Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God

J.I. Packer

126 pages

InterVarsity Press (1961, 1991)


Recommend: Yes

Genre: Evangelism


There is no doubt that in my mind — from both personal experience and observation of those around me — that there seems to be a tension with the thought of God being completely sovereign in the affairs of man, namely salvation in this context, and the thought of God requiring us to share the truth that we have with those who don’t know it. “If God is truly sovereign over who gets saved and how they get saved,” so the argument goes, “then there is really no point in me going out of my way in witnessing the gospel of Christ to unbelievers. God is in charge . . . and if they’re going get saved with or without me then there is really no point in investing my time in evangelism.”

Though sad to admit, this has become the pervasive thought of many Christians today. One of the many charges leveled against Calvinism and its emphasis on the sovereignty of God in salvation is that which I just brought up. “It doesn’t make sense,” they say.

Despite the arguments and the critiques, Scripture clearly presents both of these truths — the sovereignty of God in saving sinners and the duty of Christians to evangelize (to share the gospel message of Christ and His saving work accomplished on the cross, received on the basis of faith). It is natural for the human mind to want to smooth out all the rough edges, as it were, to make it more comprehensible. Wanting to do this many err on either side. On the one hand you have those who emphasize the duty and responsibility of man to evangelize and they tend to leave God out of the equation in the process of salvation, as if salvation if all about man picking himself up by the bootstraps and gathering all the willpower to be saved. That of course has some real problems when you stop and ponder the biblical picture of man — man without God — and how utterly unable and unwilling they are to choose Christ in and of himself (e.g., Eph. 2:1-3; Tit. 3:3; Jer. 17:9, etc.).

But then we have those who overemphasize the sovereignty of God; so much so that we end up with a fatalistic system where man is seen simply as a robot, with no self-desire — a mere puppet in the hands of a puppeteer. This, again, has some serious Bible to deal with. Passages are replete which emphasize the call to repent of sins, to turn to Christ, to come and choose life (e.g., Acts 17:30-31; Matt. 11:28-30, etc.). But within the context of evangelism, no passage is more clearer than Matthew 28:19-20 (NASB), which has been commonly referred to as the “Great Commission”:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

With such a controversial subject, J.I. Packer seeks to deal with it head-on, using the Bible as his guide and source. Though a short treatment of the subject, it doesn’t lack in content. Packer has a way with words unlike many men whom I have read, which makes his ability to communicate effective and winsome.

Book Structure:

The book follows a simple outline. Packer first deals with the issue of divine sovereignty and how both Arminians and Calvinists find common ground on this issue. “On our feet we may have arguments about it, but on our knees we are all agreed” (p. 17).

In chapter two the core issue is dealt with, divine sovereignty and human responsibility. He admits the apparent contradiction — which Packer defines as an antinomy (def. “an antinomy . . . is an observed relation between two statements of fact. It is not deliberately manufactured; it is forced upon us by the facts themselves . . . We do not invent it, and we cannot explain it. Not is there any way to get rid of it, save by falsifying the very facts that led us to it” [p. 21]) — and concludes that there is a certain mystery to this subject, but the Bible nonetheless teaches these two truths. Far it be from us to cast aside any of these truths which the Bible makes so clear.

Packer then addresses evangelism in chapter three with four questions which he answers throughout the chapter: 1. What is evangelism?; 2. What is the evangelistic message?; What is the motive for evangelizing?; 4. By what means and methods should evangelism be practised? This is a meaty chapter which is very enlightening.

And finally in chapter four, Packer goes back once more and talks about divine sovereignty and evangelism. Suffice it to say that Packer does a superb job in dealing with such a intricate and mysterious subject, such as this one, simply and effectively. In his final lines, Packer sums up the effects of the sovereignty of God in our evangelistic efforts:

“Not only does it undergird evangelism, and uphold the evangelist, by creating a hope of success that could not otherwise be entertained; it also teaches us to bind together preaching and prayer; and as it makes us bold and confident before men, so it makes us humble and importunate before God” (p. 125).

Notable Quotes:

  • “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 in not in the instrument: it is in the hand of the One who uses the instrument” (p. 27).
  • “Evangelism is man’s work, but the giving of faith is God’s” (p. 40).
  • “…It was the news about Jesus of Nazareth. It was the news of the incarnation, the atonement, and the kingdom–the cradle, the cross, and the crown–of the Son of God. It was the news of how God ‘glorified his servant Jesus’ by making Him Christ, the world’s long-awaited ‘Prince and . . . Savior’. It was the news of how God made His Son Man; and how, as Man, God made Him Priest, and Prophet, and King; and how, as Priest, God also made Him a sacrifice for sins; and how, as Prophet, God also made Him a Lawgiver to His people; and how, as King, God has also made Him Judge of all the world, and given Him prerogatives which in the Old Testament are exclusively Jehovah’s own–namely, to reign till every knee bows before Him, and to save all who call on His name. In short, the good news was just this: that God has executed His eternal intention of glorifying Hos Son by exalting Him as a great Saviour for great sinners” (p. 47).
  • “Regarded as a human enterprise, evangelism is a hopeless task. It cannot in principle produce the desired effect. We can preach, and preach clearly and fluently and attractively; we can talk to individuals in the most pointed and challenging way; we can organize special services, and distribute tracts, and put up posters, and flood the country with publicity–and there is not the slightest prospect that all this outlay of effort will bring a single soul home to God. Unless there is some other factor in the situation, over and above our own endeavours, all evangelistic actions foredoomed to failure. This is the fact, the brute, rock-bottom fact, that we have to face” (p. 109).
  • “We may not trust in our methods of personal dealing or running evangelistic services, however excellent we may think them. There is no magic in methods, not even in theologically impeccable methods. When we evangelize, our trust must be in God who raises the dead. He is the almighty Lord who turns men’s hearts, and He will give conversions in His own time. Meanwhile, our part is to be faithful in making the gospel known, sure that such labour will never be in vain. This is how the truth of the sovereignty of God’s grace bears upon evangelism” (p. 117-8).


Packer has given a great gift to the church in dealing with this issue and presenting a biblical (and logical, though mysterious!) answer to a question which often plagues the believer. A great blessing is in store for the man that picks up this book.