A Review of Packer, J. I. Evangelism And The Sovereignty Of God. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008.
By: Tiago Hirayama
Packer begins with a very interesting assumption and is that by the believer’s prayers we can know if they believe in the sovereignty of God or not (p. 15). He makes two points to prove this assertion. First, when you pray, you give thanks to God for your own salvation (p. 16). Second, you pray for the conversion of others (p. 19). Therefore, by these two prayers, he concludes that whoever prays prayers such as those are acknowledging the sovereignty of God over salvation.
Divine Sovereignty And Human Responsibility
On this chapter, Packer works very hard to prove two things. First, the antinomy assumption and second, that this antinomy must be accepted as such. The last part he explains how the antinomy is to be applied in Evangelism.
First, he dismisses a definition of antinomy from the Oxford dictionary and defined by his own words as an apparent incompatibility between two apparent truths (p. 24). It is neither dispensable nor comprehensible. Moreover, he asserts that we cannot see and explain how the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man fit together, therefore a mystery to us (p. 26). Similarly, he tries to explain a paradox, again this time he does not use a dictionary. Instead, he says that a paradox is just playing with words. For instance, an author uses a paradoxical language “in order to make them memorable and provoke thought about them” (p. 25-26). Packer seems a little confused when contrasting definitions, for he says that an antinomy is not a figure of speech when we know that a figure of speech or words that cancel each other out is essentially an oxymoron. However, for the sake of his endeavors, this contrast might fit the purpose he is pursuing.
Second, the author for the most of this chapter tries to prove that his understanding of antinomy is to be accepted for what it is, and we as Christians need to learn to live with it (p. 26). In other words, he defines antinomy as he believes and then dismisses as non-understandable. For the fact that we cannot explain it and we just have to accept it, suggests that whoever previously have tried to explain it was just playing with words and they do not know what they were talking about it. Packer also keeps reminding us of his definition of antinomy, which gets a little tiring sometimes (p. 28-29).
The third part of this chapter boils down to Packer applying the knowledge of so-called antinomy, namely, the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man into Evangelism. He asserts that in Evangelism some people tend only to be concerned with human responsibility (p. 30), while others are merely interested in the abstract concept of the sovereignty of God. He ends the chapter by calling both truths as friends and not enemies (p. 40).
On this chapter, Packer seeks to answer some questions regarding Evangelism.
The first question is what Evangelism is, which he argues that people do not agree with a specific definition because many tries to define in terms of results instead of the message we are supposed to deliver (p. 41). The author ends up defining Evangelism as merely preaching the Gospel, and he makes things a little more clear when he says that the task of Evangelism “is not to ask whether conversions are known to have resulted from your witness. It is to ask whether you are faithfully making known the gospel message.” (p. 45)
The apostle Paul is the prime example of the evangelistic task. First, Paul considered himself commissioned to the work of spreading the gospel. He acknowledged himself as a steward, herald, and ambassador. Second, he taught the truth about Christ. In other words, he proclaimed the good news of God about the incarnation, the atonement, the kingdom, the cross, etc. Third, Paul’s aim was to convert people to faith in Christ.
The second question Packer answers is what is the evangelistic message? The message is about God, sin, Christ, and ultimately faith and repentance as a command (p. 60-74). The signs of genuine conviction of sins are an awareness of a wrong relationship with God, conviction of specific sins, and conviction of self-sinfulness (p. 64-65). Christ must not be presented apart from his saving work and his person (p. 66-71).
The third question to be answered is what is the motive for evangelizing? Packer ties the first reason to evangelize with the first answer to the first question on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which is, the chief end of man is to glorify God (p. 74-76), but he does not mention the second part of that answer, which is, to enjoy Him forever. The second reason for evangelizing is the love of our neighbor, and the desire to see people saved (p. 76). The willingness to evangelize should naturally sprout from within (p.77). Finally, the author finishes his point on the motive for evangelizing by mentioning that evangelism is not a task which every Christian is called to discharge the same way. Moreover, we must learn to seek evangelistic opportunities throughout the day every day. In the same way, if we truly love people we must be aggressively searching to initiate an evangelistic conversation or something which will lead to that end (p. 79-82).
