The mysterious “they” say the greatest fear of many people—even more than death!—is public speaking. Standing before an audience, whether it’s a group of three or three hundred, is absolutely terrifying for some. But you know something? I think there’s something else that’s far more terrifying, especially for Christians:
So many of us seem to be terrified of the idea of sharing our faith—we don’t know how to do it, we don’t want to do it “wrong.” But for some of us, our questions about evangelism aren’t simply of the “how-to” variety—they’re all about the “why”:
If God is truly sovereign over all of creation, why do we need to evangelize at all?
Does active evangelism suggest God isn’t really as sovereign as we think?
All of us at one time or another ask these questions, even if it’s only to ourselves. Many of us struggle to see how an all-sovereign God could require human beings to be involved in the work of salvation. At our worst, some fall prey to the notion that we have no need to evangelize at all, while others find themselves without any confidence that God will indeed save some.
J.I. Packer’s classic book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, is a sharp corrective to both of these errors. God’s sovereignty is not a barrier to evangelism, Packer argues. Instead, “faith in the sovereignty of God’s government and grace is the only thing that can sustain it, for it is the only thing that can give us the resilience that we need if we are to evangelize boldly and persistently, and not be daunted by temporary setbacks” (10).
Leveling the playing field
The essential truth Packer identifies is that no one really denies the sovereignty of God in salvation practically, although they may jumble it intellectually. His first evidence of this is simple: If you give thanks to God for your conversion, you are acknowledging His sovereignty in it. Packer writes,
You would never dream of dividing credit for your salvation between God and yourself… you know that it would be blasphemy if you refused to thank Him for bringing you to faith. Thus, in the way that you think of your conversion and give thanks for your conversion, you acknowledge the sovereignty of divine grace. And every other Christian in the world does the same. (13)
Likewise, his second argument is equally clear: If you pray for the conversion of others, you are confessing God’s sovereign ability to bring them to faith. Again, Packer writes,
You pray for the conversion of others.… When you pray for unconverted people, you do so on the assumption that it is in God’s power to bring them to faith. You entreat Him to do that very thing, and your confidence in asking rests upon the certainty that He is able to do what you ask.… Thus by your practice of intercession, no less than by giving thanks for your conversion, you acknowledge and confess the sovereignty of God’s grace. And so do all Christian people everywhere. (15-16)
These two points form the backbone of of Packer’s argument from an experiential standpoint. And it is right that he starts there. Because the debate over particular views of salvation tends to get heated very, very quickly—if you’ve ever been part of a Calvinism vs Arminianism debate, you know exactly what I’m talking about—Packer’s arguments serve to put everyone at the same starting point. For if we all practically agree on this essential truth, we can more readily put aside sweeping generalizations and the false dichotomies we so readily embrace.
No need to reconcile friends
On a level playing field, how we look at the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility begins to change. We don’t see the two as being in conflict, but as being friends. Both are clearly taught in Scripture—”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” (22-23).
Holding these twin truths together as friends, fiercely believing both, is what prevents us from slipping into error. The two together protect us from losing a sense of urgency about evangelism, and also give us a sense of hope about the success of evangelism. We must go and preach the good news to all, and all humanity must respond, either in repentance and faith, or in continued rebellion. All will be held accountable for their choice. But with a secure grip on the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, we can have hope that some will be saved in the end.
Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God was the first book I remember reading on evangelism. Over the last several years, I’ve read many others, several of which were very good. This one remains the best, and the one I would commend most strongly to any reader looking for greater understanding and encouragement in the task before us all.
Title: Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God
Author: J.I. Packer
Publisher: InterVarsity Press (1961; 2012 edition)