January 18, 2015

Joel Beeke and Mark Jones on the Universal Invitation to Come to Christ in Puritan Theology

The Universal Invitation to Come to Christ

William Ames (1576-1633) wrote that the redeeming work of Christ is applied through "union with Christ," and God accomplishes this union by "calling," which has two components: "the offer of Christ and the receiving of him."2 He then explained, "The offer is an objective presentation of Christ as the sufficient and necessary means to salvation. 1 Cor. 1:23, 24, We preach Christ...the power of God and the wisdom of God."3

Puritan ministers taught that Christ's call to come to Him is universal, that is, addressed to the whole world, to every human being. Christ says, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28). Whether you are young or old, rich or poor, male or female, Christ calls, even commands you, to come to Him. As Thomas Boston (1676-1732) said, "This I will ever preach, that all, under pain of damnation, are obliged to come to him, and that they shall be welcome on their coming, be their case what it will."4 God commands all people everywhere to repent and come to Christ (Acts 17:30). Thomas Shepard (1605-1649) wrote that as surely as Christ the King has authority over all nations and all places, so also all persons are called to submit to Him and serve Him (Matt. 28:18-20).5

The Puritans represented God as lovingly and sincerely calling sinners to come to Him. Joseph Alleine (1634-1668), a Puritan minister with a great heart for evangelism, wrote, "The God that made you most graciously invites you. His most sweet and merciful nature invites you. O the kindness of God, His boundless compassion, His tender mercies!"6 Richard Baxter (1615-1691) thundered, "Shall the living God send so earnest a message to his creatures, and should they not obey? Hearken then all you that live after the flesh; the Lord that gave thee thy breath and being, hath sent a message to thee from heaven, and this is his message, 'Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die?'"7 The Puritans therefore called everyone to come to Christ. They preached evangelistic sermons.8 They wrote long evangelistic tracts.9 They wrote manuals for ministers on how to direct people anxious about their salvation.10 James Janeway (1636-1674) and Cotton Mather (1663-1728) each published a book of stories about children coming to Christ and walking with Him faithfully to encourage children to embrace Jesus Christ offered to them in the gospel.11

The terms labor and heavy laden in Matthew 11:28 are universal in scope. Jesus is not saying that only those who have awareness of their sin are invited to come. He is not saying, as some hyper-Calvinists teach, that only sensible sinners are welcome to fall at Jesus' feet. He is not saying that only those in whom the Holy Spirit has begun to stir the waters of soul-interest are invited to come. Christ calls all people who are weary of toil, all for whom life is but a heavy burden (cf. Eccl. 1:8; Isa. 55:2), to come to Him for rest. Shepard imagined men's objections and answered that Christ offers Himself even to those who feel no need for him:
If I was willing to receive Christ, I might have Christ offered to me; but will the Lord offer him to such a one as desires not to have Christ?
Yes; saith our Saviour, "I would have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and you would not" [Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34]...
O, I fear time is past! O, time is past! I might once have had Christ, but now mine heart is sealed down with hardness, blindness, unbelief. O, time is now gone!
No; not so. See Isaiah 65:1-3, "All the day long God holdeth out his hands to a backsliding and rebellious people." Thy day of grace...still lasts.12
God has issued a universal call to come to Christ because all men, no matter how depraved and disabled by sin, possess an understanding and a will. As we will see, the Puritans denied that the fallen human will had the power to choose God, but Puritans such as Stephen Charnock (1628-1680) also insisted that a sinner is not "a beast"; instead, "man hath a faculty to understand and will, which makes him a man." Therefore, "the commands and exhortations are suitable to our nature."13 The Puritans did not treat men like blocks of stone or wood. They evangelized them as men with minds and wills, and thus with responsibility for their actions. This explains why, when the Puritans called men to come to Christ, they reasoned with lost sinners and exhorted them.14 The universal call dignifies its hearers as human beings endowed with intelligence, personality, and moral accountability.

Do you realize how this universal call magnifies the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ? Do you see how willing Christ is to save sinners? He calls sinners to Himself to receive His rest with this promise: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matt. 11:29-30). Christ calls sinners to Himself because He alone is the willing Savior—not because of our good works, our righteousness, or anything else. He calls sinners to Himself as the exclusive way of coming to God (cf. John 14:6). He is willing to save us, and we must come to Him to be freed from our burdens and enter into His rest.

