God’s Sovereignty and our Responsibility to Evangelize

Introduction

How should we understand the relationship between God’s sovereignty and our responsibility to evangelize? J.I. Packer’s book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, is a helpful book for those considering this important question.

God’s Sovereignty and our Responsibility

Packer gives various examples of the sovereignty of God. He points out that just by praying to God we acknowledge His sovereignty.[1] Packer points out that God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are taught side by side in Scripture.[2] And “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.”[3]

God’s sovereignty is a great means of encouragement to us in our evangelism. Packer helpfully says that in our evangelism we

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.[4]

So, we are responsible for sharing the gospel but God is sovereign. A proper understanding of God’s sovereignty and our responsibility is important and practical. It is important for us to realize, as Packer says, that “it is God who brings men and women under the sound of the gospel, and it is God who brings them to faith in Christ. Our evangelistic work is the instrument that He uses for this purpose, but the power that saves is not in the instrument: It is in the hand of the One who uses the instrument.”[5] So, “the belief that God is sovereign in grace does not affect the necessity of evangelism.”[6] Will Metzger, in agreement with Packer says, “We should not consider… sovereignty and responsibility as enemies but rather see them the way the Bible does—as friends!”[7] So, God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility may seem at odds but they are really not, although we may not understand.[8] We must remember that the secret things belong to the LORD but the things that have been revealed belong to us that we may do what God has called us to do (see Deut. 29:29).

I agree with Packer that God is meticulously sovereign. Scripture attests to that truth and over again.[9] It is replete with examples. Just flip a coin… and see that God is sovereign. Proverbs 16:33 tells us that “the lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” God is meticulously sovereign.[10]

The sovereignty of God is perhaps one of the hardest yet clearest doctrines in Scripture. Of course, our knowledge of God’s sovereignty is limited but the Scripture certainly does not shrink back from saying that God is an absolute complete control (e.g. Dan. 4:35; Is. 40:13,14; Rom. 9:15-18; Eph. 1:5, 11). The Westminster Confession of Faith says,

God, the great Creator of all things, doth uphold, direct dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy… God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure.[11]

As we approach this subject we must realize that some of it will remain a mystery to us (Deut. 29:29; Job 36:22-23; Rom. 11:33-36). As we consider God’s sovereignty and our responsibility we should be humble and not think that we will be able to understand everything. The famed theologian and philosopher, Jonathan Edwards said,

What are we? and what do we make of ourselves, when we expect that God and his ways should be upon a level with our understandings? We are infinitely unequal to any such thing as comprehending God. We may less unreasonably expect that a nut-shell should contain the ocean.[12]

God’s Sovereignty (should) Propel Mission

As we humbly consider this subject it is interesting to note something theologian John M. Frame has said: “Although theologians take great interest in the ‘problem’ of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, it is not one of the main concerns of the biblical writers.”[13] Although God’s sovereignty concerns a lot of modern authors and causes them to ask if God is just and good, that is not the main response of the authors of the Bible, especially of the New Testament.[14] In the New Testament God’s sovereignty, demonstrated in the Lord Christ, engenders joy and propels mission. The great commission starts with “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” and then it says “therefore,” in light of my glorious sovereignty, go and make disciples! 

God’s sovereignty, when understood biblically, propels mission. I have an example of this in a question I was recently asked. I was asked, “Do those who believe that God is meticulously sovereign practice evangelism?” That is, does someone who believes in sovereign grace evangelize?

To answer the question I gave an analogy. During the California Gold Rush (1848-55), men and women left everything they knew to go “out west.” They did this because they knew that there was a chance—a good chance—that they would strike gold.

In total, around 300,000 people saw the potential gold as a great opportunity and set out for California. Men and women left their lives in the East—many times at great cost, sometimes even of life and limb—to travel to the West. This Gold Rush even brought people from as far away as Latin America, Europe, Australia, and Asia. The life of a prospector was a difficult one:  the work was hard, the environment was harsh, and there was the constant fear of Indian attack.

Clearly, they would not have left family, friends, and security to go west if there was only a very random chance of striking gold. However, there were nuggets out there that were just waiting, and so there was a “Gold Rush.” People went by the droves. They were motivated by something that had been foreordained. They were motivated by the gold that was in California.

Those who believe in God’s sovereignty, or at least those who hold a healthy view of God’s sovereignty, are motivated by “striking gold” as well. Let me explain… God says there is “gold” among the nations.

