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. Packer points out that God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are taught side by side in Scripture. 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.”
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.
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.” So, “the belief that God is sovereign in grace does not affect the necessity of evangelism.” 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!” So, God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility may seem at odds but they are really not, although we may not understand. 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).
The sovereignty of God is perhaps one of the most difficult doctrines in Scripture and yet one of the clearest. However, just because something is hard does not mean that it’s not helpful.
To think about and discuss the sovereignty of God can be challenging but also sweet. I think for instance of the rough shell of a coconut but of the reward contained inside. Or the difficulty of building a house but of the protective refuge you have at its completion. It may at times be difficult to wade through the deep waters of God’s sovereignty but we will never get to the island of peace if we don’t.
Our knowledge of God’s sovereignty is limited but Scripture certainly does not shrink back from saying that God is in absolute control. The Bible is replete with texts that teach us that is LORD of all (see e.g. Dan. 4:35; Is. 40:13,14; Rom. 9:15-18; Eph. 1:5, 11).
The Westminster Confession of Faith says it this way:
“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.”
The word “sovereignty” is nowhere in the Bible, yet the teaching is all over the place. We see that God declared the “the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done.” God says “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all My purpose” (Is. 46:10). Daniel tells us that “All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and He does according to His will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” Job tells us that “He is unchangeable, and who can turn Him back? What He desires, that He does. For He will complete what He appoints for me.” Indeed, “Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases,” says the psalmist (Ps. 115:3; cf. 135:6). That is what is meant by the sovereignty of God.
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” (Knowledge of the Holy, 115).
God is Meticulously Sovereign
I learned an important thing from a good friend, a young Christian that was struggling with drug addiction. He told me one night he was really upset so he turned on the radio hoping that it would help him. As he turned on the radio he prayed that God would play an awesome song. And my friend’s song came on, and no it wasn’t “My Heart Will Go On” (you know, the Titanic song); instead, his song is “I am Redeemed” by Big Daddy Weave. And it came on not at the end of the song, but at the very beginning. One of the lines he heard, since he heard the whole thing, was: “I’m not who I used to be. I am redeemed.” This song had a big impact on my friend and helped him fight his enslaving sin of drug addiction that night.