Evangelism And The Sovereignty Of God

 

J.I. Packer

 


 

CHAPTER IV
DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY AND EVANGELISM

 

WE start this final section by summing up what we have learned so far about evangelism.

Evangelism, we have learned, is a task appointed to all God’s people everywhere. It is the task of communicating a message from the Creator to rebel mankind. The message begins with information and ends with an invitation. The information concerns God’s work of making His Son a perfect Saviour for sinners. The invitation is God’s summons to mankind generally to come to the Saviour and find life. God commands all men everywhere to repent, and promises forgiveness and restoration to all who do. The Christian is sent into the world as God’s herald and Christ’s ambassador, to broadcast this message as widely as he can. This is both his duty (because God commands it, and love to our neighbour requires it) and his privilege (because it is a great thing to speak for God, and to take our neighbour the remedy—the only remedy—that can save him from the terrors of spiritual death). Our job, then, is to go to our fellow-men and tell them the gospel of Christ, and try by every means to make it clear to them; to remove as best we can any difficulties that they may find in it, to impress them with its seriousness, and to urge them to respond to it. This is our abiding responsibility; it is a basic part of our Christian calling.

But now we come to the question that has loomed over us from the outset. How is all this affected by our belief in the sovereignty of God?

We saw earlier that divine sovereignty is one of a pair of truths which form an antinomy [an appearance of contradiction] in biblical thinking. The God of the Bible is both Lord and Lawgiver in His world; He is both man’s King and man’s Judge. Consequently, if we would be biblical in our outlook, we have to make room in our minds for the thoughts of divine sovereignty and of human responsibility to stand side by side. Man is indubitably responsible to God, for God is the Lawgiver who fixes his duty, and the Judge who takes account of him as to whether or not he has done it. And God is indubitably sovereign over man, for He controls and orders all human deeds, as He controls and orders all else in His universe. Man’s responsibility for his actions, and God’s sovereignty in relation to those same actions, are thus, as we saw, equally real and ultimate facts. The apostle Paul forces this antinomy upon our notice by speaking of God’s will (thelema) in connection with both these seemingly incompatible relations of the Creator to His human creatures, and that within the limits of a single short Epistle. In the fifth and sixth chapters of Ephesians, he desires that his readers may be found ‘understanding what the will of the Lord is’ (v. 17) and ‘doing the will of God from the heart’ (vi.6). This is the will of God as Law giver, the will of God that man is to know and obey. In the same sense, Paul writes to the Thessalonians: ‘This is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication.’[I Thes. iv.3; cf. Mt. vii.21,xii.50;Jn, vii.17; I Jn. ii.17, etc.] In the first chapter of Ephesians, however, Paul speaks of God’s having chosen him and his fellow-Christians in Christ before the world began ‘according to the good pleasure of his will’ (verse 5); he calls God’s intention to sum up all things in Christ at the end of the world ‘the mystery of his will’ (verse 9); and he speaks of God Himself as ‘him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will’ (verse I I). Here God’s ‘will’ is clearly His eternal purpose for the disposal of His creatures, His will as the world’s sovereign Lord. This is the will that God actually fulfils in and through everything that actually happens—even man’s transgressions of His law.[See, e.g., Gn. xlv.5 ff., l.20. God’s thelema is spoken of in this sense in Rom. i.10, xv.32; Rev. iv.ll,etc] Older theology distinguished the two as God’s will of precept and His will of purpose, the former being His published declaration of what man ought to do, the latter His (largely secret) decision as to what He Himself will do. The distinction is between God’s law and His plan. The former tells man what he should be; the latter settles what he will be. Both aspects of the will of God are facts, though how they are related in the mind of God is inscrutable to us. This is one of the reasons why we speak of God as incomprehensible. Now, our question is: Supposing that all things do in fact happen under the direct dominion of God, and that God has already fixed the future by His decree, and resolved whom He will save, and whom not—how does this bear on our duty to evangelize?

This is a question that troubles many evangelical Christians today. There are some who have come to believe in the sovereignty of God in the unqualified and uncompromising way in which (as we judge) the Bible presents it. These are now wondering whether there is not some way in which they could and should witness to this faith by modifying the evangelistic practice which they have inherited from a generation with different convictions. These methods, they say, were devised by people who did not believe what we believe about God’s absolute sovereignty in salvation; is that not of itself reason enough for refusing to use them? Others, who do not construe the doctrine of divine sovereignty in quite this way, nor take it quite so seriously, fear that this new concern to believe it thoroughly will mean the death of evangelism; for they think it is bound to undercut all sense of urgency in evangelistic action. Satan, of course, will do anything to hold up evangelism and divide Christians; so he tempts the first group to become inhibited and cynical about all current evangelistic endeavours, and the second group to lose its head and become panicky and alarmist, and both to grow self-righteous and bitter and conceited as they criticize each other. Both groups, it seems, have urgent need to watch against the wiles of the devil.

