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Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God: A Review

Category Book Reviews
Date February 13, 2007

Roy Saunders is an elder at Grace Baptist Church, Ottawa, and he has recently read J. I. Packer’s Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God, published by the Inter-Varsity Press. This is his response:

This book has a long track record; it was first published in 1961 and is now in its 15th printing, so the obvious question to ask is ‘why write a review about a book written so long ago?’ After all, book reviews are written to raise people’s interest so they will buy the book, not to have them find it on the bookshelf and dust it off! Well, I read this book for the first time a couple of months ago and I am glad to write a review because it impressed me so much. I suspect I’m not the only one who struggles with the problem of understanding man’s responsibility in the light of God’s sovereignty, and how these figure together in evangelism.

The book was written for believers of all persuasions, and in the first chapter of the book Packer attempts an interesting maneuver. He tries to draw readers with a minimal view of the sovereignty of God into the book by suggesting that the reason they give God thanks for their conversion is because deep down they acknowledge that God was entirely responsible, and this fact becomes apparent when they pray for others to be saved, because they pray with the assumption that God alone can bring someone to faith. The approach is clever, respectful and gentle.

I was educated as an engineer and I like to connect dots; after all, that’s what dots are for, and that’s what engineers do. Packer presents three dots: God’s sovereignty, man’s responsibility and the Christian’s evangelistic duty, and he joins the first two dots to the third but stubbornly refuses to join the first two. His approach is to discuss the first two dots only in as far as they relate to the third.

He introduces the reader to the word ‘antinomy’ (no, not the metal, that’s antimony). He defines an ‘antinomy’ as an apparent contradiction between well-established principles, and he maintains that this is not the same as a paradox, because a paradox is a play on words in which the appearance of a contradiction is constructed for emphasis. So God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility form an antinomy. I had a bad feeling about this word right from the start, because I suspected it was theologian-speak for not being able to join the dots! My engineering instinct was correct, and as I anguished over this quandary Packer showed no mercy; his advice is to accept it and live with it. No diversion into primary and secondary causality, no pandering to the understanding, no sympathy – just suck it up! God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are Biblical principles that we must hold separate and not set against each other, and if we do not hold a balanced view of them, then the bias that results will be detrimental to the way we evangelize.

Packer slams the narrow view of evangelism that wants a special meeting with testimonies, choruses and an appeal at the end, and he insists that a preoccupation with numbers and results is wrong. Evangelism is about communicating the theology no matter what the circumstances. It’s about God, sin, Christ, faith and repentance.

He discusses what motivates the believer, and makes it clear that it is the responsibility of every believer to wholeheartedly endeavor to evangelize. The section on the means and methods of evangelism is particularly helpful as he criticizes the breezy slickness of modern meetings, and appeals for a rational communication of the Gospel with seriousness and clarity.

In the last chapter he returns to the issue of the sovereignty of God, and dismisses any thought that this principle impedes evangelism; in fact he protests that the opposite is the case. The only reason that evangelism can succeed is because of the sovereignty of God. In the light of this, Packer offers the suggestion that reliance on human enterprise has led to disillusionment, and this is the reason for the current evangelistic malaise. By contrast, a haughty view of the sovereignty of God should combat this disillusionment and create a hope that inspires the believer to be bold, patient and prayerful in his evangelistic endeavors.

I found the book readable, informative and challenging, and I would encourage you to read it – or re-read it if it is already gathering dust on your bookshelf. You will be challenged to be bold, and to persevere in presenting the Gospel at every opportunity, knowing that in every attempt you will be honoring God.

I only have one minor, superficial complaint about the latest printing of the book: some of the superscript numbers in the footnotes are badly blurred and virtually unreadable, but there are not too many so it is easy to figure them out. One other quaint thing is that Packer uses Roman numerals for the chapters in his Scripture references.

Thank you, Dr. Packer, for a masterful book. I pray it will see many more printings.

Taken with permission from the Canadian Sovereign Grace Journal

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