In Chapter IV of his 1961 book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God , J. I. Packer makes the following bold statement:
The sovereignty of God in grace gives us our only hope of success in evangelism.
He doesn’t just tell us that because God sovereignly administers grace we have ‘some’ hope of success in our evangelistic efforts, he boldly asserts that “The sovereignty of God in grace is our ‘only’ hope of success in evangelism.” (emphasis mine). Now that might sound a bit peculiar to some of you, if not downright insulting, considering the amount of effort you devote to the task of evangelism!
Dear reader, I ask you to hear him out. What follows is Packer’s explanation of his assertion.
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 2:14] 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 8:7 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 2:1]—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 2:2] 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 4:4] 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.
That other factor in the situation is the divine sovereignty of the creator and ruler of the universe, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Rom 11:36)