The question, then, is pressing. It was the Bible itself that raised it, by teaching the antinomy of God’s dual relation to man; and we look now to the Bible to answer it. The biblical answer may be stated in two propositions, one negative and one positive.

 

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

The principle that operates here is that the rule of our duty and the measure of our responsibility is God’s revealed will of precept, and not His hidden will of event. We are to order our lives by the light of His law, not by our guesses about His plan. Moses laid down this principle when he had finished teaching Israel the law, the threats, and the promises of the Lord. ‘The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us . . . that we may do all the words of this law.’[Dt. xxix.29] The things that God is pleased to keep to Himself (the number and identity of the elect, for instance, and when and how He purposes to convert whom) have no bearing on any man’s duty. They are not relevant in any way for the interpreting of any part of God’s law. Now, the command to evangelize is a part of God’s law. It belongs to God’s revealed will for His people. It could not, then, in principle be affected in the slightest degree by anything that we might believe about God’s sovereignty in election and calling. We may well believe that (in the words of Article XVII of the Church of England) God ‘hath constantly (i.e., firmly, decisively) decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour’. But this does not help us to determine the nature of the evangelistic task, nor does it affect our duty to evangelize universally and indiscriminately. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty in grace has no bearing on these things.

Therefore we may say:

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

Whatever we may believe about election, the fact remains that evangelism is necessary, because no man can be saved without the gospel. ‘There is no difference between the Jew and the Greek,’ proclaims Paul; ‘for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord (Jesus Christ) shall be saved.’ Yes; but nobody will be saved who does not call upon the name of the Lord, and certain things must happen before any man can do this. So Paul continues: ‘How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?’[Rom x.12 ff.] They must be told of Christ before they can trust Him, and they must trust Him before they can be saved by Him. Salvation depends on faith, and faith on knowing the gospel. God’s way of saving sinners is to bring them to faith through bringing them into contact with the gospel. In God’s ordering of things, therefore, evangelism is a necessity if anyone is to be saved at all.

We must realize, therefore, that when God sends us to evangelize, He sends us to act as vital links in the chain of His purpose for the salvation of His elect. The fact that He has such a purpose, and that it is (so we believe) a sovereign purpose that cannot be thwarted, does not imply that, after all, our evangelizing is not needed for its fulfilment. In our Lord’s parable, the way in which the wedding was furnished with guests was through the action of the king’s servants, who went out as they were bidden into the highways and invited in all whom they found there. Hearing the invitation, the passers-by came.[Mt xxii.1 ff.] It is in the same way, and through similar action by the servants of God, that the elect come into the salvation that the Redeemer has won for them.

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

Whatever we may believe about election, the fact remains that men without Christ are lost, and going to hell (pardon the use of this tarnished phrase: I use it because I mean it). ‘Except ye repent,’ said our Lord to the crowd, ‘ye shall all . . . perish.’[Lk xiii.3,5] And we who are Christ’s are sent to tell them of the One—the only One—who can save them from perishing. Is not their need urgent? If it is, does that not make evangelism a matter of urgency for us? If you knew that a man was asleep in a blazing building, you would think it a matter of urgency to try and get to him, and wake him up, and bring him out. The world is full of people who are unaware that they stand under the wrath of God: is it not similarly a matter of urgency that we should go to them, and try to arouse them, and show them the way of escape?

We should not be held back by the thought that if they are not elect, they will not believe us, and our efforts to convert them will fail. That is true; but it is none of our business, and should make no difference to our action. In the first place, it is always wrong to abstain from doing good for fear that it might not be appreciated. In the second place, the non-elect in this world are faceless men as far as we are concerned. We know that they exist, but we do not and cannot know who they are, and it is as futile as it is impious for us to try and guess. The identity of the reprobate is one of God’s ‘secret things’ into which His people may not pry. In the third place, our calling as Christians is not to love God’s elect, and them only, but to love our neighbour, irrespective of whether he is elect or not. Now, the nature of love is to do good and to relieve need. If, then, our neighbour is unconverted, we are to show love to him as best we can by seeking to share with him the good news without which he must needs perish. So we find Paul warning and teaching ‘every man’:[Col. i.28] not merely because he was an apostle, but because every man was his neighbour. And the measure of the urgency of our evangelistic task is the greatness of our neighbour’s need and the immediacy of his danger.

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

Whatever we may believe about election, and, for that matter, about the extent of the atonement, the fact remains that God in the gospel really does offer Christ and promise justification and life to ‘whosoever will’. ‘Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’[Rom. x.13] As God commands all men everywhere to repent, so God invites all men everywhere to come to Christ and find mercy. The invitation is for sinners only, but for sinners universally; it is not for sinners of a certain type only, reformed sinners, or sinners whose hearts have been prepared by a fixed minimum of sorrow for sin; but for sinners as such, just as they are. As the hymn puts it:

‘Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.’
[From Joseph Hart’s Come, ye sinners (Christian Praise, 196).
The whole hymn is a magnificent statement of the gospel invitation]

The fact that the gospel invitation is free and unlimited—’sinners Jesus will receive’—’come and welcome to Jesus Christ’[Title of a book by John Bunyan]—is the glory of the gospel as a revelation of divine grace.

