The Universal Calls of the Gospel (1)
Proverbs 8:4,5. Unto you, O men, I call; and My voice is to the sons of man. O ye simple, understand wisdom; and ye fools, be ye of an understanding heart.
These are the words of Christ. They are the words of Christ to men in general – “to the sons of man”. They are the words of Christ to all men – to every child of Adam, to hear and to be of an understanding heart. Now, we lay it down as part of divine truth, that all men are by nature dead in sin, and utterly impotent to spiritual good. And we lay it down as equally part of revealed truth, that Christ has a people, that He died for their redemption, and that their being brought out of their state of sin and misery, into a state of salvation, is the direct fruit of His suffering in their room and stead.
If these things be so, if all men are dead in trespasses and sins, and yet all men are called – if Christ died for His people, to redeem them to God, and yet salvation is offered to all – it follows necessarily that an obligation to spiritual duty is not inconsistent with total spiritual inability, and that a universal offer of salvation neither rests upon nor implies a universal atonement. Many think otherwise, and many who do not are yet greatly perplexed by what such individuals advance. On both of these points, therefore – the call to spiritual duty, and the ground on which sinners are thus called – we would now make a few observations; and having thus sought to clear the way to the full impression which the text should make, we would endeavour to do the thing which it expresses and call all men everywhere to repentance now.
1. The call of the text to spiritual duty, as addressed to all men – “to the sons of man”. As means, these calls are, in their own nature, fitted to produce a right state of mind; they are addressed to beings who, in their nature, ought to be moved by such calls. Nothing more is required to vindicate this way of dealing with men, and to show that it is consistent with the highest wisdom. But many cannot be satisfied with this. In the pride of their heart they say, God could not call unless man could comply. Nay, it would be unjust in God to exhort, call and urge man to do that for which he yet needed the help of God. And, increasing in boldness as they advance in this course, they ask, Is it not a mockery, unworthy of God, to call dead men to walk and impotent men to rise – to do what He knows no man can do without His special grace?
Now, if the inability of man was the inability of “natural brute beasts”, as the apostle Peter speaks, and the call was to the service of rational creatures, or if the inability was the inability of men and the call was to such to yield to God the service of angels or of archangels, or if the inability was the physical inability of a lame man to walk and the call that he should rise and walk – though we would wish, even then, to speak with more reverence – there would be more weight in the vaunting words of these objections. But if the inability is the voluntary act of an intelligent being preferring the darkness to the light; if the inability is the inability of such a being to love his God, not with the love of an angel, but with all his heart and all his soul and all his strength; if the inability is that of a being who walks after the flesh, because he minds the things of the flesh and not of the spirit; if the inability is that of a man who cannot find it in his heart to love and to serve the blessed God, but can find it in that very heart to give that love and service to the creature; then there is neither truth nor power in such statements, however vauntingly put forth as unanswerable.
This is the real state of man. There is utter inability in him to spiritual duty, but it is just because sin is preferred. This inability is hopeless, but it is just because this is the governing power of the mind. There is utter helplessness in man, but this is just because this power will always prevail if help does not come from God. There is in all this the deepest and darkest depravity, and that surely can never remove man from his obligation to serve God, or take away God’s right to deal with man as a responsible being. Such being the true nature of man’s inability, it is evident that every hour of continuance in it is an hour of chosen rebellion, and therefore of deepest sin. And such being the true characteristics which God sees every hour, there is no inconsistency in God demanding obedience, and no injustice in His punishing those who are not subject to His law, and no mockery in His calling these men to turn from their sins. That this is indeed the case will further appear if we consider the following plain truths, to which, as helping to a right judgement of the matter before us, we earnestly entreat your attention.
First of all, however startling it may appear at first sight, God can command what men are utterly unable to fulfil. Otherwise men must be able to keep the whole law of God in thought and word and deed (for, beyond all question, God does command this); God could not command anything whatever which man could not perform; God’s right of sovereignty would be measured by man’s willingness to comply with it; and God’s moral government over the wicked would be at an end.
