The Evangelical Message by J I Packer
The following passages are from J. I. Packer’s book, “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God,” published in 1961 by InterVasity Press.
We shall have to deal with this fairly summarily. In a word, the evangelistic message is the gospel of Christ, and Him crucified; the message of man’s sin and God’s grace, of human guilt and divine forgiveness, of new birth and new life through the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is a message made up of four essential ingredients.
1. The gospel is a message about God.
It tells us who He is, what His character is, what His standards are, and what He requires of us, His creatures. It tells us that we owe our very existence to Him, that for good or ill we are always in His hands and under His eye, and that He made us to worship and serve Him, to show forth His praise and to live for His glory. These truths are the foundation of theistic religion, and until they are grasped the rest of the gospel message will seem neither cogent nor relevant. It is here, with the assertion of man’s complete and constant dependence on his Creator, that the Christian story starts.
We can learn again from Paul at this point. When preaching to Jews, as at Pisidian Antioch, (Acts 13:16ff KJV) he did not need to mention the fact that men were God’s creatures; he could take this knowledge for granted, for his hearers had the Old Testament faith behind them. He could begin at once to declare Christ to them, as the fulfilment of Old Testament hopes. But when preaching to Gentiles, who knew nothing of the Old Testament, Paul had to go further back, and start from the beginning. And the beginning from which Paul started in such cases was the doctrine of God’s Creatorship, and man’s creaturehood. So, when the Athenians asked him to explain what his talk of Jesus and the resurrection was all about, he spoke to them first of God the Creator, and what He made man for. ‘God. . . made the world.. . he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; and hath made. . . all nations. . . that they should seek the Lord.’ (Acts 17:24ff; 14:15ff KJV) This was not, as some have supposed, a piece of philosophical apologetic of a kind that Paul afterwards renounced, but the first and basic lesson in theistic faith. The gospel starts by teaching us that we, as creatures, are absolutely dependent on God, and that He, as Creator, has an absolute claim on us. Only when we have learned this can we see what sin is, and only when we see what sin is can we understand the good news of salvation from sin. We must know what it means to call God Creator before we can grasp what it means to speak of Him as Redeemer. Nothing can be achieved by talking about sin and salvation where this preliminary lesson has not in some measure been learned.
2. The gospel is a message about sin.
It tells us how we have fallen short of God’s standard; how we have become guilty, filthy, and helpless in sin, and now stand under the wrath of God. It tells us that the reason why we sin continually is that we are sinners by nature, and that nothing we do, or try to do, for ourselves can put us right, or bring us back into God’s favour. It shows us ourselves as God sees us, and teaches us to think of ourselves as God thinks of us. Thus it leads us to self-despair. And this also is a necessary step. Not till we have learned our need to get right with God, and our inability to do so by any effort of our own, can we come to know the Christ who saves from sin.
There is a pitfall here. Everybody’s life includes things which cause dissatisfaction and shame. Everyone has a bad conscience about some things in his past, matters in which he has fallen short of the standard which he set for himself, or which was expected of him by others. The danger is that in our evangelism we should content ourselves with evoking thoughts of these things and making people feel uncomfortable about them, and then depicting Christ as the One who saves us from these elements of ourselves, without even raising the question of our relationship with God. But this is just the question that has to be raised when we speak about sin. For the very idea of sin in the Bible is of an offence against God, which disrupts a man’s relationship with God. Unless we see our shortcomings in the light of the law and holiness of God, we do not see them as sin at all. For sin is not a social concept; it is a theological concept. Though sin is committed by man, and many sins are against society, sin cannot be defined in terms of either man or society. We never know what sin really is till we have learned to think of it in terms of God, and to measure it, not by human standards, but by the yardstick of His total demand on our lives.