There is a great moment in the Holy Communion service of the Church of England when the minister utters the ‘comfortable words’. First the congregation confesses its sins to God in language of extreme strength (‘our manifold sins and wickedness . . . provoking most justly thy wrath . . . the burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us . . .’). Then the minister turns to face the people and proclaims to them the promises of God.

‘Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him.

‘Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.

‘So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

‘Hear also what Saint Paul saith. ‘This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

‘Hear also what Saint John saith.

‘If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins.’[Mt xi.28; Jn. iii.16; ITim i.15; IJn ii.1: italics mine.]

Why are these words ‘comfortable’? Because they are God’s words, and they are all true. They are the essential gospel. They are the promises and assurances which Christians who approach the Lord’s Table should come trusting. They are the word which the sacrament confirms. Note them carefully. Note first their substance. The object of faith which they present is not mere orthodoxy, not mere truth about Christ’s atoning death. It is not less than that, but it is more than that. It is the living Christ Himself, the perfect Saviour of sinners, who carries in Himself all the virtue of His finished work on the cross. ‘Come unto me . . . He is the propitiation for our sins.’ These promises direct our trust, not to the crucifixion as such, but to Christ crucified; not to His work in the abstract, but to Him who wrought it. And note second the universality of these promises. They offer Christ to all who need him, all ‘that truly turn to him’, any man who has sinned. None are shut out from mercy save those who shut themselves out through impenitence and unbelief.

Some fear that a doctrine of eternal election and reprobation involves the possibility that Christ will not receive some of those who desire to receive Him, because they are not elect. The ‘comfortable words’ of the gospel promises, however, absolutely exclude this possibility. As our Lord elsewhere affirmed, in emphatic and categorical terms: ‘Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.’[Jn vi.37]

It is true that God has from all eternity chosen whom He will save. It is true that Christ came specifically to save those whom the Father had given Him. But it is also true that Christ offers Himself freely to all men as their Saviour, and guarantees to bring to glory everyone who trusts in Him as such. See how He Himself deliberately juxtaposes these two thoughts in the following passage:

‘I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.’[Jn vi.38 ff.] ‘All which he hath given me’—here is Christ’s saving mission defined in terms of the whole company of the elect, whom He came specifically to save. ‘Every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him’—here is Christ’s saving mission defined in terms of the whole company of lost mankind, to whom He offers Himself without distinction, and whom He will certainly save, if they believe. The two truths stand side by side in these verses, and that is where they belong. They go together. They walk hand in hand. Neither throws doubt on the truth of the other. Neither should fill our minds to the exclusion of the other. Christ means what He says, no less when He undertakes to save all who will trust Him than when He undertakes to save all whom the Father has given Him.

Thus John Owen, the Puritan, who wrote in defence of both unconditional election and limited atonement, is able—is, indeed, constrained—to address the unconverted as follows:

‘Consider the infinite condescension and love of Christ, in his invitations and calls of you to come unto him for life, deliverance, mercy, grace, peace and eternal salvation. . . . In the declaration and preaching of them, Jesus Christ yet stands before sinners, calling, inviting, encouraging them to come unto him.

‘This is somewhat of the word which he now speaks unto you: Why will ye die? why will ye perish? why will ye not have compassion on your own souls? Can your hearts endure, or can your hands be strong, in the day of wrath that is approaching? . . . Look unto me, and be saved; come unto me, and I will ease you of all sins, sorrows, fears, burdens, and give rest to your souls. Come, I entreat you; lay aside all procrastinations, all delays; put me off no more; eternity lies at the door . . . do not so hate me as that you will rather perish than accept of deliverance by me.

‘These and the like things doth the Lord Christ continually declare, proclaim, plead and urge upon the souls of sinners . . . He doth it in the preaching of the word, as if he were present with you, stood amongst you, and spake personally to every one of you . . . He hath appointed the ministers of the gospel to appear before you, and to deal with you in his stead, avowing as his own the invitations which are given you in his name, 2 Cor. v.19, 2O.’[From The Glory of Christ (Works, ed. W. Goold, 1850, I.422).]

So indeed it is. The invitations of Christ are words of God. They are true. They are meant. They are genuine invitations. They are to be pressed upon the unconverted as such. Nothing that we may believe about God’s sovereignty in grace makes any difference to this.