Some might question this, saying, "If the call is universal and goes out to everyone, and not everyone comes, then the invitation must be insufficient." This is false reasoning. Think of Christian fleeing the City of Destruction in the tale of John Bunyan (1628-1688). Christian spoke earnestly to his family and neighbors, warning them of the wrath to fall upon their city. Most people responded to the warning by mocking Christian, but their refusal to listen did not make Christian's invitation to go with him insufficient or insincere. The warning itself was not insufficient or insincere.15

When you invite someone to a wedding reception and they decline to come, does that mean the invitation was not sufficient? Does it show insincerity on the part of the people who issued the invitation? No, the insufficiency in Christian's case was not in the warning but rather in the people who refused to heed the warning. So, too, there is no insincerity in the wedding invitation; the fault lies in those who refuse to come.

So it is with the call to come to Christ. There is no fault, insufficiency, or lack of sincerity in Christ's invitation; all blame rests upon those who refuse to come to Him for eternal life. This is clearly taught in the Canons of Dort. William Ames, an English Puritan, played a significant role in defending the Reformed faith in the Netherlands during the debates leading up to the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) and served as a theological consultant to the synod's moderator.16 The Canons of Dort explain the international Puritan and Reformed perspective well in head 3–4, articles 8–9:
As many as are called by the gospel are unfeinedly [sincerely] called. For God hath most earnestly and truly declared in His Word what will be acceptable to Him; namely, that all who are called, should comply with the invitation. He, moreover, seriously promises eternal life, and rest, to as many as shall come to Him, and believe on him.... It is not the fault of the gospel, nor of Christ, offered therein, nor of God...that those who are called by the ministry of the word, refuse to come, and be converted. The fault lies in themselves.17
The Canons make plain that there is no insufficiency in God's willingness to save sinners. The invitation does not lie or deceive; it is a true, rich, full, free invitation. The gospel is a well-meant offer. Christ has declared Himself ready and willing to receive all who come to Him and to save them. This is what Bunyan referred to as the conditional promise.18 This call is based on the condition of faith, but it is a true invitation. To all who come to Him, Christ freely gives eternal life, "even to them that believe on his name" (John 1:12c). Nonetheless, no one comes to Christ simply because of this universal calling. In our fallen, helpless condition, we cannot and will not respond as we should. Our persistence in unbelief and sin keeps us from responding to Christ's call—the blame is wholly on us. Jesus said, "Ye will not come to me, that ye might have life" (John 5:40).

Judgment day will confirm this truth. No one will stand before God on the last day and say, "I did not think that the invitation was addressed to me, and therefore I did not come," or "I received the invitation, but did not think it was sincere." The call to come to Christ is a well-meant offer of salvation addressed to every human being.
2. William Ames, The Marrow of Theology, trans. and ed. John D. Eusden (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968, 157 (1.xxvi.1, 3, 7).
3. Ames, The Marrow of Theology, 157 (1.xxvi.8).
4. Boston, The Beauties of Thomas Boston, 263.
5. Thomas Shepard, The Sincere Convert and the Sound Believer (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1999), 49.
6. Joseph Alleine, An Alarm to the Unconverted (Evansville, Ind.: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1959), 97.
7. Richard Baxter, A Call to the Unconverted to Turn and Live, in The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter, ed. William Orme (London: James Duncan, 1830), 7:395.
8. Cf. Joel R. Beeke, "Evangelism Rooted in Scripture: The Puritan Example," in Puritan Reformed Spirituality (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2006), 143–69.
9. Such as Alleine's Alarm and Baxter's Call—see notes 6 and 7.
10. Solomon Stoddard, A Guide to Christ, ed. Don Kistler (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1993).
11. James Janeway and Cotton Mather, A Token for Children (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1994).
12. Shepard, The Sincere Convert and the Sound Believer, 51.
13. Stephen Charnock, "A Discourse of the Efficient of Regeneration," in The Complete Works of Stephen Charnock (1864–1866; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), 3:227.
14. E. F. Kevan, The Puritan Doctrine of Conversion (London: Evangelical Library, 1952), 7–13.
15. John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 1–2, 4–7, 51–52.
16. John D. Eusden, introduction to The Marrow of Theology, by William Ames, 6–7.
17. Joel R. Beeke and Sinclair B. Ferguson, eds., Reformed Confessions Harmonized (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 88.
18. John Bunyan, Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ, in The Works of John Bunyan, ed. George Offor (1854; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 1:255.
Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 508–510.
They [the Puritans] took care to show that coming to Christ is possible because Christ is not only willing but also able to save sinners. Not only does He hold out His hands, but He also takes sinners into His arms. Not only does He offer salvation, but He also secures salvation.
Ibid., 510.
Despite the freeness and graciousness of the gospel offer and Christ's willingness and ability to save sinners, many people do not come to Him.
Ibid., 518.

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