What we have to grasp, then, is that the bad conscience of the natural man is not at all the same thing as conviction of sin. It does not, therefore, follow that a man is convicted of sin when he is distressed about his weaknesses and the wrong things he has done. It is not conviction of sin just to feel miserable about yourself and your failures and your inadequacy to meet life’s demands. Nor would it be saving faith if a man in that condition called on the Lord Jesus Christ just to soothe him, and cheer him up, and make him feel confident again. Nor should we be preaching the gospel (though we might imagine we were) if all that we did was to present Christ in terms of a man’s felt wants. (‘Are you happy? Are you satisfied? Do you want peace of mind? Do you feel that you have failed? Are you fed up with yourself? Do you want a friend? Then come to Christ; He will meet your every need. . .as if the Lord Jesus Christ were to be thought of as a fairy godmother, or a super-psychiatrist.) No; we have to go deeper than this. To preach sin means, not to make capital out of people’s felt frailties (the brainwasher’s trick), but to measure their lives by the holy law of God. To be convicted of sin means, not just to feel that one is an all-round flop, but to realize that one has offended God, and flouted His authority, and defied Him, and gone against Him, and put oneself in the wrong with Him. To preach Christ means to set Him forth as the One who through His cross sets men right with God again. To put faith in Christ means relying on Him, and Him alone, to restore us to God’s fellowship and favour.
It is indeed true that the real Christ, the Christ of the Bible, who offers Himself to us as a Saviour from sin and an Advocate with God, does in fact give peace, and joy, and moral strength, and the privilege of His own friendship, to those who trust Him. But the Christ who is depicted and desired merely to make the lot of life’s casualties easier by supplying them with aids and comforts is not the real Christ, but a misrepresented and misconceived Christ—in effect, an imaginary Christ. And if we taught people to look to an imaginary Christ, we should have no grounds for expecting that they would find a real salvation. We must be on our guard, therefore, against equating a natural bad conscience and sense of wretchedness with spiritual conviction of sin, and so omitting in our evangelism to impress upon sinners the basic truth about their condition—namely, that their sin has alienated them from God, and exposed them to His condemnation, and hostility, and wrath, so that their first need is for a restored relationship with Him.
It may be asked: what are the signs of true conviction of sin, as distinct from the mere smart of a natural bad conscience, or the mere disgust at life which any disillusioned person may feel?
The signs seem to be three in number.
(i) Conviction of sin is essentially an awareness of a wrong relationship with God: not just with one’s neighbour, or one’s own conscience and ideals for oneself, but with one’s Maker, the God in whose hand one’s breath is and on whom one depends for existence every moment. To define conviction of sin as a sense of need, without qualification, would not be enough; it is not any sense of need, but a sense of a particular need—a need, namely, for restoration of fellowship with God. It is the realization that, as one stands at present, one is in a relationship with God that spells only rejection, and retribution, and wrath, and pain, for the present and the future; and a realization that this is an intolerable relationship to remain in, and therefore a desire that, at whatever cost and on whatever terms, it might be changed. Conviction of sin may centre upon the sense of one’s guilt before God, or one’s uncleanness in His sight, or one’s rebellion against Him, or one’s alienation and estrangement from Him; but always it is a sense of the need to get right, not simply with oneself or other people, but with God.
(ii) Conviction of sin always includes conviction of sins: a sense of guilt for particular wrongs done in the sight of God, from which one needs to turn, and be rid of them, if one is ever to be right with God. Thus, Isaiah was convicted specifically of sins of speech,(Isaiah 6:5) and Zacchaeus of sins of extortion.(Luke 19:8)
(iii) Conviction of sin always includes conviction of sinfulness: a sense of one’s complete corruption and perversity in God’s sight, and one’s consequent need of what Ezekiel called a ‘new heart’,(Ezekiel 36:26) and our Lord a new birth,(John 3:3 ff) i.e. a moral re-creation. Thus, the author of Psalm 51—traditionally identified with David, convicted of his sin with Bathsheba—confesses, not only particular transgressions (verses 1—4), but also the depravity of his nature (verses 5—6), and seeks cleansing from the guilt and defilement of both (verses 7—10). Indeed, perhaps the shortest way to tell whether a person is convicted of sin or not is to take him through Psalm 51, and see whether his heart is in fact speaking anything like the language of the psalmist.