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

Whatever we may believe about election, the fact remains that a man who rejects Christ thereby becomes the cause of his own condemnation. Unbelief in the Bible is a guilty thing, and unbelievers cannot excuse themselves on the grounds that they were not elect. The unbeliever was really offered life in the gospel, and could have had it if he would; he, and no-one but he, is responsible for the fact that he rejected it, and must now endure the consequences of rejecting it. ‘Everywhere in Scripture,’ writes Bishop J. C. Ryle, ‘it is a leading principle that man can lose his own soul, that if he is lost at last it will be his own fault, and his blood will be on his own head. The same inspired Bible which reveals this doctrine of election is the Bible which contains the words, ?Why will ye die, O house of Israel ??—?Ye will not come unto me, that ye might have life.?—?This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.? (Ezk. xviii.31; Jn. V.40, iii. 19.) The Bible never says that sinners miss heaven because they are not elect, but because they ?neglect the great salvation?, and because they will not repent and believe. The last judgment will abundantly prove that it is not the want of God’s election, so much as laziness, the love of sin, unbelief, and unwillingness to come to Christ, which ruins the souls that are lost.’[Old Paths, p. 468] God gives men what they choose, not the opposite of what they choose. Those who choose death, therefore, have only themselves to thank that God does not give them life. The doctrine of divine sovereignty does not affect the situation in any way.

So much for the first and negative proposition.

The second is positive.

 

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

Some fear that belief in the sovereign grace of God leads to the conclusion that evangelism is pointless, since God will save His elect anyway, whether they hear the gospel or not. This, as we have seen, is a false conclusion based on a false assumption. But now we must go further, and point out that the truth is just the opposite. So far from making evangelism pointless, the sovereignty of God in grace is the one thing that prevents evangelism from being pointless. For it creates the possibility—indeed, the certainty—that evangelism will be fruitful. Apart from it, there is not even a possibility of evangelism being fruitful. Were it not for the sovereign grace of God, evangelism would be the most futile and useless enterprise that the world has ever seen, and there would be no more complete waste of time under the sun than to preach the Christian gospel.

Why is this? Because of the spiritual inability of man in sin. Let Paul, the greatest of all evangelists, explain this to us.

Fallen man, says Paul, has a blinded mind, and so is unable to grasp spiritual truth. ‘The natural (unspiritual, unregenerate) man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.’[1Cor ii.14] Again, he has a perverse and ungodly nature. ‘The carnal mind (the mind of the unregenerate man) is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.’ The consequence? ‘So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.’[Rom viii.7 f.] In both these passages Paul makes two distinct statements about fallen man in relation to God’s truth, and the progression of thought is parallel in both cases. First Paul asserts unregenerate man’s failure, as a matter of fact. He ‘receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God’; he ‘is not subject to the law of God’. But then Paul goes on to interpret his first statement by a second, to the effect that this failure is a necessity of nature, some- thing certain and inevitable and universal and unalterable, just because it is not in man to do other- wise than fail in this way. ‘Neither can he know them.’ ‘Neither indeed can be.’ Man in Adam has not got it in him to apprehend spiritual realities, or to obey God’s law from his heart. Enmity against God, leading to defection from God, is the law of his nature. It is, so to speak, instinctive to him to suppress and evade and deny God’s truth, and to shrug off God’s authority and to flout God’s law—yes, and when he hears the gospel to disbelieve and disobey that too. This is the sort of person that he is. He is, says Paul, ‘dead in trespasses and sins[Eph ii.1]—wholly incapacitated for any positive reaction to God’s Word, deaf to God’s speech, blind to God’s revelation, impervious to God’s inducements. If you talk to a corpse, there is no response; the man is dead. When God’s Word is spoken to sinners, there is equally no response; they are ‘dead in trespasses and sins’.

Nor is this all. Paul also tells us that Satan (whose power and ill will he never underestimates) is constantly active to keep sinners in their natural state. Satan ‘now worketh in the children of disobedience[Eph ii.2] to ensure that they do not obey God’s law. And ‘the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ . . . should shine unto them.’[2Cor iv.4] So that there are two obstacles in the way of successful evangelism: the first, man’s natural and irresistible impulse to oppose God, and the second, Satan’s assiduity in shepherding man in the ways of unbelief and disobedience.

What does this mean for evangelism? It means, quite simply, that evangelism, described as we have described it, cannot possibly succeed. However clear and cogent we may be in presenting the gospel, we have no hope of convincing or converting anyone. Can you or I by our earnest talking break the power of Satan over a man’s life? No. Can you or I give life to the spiritually dead? No. Can we hope to convince sinners of the truth of the gospel by patient explanation? No. Can we hope to move men to obey the gospel by any words of entreaty that we may utter? No. Our approach to evangelism is not realistic till we have faced this shattering fact, and let it make its proper impact on us. When a schoolmaster is trying to teach children arithmetic, or grammar, and finds them slow to learn, he assures himself that the penny must drop sooner or later, and so encourages himself to keep on trying. We can most of us muster great reserves of patience if we think that there is some prospect of ultimate success in what we are attempting. But in the case of evangelism there is no such prospect. 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 action is foredoomed to failure. This is the fact, the brute, rock-bottom fact, that we have to face.