Second, God can blame and punish man for not doing what he cannot do. Otherwise, the more depraved man becomes, the less blameable he will be. For, if total inability is a complete excuse, partial inability is a partial excuse; and thus the more a man’s heart becomes set in him to do evil, the less blameable he will be; the more thoroughly hardened a man becomes, the less responsible he will be.
Third, God can demand from man what he is only able to do by the aid of His Spirit. Otherwise what the Spirit of God works must be something which man, as the creature of God, is not bound to possess. If the Spirit alone works in me what it is my duty as a creature to be and to do in such circumstances, it must still be my duty whether the help of the Spirit of God is sought or refused. In this case, as in every other case of a moral nature, my want is my wickedness – my weakness is my condemnation.
Fourth, God cannot demand less of man than what His Spirit alone can work in the soul, for God cannot demand other than spiritual service. God is a spirit, and must be worshipped in spirit and in truth; God looks on the heart, and any other service offered to Him is a mockery; God is truth, and the Father seeketh such to worship Him as worship Him in spirit and in truth.
Fifth, God can and does demand of man, and cannot but demand of man – of sinful man, of man lost, undone and dead, of man without strength and utterly impotent – repentance and conversion; for what is conversion but just the right state of such a creature towards the blessed God? What is the meaning of me not being able to convert myself but just that I am so utterly depraved that I cannot love the ever-blessed God and that I love the sin which He hates? What is this but darkest and deepest sin? And what is repentance but just that state which I cannot lack for a moment without, in that moment involving myself in deeper rebellion and contracting to my soul new guilt.
But still, it may be said, if in any way man is so utterly unable, without special grace, to comply with the call of God, why should God use this way of dealing with him? Why multiply, as the Word of God does, calls and exhortations and warnings? Why press him to turn and live, to make to himself a new heart, to repent and be converted? To this we answer generally that such calls certainly do not imply an innate power of compliance; they only imply that the state of mind to which these calls direct men is the right state of mind which they should have toward God, and that this is the state of mind, therefore, which God must claim, and claim every moment. But, along with this, such calls and invitations serve most important purposes, some of which we shall merely state:
(1.) They show us our duty and obligation – duty which lies on us at every moment, duty from which nothing can set us free. This is the great design of all the calls of God to the sons of men. They set forth, not man’s power, but God’s claim – not what we are able to do, but what we ought to do; not our ability, but our duty.
(2.) These calls of God show the connection between the state to which we are called and the enjoyment of the blessing promised. There is a connection of co-existence, though not of cause and effect, and it is of vast importance to hold this constantly before us. As certainly as without Christ there is no salvation, so certainly without a personal union to Christ there shall be no salvation for us. As certainly as without shedding of blood there is no remission, so certainly without our washing in that blood shed, there will be no participation. And hence the gracious and constant and urgent call to take and live.
(3.) These calls hold before us what must be accomplished in us if we are ever to be saved. They show us what we are perishing for lack of – if it is never found in us, we shall never see life; and if it is found in us, it will certainly write us among the heirs of salvation.
(4.) These calls are all designed, and most blessedly fitted, to shut us up to the faith now revealed – to the only way of life for fallen man. In the gracious procedure of God, what is required as duty is promised as grace; what He demands from us, He promises to work in us. And the demand is not intended to show us our strength, but to shut us up to His promise.
(5.) These calls and exhortations are intended to shew us what we ought to pray for. Some have concluded that men ought not always to pray. They have concluded that, as we cannot pray without faith, so we should not pray till we know that we have faith. And instead of being on their knees crying to God, they have learned to argue on the uselessness and impossibility of unconverted men praying. We enter into no controversy, but we do know that one at least who was unconverted – who was in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity – was by infallible authority directed to pray. “Pray God”, said Peter to Simon, even when he perceived that he had neither part nor lot in the matter, “if peradventure the thought of thy heart be forgiven thee”. Doubtless he that cometh unto God must believe that He is; doubtless he that cometh acceptably must come in the new and living way. But, without fixing any degree of precedence in things which, when they exist, brook neither the order nor the bounds which men would set, we would say that it is at once the duty and privilege of every soul to cry to God, and these calls, exhortations and warnings teach them what they ought to pray for, and how they ought to ask it.