3. The gospel is a message about Christ
Christ the Son of God incarnate; Christ the Lamb of God, dying for sin; Christ the risen Lord; Christ the perfect Saviour.
Two points need to be made about the declaring of this part of the message.
(i) We must not present the Person of Christ apart from His saving work.
It is sometimes said that it is the presentation of Christ’s Person, rather than of doctrines about Him, that draws sinners to His feet. It is true that it is the living Christ who saves, and that a theory of the atonement, however orthodox, is no substitute. When this remark is made, however, what is usually being suggested is that doctrinal instruction is dispensable in evangelistic preaching, and that all the evangelist need do is paint a vivid word-picture of the Man of Galilee who went about doing good, and then assure his hearers that this Jesus is still alive to help them in their troubles. But such a message could hardly be called the gospel. It would, in reality, be a mere conundrum, serving only to mystify. Who was this Jesus? we should ask; and what is His position now? Such preaching would raise these questions while concealing the answers. And thus it would completely baffle the thoughtful listener.
For the truth is that you cannot make sense of the historic figure of Jesus till you know about the incarnation—that this Jesus was, in fact God the Son made man, to save sinners according to His Father’s eternal purpose. Nor can you make sense of His life till you know about the atonement—that He lived as man so that He might die as man for men, and that His passion, His judicial murder, was really His saving action of bearing away the world’s sins. Nor can you tell on what terms to approach Him now till you know about the resurrection, ascension, and heavenly session—that Jesus has been raised, and enthroned, and made King, and lives to save to the uttermost all who acknowledge His Lordship. These doctrines, to mention no others, are essential to the gospel. Without them, there is no gospel, only a puzzle story about a man named Jesus. To oppose the teaching of doctrines about Christ to the presenting of His Person is, therefore, to put asunder two things which God has joined. It is really very perverse indeed; for the whole purpose of teaching these doctrines in evangelism is to throw light on the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ, and to make clear to our hearers just who it is that we want them to meet. When, in ordinary social life, we want people to know who it is that we are introducing them to, we tell them something about him, and what he has done; and so it is here. The apostles themselves preached these doctrines in order to preach Christ, as the New Testament shows. In fact, without these doctrines you would have no gospel to preach at all.
(ii) But there is a second and complementary point. We must not present the saving work of Christ apart from His Person.
Evangelistic preachers and personal workers have sometimes been known to make this mistake. In their concern to focus attention on the atoning death of Christ, as the sole sufficient ground on which sinners may be accepted by God, they have expounded the summons to saving faith in these terms: ‘Believe that Christ died for your sins.’ The effect of this exposition is to represent the saving work of Christ in the past, dissociated from His Person in the present, as the whole object of our trust. But it is not biblical thus to isolate the work from the Worker. Nowhere in the New Testament is the call to believe expressed in such terms. What the New Testament calls for is faith in (en) or into (eis) or upon (epi) Christ Himself—the placing of our trust in the living Saviour, who died for sins. The object of saving faith is thus not, strictly speaking, the atonement, but the Lord Jesus Christ, who made atonement. We must not in presenting the gospel isolate the cross and its benefits from the Christ whose cross it was. For the persons to whom the benefits of Christ’s death belong are just those who trust His Person, and believe, not upon His saving death simply, but upon Him, the living Saviour. ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved,’ (Acts 16:31) said Paul ‘Come unto me. . . and I will give you rest,’(Matthew 11:28) said our Lord.
This being so, one thing becomes clear straight away: namely, that the question about the extent of the atonement, which is being much agitated in some quarters, has no bearing on the content of the evangelistic message at this particular point. I do not propose to discuss this question now; I have done that elsewhere.1 I am not at present asking you whether you think it is true to say that Christ died in order to save every single human being, past, present, and future, or not. Nor am I at present inviting you to make up your mind on this question, if you have not done so already. All I want to say here is that even if you think the above assertion is true, your presentation of Christ in evangelism ought not to differ from that of the man who thinks it false.