Here, I suspect, we find the canker that is really weakening evangelism in evangelical circles today. Everyone seems to agree that our evangelism is not in a healthy state, but there is no agreement as to the nature of the malady, or what should be done to cure it. Some, as we have indicated, appear to think that the basic trouble is the current revival in many places of faith in the sovereignty of divine grace—a faith which finds expression in a fresh emphasis on the doctrines of unconditional election and effectual calling. Their remedy, it seems, would be to try and refute, or suppress, these doctrines, and to discourage people from taking them seriously. Since, however, so many of the greatest evangelists and missionaries of past days have held precisely these doctrines, it is, to say the least, not obvious that the diagnosis is right, or the suggested remedy appropriate. Moreover, it seems clear that evangelism was languishing between the two world wars, long before this fresh emphasis began to be made. Others, as we have also hinted, appear to locate the trouble in the kind of evangelistic meetings that are commonly held, and to think that if we cut out the jollity and made them more sombre, and abolished appeals and counselling rooms and after-meetings, our evangelism would automatically be reinvigorated. But this also is not obvious. I suspect that the root of the trouble with our evangelism today lies deeper than either of these diagnoses goes. I suspect that what is responsible for this sense of evangelistic malaise is a widespread neurosis of disillusionment, an unacknowledged failure of nerve, springing from a long-standing failure to reckon with the fact that evangelism, regarded as a human enterprise, must be expected to fail. Let me explain. For about a century now, it has been characteristic of evangelical Christians (rightly or wrongly— we need not discuss that here) to think of evangelism as a specialized activity, best done in short sharp bursts (‘missions’ or ‘campaigns’), and needing for its successful practice a distinctive technique, both for preaching and for individual dealing. At an early stage in this period, Evangelicals fell into the way of assuming that evangelism was sure to succeed if it was regularly prayed for and correctly run (i.e., if the distinctive technique was used). This was because in those early days, under men like Moody, Torrey, Haslam and Hay Aitken, evangelistic campaigns usually were successful—not because they were always well planned and run (by twentieth century standards, they often were not), but because God was working in Britain in those days in a way in which He is evidently not working now. Even then, however, it was noticeable that the second mission in any place would rarely be as productive as the first, or the third as the second. But during the Past fifty years, as our country has drifted further and further from its Christian moorings, the law of diminishing returns has set in much more drastically. Evangelistic campaigns have become less and less fruitful. And this fact has unnerved us. Why has it unnerved us? Because we were not prepared for it. We had come to take it for granted that good organization and efficient technique, backed by a routine of prayers, was itself sufficient to guarantee results. We felt that there was an almost magical potency in the special meeting, the special choir and soloist, and the special preacher. We felt convinced that the thing that would always bring life into a dead church, or a dead town, was an intensive evangelistic mission. With the top of our minds, many of us still think that, or profess to think it. We tell each other that it is so, and make our plans on this basis. But with the bottom of our minds, in our heart of hearts, we have grown discouraged, and disillusioned, and apprehensive. Once we thought that well-planned evangelism was sure to succeed, but now we find ourselves afraid each time that it is going to fail, as it has failed so often before. Yet we are afraid to admit our fears to ourselves, for we do not know what to make of a situation in which our planned evangelism fails. So we repress our fears, and our disillusionment becomes a paralysing neurosis, and our evangelistic practice be- comes a jaded and half-hearted routine. Basically, the trouble is our unconfessed doubts as to the worth whileness of what we are doing.

Why have we these doubts? Because we have been disillusioned. How have we been disillusioned? By the repeated failure of the evangelistic techniques in which we once reposed such confidence. What is the cure of our disillusionment? First, we must admit that we were silly ever to think that any evangelistic technique, however skilful, could of itself guarantee conversions; second, we must recognize that, because man’s heart is impervious to the word of God, it is no cause for surprise if at any time our evangelism fails to result in conversions; third, we must remember that the terms of our calling are that we should be faithful, not that we should be successful; fourth, we must learn to rest all our hopes of fruit in evangelism upon the omnipotent grace of God. For God does what man cannot do. God works by His Spirit through His Word in the hearts of sinful men to bring them to repentance and faith. Faith is a gift of God. ‘Unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ . . . to believe on him,’ writes Paul to the Philippians.[Phil i.29] ‘By grace are ye saved through faith,’ he tells the Ephesians, ‘and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.’[Eph ii.8. Whether the gift of God in this text is the act of believing, or the fact of being-saved-through-believing (commentators divide), does not affect our point.] So, too, repentance is the gift of God. ‘Him (Christ) did God exalt,’ Peter told the Sanhedrin, ‘.. . to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and remission of sins.’[Acts v.31, RV] When the Jerusalem church heard how Peter had been sent to evangelize Cornelius, and how Cornelius had come to faith, they said: ‘Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.’[Acts xi.18] You and I cannot make sinners repent and believe in Christ by our words alone; but God works faith and repentance in men’s hearts by His Holy Spirit.

