To have published a single literary work that becomes a classic is a notable accomplishment. Publishing two gives the writer a corner on contemporary Christians’ reading lists. James Inverness Packer has accomplished just that. Packer is well-known for his landmark book Knowing God, which first was published in 1973. This is not a review of that book, but if you have not read it, you should. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (first published, 1961) is the other classic Packer has written, and it punches far above its weight (my copy is a 2008 reprint edition–it’s only 134 pages) in the world of biblically faithful Christian classics.
The first chapter
The first chapter, “Divine Sovereignty,” makes the case that all believers adhere to a confidence in God’s absolute sovereignty. Packer calls the average Christian’s prayer life to the witness stand, and the testimony is irrefutable. If you are inclined to question this last sentence, just read the chapter and form your own opinion: it’s only seven pages long.
Next, in “Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility,” Packer shows that these two poles of activity (divine and human) comprise not a paradox, but an antinomy: the assertion of two statements which seem to be contradictory, but both of which are logically necessary: “An antinomy exists when a pair of principles stand side by side, seemingly irreconcilable, yet both undeniable.” Packer goes on to show, with plenty of examples, that both divine sovereignty and human responsibility are taught in Scripture. His advice regarding how to handle the conflict between the two is wise: “What should one do, then, with an antinomy? Accept it for what it is, and learn to live with it. Refuse to regard the apparent inconsistency as real; put down the semblance of contradiction to the deficiency of your own understanding; think of the two principles not as rival alternatives but, in some way that at present you do not grasp, complementary to each other. Be careful, therefore, not to set them at loggerheads, nor to make deductions from either that would cut across the other (such deductions would, for that very reason, be certainly unsound).”
In his chapter entitled “Evangelism,” Packer answers four questions in the light of the foregoing. “What is evangelism? What is the evangelistic message? What is the motive for evangelizing? By what means and methods should evangelism be practiced?” The bulk of the book is found in this chapter, and it is excellent. Packer fully delivers on the promise to deal with the questions, and in doing so, he faithfully and powerfully represents the biblical gospel.
The final chapter
The final chapter, “Divine Sovereignty and Evangelism,” demonstrates that, far from being a damper on our evangelism, a good understanding of God’s sovereign role stokes the flames of our passion to tell the message. God’s sovereignty is, in fact, a guarantee of our success in evangelism.
Without being disrespectful or polemical, Packer has dismantled the typical Arminian concerns regarding the doctrines of grace, as regards evangelism. This book is not a “gotcha!” to be used to win a debate; rather, it is a powerful, positive, pastoral accounting of what must remain a divine mystery: God’s absolute sovereignty, and our undeniable responsibility to evangelize.