Definite Atonement, the Gospel Call, and Rejecting Christ (Newton)

 In a sermon on John 1:29, John Newton discussed definite atonement and the free offer of the gospel.  He admitted there is mystery in this area of Scripture’s teaching:

“I am not disheartened by meeting with some things beyond the grasp of my scanty powers in a book which I believe to be inspired by Him whose ways and thoughts are higher than ours, ‘as the heavens are higher than the earth.’

Later in the sermon, Newton said that the biblical command for “all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30) implies a “warrant to believe in the name of Jesus, as taking away the sin of the world.”  It’s a serious call to repentance and faith, a kind summons for sinners to receive free forgiveness in Christ.

Let it not be said that to call upon men to believe, which is an act beyond their natural power, is to mock them.  There are prescribed means for the obtaining of faith, which it is not beyond their natural power to comply with, if they are not wilfully obstinate.  We have the word of God for our authority.  ‘God cannot be mocked,’ neither doth he mock his creatures.  Our Lord did not mock the young ruler when he told him that if he would sell his possessions on earth, and follow him, ‘he should have treasure in heaven.’  Had this ruler no power to sell his possessions?  I doubt not but that he himself thought he had power to sell them if he pleased….

…We cannot ascribe too much to the grace of God [in the salvation of sinners], but we should be careful that, under a semblance of exalting his grace, we do not furnish the slothful and unfaithful with excuses for their wilfulness and wickedness.  God is gracious; but let man be justly responsible for his own evil, and not presume to state his case so, as would, by just consequence, represent the holy God as being the cause of the sin which he hates and forbids.

These are some excellent points to remember.  The teaching of Scripture is that it is right and proper to call all people to repentance and faith, sincerely promising them that if they come to Christ, they will receive forgiveness and eternal life.  It’s also true that salvation is all of grace, yet God is not to blame when sinners reject the gospel call.

The entire sermon – which is very much worth reading! – is called “The Lamb of God, the Great Atonement” and it is found in volume four of Newton’s Works.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54014

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Evangelism and Definite Atonement[?] (Murray)

 Sometimes people say that the doctrines of grace get in the way of evangelism.  They say that Calvinism is a detriment when sharing the gospel.  However, when approached biblically, the doctrines of grace actually help us share the gospel better in various ways.  For one excellent example, here’s what John Murray wrote about evangelism and definite atonement:

“It is often argued that the doctrine of definite or limited atonement is quite foreign and even inimical to the interests of evangelism.  For how, it may be plausibly protested, can salvation be freely offered to the lost and its claims pressed upon them if salvation has been procured only for a limited number?  Proper analysis of the salvation offered to lost men will show, however, that only on the basis of a definite atonement can full salvation be offered to lost men.  True evangelism must ever bear in mind that it is not the mere possibility of salvation, nor simply provision for salvation, that is offered freely in the gospel.  It is rather salvation full, perfect, and free.  For it is Christ in all the glory of his person as Savior and Redeemer, and in all the perfection of his finished work, who is offered to sinners in the gospel.

This glory and this perfection that reside in Christ as Savior have come to reside in him only by virtue of what he has done in his capacity as the captain of salvation.  And what he has done in th is capacity is not that he made the salvation of all men possible, nor that he made provision for the salvation of all, but rather that he wrought and purchased redemption.  It is salvation with such completeness and perfection that is presented to lost men in the full, free, and unfettered call of the gospel.  But only on the basis of a limited atonement could such salvation and redemption be wrought, and only on the basis of a limited atonement can such salvation be offered.

…If we universalize the extent of the atonement we must limit its efficacy, and when we limit its efficacy it is an impoverished and truncated salvation that the ministers of evangelism have to offer.  Just as we mutilate the salvation offered, so do we empty our message of the irresistible appeal that the proclamation of a full and perfect salvation provides.  Evangelism thereby not only proves itself unfaithful to the fulness of the gospel, but also robs itself of that which is indispensable to its effectiveness, namely, the recognition on the part of men of the claim, privilege, and opportunity that the full and free offer of Christ entails.

John Murray, “The Message of Evangelism,” in Collected Writings, vol. 1, p 127-8.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Don’t Give Up On A Sinner! (Spencer)

I was recently reading part of A Pastor’s Sketches again and I found a paragraph I had marked up quite a bit.  Turns out I had blogged on this already (May 2017), so I thought I’d post it again.  Here it is:

Sometime around the middle of the 19th century a woman spoke to Rev. Ichabod Spencer about the things of the Christian faith.  After the discussion, the woman was interested in becoming a Christian.  Spencer met with her many times over the next two years.  Over and over Spencer told her about sin, repentance, faith in Christ, and what it means to be a disciple.  Over and over he showed her the verses about these truths.