Paul terms this God’s work of ‘calling’. The old theologians named it ‘effectual calling’, to distin- guish it from the ineffective summons that is given when the gospel is preached to a man in whose heart God is not at work. It is the operation whereby God causes sinners to understand and respond to the gospel invitation. It is a work of creative power: by it, God gives men new hearts, freeing them from slavery to sin, abolishing their inability to know and do God’s truth, and leading them actually to turn to God and trust Christ as their Saviour. By it, also, God breaks Satan’s hold upon them, delivering them from the domain of darkness and transferring them into ‘the kingdom of his dear Son’.[Col i.13] It is thus a calling that creates the response which it seeks, and confers the blessing to which it invites. It is often termed the work of ‘prevenient grace’, because it precedes any motion Godward in the heart of sinful man. It has been described (perhaps misleadingly) as a work of ‘irresistible grace’, simply because it effectively dethrones the disposition to resist grace. The Westminster Confession analyses it as an activity of God in and upon fallen men, ‘enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good; and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace’[Westminster Confession, X.i; cf. 2Cor iv.6; 1Cor ii.10 ff.; Ezk xxxvi.26 f.; Jn vi.44 f.; Phil ii.13.]

Christ Himself taught the universal necessity of this calling by the Word and the Spirit. ‘No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him.’[Jn vi.44] He also taught the universal efficacy of it. ‘Every man . . . that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me.’[Verse 45] And with this He taught the universal certainty of it for all whom God has chosen. ‘All that the Father giveth me shall come to me:’[Verse 37] they shall hear of Me, and they shall be moved to trust Me. This is the Father’s purpose, and the Son’s promise.

Paul speaks of this ‘effectual calling’ as the out working of God’s purpose of election. To the Romans, he says: ‘Whom (God) did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son . . . moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified’[Rom viii.29 f.] To the Thessalonians he writes : ‘God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth : whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the g1ory of our Lord Jesus Christ.’[2Thes ii.13 f.] The author of the call, the apostle tells us, is God; the mode of calling is by the gospel; and the issue of the call is a title to glory.

But if this is so, then we see at once why it was that Paul, who faced so realistically the fact of fallen man’s slavery to sin and Satan, was able to avoid the disillusionment and discouragement that we feel today as it dawns upon us more and more clearly that, humanly speaking, evangelism is a hopeless task. The reason was that Paul kept his eyes firmly fixed on the sovereignty of God in grace. He knew that God had long before declared that ‘my word . . . that goeth forth out of my mouth . . . shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing’[Is Lv.11] whereto I sent it. He knew that this was no less true of the gospel than of any other divine utterance. He knew, therefore, that his own preaching of the gospel would not in the long run prove fruitless. God would see to that. He knew that wherever the word of the gospel went, God would raise the dead. He knew that the word would prove a savour of life to some of those who heard it. This knowledge made him confident, tireless, and expectant in his evangelism. And if there were on occasion hard spells, with much opposition and little visible fruit, he did not panic or lose heart. For he knew that if Christ had opened the door for him to make known the gospel in a place, that meant that it was Christ’s purpose to draw sinners to Himself in that place. The word would not return void. His business, therefore, was to be patient and faithful in spreading the good news till the time of harvest should come.

There was a time at Corinth when things were hard; there had been some converts, certainly, but opposition was mounting and even Paul, the dauntless, was wondering whether it was worth persevering there. ‘Then,’ we are told, ‘spake the Lord (Jesus) to Paul in the night by a vision, Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace : for I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee : for I have much people in this city.’[Acts xviii.9 f.] As if to say : go on preaching and teaching, Paul, and let nothing stop you; there are many here whom I mean to bring to Myself through your testimony to My gospel. ‘This confirms S. Luke’s emphasis upon the prevenient choice of God,’ comments Rackham.[The Acts of the Apostles, p. 327; cf. Acts xiii.48.] And Luke’s emphasis reflects Paul’s conviction, based upon Christ’s own assurance to him. Thus the sovereignty of God in grace gave Paul hope of success as he preached to deaf ears, and held up Christ before blind eyes, and sought to move stony hearts. His confidence was that where Christ sends the gospel there Christ has His people—fast bound at present in the chains of sin, but due for release at the appointed moment through a mighty renewing of their hearts as the light of the gospel shines into their darkness, and the Saviour draws them to Himself. In a great hymn which he wrote shortly after his conversion (possibly the day after), Charles Wesley spoke of what had happened like this :

‘Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off , my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.’
[From And can it be (Christian Praise, 235).]

