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God's Sovereignty & Human Responsibility in Evangelism

For the second time in the past year I am turning to J.I. Packer’s small but powerful book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Having read several books on the doctrines of grace, I wanted to make firm in my mind how human responsibility and divine sovereignty interact in the process of evangelism and conversion. I know of no better resource for this than Packer’s book. I would like to provide a lengthy quote that speaks of the danger of having an improper view of this relationship. If we have an exclusive belief in God’s sovereignty and ignore human responsibility we will find ourselves believing the worst type of hyper-Calvinism (which is poorly named, for it does not represent Calvinism at all). On the other hand, if we ignore divine sovereignty, here is the danger we face (this is a lengthy quote but I encourage you to read it and ponder it - it will be well worth your time):

“If we forget that it is God’s prerogative to give results when the gospel is preached, we shall start to think that it is our responsibility to secure them. And if we forget that only God can give faith, we shall start to think that the making of converts depends, in the last analysis, not on God, but on us, and that the decisive factor is the way in which we evangelize. And this line of thought, consistently followed through, will lead us far astray.

Let us work this out. If we regarded it as our job, not simply to present Christ, but actually to produce converts—to evangelize, not only faithfully, but also successfully —our approach to evangelism would become pragmatic and calculating. We should conclude that our basic equipment, both for personal dealing and for public preaching, must be twofold. We must have, not merely a clear grasp of the meaning and application of the gospel, but also an irresistible technique for inducing a response. We should, therefore, make it our business to try and develop such a technique. And we should evaluate all evangelism, our own and other people’s, by the criterion, not only of the message preached, but also the visible results. If our own efforts were not bearing fruit, we should conclude that our technique still needed improving. If they were bearing fruit, we should conclude that this justified the technique we had been using. We should regard evangelism as an activity involving a battle of wills between ourselves and those to whom we go, a battle in which victory depends on our firing off a heavy enough barrage of calculated effects. Thus our philosophy of evangelism would become terrifyingly similar to the philosophy of brainwashing. And we would not longer be able to argue, when such a similarity is asserted to be fact, that this is not a proper conception of evangelism…

…It is right to recognize our responsibility to engage in aggressive evangelism. It is our right to desire the conversion unbelievers. It is right to want one’s presentation of the gospel to be as clear and forcible as possible. If we preferred that converts should be few and far between, and did not care whether our proclaiming of Christ went home or not, there would be something wrong with us. But it is not right when we take it on us to do more than God has given us to do. It is not right when we regard ourselves as responsible for securing converts, and look to our own enterprise and techniques to accomplish what only God can accomplish…only by letting our knowledge of God’s sovereignty control the way in which we plan, and pray, and work in His service, can we avoid becoming guilty of this fault.

I believe every Christian has succumbed at one time or another to the mistaken belief that we are somehow responsible for the results of our evangelistic efforts. When we speak with a friend for hours and share our faith with that person but are able to secure no prayer of faith and repentance, we assume that we have done something wrong. We assume, perhaps, that our arguments are not persuasive enough or that we do not believe strongly enough what we claim to believe. But, thankfully, this is not the case. We are responsible to present the gospel faithfully and forcibly, but are not responsible for the result. When we have finished our task, we are to rejoice regardless of any result - we should rejoice as much if we have seen no conversion than if we have. In either case we should rejoice in the opportunity God gave us to share the awesome truths of His Word and to be faithful servants. We can rest in the confidence that we were faithful and can know that His will will be done.

The one area that continues to trouble me is why we need to give an effective (or, as Packer says, clear and forcible) presentation of the gospel when we acknowledge that the clarity and foribleness of the presentation have nothing to do with the end result. Or do they? I hope to have more to say about this in a later article.