The last question that Dr. Packer tries to answer in this chapter is by what means and methods should evangelism be practiced? First, the means of evangelism is basically explaining and applying the gospel of Jesus Christ. Second, the agent of evangelism is Jesus Christ himself. Third, the method of evangelism is a faithful explanation and application of the message of the gospel (p. 83-86). Moreover, the writer warns us that any attempt of planning and practicing evangelism needs a careful evaluation before applying, and he gives us a couple of questions for us to test and even reform the practices if necessary. The best method, he says, “is that which serves the gospel most completely” (p. 90).
Is this way of presenting Christ calculated to impress on people that the gospel is a word from God (p. 86)? Is this way of presenting Christ calculated to promote, or impede, the work of the word in men’s mind (p. 87)? Is this way of presenting Christ calculated to convey to people the doctrine of the gospel, and not just part of it but the whole of it (p. 88)? Is this way of presenting Christ calculated to convey to people the application of the gospel (p. 88)? Is this way of presenting Christ calculated to convey gospel truth in a manner that is appropriately serious (p. 89)?
Divine Sovereignty And Evangelism
On this last chapter, Packer will summarize what he has been explaining on the entire book till this point. He also will try to answer a question raised by his antinomy. Moreover, He will severely criticize even more the so-called evangelistic campaigns and other things related to methods and techniques people utilize to convince others to come to faith.
The question raised by Packer’s antinomy is that how does that knowledge bear on our duty of evangelism (p. 94)? He seeks to address this issue in two ways, a negative and a positive one. The negative answer says that the sovereignty of God in grace does not affect the nature and the duty of evangelism. Also, It does not affect its necessity (p. 96-97), its urgency (p. 97-98), its genuineness of the gospel invitations (p. 98-103), and the responsibility to respond to the gospel by the sinner (p. 103-104). The positive response says that the sovereignty of God in grace gives us our only hope of success in evangelism (p. 104). In other words, our hope does not come from within us; there is no hope of trying to convince or convert someone by our own methods or techniques (p. 106-107). Since the natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit, they are actually blinded by Satan who is actively working to keep them in that state.
When the faithful message is proclaimed, and the natural man begins to accept it, it is not because of our own efforts but a clear demonstration that God has called that individual effectually. For instance, Christ has taught the universal necessity, efficacy, and certainty of this calling (p. 111-112). The confidence in this certainty should make us bold, patient, and prayerful. We should be bold because God saved sinners like us, and that is enough to convince us that He can save anyone (p. 115-116). Moreover, we should be patient because God is the one who gives us the evangelistic opportunity and the only way to learn patience is by accepting the sovereignty of God over the evangelistic encounter (p. 116-118). Prayer, as mentioned in the first chapter, is a humble recognition of our inability to save ourselves and other, and what should drive us to pray is that confidence in the sovereignty of God in calling sinners to Himself (p 118-121).
J. I. Packer helps Christians distinguish between a paradox and an antinomy. Though many others such as John Piper, Jonathan Edward, and D. A. Carson; to name a few; would disagree with him on the antinomy argument. Packer demonstrates that human responsibility and God’s sovereignty are compatible doctrines which believers should hold together like friends for the purpose of evangelism.
The author is clear as so far to present what this book is and what is not. Moreover, the audience is undoubtedly recognizable as followers of Christ who intend to deepen their knowledge in the task of evangelism.
Even though this book does not provide a pattern for evangelistic encounters, it offers valuable principles for those who desire to engage in the task of it. Christian will definitely gain a more robust understanding of the reality of their duty in evangelism. Packer seeks to demonstrate that the belief in the sovereignty of God does not interfere in the task of the evangelistic duty. The very opposite is what he is trying to prove, the belief in the sovereignty of God is what ignites the passion for proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This book is not an exhaustive treatise on the subject of divine sovereignty but an explanation of how it relates to evangelism. Perhaps the reader might find him or herself asking some questions that are not answered by the author. However, the precise theological language will make one aware of many realities, especially the work of sovereign grace in saving sinners.
The objection that Packer is dealing with here is that those who believe in divine sovereignty cannot evangelize effectively if they hold to a faith which says God has absolute control over everything.