Summary and Outline of J. I. Packer’s “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God”

Andy Naselli —  February 17, 2008 — 4 Comments

J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1961. 126 pp.

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Above are a couple cover designs for reprints of this classic book. Below is a summary and outline of the book that I prepared on March 1, 2003.

Summary

Packer’s popular paperback is a succinct, non-technical explanation of how God’s sovereignty and human responsibility affect evangelism. It is not a blueprint for modern evangelistic action (7). The aim is to dispel the suspicion that belief in the absolute sovereignty of God hinders evangelism and to show that it actually strengthens evangelism (8, 10). The book divides logically into four chapters. (See the outline of the book below.)

If you are a Christian, you already believe in God’s sovereignty because you pray (11). To be more specific, you already believe that God is sovereign in salvation for two reasons: you give God thanks for your conversion (12), and you pray for the conversion of others (15). The difficulty comes when one tries to reconcile God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. That is a mystery (24) or antinomy, which is merely an apparent incompatibility between two apparent truths (18), as opposed to a paradox, which is a dispensable, comprehensible play on words that seems to unite two opposite ideas (19–20). The antinomy of divine sovereignty and human responsibility in evangelism may lead to the temptation to an exclusive concern with human responsibility (25–29) or to an exclusive concern with divine sovereignty (29–36). [Although D. A. Carson agrees with Packer that this is a mystery, he prefers not to use the word “antinomy.” See How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 201n13.]

People are confused about what evangelism is primarily because they think of it in terms of the effect produced rather than the message delivered (27). “Evangelism is just preaching the gospel” (41). Paul’s account of the nature of his own evangelistic ministry is exemplary. He evangelized as the commissioned representative of Christ as His steward, herald, and ambassador (42–46). His primary task was to teach the truth about Christ (46–49), and his aim was to convert his hearers to faith in Christ (49–53). One reason that evangelism is not limited exclusively to special evangelistic meetings is that there are many others ways such as personal evangelism, home meetings, group Bible studies, and regular Sunday services (54–55). The evangelistic message is about God, sin, Christ (both His person and work), and the summons to repentance and faith (57–73). Conviction of sin is essentially an awareness of a wrong relationship with God; it always includes conviction of particular sins in the sight of God from which one needs to turn; and it always includes conviction of one’s complete sinfulness and consequent need of a moral re-creation (62–63). People’s belief about the extent of the atonement should not affect their proclamation of the evangelistic message (69).

Faith and repentance are both acts of the whole man. Faith is more than just credence; it is essentially the casting and resting of oneself and one’s confidence on the promises of mercy that Christ has given to sinners and on the Christ who gave those promises. Equally, repentance is more than just sorrow for the past; repentance is a change of mind and heart, a new life of denying self and serving the Savior as king in self’s place. Mere credence without trusting and mere remorse without turning do not save (70–71).

Two motives spur believers to evangelize constantly. The primary motive is love to God and concern for His glory (73–75), and the secondary motive is love to humans and concern for their welfare (75–82). Evangelism should spring up spontaneously and naturally for believers (76–77). A “scalp-hunting zeal in evangelism . . . is both discreditable and alarming” because it reflects arrogance, conceit, pleasure for power, and “a ferocious psychological pommelling” (80). “The right to talk intimately to another person about the Lord Jesus Christ has to be earned, and you earn it by convincing him that you are his friend, and really care about him” (81).

The “last analysis” of evangelism reveals that it has only one means, agent, and method. Its means is the gospel of Christ explained and applied; its agent is Christ through His Holy Spirit; and its method is the faithful explanation and application of the gospel message (85–86). One should test all his evangelistic plans and practices with five questions:

  1. Is this way of presenting Christ calculated to impress on people that the gospel is a word from God (87)?
  2. Is it calculated to promote the work of the word in men’s minds rather than their emotions (87–88)?
  3. Is it calculated to convey the whole doctrine of the gospel and not just part of it (88)?
  4. Is it calculated to convey the whole application of the gospel and not just part of it (88–89)? Packer essentially defends what would later be called “Lordship salvation” and then argues, “It is even more dangerous for a man whose conscience is roused to make a misconceived response to the gospel, and take up with a defective religious practice, than for him to make no response at all” (89).
  5. Is it calculated to convey gospel truth in a manner that is appropriately serious (89–90)? The best method of evangelism in principle most completely serves the gospel (90).

It is legitimate to distinguish between God’s will of precept (law) and purpose (plan). The former is what believers know, and the latter is what only God knows and what will ultimately occur (94). Packer defends two propositions. First, the sovereignty of God in grace does not affect anything previously mentioned about the nature and duty of evangelism (96–106). It does not affect evangelism’s necessity (97–98), urgency (98–100), genuineness (100–104), or the sinner’s responsibility (105–6). Second, the sovereignty of God in grace gives believers their only hope of success in evangelism (106–25). Successful evangelism without God’s sovereign grace is impossible because humans naturally and irresistibly oppose God and because Satan actively keeps humans in their natural state (106–12). God’s effectual calling makes successful evangelism possible and certain (112–17). “Meanwhile, our part is to be faithful in making the gospel known, sure that such labour will never be in vain” (118). This confidence and certainty should have effects on the attitude of believers when evangelizing. It should make them bold, patient, and prayerful (118–25). “The idea that a single evangelistic sermon, or a single serious conversation, ought to suffice for the conversion of anyone who is ever going to be converted is really silly” (120). Both preaching and praying are essential (124). Evangelistic prayer consists of at least three elements: confession of one’s powerlessness and need; acknowledging one’s helplessness and dependence; and entreating God’s power to do what one cannot do (122).