For reasons only God knows, she was very slow to believe.  She just couldn’t quite commit.  Spencer had talked to her so many times he became weary of talking to her; he even was tempted to tell her, “I’ve said everything that needs to be said.  Don’t see me anymore.”  It got to the point where he was annoyed when he saw her coming to talk, which made him feel guilty about it.  He never did turn her away simply because he knew the agony she was in.  Spencer noted that he had never spent so much time talking to an unbeliever about the faith.  To make a long two-year story short, by God’s grace the woman finally did come to faith, as did her husband, her sister, and some of her friends.  After telling this story, Spencer wrote this:

“Ministers ought never to despair of the salvation of any sinner.  To despair of any one is just the way to make him despair of himself.  Many have been ruined in this way, probably.  We ought to expect sinners to repent – and treat them accordingly.  Who shall limit the Holy One of Israel?  It took me long to learn the lesson, but I have learned never to give up a sinner.  We must urge the duty of an immediate faith and repentance, as the Bible does so continually; but we must be careful to enjoin this duty in such a manner that, if it is not immediately done, the individual shall not be led or left to cease seeking God.  Many a sinner turns back, when just at the door of heaven.”

Ichabod Spencer, A Pastor’s Sketches, II.III.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

What Does “The Empty Hand of Faith” Mean? (Boston)

The Whole Works of Thomas Boston (12 vols.)You may have heard someone talk about coming to Christ with an empty hand of faith.  What does this mean?  This phrase has a historical background.  In the 17th century, some Christian teachers were saying in order to be forgiven and justified a sinner needs to have repentance.  [Repentance in this context has a broad meaning which includes hating sin, turning to God, and endeavoring unto new obedience (see WLC 76 or HC 88-90)].  For example, Richard Baxter taught that a person must be forsaking sin and following Christ to be pardoned and justified.  This led some Reformed preachers to say that Baxter was setting up a new covenant of works!

I appreciate how Thomas Boston discussed this topic.  Here are some things he said in a treatise on this topic:

“I conceive that such doctrine is injurious to the grace of God, and doth much darken the free pardon offered in the gospel, in regard the pardon is promised immediately to those that believe (Acts 10:43 ‘Through his name, whosoever believes in him shall receive remission of sins’).

Boston noted that if someone does need to be forsaking sin and following Jesus to obtain forgiveness, it would be like earning forgiveness.  Boston quotes Preston favorably: “It is a fault to think that God’s pardons are not free and that you must bring something in your hand.”

Upon the whole we may see that the gospel teaches us to come empty-handed to the market of free grace for remission of sins and God’s favor.  But he does not come empty-handed who brings repentance along with him.  If any shall say we screw up matters so high in this point that we must also cast away faith as well as repentance for obtaining pardon, as if faith is something we bring to attain pardon, I say this:

For the safety of God’s grace, let the ‘work-faith’ and the ‘inherent-quality-faith’ go, and be made to stand back, while the sinner stands before God’s tribunal to be justified – that the empty-handed, ‘taking-faith’ may alone have place.  Hasn’t the Lord made pardon to be only of faith, that it might be of grace, while faith comes with an empty hand and receives all?

Boston then said that in this matter there’s a big difference between faith and repentance (conversion/living a new life), for one receives (faith) and the other gives (repentance).  In fact, Boston exhorted readers not to turn the covenant of grace into a “bastard covenant of works” by saying we have to bring something when we come to Jesus to obtain his favor.

So what does “the empty hand of faith” mean?  It means coming to Christ empty-handed simply to receive the free, gracious gift of full forgiveness.  When we come to Jesus for pardon and justification, we don’t need to bring Him anything in exchange; we don’t need to clean up our act, put nice clothes on, or do a few good deeds so He notices us.  We come like a beggar would come before a king with nothing but an open hand to receive a gift from the king.  And as the Bible teaches, this King blesses beggars who come with an empty hand of faith!

The above-edited quotes are found in Thomas Boston, Works, Volume 6, p. 87ff

Shane Lems

Various Ways to Faith

I’ve often heard it said that though there is only one way to the Father – through Jesus – there are many ways to Jesus.  In other words, there are various ways people come to faith in Christ.  Therefore, we should never make our experience of coming to Christ a paradigm for others when they come to Christ.  Nor should we rigidly follow others when they make their experience of coming to Christ a paradigm.  The stories in Scripture prove that conversion experiences are quite different!

