Packer on God’s Sovereignty and the Need To Evangelise

Some great truths that we need to keep in mind:

Back in 1959 the late great J. I. Packer gave a series of talks at a missionary conference in London. Those talks were expanded on and turned into a book: Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (IVP, 1961, 1991). Because I have long been a great fan of Packer, and because I have greatly benefited from this book since I first purchased it in 1999, I wish to share some portions of it here.

Before doing so however I should make this confession: contrary to what some of my readers might think, I am no fan of controversy, of theological warfare, and of Christian pugilism. Yes, I often write about things that are controversial and on occasion I will get some believers all bent out of shape, but it is not my intent nor my desire just to stir people up and create yet new theological battlefronts.

The topics raised here will get some Christians into war mode, ready to go on the attack if their pet beliefs seem challenged. I simply plea that if you are easily triggered, you take a chill pill, or better yet, pray first before launching your missiles. But having offered those prefatory remarks, let me just share some helpful quotes from this short but important volume.

As to the twin truths we find throughout Scripture, he says this:

“God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are taught 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, though he is also a responsible moral agent. God’s sovereignty is a reality, and man’s responsibility is a reality too.” pp. 22-23

“While we must always remember that it is our responsibility to proclaim salvation, we must never forget that it is God who saves. It is God who brings men and women under the sound of the gospel, and it is God who brings them to faith in Christ. 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. We must not at any stage forget that.” p. 27

“We shall 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 most unambiguous terms as two ultimate facts; this, therefore, is the position we must take in our thinking. C.H. Spurgeon was once asked if he could reconcile these two truths to each other. ‘I wouldn’t try,’ he replied; ‘I never reconcile friends’. Friends? – yes, friends. This is the point that we have to grasp. In the Bible, divine sovereignty and human responsibility are not enemies. They are not uneasy neighbours; they are not in an endless cold war with each other. They are friends, and they work together.” pp. 35-36

Image of Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God
Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God by Packer, J. I. (Author), Dever, Mark (Author), Dever, Mark (Foreword), Packer, J. I. (Foreword) Amazon logo

He goes on to discuss evangelism and the place of faith and repentance:

“According to the New Testament, evangelism is just preaching the gospel, the evangel. It is a work of communication in which Christians make themselves mouthpieces for God’s message of mercy to sinners. Anyone who faithfully delivers that message, under whatever circumstances, in a large meeting, in a small meeting, from a pulpit, or in a private conversation, is evangelizing. Since the divine message finds its climax in a plea from the Creator to a rebel world to turn and put faith in Christ, the delivering of it involves the summoning of one’s hearers to conversion. If you are not, in this sense, seeking to bring about conversions, you are not evangelizing.” p. 41

“It needs to be said that faith is not a mere optimistic feeling, any more than repentance is a mere regretful or remorseful feeling. Faith and repentance are both acts, and acts of the whole man. Faith is more than just credence; faith is essentially the casting and resting oneself and one’s confidence on the promises of mercy which Christ has given to sinners, and on the Christ who gave those promises. Equally, repentance is more than just sorrow for the past: repentance is a change of mind and heart, a new life of denying self and serving the Saviour as King in self’s place. Mere credence without trusting, and mere remorse without turning do not save. ‘The devils also believe, and tremble.’ ‘The sorrow of the world worketh death’.” pp. 70-71

Packer asks where our compassion for the lost is:

“May I stress again: if we ourselves have known anything of the love of Christ for us, and if our hearts have felt any measure of gratitude for the grace that has saved us from death and hell, then this attitude of compassion and care for our spiritually needy fellow men ought to come naturally and spontaneously to us. It was in connection with aggressive evangelism that Paul declared that “the love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor 5:14). It is a tragic and ugly thing when Christians lack desire, and are actually reluctant, to share the precious knowledge that they have with others whose need of it is just as great as their own.” pp. 76-77

“We are not all called to be preachers; we are not all given equal opportunities or comparable abilities for personal dealing with men and women who need Christ. But we all have some evangelistic responsibility which we cannot shirk without failing in love both to our God and to our neighbour. To start with, we all can and should be praying for the salvation of unconverted people, particularly in our families, and among our friends and everyday associates. And then we must learn to see what possibilities of evangelism our everyday situation holds, and to be enterprising in our use of them. It is the nature of love to be enterprising. If you love someone, you are constantly trying to think out what is the best you can do for him and how best you can please him, and it is your pleasure to give him pleasure by the things you devise for him. If, then, we love God—Father, Son and Spirit—for all that they have done for us, we shall muster all our initiative and enterprise to make the most that we can of every situation for their glory—and one chief way of doing this is to seek out ways and means of spreading the gospel, and obeying the divine command to make disciples everywhere. Similarly, if we love our neighbour, we shall muster all our initiative and enterprise to find ways and means of doing him good. And one chief way of doing him good is to share with him our knowledge of Christ. Thus, if we love God and our neighbour, we shall evangelize, and we shall be enterprising in our evangelism. We shall not ask with reluctance how much we have to do in this realm, as if evangelizing were a distasteful and burdensome task. We shall not inquire anxiously after the minimum outlay of effort in evangelism that will satisfy God. But we shall ask eagerly, and pray earnestly to be shown, just how much it is in our power to do to spread the knowledge of Christ among men; and once we see what the possibilities are, we shall give ourselves wholeheartedly to the task.” pp. 78-79