That is not only a vivid statement of experience; it is also a piece of excellent theology. This is precisely what happens to unconverted men and women wherever the gospel is preached. Paul knew that; hence his confidence and expectancy when evangelizing.

Paul’s confidence should be our confidence too. We may not trust in our methods of personal deal- ing 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.

What effects should this confidence and certainty have upon our attitude when evangelizing? Three at least.

(1) It should make us bold.

It should keep us from daunted when we find, as we often do, that people’s first reaction to the gospel is to shrug it off in apathy or even contempt. Such a reaction should not surprise us; it is only to be expected from the bondslaves of sin and Satan. Nor should it discourage us; for no heart is too hard for the grace of God. Paul was a bitter opponent of the gospel, but Christ laid His hand on Paul, and Paul was broken down and born again. You yourself, since you became a Christian, have been learning constantly how corrupt and deceitful and perverse your own heart is; before you became a Christian, your heart was worse; yet Christ has saved you, and that should be enough to convince you that He can save anyone. So persevere in presenting Christ to unconverted people as you find opportunity. You are not on a fool’s errand. You are not wasting either your time or theirs. You have no reason to be ashamed of your message, or half-hearted and apologetic in delivering it. You have every reason to be bold, and free, and natural, and hopeful of success. For God can give His truth an effectiveness that you and I cannot give it. God can make His truth triumphant to the conversion of the most seemingly hardened unbeliever. You and I will never write off anyone as hopeless and beyond the reach of God if we believe in the sovereignty of His grace.

(2) This confidence should make us patient.

It should keep us from being daunted when we find that our evangelistic endeavours meet with no immediate response. God saves in His own time, and we ought not to suppose that He is in such a hurry as we are. We need to remember that we are all children of our age, and the spirit of our age is a spirit of tearing hurry. And it is a pragmatic spirit; it is a spirit that demands quick results. The modern ideal is to achieve more and more by doing less and less. This is the age of the labour-saving device, the efficiency chart, and automation. The attitude which all this breeds is one of impatience towards everything that takes time and demands sustained effort. Ours tends to be a slapdash age; we resent spending time doing things thoroughly. This spirit tends to infect our evangelism (not to speak of other departments of our Christianity), and with disastrous results. We are tempted to be in a great hurry with those whom we would win to Christ, and then, when we see no immediate response in them, to become impatient and downcast, and then to lose interest in them, and feel that it is useless to spend more time on them; and so we abandon our efforts forthwith, and let them drop out of our ken. But this is utterly wrong. It is a failure both of love for man and of faith in God.

The truth is that the work of evangelizing demands more patience and sheer ‘stickability’, more reserves of persevering love and care, than most of us twentieth-century Christians have at command. It is a work in which quick results are not promised; it is a work, therefore, in which the non-appearance of quick results is no sign of failure; but it is a work in which we cannot hope for success unless we are prepared to persevere with people. 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. If you see someone whom you meet come to faith through a single such sermon or talk, you will normally find that his heart was already well prepared by a good deal of Christian teaching and exercise of spirit prior to your meeting with him. The law that operates in such cases is ‘one soweth, and another reapeth’.[Jn iv.37] If, on the other hand, you meet a person who is not thus prepared, a person who as yet has no conviction of the truth of the gospel and perhaps no idea, or even a false idea, of what the gospel actually is, it is worse than useless to try and stampede him into a snap ‘decision’. You may be able to bully him into a psychological crisis of some sort, but that will not be saving faith, and will do him no good. What you have to do is to take time with him, to make friends with him, to get alongside him, to find out where he is in terms of spiritual understanding, and to start dealing with him at that point. You have to explain the gospel to him, and be sure that he understands it and is convinced of its truth, before you start pressing him to an active response. You have to be ready to help him, if need be, through a spell of seeking to repent and believe before he knows within himself that he has received Christ, and Christ has received him. At each stage you have to be willing to go along with him at God’s speed, which may seem to you a strangely slow speed. But that is God’s business, not yours. Your business is simply to keep pace with what God is doing in his life. Your willingness to be patient with him in this way is the proof of your love to him no less than of your faith in God. If you are not willing thus to be patient, you need not expect that God will favour you by enabling you to win souls.

Whence comes the patience that is so indispensable for evangelistic work? From dwelling on the fact that God is sovereign in grace and that His word does not return to Him void; that it is He who gives us such opportunities as we find for sharing our knowledge of Christ with others, and that He is able in His own good time to enlighten them and bring them to faith. God often exercises our patience in this, as in other matters. As He kept Abraham waiting twenty-five years for the birth of his son, so He often keeps Christians waiting for things that they long to see, such as the conversion of their friends. We need patience, then, if we are to do our part in helping others towards faith. And the way for us to develop that patience is to learn to live in terms of our knowledge of the free and gracious sovereignty of God.

(3) Finally, this confidence should make us prayerful.