Packer concludes by acknowledging that coming to terms with God’s sovereignty with reference to evangelism is not essential for a person to evangelize, but “he will be able to evangelize better for believing it” (126). I strongly agree. The emphasis of Packer’s book is scriptural, and its conclusions are lucid, enlightening, and convicting. This is an excellent little book for any believer who has wondered about the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility in evangelism.

Outline

The following outline follows the logic and wording of the book.

I. Divine Sovereignty

A. You already believe that God is sovereign in salvation because you give God thanks for your conversion.

B. You already believe that God is sovereign in salvation because you pray for the conversion of others.

II. Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

A. The antinomy (mystery) of divine sovereignty and human responsibility in evangelism may lead to the temptation to an exclusive concern with human responsibility.

B. The antinomy (mystery) of divine sovereignty and human responsibility in evangelism may lead to the temptation to an exclusive concern with divine sovereignty.

III. Evangelism

A. What is evangelism?

1. Illustration: Paul’s account of the nature of his own evangelistic ministry is exemplary.

  • a. Paul evangelized as the commissioned representative of the Lord Jesus Christ.
    1. Paul was Christ’s steward.
    2. Paul was Christ’s herald.
    3. Paul was Christ’s ambassador.
  • b. Paul’s primary task in evangelism was to teach the truth about the Lord Jesus Christ.
  • c. Paul’s ultimate aim in evangelism was to convert his hearers to faith in Christ.

2. Evangelism is not limited exclusively to special evangelistic meetings.

  • a. There are many others ways of evangelism such as personal evangelism, home meetings, group Bible study, and regular Sunday services.
  • b. Some believers are committed to the ways of evangelism above but do not have special evangelistic meetings (e.g., believers in NT times).
  • c. A special meeting is evangelistic only if it teaches the truth of the gospel—not whether it appeals for decisions.

B. What is the evangelistic message?

1. The gospel is a message about God.

2. The gospel is a message about sin.

  • a. Conviction of sin is essentially an awareness of a wrong relationship with God.
  • b. Conviction of sin always includes conviction of sins: a sense of guilt for particular wrongs in the sight of God from which one needs to turn.
  • c. Conviction of sin always includes conviction of sinfulness: a sense of one’s complete corruption and perversity in God’s sight and one’s consequent need of a new heart and new birth (i.e., a moral re-creation).

3. The gospel is a message about Christ.

  • a. We must not present the person of Christ apart from His saving work.
  • b. We must not present the saving work of Christ apart from His person.

4. The gospel is a summons to faith and repentance.

  • a. The demand is for faith as well as repentance.
  • b. The demand is for repentance as well as for faith.

C. What is the motive for evangelizing?

1. The primary motive for evangelizing is love to God and concern for His glory.

2. The secondary motive for evangelizing is love to man and concern for his welfare.

D. By what means and methods should evangelism be practiced?

1. The last analysis of evangelism reveals that it has only one means, agent, and method.

  • a. Evangelism has only one means: the gospel of Christ explained and applied.
  • b. Evangelism has only one agent: Christ through His Holy Spirit.
  • c. Evangelism has only one method: the faithful explanation and application of the gospel message.

2. Test all your evangelistic plans and practices with five questions.

  • a. Is this way of presenting Christ calculated to impress on people that the gospel is a word from God?
  • b. Is this way of presenting Christ calculated to promote, or impede, the work of the word in men’s minds?
  • c. Is this way of presenting Christ calculated to convey the whole doctrine of the gospel?
  • d. Is this way of presenting Christ calculated to convey the whole application of the gospel?
  • e. Is this way of presenting Christ calculated to convey gospel truth in a manner that is appropriately serious?

IV. Divine Sovereignty and Evangelism

A. The sovereignty of God in grace does not affect anything that we have said about the nature and duty of evangelism.

1. The belief that God is sovereign in grace does not affect the necessity of evangelism.

2. The belief that God is sovereign in grace does not affect the urgency of evangelism.

  • a. It is always wrong to abstain from doing good for fear that it might not be appreciated.
  • b. The non-elect in this world are faceless men as far as we are concerned.
  • c. Our calling as Christians is not to love God’s elect and them only, but to love our neighbor irrespective of whether he is elect or not.

3. The belief that God is sovereign in grace does not affect the genuineness of gospel invitations or the truth of gospel promises.

4. The belief that God is sovereign in grace does not affect the responsibility of the sinner for his reaction to the gospel.

B. The sovereignty of God in grace gives us our only hope of success in evangelism.

1. Successful evangelism without God’s sovereign grace is impossible.

  • a. Man naturally and irresistibly opposes God.
  • b. Satan actively keeps man in his natural state.

2. God’s effectual calling makes successful evangelism possible and certain.

3. This confidence and certainty should have effects on our attitude when evangelizing.

  • a. This confidence should make us bold.
  • b. This confidence should make us patient.
  • c. This confidence should make us prayerful.

4 responses to Summary and Outline of J. I. Packer’s “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God”

  1. Scott R. Harper March 19, 2013 at 7:46 pm

    My pastor and I recently had a conversation about doctrine of election and I struggled with it. He told me to look up J. I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Some people say God predestines some for hell. It’s much easier for me to understand that our merciful God wants no one to perish; but he is aware of the one’s that will go to hell because he is God. Help me further understand this confusing doctrine.

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