(6.) Above all, these pressing calls are designed by Him who knows all that is in the heart of man, and how he clings to refuges of lies, to shut us out of all so-called neutral ground in spiritual things and to shut us up to that in which all our safety lies, even the present reception of Christ and conversion to God. The great delusion of men in general is that they are doing something for their souls – that they are from time to time taking a step in advance and that their path will at length wind its way to salvation. The great anxiety of men is to get something to do, in the meantime, which may bear the look of religion and yet leave them to pursue their own course. It ministers to this delusion if you advise them to read as if, while reading, they might rest without an interest in Christ. Or if you advise them to pray as if, while praying, they may be satisfied without receiving. Or if you advise them to seek as if, while seeking, there is a degree of safety without finding. It meets this delusion – and there is no other way of meeting it – to leave no resting-place in all the cursed field of nature, to tell all men plainly that God requires of us, at once, faith in Jesus Christ and repentance unto life, and thus to shut men up to where safety can alone be found.
Yes, what God requires – what He cannot but require, if compliance with His requirement is to result in salvation – is conversion, saving faith, repentance unto life. Till this is done, nothing is done. Till Christ be received, death reigns. If you live on, separate from Christ, you only add sin to sin, and therefore treasure up wrath against the day of wrath. If you die in that state, you perish for ever, notwithstanding all your anxieties. If you pray and yet keep back your heart from God, you sin. If you worship, while yet you refuse to give yourself to the Lord, your very worship is mockery. All is sin and danger and death till you return to the Lord – till you repent. O most blessed day when at length the sinner feels that out of Christ there is no resting-place for the sole of his foot where he dare rest for a moment, when he utterly despairs of salvation or of hope from himself, and when utterly despairing of all other help, he casts himself into the outstretched arms of divine mercy and, looking unto Jesus, says at length, “Save Thou me, and I shall be saved. Heal Thou me, and I shall be healed. Turn Thou me, and I shall be turned.”  (to be continued)This sermon, reprinted with slight editing from The Free Church Pulpit, vol 1, was originally entitled, “The universal calls and invitations of the gospel consistent with the total depravity of man and particular redemption”. Bonar (1799-1863) was at first minister of Larbert and Dunipace, in central Scotland, where at one stage he had R M M’Cheyne as his assistant. He later had charges in, successively, Aberdeen and Glasgow.  John Duncan spoke in the Free Church General Assembly, on 21 May 1844 and said. “As long as I am told that I must come to God, and that I can come, I am left to suppose that some good thing, or some power of good remains in me; I arrogate to myself that which belongs to Jehovah; the creature is exalted, and God is robbed of His glory. If, on the other hand, I am told that I cannot come to God, but not also told that I must come, I am left to rest contented at a distance from God; I am not responsible for my rebellion, and God Jehovah is not my God. But if we preach that sinners cannot come, and yet must come, then is the honour of God vindicated, and the sinner is shut up. Man must be so shut up that he must come to Christ, and yet know that he cannot. He must be told to come to Christ, or he will look to another, when there is no other to whom he may come. He must be told that he cannot come, or he will look to himself. This is the gospel vice, to shut up men to faith. Some grasp at one limb of the vice and some at the other, leaving the sinner open. But when a man is shut up so that he must and cannot, he is shut up to faith. God is declared to be Jehovah, and the sinner is made willing to be saved by Him, in His own way, as sovereign in His grace.”
From the recently reprinted The Banner of Truth Magazine Issues 1-16, September 1955 – August 1959, pp. 433-444, in issue14 of the magazine, February 1959. Also reprinted in the current Free Presbyterian Magazine, April 2006.
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