Now, it does sometimes happen in Christian circles, when a preacher talks about his feelings and experience of coming to Christ and he makes it sound like you must have the same feelings and experience or you might not be a true Christian.  This kind of emotional preaching can leave Christians depressed since they don’t share the same feelings and experiences as the preacher does.  I’ve even had it myself years ago when listening to a popular preacher share his Christian feelings; mine didn’t match, so I wasn’t sure what to do with that.  Thanks to  John Newton I have a better idea about it now:

“It would be well if both preachers and people would keep more closely to what the Scripture teaches of the nature, marks, and growth of a work of grace instead of following each other in a track (like sheep) confining the Holy Spirit to a system, imposing at first the experience and sentiments of others as a rule to themselves, and afterward dogmatically laying down the path in which they themselves have been led, as absolutely necessary to be trodden by others.”

“There is a vast variety of the methods by which the Lord brings home souls to himself, in which he considers (though system-preachers do not) the different circumstances, situations, temperament, etc. of different persons.  To lay down rules precisely to which all must conform, and to treat all enquiring souls in the same way, is as wrong as it would be in a physician to attempt to cure all his patients who may have the same general disorder (a fever for instance) with one and the same prescription.  A skilful man would probably find so many differences in their cases, that he would not treat any two of them exactly alike.”

These are wise words.  If you don’t have the exact same emotions, feelings, and experiences as others in coming to Christ (and following him), don’t doubt your faith and repentance.  Don’t try to get the same emotions, feelings, and experiences of others, even if they are of a popular preacher.  Here’s Newton’s advice:

“I hope the Lord has made me willing to learn (if I can) from all, but ‘Nullius in verba jurare’ is my motto (take no one’s word as final; examine for yourself).  If you read Scripture and your own heart attentively, you will have greatly the advantage of those who puzzle themselves by too closely copying the rules they find in other books.”

John Newton, Wise Counsel, p. 120-121.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002

Do Not Sleep Another Night Without It! (McCheyne)

While reading several of Robert Murray McCheyne’s letters this morning, I came across one he wrote to a stranger in 1840.  McCheyne’s friend told him of a man he knew that might benefit from an evangelistic letter.  So McCheyne sent a letter since he wasn’t able to visit the stranger in person.  Here’s a very encouraging excerpt from the letter:

“Look at Romans 5:19.  By the sin of Adam, many were made sinners.  We had no hand in Adam’s sin, and yet the guilt of it comes upon us.  We did not put out our hand to the apple, and yet the sin and misery have been laid at our door.  In the same way, ‘by the obedience of Christ, many are made righteous.’  Christ is the glorious One who stood for many.  His perfect garment is sufficient to cover you.  You had no hand in his obedience.   You were not alive when He came into the world and lived and died; and yet, in the perfect obedience, you may stand before God [as] righteous.”

“This is all my covering in the sight of a holy God.  I feel infinitely ungodly in myself: in God’s eye, like a serpent or a toad; and yet, when I stand in Christ alone, I feel that God sees no sin in me, and loves me freely.  The same righteousness is free to you.  It will be as white and clean on your soul as on mine.  Oh, do not sleep another night without it!  Only consent to stand in Christ, not in your poor self.”

R. M. McCheyne, Memiors, ed. Andrew Bonar (Chicago: Moody Press, 1951), 93.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Not Giving Up On A Sinner (Spencer)

Sometime around the middle of the 19th century, a woman spoke to Rev. Ichabod Spencer about the things of the Christian faith.  After the discussion, the woman was interested in becoming a Christian.  Spencer met with her many times over the next two years.  Over and over Spencer told her about sin, repentance, faith in Christ, and what it means to be a disciple.  Over and over he showed her the verses about these truths.

For reasons only God knows, she was very slow to believe.  She just couldn’t quite commit.  Spencer had talked to her so many times he became weary of talking to her; he even was tempted to tell her, “I’ve said everything that needs to be said.  Don’t see me anymore.”  It got to the point where he was annoyed when he saw her coming to talk, which made him feel guilty about it.  He never did turn her away simply because he knew the agony she was in.  Spencer noted that he had never spent so much time talking to an unbeliever about the faith.  To make a long two-year story short, by God’s grace the woman finally did come to faith, as did her husband, her sister, and some of her friends.  After telling this story, Spencer wrote this:

“Ministers ought never to despair of the salvation of any sinner.  To despair of any one is just the way to make him despair of himself.  Many have been ruined in this way, probably.  We ought to expect sinners to repent – and treat them accordingly.  Who shall limit the Holy One of Israel?  It took me long to learn the lesson, but I have learned never to give up a sinner.  We must urge the duty of an immediate faith and repentance, as the Bible does so continually; but we must be careful to enjoin this duty in such a manner that, if it is not immediately done, the individual shall not be led or left to cease seeking God.  Many a sinner turns back, when just at the door of heaven.”

Ichabod Spencer, A Pastor’s Sketches, II.III.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015