Dr. Joel R. Beeke
Since the Fall of Adam and Eve, the great question has been: “How can sinful man be brought back to God?” In Genesis 3, God sent Adam and Eve away. Genesis 3:24 says, “So he drove out the man: and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.” But Scripture makes it clear that there is a remedy. In Revelation 22, the New Jerusalem descends from heaven. In it we discover again the tree of life planted by a refreshing river flowing from the throne of God (Rev. 22:1–2). John therefore testifies, “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely” (v. 17). Man was sent away from God, but now he is brought to God. Man was barred from the Tree of Life, but now a way to God has been opened through Christ (cf. Rev. 2:7). The question that remains is: How do you and I come to Christ?
Today, as in Puritan times, many people do not understand how a fallen sinner comes to Christ. Mistaken views abound. In some evangelistic meetings, people are asked to make a decision for Christ in their own strength. They may be asked to raise their hand during silent prayer, to recite the sinner’s prayer, or to walk forward during an altar call.
Some teach that baptismal regeneration is the key to coming to Christ. Others equate coming to Christ with mental assent; they think they only need to know and assent to some basic truths about Christ to come to Christ. Others require unbiblical, mystical experiences to come to Christ. They claim to have received revelations from the Holy Spirit or miraculous experiences that assure them of having come to Christ.
Still others never fully grasp what it means to come to Christ. They wrestle with a fearful lack of assurance, always asking, “Have I come?” “How do I know if I have come?” “What does it truly mean to come?” “Has God truly begun His saving work in me?”
The Puritans grappled with these and other false views as they tirelessly labored to show people how sinners come to Christ. In this article we will briefly examine the biblical doctrine of coming to Christ through the Puritan lens. Next month, we will consider the impediments of coming to Christ. Thus, we will deal with how we come and why some do not come. Our prayer is that, with the Spirit’s blessing, this examination may encourage those of you who question whether or not you have truly come to Christ.
The Universal Call to Come to Christ
The first encouragement Puritan ministers offered is that Christ’s call to come to Him is universal in scope. Christ says, “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). The Puritans viewed the extent of this call as universal — that is, it comes to everyone who hears the gospel. 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” (The Beauties of Thomas Boston, 263). God commands all people everywhere to repent and come to Christ (Acts 17:30).
The terms labor and heavy laden in this verse 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 to come. Christ calls all people who are weary and feel the heaviness of life (cf. Eccl. 1:8; Isa. 55:2) to come to Him for rest.
This universal call that comes to all who hear the gospel is made even clearer when we consider the extent of the gospel, Boston said. For the gospel is the call to come to Christ. By its nature, the gospel demands our faith, so a lack of faith in the gospel is the sin of unbelief. But if the gospel call is restricted to a select group of individuals and is not universal, then the obligations of the gospel are not universal. Those who reject the gospel, then, are not guilty of unbelief because they were never called to believe the gospel. As far as sinful corruption reaches, so does the call to come to Christ.
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 the 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 means 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 sins and burdens.
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 went all about the city, warning people about God’s wrath that would soon destroy their city. Most people responded to the warning by mocking Christian and his warnings. But their refusal to listen did not make Christian’s invitation to go with him insufficient or insincere. The warning itself was not insufficient.
When you invite someone to a wedding reception and they decline to come, does that mean the invitation was not sufficient? Does it show a weakness in the people who issued the invitation? No, the insufficiency in Christian’s case was not the warning but rather the people who refused to respond to the warning. There was no insufficiency in the wedding invitation, but in those who refused 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. The Canons of Dort explain this well in Head III–IV, articles 8–9:
As many as are called by the gospel, are unfeignedly 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.
