THE GOSPEL CALL IMPERATIVE (Guest Post by Ken Smith)
Recently Pastor Ken Smith addressed the Reformation Society of Pittsburgh on the topic of justification by faith alone. As an application of this doctrine, he addressed the subject of the gospel call. Ken graciously agreed to let us share that important portion of his address below.
I want to pose a question which has troubled me for a long time. Why do there seem to be so few conversions among reformed churches? There could be, I suppose, a number of answers. But having puzzled over this for many decades, I want to pose one very strong possibility. Have we in our zeal for proclaiming the sovereignty of God in salvation with the Bible’s doctrine of predestination, election, and irresistible grace slipped into thinking that saving faith is passive? After all, say many, doesn’t Ephesians 2:9 say “…it (thinking faith) is the gift of God….”? So, if that’s the case, is it not after all a passive matter?
It is significant to recognize that when the Lord Jesus Christ began His ministry, He called on men to repent. In talking with Nicodemus, he made it clear that unless one was born again (from above), he had no part in the kingdom of God. Later in that same passage Jesus spoke of the serpent in the wilderness, raised up in God’s mercy, so that by looking at it persons with fatal snakebite could be healed. When Jesus called men to Himself, He called on them to deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow Him. His gospel call came in a variety of ways, but he always called for a response. And the point of this consideration is that unlike regeneration (the inner call) which is indeed passive, faith in the Scripture is always active. The sinner MUST respond. So while we hold to sola fide, faith alone, we must never confuse it with a passive attitude.
But my question is, have we? Are we proclaiming the riches of God’s grace in the gospel, shown how it is the message of the Bible, but failed to call on the hearers to respond? I’ve heard many sermons – perhaps even preached them – only then to pray and call on God, not the sinners, to respond. In short, we seem to give the “invitation” to God, calling on Him to do something, while sinners wait passively for something to move them. That is at best a truncated gospel! Spurgeon, a Calvinist, would plead with listeners to come to Christ. He would stop in the middle of a sermon and say, “And now I have a word for you who have not yet come to Christ.” Then he would tell them what God called them to do. The Puritans spoke of “closing” in the gospel message, playing on the finalization of a business deal.
In that light let’s review what the Westminster Shorter Catechism says about faith. I do this because in our day of easy believism and cheap grace, the idea of sola fide, faith alone, on the surface sounds quite inviting. In our zeal against Catholicism and Arminianism, have we made the gate that Jesus described as narrow quite easy? Simple faith? The Catechism answers the question “What is faith in Jesus Christ?” by stating it “is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation as he is offered to us in the gospel.” The two active verbs here are “receive” and “rest.” But remember that “repentance unto life” may not be separated from the reformers’ idea of faith. “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.”
In short, in the order of salvation faith and repentance are opposite sides of the same coin. And note here the active verb is “turn.”
We must not, however, fail to catch the emotions involved. The sinner in coming to Christ “senses” his sin, he “senses” God’s mercy in Christ, and he experiences “grief and hatred” of his sin. And with new purpose in his life, he sets out to obey his Lord. And that’s where we find the doctrine of “the perseverance of the saints.” True believers follow to the end. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me,” Jesus said. They don’t follow to become saved. They follow because they are saved. If a Christian by profession fails to follow Christ and his word, there is no reason to believe he is a believer.
Now again consider how the gospel call comes to the sinner. People are not all the same, sinners though they may be, and the Holy Spirit is firm, but at the same time can be gentle as He woos to faith. But our attention at the moment is on the sinner and his response. For example, when God first spoke to Abraham in Genesis 12:1, it reads, “Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country….’” It was a call to obey. And it’s not until Genesis 15, after God had taken him out to view the sky, that it says in verse 6 that Abraham “believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” His belief, his grasp, and his fidelity bloomed as he obeyed. In short, Abraham’s faith came to be as he did what God called him to do. And God made plain what he was to do and what he could expect.
But again I ask, Are we reluctant to tell sinners what to do? Are we afraid of the critics of “the invitation system” and so we don’t call on sinners to do what God calls on them to DO to be saved? Have we indeed become unwittingly “hyper-Calvinists?” In her book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Rosaria Butterfield goes into some detail in describing her own struggles with her inquiring mind. If she could just get everything figured out, then she might be in a position to determine whether or not she could believe what the Bible says. Then she came across John 17:7 – “If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself.” This jolted her. She was confronted with obeying God in order to gain understanding rather than her academic approach, “understand it first, then decide whether or not to do it.” Not with God. You obey Him and then you will understand. And by the grace of God, she did!
My point is simply this: we must not misjudge “faith alone” (sola fide) to mean there is nothing one is called to do to be saved. Faith is active! It’s not a good work to gain merit. It’s responsive. And sinners, including our church members, need to understand this. It’s not our works or good deeds that save us or even contribute to our acceptance with God. Jesus has done it all, and He now calls all men everywhere to repent and believe the Gospel. And that Gospel, that good news, brings hope; because it is Jesus Christ Who by His own sacrifice reconciles us to God. That’s why it is faith alone! Jesus has done it! And people must hear it and hear it as God’s call to respond!
However, in describing the content of the Gospel, Charles Hodge in his systematic theology says it involves four aspects, one of which is “the invitation, command, and exhortation to receive the mercy offered.” Don’t miss it: there’s a mandate there. We must not see this as optional! God calls. Believe, repent or perish! And we are to give that call to everyone! (There is no conflict between God’s universal call and particular salvation.) And we dare not make it inconsequential whether or not to respond. When that gospel has been explained, it is not complete until hearers are summoned, urged, and commanded by God to respond. People must learn that God requires submission and obedience when it comes to saving faith, as the apostle Paul at the end of Romans 16 speaks of “the obedience of faith.”
Now how will we call persons to respond? What are we going to tell them to do?
As I mentioned above, many critics have dismantled “the invitation system” and in many ways have pointed out its error. What they have told us is what not to do. But they’ve left us with an unfinished message. Can you follow Spurgeon and plead for persons to come to the Savior? We can invite people to speak with us. We can direct them to speak to God “as we pray.” “Are you ready to obey God, come to Jesus, and surrender your life to do His will?” “Perhaps you are not sure whether or not you are saved. God has a good word for you on this. Speak to me about it.” There are so many different ways to call men, women, and children to Christ. Just begin to show people what they must do. That is not Arminianism! That’s biblical Christianity.
And if a man does not feel he can call people to come to Christ, he should not be a pastor until he is ready…in fact, driven…to do so.