And he reminds us of the real source of salvation:

“However clear and cogent we may be in presenting the gospel, we have no hope of convincing or converting anyone. Can you or I by our earnest talking break the power of Satan over a man’s life? No. Can you or I give life to the spiritually dead? No. Can we hope to convince sinners of the truth of the gospel by patient explanation? No. Can we hope to move men to obey the gospel by any word of entreaty that we may utter? No. Our approach to evangelism is not realistic till we have faced this shattering fact, and let it make its proper impact on us.” p. 108

Packer closes by saying there are two sides to the evangelistic commission:

“It is a commission, not only to preach, but also to pray; not only to talk to men about God, but also to talk to God about men. Preaching and prayer must go together; our evangelism will not be according to knowledge, nor will it be blessed, unless they do. We are to preach, because without knowledge of the gospel no man can be saved. We are to pray, because only the sovereign Holy Spirit in us and in men’s hearts can make our preaching effective to men’s salvation, and God will not send His Spirit where there is no prayer. Evangelicals are at present reforming their methods of evangelistic preaching, and that is good. But it will not lead to evangelistic fruitfulness unless God also reforms our praying, and pours out on us a new spirit of supplication for evangelistic work. The way ahead for us in evangelism is that we should be taught afresh to testify to our Lord and to His gospel, in public and in private, in preaching and in personal dealing, with boldness, patience, power, authority, and love; and that with this we should also be taught afresh to pray for God’s blessing on our witness with humility and importunity. It is as simple—and as difficult—as that. When all has been said that has to be said about the reformation of evangelistic methods, it still remains that there is no way ahead but this, and if we do not find this way, we shall not advance. Thus the wheel of our argument comes full circle. We began by appealing to our practice of prayer as proof of our faith in divine sovereignty. We end by applying our faith in divine sovereignty as a motive to the practice of prayer.” pp. 124-125

As I say, those itching to start a biblical brawl here might just calm down. All Christians believe – or should believe – two core truths: it is God alone who saves; and he has entrusted to us the task of evangelism. Packer certainly believes that, as do I. That is sufficient for now.

Let us all love and pray for our non-Christian neighbours – and share the good news with them.

[1789 words]

8 Replies to “Packer on God’s Sovereignty and the Need To Evangelise”

  1. Thanks, Bill, for the encouraging word. Packer put it beautifully when he expressed that evangelism without prayer is not fruitful. We present the package, the Holy Spirit delivers. We do the writing or speaking and lodge it at the Post Office of the Holy Spirit.

    Keep up the good work. Sometimes we feel all alone, but here, I know, that I have a fellow worker in Christ. I hope I can be the same for you.

  2. A clear and concise presentation concerning this issue that every Christian should be profoundly understanding of, as well as prayerfully involved in exercising.
    Thank you for placing this before us who read it. Hopefully this will be spread further abroad, in Gods’ Holy work.

  3. How relevant those words are as the time of our Lord’s return is near.
    Sometimes I feel completely overcome by the way the world has changed since I was young. The modern age is one I loathe and abhor. Everywhere sin is celebrated and applauded. Our only hope is in the Lord.
    Thank you for your website and for being a watchman. Without doubt one day Jesus will greet you as His faithful servant.

  4. Looking at it from the perspective of those who believe that Christians should keep it to themselves, I sometimes wonder what they imagine Christianity to be. Is it just a bag of wind expounded by someone who is speaking like Paul did at the Areopagus and was considered a ‘babbler’? We believe because we heard the Word and/or at the right time, someone prayed for us. Those who hear and dismiss evangelism have heard the message of salvation, without necessarily knowing what it means, but they cannot be unaffected by the experience. Without the Holy Spirit, we have nothing but a kind of logical reasoning. BTW, I owe my copy of Packer’s ‘Pointing to the Pasturelands’ to a review of yours. Thanks.

  5. As I like to say;
    Pray like a Calvinist,
    Preach the Gospel like an Arminian.

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