Prayer, as we said at the beginning, is a confessing of impotence and need, an acknowledging of helplessness and dependence, and an invoking of the mighty power of God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. In evangelism, as we saw, we are impotent; we depend wholly upon God to make our witness effective; only because He is able to give men new hearts can we hope that through our preaching of the gospel sinners will be born again. These facts ought to drive us to prayer. It is God’s intention that they should drive us to prayer. God means us, in this as in other things, to recognize and confess our impotence, and to tell Him that we rely on Him alone, and to plead with Him to glorify His name. It is His way regularly to withhold His blessings until His people start to pray. ‘Ye have not, because ye ask not.’[Jas iv.2] ‘Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you : for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.’[Mt vii.7 f.] But if you and I are too proud or lazy to ask, we need not expect to receive. This is the universal rule, in evangelism as elsewhere. God will make us pray before He blesses our labours in order that we may constantly learn afresh that we depend on God for everything. And then, when God permits us to see conversions, we shall not be tempted to ascribe them to our own gifts, or skill, or wisdom, or persuasiveness, but to His work alone, and so we shall know whom we ought to thank for them.

The knowledge, then, that God is sovereign in grace, and that we are impotent to win souls, should make us pray, and keep us praying. What should be the burden of our prayers? We should pray for those whom we seek to win, that the Holy Spirit will open their hearts; and we should pray for ourselves in our own witness, and for all who preach the gospel, that the power and authority of the Holy Spirit may rest upon them. ‘Pray for us,’ writes Paul to the Thessalonians, ‘that the word of the Lord may run and be glorified.’[2Thes iii.1, RV.] Paul was a great evangelist who had seen much fruit, but Paul knew that every particle of it had come from God, and that unless God continued to work both in him and in those to whom he preached he would never convert another soul. So he pleads for prayer, that his evangelism might still prove fruitful. Pray, he pleads, that the word of the gospel may be glorified through my preaching of it, and through its effect in human lives. Pray that it may be used constantly to the conversion of sinners. This, to Paul, is an urgent request, just because Paul sees so clearly that his preaching can save nobody unless God in sovereign mercy is pleased to bless it and use it to this end. Paul, you see, does not hold that, because God is sovereign in saving sinners, therefore prayer is needless, any more than he holds that, because God is sovereign in saving sinners, evangelistic preaching is needless. Rather, he holds that, just because the salvation of sinners depends wholly upon God, prayer for the fruitfulness of evangelistic preaching is all the more necessary. And those today who, with Paul, believe most strongly that it is the sovereign agency of God, and that alone, that leads sinners to Christ, should bear witness to their faith by showing themselves most constant and faithful and earnest and persistent in prayer that God’s blessing may rest on the preaching of His word, and that under it sinners may be born again. This is the final bearing of belief in the sovereignty of God’s grace upon evangelism.

We said earlier in this chapter that this doctrine does not in any way reduce or narrow the terms of our evangelistic commission. Now we see that, so far from contracting them, it actually expands them. For it faces us with the fact that there are two sides to the evangelistic commission. It is a commission, not only to preach, but also to pray; not only to talk to men about God, but also to talk to God about men. Preaching and prayer must go together; our evangelism will not be according to knowledge, nor will it be blessed, unless they do. We are to preach, because without knowledge of the gospel no man can be saved. We are to pray, because only the sovereign Holy Spirit in us and in men’s hearts can make our preaching effective to men’s salvation, and God will not send His Spirit where there is no prayer. Evangelicals are at present busy reforming their methods of evangelistic preaching, and that is good. But it will not lead to evangelistic fruitfulness unless God also reforms our praying, and pours out on us a new spirit of supplication for evangelistic work. The way ahead for us in evangelism is that we should be taught afresh to testify to our Lord and to His gospel, in public and in private, in preaching and in personal dealing, with boldness, patience, power, authority, and love; and that with this we should also be taught afresh to pray for God’s blessing on our witness with humility and importunity. It is as simple—and as difficult—as that. When all has been said that has to be said about the reformation of evangelistic methods, it still remains that there is no way ahead but this, and if we do not find this way, we shall not advance.

Thus the wheel of our argument comes full circle. We began by appealing to our practice of prayer as proof of our faith in divine sovereignty. We end by applying our faith in divine sovereignty as a motive to the practice of prayer.

What, then, are we to say about the suggestion that a hearty faith in the absolute sovereignty of God is inimical to evangelism? We are bound to say that anyone who makes this suggestion thereby shows that he has simply failed to understand what the doctrine of divine sovereignty means. 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. Is not this as it should be? We would not wish to say that man cannot evangelize at all without coming to terms with this doctrine; but we venture to think that, other things being equal, he will be able to evangelize better for believing it.

 


Evangelism And The Sovereignty Of God. J.I. Packer. Inter Varsity Press. 1961. Pg. 92-126.