"He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything."
Colossians 1:18

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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Practical Theology: Irresistible Grace in Evangelism

A young man, a wealthy ruler, comes before Jesus, and, kneeling, asks simply, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mark 10:17) Christ's response (vv. 18-21) is, to say, the least, indirect.  The word "repent" does not leave His lips, and neither does "believe."  Both of these are implicit in the conversation, but He leaves them unsaid.  He asks a question.  He makes a few simple statements.  The man answers rather unrealistically.  Christ issues a command.  The wealthy ruler walks away, devastated and apparently unsaved (v. 22).  And so this familiar story leaves us. 

Surely Christ was operating within the realm of divine prerogative as He interacted with this man.  The nagging question, though, is this:  if Christ had taken a gentler, less demanding approach, would this man have been saved?  A related question - could this man have been saved, had he been allowed at this time to enter into the fellowship of true belief, just as veteran churchgoers are sometimes suddenly saved in today's churches? 

We can answer both these questions with some further consideration.  Christ answered as He did in order to reveal the character of the man's beliefs.  The young man's convictions did not permit him to submit himself to Christ, either as Savior (v. 20) or as Lord (v. 22), and neither is optional for salvation (cf. John 3:36, Luke 14:27).  The point is simple:  in this invaluable example, Jesus was not moved by a simple profession or a bare question - He drove His gospel in as deeply as was needed in order to outwardly prove or disprove the man's belief, and He did it with sincere compassion (v. 21).  He was unafraid to get to the bottom of this urgent matter, and He did so perceptively and lovingly. 

A few objections will surely sound out here:

1.  "This is the omniscient Christ - we can hardly be said to have this sort of insight into people around us."  This is true, but this does not hinder our knowledge and understanding of the gospel, and it is from this perspective that we operate.  People differ, but the old gospel was written by hands far stronger and timeless than ours.  If someone comes to us seeking to understand the gospel, we must give it to them with all of its force, with all of its urgency, and with all of its requirements, lest they come short of salvation.

2.  "Who are we to judge people's hearts?"  This is a terrible sort of assumption.  Judgment is neither meant nor required here.  Let us create a (somewhat imperfect) picture.  Your friend is standing upon an actively crumbling ledge above some yawning chasm.  He is not silent; he is crying for help.  There is a ladder behind him, and you point it out, describing this ladder and how it must be used.  You demonstrate it several times.  You explain it again.  He declines to use the ladder and turns away, having become upset that you are judging his heart.  If this sounds absurd, you have grasped the intent. 

If a person is truly humble before the Lord, grievously conscious of sin, and seeking to repent before a holy God, then no part of the gospel will work as a deterrent.  The powerful truth of the gospel will at first be a hot blade to the heart of such a person as he or she is laid low by the knowledge of personal sin, but it will become as honey upon the lips as this person approaches, once and for all, to dine at God's own table, invited by His grace and drawn by His might.  On the other hand, a feigned humility or inappropriate presumption on the part of such a person will only be flushed out by the true gospel, as it was with the rich young ruler, and this is no great loss, for this is not the sort of attitude that a holy God honors with salvation.

3.  "Will we not unduly dissuade people from Christianity?"  This question is perhaps the most important of all, for, were this true, it would create a formidable moral dilemma indeed.  We need not, however, explore this possibility, for God's Word strangles it with its usual blessed clarity:  "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out...This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day."  These words, spoken by Jesus in John 6:37 and 39, create a compelling picture of the Father's sovereign purposes at work - He gives His elect to Christ, and all that He gives will surely come to Christ.  In other words, we have landed upon the great truth of scripture which theologians like to call "irresistible grace."  It grants a lasting comfort to us in this matter.

If God is sure to win the souls He calls, as John 6 indicates, then the temptation to cheapen the gospel, to soften it so it may slip inoffensively into a reluctant heart, loses all of its teeth.  As God has divinely lavished the full measure of certainty in salvation, then the thought that we humans should try to add a further certainty of our own sort is intrusive and dangerous.  We either do not trust His work, or we seek to overturn it.  In fact, if we try to hurry someone into the kingdom and skirt away from a full understanding of the sinner's need for a Savior, or any other glittering facet of the gospel, we risk falsely assuring an unbeliever of his or her Christianity.  Here is a principle:  any person should be able to explain the saving gospel to someone else, from the very instant of salvation.  If this is not the case, we must question his or her understanding of the gospel, and, alongside of this, we must question his or her salvation. 

It becomes us well, then, to approach the repentant unbeliever with care and deliberateness.  Reckless haste is inappropriate:  nothing will hinder the truly repentant from salvation, certainly not a few moments of compassionate, soul-searching questions, but a glossing over of truth will never drive someone into the arms of the Lord.  No one can be cheated into the kingdom of God.  Explore the gospel with such the searching sinner with discernment and reverence.  Move to correct any misunderstandings, and rejoice if you see a truly burdened heart yearning for Christ's singular salvation!

One note further.  Jesus explained further in John 6:44 that only those whom the Father sends may come to Christ.  This removes one more reason to offer a hasty, emaciated gospel - we will certainly not sneak our friends into the kingdom this way.  No; God must be at work in a person, working His power unto salvation, and then nothing can stand in the way of that glorious salvation running its miraculous course and sweeping the glad, contrite sinner down into the ocean of grace.  How potently does God provide for our security, and how powerfully does this security arm us as we seek to bring people to Him!


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