What I mean is this. It is obvious that if a preacher thought that the statement, ‘Christ died for every one of you’, made to any congregation, would be unverifiable, and probably not true, he would take care not to make it in his gospel preaching. You do not find such statements in the sermons of, for instance, George Whitefield or Charles Spurgeon. But now, my point is that, even if a man thinks that this statement would be true if he made it, it is not a thing that he ever needs to say, or ever has reason to say, when preaching the gospel. For preaching the gospel, as we have just seen, means inviting sinners to come to Jesus Christ, the living Saviour, who, by virtue of His atoning death, is able to forgive and save all those who put their trust in Him. What has to be said about the cross when preaching the gospel is simply that Christ’s death is the ground on which Christ’s forgiveness is given. And this is all that has to be said. The question of the designed extent of the atonement does not come into the story at all.
The fact is that the New Testament never calls on any man to repent on the ground that Christ died specifically and particularly for him. The basis on which the New Testament invites sinners to put faith in Christ is simply that they need Him, and that He offers Himself to them, and that those who receive Him are promised all the benefits that His death secured for His people. What is universal and all-inclusive in the New Testament is the invitation to faith, and the promise of salvation to all who believe.(Matthew 11:28f, 22:9; Luke 2:10f, 12:8; John 1:12, 3:14ff, 6:40, 54; 7:37; 11:26; 12:46; Acts 2:21, 10:43, 13:39; Romans 1:16, 3:22, 9:33, 10:4ff; Galatians 3:22; Titus 2:11; Revelation 22:17; cf. Isaiah 55:1)
Our task in evangelism is to reproduce as faithfully as possible the New Testament emphasis. To go beyond the New Testament, or to distort its viewpoint or shift its stress, is always wrong. And therefore—if we may at this point speak in the words of James Denney—‘we do not think of separating (Christ’s) work from Him who achieved it. The New Testament knows only of a living Christ, and all apostolic preaching of the gospel holds up the living Christ to men. But the living Christ is Christ who died, and He is never preached apart from His death, and from its reconciling power. It is the living Christ, with the virtue of His reconciling death in Him, who is the burden of the apostolic message… The task of the evangelist is to preach Christ . . . in His character as the Crucified.’2 The gospel is not, ‘believe that Christ died for everybody’s sins, and therefore for yours,’ any more than it is, ‘believe that Christ died only for certain people’s sins, and so perhaps not for yours.’ The gospel is, ‘believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, who died for sins, and now offers you Himself as your Saviour.’ This is the message which we are to take to the world. We have no business to ask them to put faith in any view of the extent of the atonement; our job is to point them to the living Christ, and summon them to trust in Him.
It was because they had both grasped this that John Wesley and George Whitefield could regard each other as brothers in evangelism, though they differed on the extent of the atonement. For their views on this subject did not enter into their gospel preaching. Both were content to preach the gospel just as it stands in Scripture: that is, to proclaim ‘the living Christ, with the virtue of His reconciling death in Him’, to offer Him to sinners, and to invite the lost to come to Him and so find life.
4. This brings us to the final ingredient in the gospel message. The gospel is a summons to faith and repentance.
All who hear the gospel are summoned by God to repent and believe. ‘God . . . commandeth all men every where to repent,’ Paul told the Athenians (Acts 17:30 KJV). When asked by His hearers what they should do in order to ‘work the works of God’, our Lord replied: ‘This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.’(John 6:29) And in 1 John 3:23 we read: ‘This is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ . . .’ Repentance and faith are rendered matters of duty by God’s direct command, and hence impenitence and unbelief are singled out in the New Testament as most grievous sins.(Luke 13:3,5; 2 Thessalonians 2:11f) With these universal commands, as we indicated above, go universal promises of salvation to all who obey them. ‘Through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins.’(Acts 10:16) ‘Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.’(Revelations 22:17) ‘God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believethin him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’(John 3:16) These words are promises to which God will stand as long as time shall last.
