Posted by: Tim | August 3, 2008

Book Review: Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God by J. I. Packer

They say it is good to read an old book every once and a while. By ‘old’, they probably meant Luther or Augustine, but I figured a 47 year old J.I. Packer book might qualify as well.

Packer wrote Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (click here to buy it at chapters.ca) to address evangelism issues that Evangelicals were facing in the 1950’s. The book grew out of a series of messages he gave in in London at a pre-missions conference in 1959.

What I found amazing is how contemporary the book sounded. Solomon’s statement ‘that there is nothing new under the sun’ (Eccl. 1:9) is appropriate here. In many places it sounds like he is engaging current issues in evangelism.

The purpose of the book, as the title suggests, is to explain how the sovereignty of God relates to evangelism. Some think that if God is sovereign, He will save whom He will, regardless of what we do, so why bother? Others denounce a strict understanding of the sovereignty of God, which they believe will dampen evangelistic efforts. Packer writes to clear up misunderstanding and explain that a robust belief in the sovereignty of God is vital to active, sustained evangelism.

Packer writes in a winsome style that makes the book an easy, enjoyable read and not too long at 126 pages with an old, larger font. The book is divided into four chapters/sections:

1. Divine Sovereignty

He starts off by showing that every Christian (whether Calvinist or Arminian) believes in the sovereignty of God, for when we pray we assume it. This is a short and somewhat humourous chapter.

2. Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

In this chapter, Packer addresses two opposite errors:

a) Exclusive focus on human responsibility, which could lead us do almost anything (biblical or otherwise) in evangelism since we think it all depends on us.

b) Exclusive focus on divine sovereignty, which could lead us to do almost nothing in evangelism, since we think it all depends on God.

Packer shows that the Bible teaches both divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and these doctrines are not at odds but are complimentary.

3. Evangelism

He then dives into a lengthy explanation of Biblical evangelism, defining it and then looking at evangelism in the life of the Apostle Paul. This is the longest chapter and the heart of the book. I found this section very helpful and encouraging, and my copy of the book is now full of underlines and other notes.

Packer emphasizes that getting the message right is important and we should be careful not to leave anything out! We must preach both faith and repentence. We must not preach a self help gospel (again this sounds so current, but was written 45+ years ago), where Jesus saves us from our personal weaknesses and failings to help make our lives better now. The gospel message is much deeper than that, for Jesus saves us from the wrath of God and allows us to be restored to fellowship with God.

He also states how important it is to do evangelism with love. We evangelize because we love God, and because we love our fellow man and want the best for him. We believe that the gospel is the best thing we can give him, so it is loving to do so. We must evangelize with gentleness and respect, not rudely in an uncaring manner (as if we are looking to get some notches in our belt). I found myself greatly challenged to love people who do not know Christ.

4. Divine Sovereignty and Evangelism

In the final section, Packer explains how the sovereignty of God is actually a great encouragement to Christians for it is only because God is sovereign that we have any hope of seeing people saved, since without the Lord, people are dead in their sins and would never respond apart from the sovereign work of God in making them alive in Christ. Belief in God’s sovereignty will make us confident that people will respond to the gospel, which should in turn encourage us to be bold, patient and prayerful in our evangelism.

I highly recommend this book as an encouragement in your evangelistic efforts. It is a book that has aged well and is just as relevant now as when it was first written. It would be good to read before diving into a new evangelistic program, as it gives such a good biblical foundation of what evangelism is. It is not a how-to book, but an enjoyable theological book that will encourage you to evangelize and equip you to evaluate evangelistic methods in light of Scripture.

Packer, J. I., Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, Intervarsity Press, England, 1961 (this edition published in 1991), 126pages.

Click here to buy it at chapters.ca

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Responses

  1. I read that book myself and it was a refreshing book to read indeed. One of the best on evangelism and a Father that rains/gives sun to both the just and unjust while upholding the “dignity” of man made in His image and a purpose that exists on the side of Eternity (before the world began). It isn’t divisive at all trying to present a lop-sided view that scares people away who may come from the extreme of either side of Calvinism/Arminianism. Confused and Extremist mouths are shut in his balanced presentation. Hearts are encouraged!!!

    Actually, somewhere in one of his books (perhaps he mentioned it a bit in that one) he speaks in terms of “Antinomy” where two truths can seem opposite and yet exist together as an ultimate Biblical balance. Antinomy being in the arena of Epistemology- “How can we know that we know Truth rightly?- Schaeffer speaking to a despairing/nihilistic slash Post-Modern generation years in advance called it True truth to confront the despair that Truth exists at all in a Universal form.”- Some people have gotten discouraged on these lines when they run into an antinomy and wonder “How can I know that I know truly the truth of the moment?” This book shows that you can regarding Sovereignty and Evangelism. Paul presents it all so wisely, “I suffer for the sake of the elect” – a teleological (goal focussed perspective) perspective that in evangelism and Eternity all will be well. And he says, “I become all things to all people” realizing the scope of the gospel isn’t limited at all in terms of who should hear it. Anyway, blessings on you brother for reviewing the book and I hope many will pick it up and read it.


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