly titled, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God.

It is within this book that Packer seeks to accomplish three tasks, namely: to clarify the relationship between, ‘three realities: God’s sovereignty, man’s responsibility and the Christian’s evangelistic duty’[4]; to dispel the misconception that belief in God’s sovereignty hinders evangelism; and to show that it is this belief that gives Christians the perseverance required in evangelism. With these tasks in mind Packer deals with this issue with a clarity and brevity that only a skilled author could employ with such a topic.

In the first chapter Packer puts forth a convincing case that God’s divine sovereignty in salvation is understood by all. He claims that some unconsciously believe this despite their protests. The way in which he goes about proving this is by pointing to one common denominator that all Christians can relate to – prayer. If one gives thanks to God for their own salvation and prays to God for the conversion of others then they believe in God’s sovereignty over salvation. Packer concludes with an epigrammatic statement: ‘On our feet we may have arguments about it, but on our knees we are all agreed.’[5]

Having established a commonality in the sovereignty of God in regards to salvation Packer goes on to address the seeming contradiction with this and human responsibility in evangelism. His proposal is that these two concepts are facts both clearly presented within Scripture and should be considered as an antinomy. An antinomy is ‘when a pair of principles stand side by side, seemingly irreconcilable, yet both undeniable.’[6] These two concepts are not enemies but irreconcilable friends. Instead of hitting your head against a brick wall with these two concepts Packer states that we must accept it and expect to find such mysteries when dealing with the Creator who ‘is incomprehensible to his creatures.’[7] Recognising the difficulty of taking this middle ground Packer outlines the danger of overplaying one side above the other. The first leads to a self-exalting position of ability to convert, which is a great intrusion into ‘the office of the Holy Spirit’[8] and leads to a philosophy of pragmatism and brainwashing. The second leads to a great apathy in evangelism and a concern for taking opportunities away from God so that he can display his glory. We must therefore make every conceivable effort to believe and keep both doctrines, ‘constantly before us for the guidance and government of our lives.’[9]

In the third chapter, which is by far the longest, Packer outlines essential facets to understanding evangelism. Three topics this chapter addresses are the definition of evangelism by considering the apostle Paul’s evangelistic ministry, the description of the essential gospel message and finally the discussion of some of the methods used in evangelism. Throughout this chapter Packer heavily relies upon the Bible to define evangelism which adds weight to his conclusions. His summary of the evangelistic message contains four points: it is a message about God; about sin; about Christ; and a summons to faith and repentance. Within this chapter once again there is a clear call for every single Christian to evangelise, going so far as to say that to not do so is ‘yielding to sin and Satan’[10]. We must pray for God to give us the love for our neighbor, which is key to motivating evangelism. The chapter ends by critiquing some evangelistic methods and providing a number of questions through which every evangelistic method can be assessed.

The final chapter briefly summarises what has previously been stated and pushes the point home that God’s sovereignty in salvation and human responsibility must go hand in hand. For they not only complement each other but they create an environment in which evangelism honours God and compels the evangelist to persevere. Finishing where he began Packer reminds the reader of the utmost importance of prayer and concludes with, ‘we would not wish to say that man cannot evangelize at all without coming to terms with this doctrine; but we venture to think that, other things being equal, he will be able to evangelize better for believing it.’[11]

Throughout this book Packer provides a practical no-nonsense approach to evangelism that applies in such a way that it could have been written yesterday. For a book published fifty-five years ago it remains timeless. His clear explanations and reasoned arguments that are convincing and easily understood make this book applicable and readable for all.

Possibly the greatest strength of this book is its undercurrent of continuous challenge for every single Christian to evangelise. It is clear that there is no excuse for the Christian that attempts to escape this responsibility. Packer blocks the avoider at every turn and drives them to see their responsibility to put every effort into this goal. From the beginning of the book Packer is well aware of this and considers it his hope, ‘that what I shall say now will act as an incentive to this task.’[12] For a book that sets out to explain the essential doctrine of God’s sovereignty and how it relates to evangelism it avoids the potential pitfall of a mere magniloquent discussion and instead drives home an unavoidable challenge that encourages and convicts the soul towards evangelism for every Christian.