Paul tells us that he endured everything for the sake of the elect (2 Tim. 2:10). Thus, far from making Paul relax his missionary zeal, it encouraged it. In fact, one night the Lord told Paul: “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent… for I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:9-10). Paul was told there was gold! And so Paul was motivated! Paul was encouraged to keep speaking because God had many elect people in the city.

There are elect people among the nations—or “gold”—that only have to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ to be saved (Rom. 10:14ff). So, it is true that Calvinists believe that God elects people to salvation (see e.g. Eph. 1:4) but it also true that God uses His servants as means to bring about that salvation (see e.g. Rom. 10:13). So it is a great evangelistic encouragement to us that there are people ransomed for God from every tribe and language and people and nation (see Rev. 5:9-10). This truth, far from causing us to cease our evangelistic efforts, should cause a type of evangelistic “gold rush.”

One of the greatest encouragements in evangelism and missions is that there is a chance that we will “strike gold.” There is a chance that those to whom we are ministering are of the elect—chosen by God to be saved. Far from discouraging from evangelism, this truth should stir us up all the more to evangelize. We should see “Gold!” We should be encouraged by God’s sovereignty. God has not only made evangelism possible, but He has in fact guaranteed that our evangelistic efforts are not in vain, for “He has many people in this city.” Our eyes should light up with the prospect of spiritual riches for us and for those with whom we can share Christ.

Conclusion

So yes, those who believe that God is meticulously sovereign do, or should, believe in and practice evangelism. God’s sovereignty propels the God given responsibility of evangelism. We cry out to our sovereign Lord and we ask Him to help us spend and be spent for the souls of the lost (2 Cor. 12:15).

_____________________

[1] J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, 11. Later on, however, he also references several passages; see e.g. p. 22.

[2] Ibid., 22.

[3] Ibid., 106.

[4] Ibid., 118-19.

[5] Ibid., 97.

[6] Ibid. In fact, Packer says, “If we love God and our neighbor, we shall evangelize, and we shall be enterprising in our evangelism” (Ibid., 79).

[7] Metzger, Tell the Truth, 109 cf. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, 35-36. “A scriptural emphasis on divine sovereignty and human responsibility should be at the heart of a right view of the human will and a recovery of fervent evangelism today” (Will Metzger, Tell the Truth, 109).

[8] “Modern physics faces an antinomy, in this sense, in its study of light. There is cogent evidence to show that light consists of waves, and equally cogent evidence to show that it consists of particles. It is not apparent how light can be both waves and particles, but the evidence is there, and so neither view can be ruled out in favour of the other. Neither, however, can be reduced to the other or explained in terms of the other; the two seemingly incompatible positions must be held together, and both must be treated as true. Such a necessity scandalizes our tidy minds, no doubt, but there is no help for it if we are able to be loyal to the facts” (Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, 97).

[9] Gen. 50:20; Ex. 7:3; Josh. 10:25; Job 14:5; 37:5-12; Ps. 33:16-17; 104:14; 115:1-3; 135:6; 139:13-17; 147:4; Proverbs 19:21; 20:24; 21:1, 30-31; 24:12; Is. 37:26 28; 45:4-7; 46:10-11; 45:9-10; Ezek. 17:24; Jer. 1:5; 51:11-12, 23; Dan. 2:21; Lam. 3:37-38; Amos 2:6; 4:13; Acts 14:16; 17:24-25; Rom. 9:14-23; 11:28-36; 2 Cor. 12:7; Eph. 1:11; Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3.

[10] A.W. Tozer said this in his excellent book The Knowledge of the Holy:

God’s sovereignty is the attribute by which He rules His entire creation, and to be sovereign God must be all-knowing, all-powerful, and absolutely free. The reasons are these: Were there even one datum of knowledge, however small, unknown to God, His rule would break down at that point. To be Lord over all the creation, He must possess all knowledge. And were God lacking one infinitesimal modicum of power, that lack would end His reign and undo His kingdom; that one stray atom of power would belong to someone else and God would be a limited ruler and hence not sovereign. Furthermore, His sovereignty requires that He be absolutely free, which means simply that He must be free to His eternal purpose in every single detail without interference. Were He less than free He must be less than sovereign” (p. 115).

[11] Italics mine.

[12] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards: 2 Volume Set, [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005], 108.

[13] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 120

[14] It seems some biblical authors do bring up this concern from time to time. I think for example of Job and certain Psalms. In each case, however, the author comes to see that God is indeed just and Job even puts his hand over his mouth. 

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 9 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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