Theology Thursday - Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God

Image of Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God
by J. I. Packer
IVP Books 2012
Paperback 122

Here are some wise words on the eternal controversy between God’s sovereignty and man’s personal responsibility in salvation from J.I. Packer, from his classic little book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Pgs. 16-17):

There is a long-standing controversy in the Church as to whether God is really Lord in relation to human conduct and saving faith or not. What has been said shows us how we should regard this controversy. The situation is not what it seems to be. For it is not true that some Christians believe in divine sovereignty while others hold an opposite view. What is true is that all Christians believe in divine sovereignty, but some are not aware that they do, and mistakenly imagine and insist that they reject it. 

What causes this odd state of affairs? The root cause is the same as in most cases of error in the Church - the intruding of rationalistic speculations, the passion for systematic consistency, a reluctance to recognize the existence of mystery and to let God be wiser than men, and a consequent subjecting of Scripture to the supposed demands of human logic.

People see that the Bible teaches man’s responsibility for his actions; they do not see (man, indeed, cannot see) how this is consistent with the sovereign Lordship of God over these actions. They are not content to let the two truths live side by side, as they do in the Scriptures, but jump to the conclusion that, in order to uphold the biblical truth of human responsibility, they are bound to reject the equally biblical and equally true doctrine of divine sovereignty, and to explain away the great number of texts that teach it.

The desire to over-simplify the Bible by cutting out the mysteries is natural to our perverse minds, and it is not surprising that even good men should fall victim to it. Hence this persistent and troublesome dispute. The irony of the situation, however, is that when we ask how the two sides pray, it becomes apparent that those who profess to deny God’s sovereignty really believe in it just as strongly as those who affirm it.

How, then, do you pray? Do you ask God for your daily bread? Do you thank for your conversion? Do you pray for the conversion of others? If the answer is “no,” I can only say that I do not think you are yet born again. But if the answer is “yes” – well, that proves that, whatever side you may have taken on this question in the past, in your heart you believe in the sovereignty of God no less firmly than anyone else. On our feet we may have arguments about it, but on our knees we are all agreed.

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There are 10 Comments

Richard Brunt's picture

I have often been accused of not believing in the sovereignty of God.  If God is not sovereign then he is not God.  Most Calvinists I know believe man, although responsible, has no choice in salvation but has a free will when it comes to obeying God as a Christian.  If believing a man has the ability to believe when presented with the gospel is denying the sovereignty of God why isn't the free will of a believer denying the sovereignty of God?  Please don't misunderstand me, I do not believe any unsaved person can come to Christ without the working of the Holy Spirit but I believe the Holy Spirit works in the heart when ever the gospel is presented.  

Richard E Brunt

TylerR's picture

I think Packer does an excellent job presenting this issue from a pastoral perspective. He sounds like a nice grandfather, discussing theology over hot chocolate on a cold winter's morning ...

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

ScottS's picture

First, Packer's statement:

For it is not true that some Christians believe in divine sovereignty while others hold an opposite view. 

If one believes that a true Christian could hold an open view of God (i.e. open theism, even if believing that such Christian would be in error, as I would), then that seems to be some level of rejecting divine sovereignty, and so is counter to Packer's statement.

Second, what I find frustrating is that divine sovereignty is so often perceived as purely what God ordains, rather than being allowed to also include what God allows (by ordaining that allowance). If one is truly sovereign, one can allow for freedom of others in choice, while still controlling (1) the choices allowed and (2) the consequences/results of those choices. One maintains full control of the situations that arise from the choices allowed, but still allows the choices. Couple that with a full knowledge of what choices will be made (i.e. not an open view of God), then God loses no control of any freedom he allows in His creatures. This is how I see God operating in His sovereignty.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

TylerR's picture

Packer wrote his book in the 1950s, long before open theism reared its ugly head.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

G. N. Barkman's picture

"But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned."  (I Corinthians 2:14)  Concerning spiritual truth, the natural man:

  1) Does not receive it.  (ever)

  2) Considers it foolish.  (no desire for it, sees no value in it)

  3) Cannot know it.  (no ability to understand)                                                                                                          

The Scriptures are clear.  No natural man has either the ability nor desire to believe on Christ.  His will is free to choose what he desires, but his nature is such that he will never desire Christ.  To believe in Christ he must be reconstituted a spiritual man by the Spirit of God.

G. N. Barkman

Richard Brunt's picture

Scott,

I am in complete agreement with your comments.  Nice to know I'm not the only one!

Richard E Brunt

pvawter's picture

What's interesting to me is that Packer names one error, that of denying God's sovereignty to uphold man's responsibility in an attempt to maintain systematic consistency, yet he ignores the other error of denying man's responsibility to maintain God's sovereignty. He speaks about letting the scriptures speak for themselves without demanding that every tension be resolved, but that really requires avoiding the ditch on either side, does it not?

TylerR's picture

He mentions the other; just not in this excerpt.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

ScottS's picture

TylerR wrote:

Packer wrote his book in the 1950s, long before open theism reared its ugly head.

Well, at least he was writing before it became more well known, so I grant that. I have not delved into the history of open theism, but if one believes the Wikipedia info (which I admit, is not the best of scholarly sources, but also not usually wholly wrong), the concepts of open theism have been around much earlier than 1950. Specifically this:

The first known post-biblical Christian writings advocating concepts similar to open theism with regard to the issue of foreknowledge are found in the writings of Calcidius, a 4th-century interpreter of Plato. It was affirmed in the 16th century by Socinus, and in the early 18th century by Samuel Fancourt and by Andrew Ramsay (an important figure in Methodism). In the 19th century several theologians wrote in defense of this idea, including Isaak August Dorner, Gustav Fechner, Otto Pfleiderer, Jules Lequier, Adam Clarke, Billy Hibbard, Joel Hayes, T.W. Brents, and Lorenzo D. McCabe. Contributions to this defense increased as the century drew to a close.

My main point of criticizing Packer on that statement was the fact that so often we Christians (and I am sure I have done it as well) paint narrow strokes of what we perceive a true believer will be believing or should be believing, and often the range of thought is far more broad in Christian thought. It always becomes sticky when (1) trying to determine what truth about God is necessary to be believing in the true God or not (i.e. the fundamentals of real faith) and (2) how much can a true Christian be wrong about God and still recognized by other Christians as a true Christian.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

TylerR's picture

You're right! Things always get complicated when we allow history to teach us ... I'm glad I don't have to be the one to decide when someone "can't be a Christian." It's enough to warn the person he's in terrible error.  

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

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