The Impact of One Little Book
On May 18, 2016, I was staying at a mission guest house in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
As in many such places, there was a library. This one was like many others in such guesthouses. It showed signs of a collection that simply “happened” over the years. Missionaries on their way home or on their way to somewhere else decide that these books weighed too much to take into the bush or back home, so they leave them behind. And, of course, they wouldn’t stay here long if someone hadn’t had a touch of “librarian” in them to sort and organize the books and see that someone built proper shelves and devised a system that assured their safekeeping. There were over 500 linear feet of shelves in the common room. Each one tightly packed with writers from John Grisham and Zane Grey to John Piper and Viv Grigg.
As I finished the fresh mango that I had for supper, I glanced over the books to make my selection. I had only portions of two days to read, so I picked a rather smallish one from the P section, took it back to my bunk, sat on the edge and started reading. I was no more than six or seven pages in when it struck me. “This is the book!” This was the book that God used to ignite an appetite in me so long ago – an appetite that has never gone away.
The book? Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. No, it is not the deepest theological reading. But when I first read it, it caused me to think as hard as I ever had about God, his purposes, and my part in the whole business. It is only 120 pages long in most editions. But it is vintage J.I.Packer. There are long compound-complex sentences and, like so much of his writing, he engages with weighty theological themes, but he keeps the rocks close together to help his readers step safely across the stream.
Here are two sentences that give you a glimpse of what Packer will do over the course of these pages.
What is it (this book) then? It is a piece of biblical and theological reasoning, designed to clarify the relationship between three realities: God’s sovereignty, man’s responsibility, and the Christian’s evangelistic duty.
The aim of the discourse is to dispel the suspicion (current, it seems, in some quarters) that faith in the absolute sovereignty of God hinders a full recognition and acceptance of evangelistic responsibility, and to show that, on the contrary, only this faith can give Christians the strength that they need to fulfill their evangelistic task.
I thought of the first time I had the book in my hand so long ago. I had never read such things. I had never heard anyone talk like that. I loved it. When a roommate saw me reading it, he warned me about the “Calvinism” in the book. At the time, I had no idea what he was telling me. I only knew that what I read was interesting. It made me think. It held my attention. It was well-reasoned. It was biblical. It was winsome. And to my surprise at the time, I actually “enjoyed” what I was reading. I enjoyed theology.
It sounds almost silly, but this little chat from Packer (the book is based on a conference address he gave in 1959) stirred something in me that I hadn’t felt before. And I have been a Packer fan and a lover of theological books and conversations ever since. That book started a journey for me. There have been several twists and turns in the past 44 years since I first read it. But as you read these blogs and see where I have landed, now you will know where it all started.
Oh, and if you have not read Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, find one and read it. You will not be disappointed.
As a writer of books, I realize that few authors ever write a book that has such a dynamic impact on someone. Though I will likely never write one, I am so thankful that, so many years ago, I discovered an author who had.