It needs to be said that faith is not a mere optimistic feeling, any more than repentance is a mere regretful or remorseful feeling. Faith and repentance are both acts, and acts of the whole man. Faith is more than just credence; faith is essentially the casting and resting of oneself and one’s confidence on the promises of mercy which Christ has given to sinners, and on the Christ who gave those promises. Equally, repentance is more than just sorrow for the past; repentance is a change of mind and heart, a new life of denying self and serving the Saviour as king in self’s place. Mere credence without trusting, and mere remorse without turning, do not save. ‘The devils also believe, and tremble.’(James 2:19) ‘The sorrow of the world worketh death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10)
Two further points need to be made also.
(i) The demand is for faith as well as repentance. It is not enough to resolve to turn from sin, and give up evil habits, and try to put Christ’s teaching into practice by being religious and doing all possible good to others. Aspiration, and resolution, and morality, and religiosity, are no substitutes for faith. Martin Luther and John Wesley had all these long before they had faith. If there is to be faith, however, there must be a foundation of knowledge: a man must know of Christ, and of His cross, and of His promises, before saving faith becomes a possibility for him. In our presentation of the gospel, therefore, we need to stress these things, in order to lead sinners to abandon all confidence in themselves and to trust wholly in Christ and the power of His redeeming blood to give them acceptance with God. For nothing less than this is faith.
(ii) The demand is for repentance as well as faith. It is not enough to believe that only through Christ and His death are sinners justified and accepted, and that one’s own record is sufficient to bring down God’s condemning sentence twenty times over, and that, apart from Christ, one has no hope. Knowledge of the gospel, and orthodox belief of it, is no substitute for repentance. If there is to be repentance, however, there must, again, be a foundation of knowledge. A man must know that, in the words of the first of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, ‘when our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent”, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance,’ and he must also know what repentance involves. More than once, Christ deliberately called attention to the radical break with the past that repentance involves. ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.. . whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same (but only he) shall save it.’(Luke 9:23f) ‘If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also (i.e., put them all decisively second in his esteem), he cannot be my disciple. . . whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.’(Luke 14:26, 33) The repentance that Christ requires of His people consists in a settled refusal to set any limit to the claims which He may make on their lives. Our Lord knew—who better?—how costly His followers would find it to maintain this refusal, and let Him have His way with them all the time, and therefore He wished them to face out and think through the implications of discipleship before committing themselves. He did not desire to make disciples under false pretences. He had no interest in gathering vast crowds of professed adherents who would melt away as soon as they found out what following Him actually demanded of them. In our own presentation of Christ’s gospel, therefore, we need to lay a similar stress on the cost of following Christ, and make sinners face it soberly before we urge them to respond to the message of free forgiveness. In common honesty, we must not conceal the fact that free forgiveness in one sense will cost everything; or else our evangelizing becomes a sort of confidence trick. And where there is no clear knowledge, and hence no realistic recognition of the real claims that Christ makes, there can be no repentance, and therefore no salvation.
Such is the evangelistic message that we are sent to make known. (57-73)
1. In my introduction to the 1959 reprint of The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, by John Owen. Owen’s book is a classical discussion of the complex of questions which the controversy about ‘limited atonement’ involves. The central issue does not concern the value of the atonement, considered in itself, nor the availability of Christ to those who would trust Him as their Saviour. All agree that no limit can be set to the intrinsic worth of Christ’s death, and that Christ never casts out those who come to Him. The cleavage is over the question, whether the intention of the Father and the Son in the great transaction of Calvary was to save any more than actually are saved. There is no room here to open up this elaborate question; and in any case, nothing in the text depends one way or the other on the answer that one gives to it.
2. The Christian Doctrine of Reconcilation, p. 287; my italics