Unfortunately Packer could be interpreted as encouraging those that seek to avoid evangelism by stating the importance of relationship (p. 89-90). Although his warning for impersonal evangelism is rightfully stated, the way he goes about rejecting an evangelistic method that people have abused could dissuade others from a good and effective method that can and should be employed. Packer pushes those who evangelise to make sure they give themselves to friendship and establishing a relationship before telling another person about the Lord Jesus Christ. He goes so far as to say it dishonors God and ‘creates resentment and prejudices people against the Christ’[13]. For a man that continuously holds Paul up as the great evangelist surely it is clear that Paul did not form a relationship with every individual before telling them of Christ. This can be seen in multiple scenarios including Lydia’s conversion (Acts 16:11-40). Paul did not go to the riverside a number of times to speak with Lydia and first invite her to have a meal and wait a number of months before their relationship was strong enough before telling her the gospel but rather spoke to her immediately and ‘the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul’ (Acts 16:14). Throughout the New Testament examples of evangelists waiting a number of months to develop a relationship before telling someone of Christ are non-existent. Yet this is what Packer pushes for in response to those that are unloving in their ‘cold turkey’ evangelistic efforts. Perhaps at times it can be unwise to blurt out the gospel message at the risk of appearing callous, yet surely it is more in keeping with the urgency of evangelism, which Packer supports, to be ready at the first moment to tell any individual of Christ in a loving and friendly manner. Although Australian culture may appear to be averse to discussing spiritual matters with a stranger, Newman in his book Questioning Evangelism[14] provides appropriate strategies to share the gospel with anyone despite any relationship foundation. Questioning Evangelism asserts the importance of love and compassion alongside the proclamation of the gospel to anyone, be it a friend or a stranger. Ben Pfahlert has had years of doing ‘walk-up’ and explains that there are many ‘false caricatures’ and that in his experience in Australia it is a joy to share ‘good news’ with strangers[15]. Although a relationship is important in evangelism and seems to make the message more effective, Packer appears to have described it in such a way that he provides an easy excuse for those who claim they are ‘waiting’ for the relationship to be at the right stage before telling someone about Christ.

Another possible flaw in Packer’s book is pointed out by John Piper[16]. Piper, based on Jonathan Edwards, considers Packer’s irreconcilable antinomy between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility to be non-existent. Packer rightly claims that God is Creator and thereby some aspects of God will always be a mystery. Yet Piper considers giving up on comprehending part of God’s character that the Bible seeks to explain as short-changing ourselves from the delight of discovering more of the wondrous beauty of God. Although it does seem difficult to comprehend, perhaps Packer is too quick to discount the possibility of understanding more of God’s character and what the Bible teaches. Surely Habakkuk alone demonstrates that it is good to have a right desire to explore the mysteries of God rather than making the assumption that some things are out of our comprehension.

Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God is an essential read for all those seeking to explore the concept of evangelism and for all those who struggle with evangelism. It provides both a clear motivation for evangelism and a foundation to practice evangelism for a lifetime.

 

[1] Rick Santorum, ‘The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America – TIME’, TIME, n.d., http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1993235_1993243_1993310,00.html, (accessed September 13, 2016).

[2] Leland Ryken, J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2015), 14.

[3] J. I. Packer, Knowing God (20th anniversary ed ed.; Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1993).

[4] J. I Packer, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1961), 12.

[5] Packer, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God, 23.

[6] Packer, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God, 26.

[7] Packer, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God, 31.

[8] Packer, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God, 36.

[9] Packer, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God, 43.

[10] Packer, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God, 86.

[11] Packer, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God, 135.

[12] Packer, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God, 13.

[13] Packer, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God, 90.

[14] Randy Newman, Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People’s Hearts the Way Jesus Did (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004).

[15] Ben Pfahlert, ‘Cold Turkish Evangelism’, The Briefing, February 1, 2009, http://matthiasmedia.com/briefing/2009/02/cold-turkish-evangelism-2/, (accessed September 15, 2016).

[16] John Piper, ‘A Response to J.I. Packer on the So-Called Antinomy Between the Sovereignty of God and Human Responsibility’, in Desiring God, March 1, 1976, http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/a-response-to-ji-packer-on-the-so-called-antinomy-between-the-sovereignty-of-god-and-human-responsibility, (accessed September 12, 2016).

 

Bibliography

Newman, Randy, Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People’s Hearts the Way Jesus Did (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004).

Packer, J. I, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1961).

Packer, J. I., Knowing God (20th anniversary ed ed.; Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1993).

Pfahlert, Ben, ‘Cold Turkish Evangelism’, The Briefing, February 1, 2009, http://matthiasmedia.com/briefing/2009/02/cold-turkish-evangelism-2/, (accessed September 15, 2016).

Piper, John, ‘A Response to J.I. Packer on the So-Called Antinomy Between the Sovereignty of God and Human Responsibility’, in Desiring God, March 1, 1976, http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/a-response-to-ji-packer-on-the-so-called-antinomy-between-the-sovereignty-of-god-and-human-responsibility, (accessed September 12, 2016).

Ryken, Leland, J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2015).

Santorum, Rick, ‘The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America – TIME’, TIME, n.d., http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1993235_1993243_1993310,00.html.

 

 

 

 

Christ Centered Preaching – Bryan Chapell
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