The Canons make plain that there is no insufficiency in God’s willingness to save sinners. The invitation is not a lie; it is a true, rich, full, free invitation. The gospel is a well-meant offer. Christ is ready and willing to save sinners. This is what Bunyan referred to as the conditional promise. To all who will come to Him, Christ freely gives eternal life. This call is based on the condition of faith and is a true invitation. But no one comes to Christ simply because of this universal calling. We who are called are insufficient to respond to that call; we cannot and will not come. The insufficiency is in us. Our 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, “The invitation was not for me. The invitation was not sufficient to save me.” Christ stands at the door of our hearts and knocks. He will enter the heart of anyone who opens that door and dine with that person (Rev. 3:20). But that leaves us asking, “What must I do to come? How can I come? How can I be assured that I am coming to Christ?”
The Effectual Call to Come to Christ
We have not been left to doubt whether sinners like us may or do come to Christ. From Genesis 3 through Revelation 22, the Bible reveals to us the steps God takes to bring us back to Him. Coming to Christ is an experience that we may have in this life. Union with Christ can become a present reality. We would be remiss to put aside the question of coming to Christ. We would fail to understand God’s graciousness if we thought that coming to Christ was something so mysterious that we could never understand it.
There are two extremes we must avoid in seeking proper understanding of the biblical doctrine of coming to Christ. On the one hand, we should avoid the problem of easy belief, usually called easy-believism. The meaning of this term varies accordingly to its usage. We do not want to state that coming to Christ is effective when we cite a little prayer, raise our hand, or respond to an altar call. We do not want to make light of this doctrine of coming to Christ. But the other extreme we should avoid is presuming what we cannot know. We do not want to give up, saying, “There is nothing I can do to assure myself of coming to Christ.” This usually involves spiritual distortion and/or spiritual laziness.
Between these two extremes, the Puritans clarified how we truly come to Christ. They took care to show us 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.
In addition to God’s universal call, there is His effective call, often referred to as the effectual call of Christ. This effectual call is inseparable from what the Puritans called God’s unconditional promises. Unconditional promises give what conditional promises require, the Puritans explain. John Bunyan wrote, “The conditional promise calls for repentance, and the absolute promise gives it (Acts 5:31). The conditional promise calls for faith, and the absolute promise gives it (Zeph. 3:12; Rom. 15:12). The conditional promise calls for a new heart, and the absolute promise gives it (Ezek. 36:25–26). The conditional promise calls for holy obedience, and the absolute promise gives it (Ezek. 36:27)” (Bunyan, Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ, 55).
The unconditional promises grounded in Christ’s atoning work reveal that Christ is able to bring sinners to Himself. The unconditional promises are given to His elect, fulfilling the conditions of what He requires of us when we come to Him. John Flavel (1628–1691), commenting on the need of the effectual call, stated, “But yet, all the preaching in the world can never effect this union with Christ in itself, and in its own virtue, except a supernatural and mighty power go forth with it for that end and purpose. Let Boanerges and Barnabas try their strength, let the angels of heaven be the preachers; till God draw, the soul cannot come to Christ” (Flavel, Works, 2:67). Thus, a universal calling is not sufficient to draw people to Christ. But Christ does not stop at a universal call. He goes further, penetrating the hearts of the elect through an effectual call, which is rooted in the unconditional promises to bring sinners to Christ.
Christ clearly proclaims the effectual call in John 6:37, 44: “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out…. No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.” What we observe here is that no one can come to Christ unless he or she is drawn by the Father, and those who are drawn to Christ will come to Christ. The unconditional promise in these verses is that those whom the Father draws will by God’s sovereign grace come to Christ, and Christ, being an able and willing Savior, will not cast them out.
“This is good news indeed!” you say. “But I am still unsure. How do I know if Christ is effectively drawing me? How do I know if I am a recipient of this inward, effectual call? How is this call applied to the hearts of unworthy, yes, even hell-worthy sinners?”
Because of its effectual nature, this call is a spiritual call, not primarily a physical or volitional call. What we mean is that the effective call is not a physical coming to Christ. It is not evident by raising a hand when the pastor asks, or coming forward during an altar call, making the sign of the cross, or taking the elements in the Lord’s Supper. Bunyan, who was well aware of the deceitfulness of equating the effective call with a physical act, said that many people came to Christ “carnally, or bodily, that had no saving advantage” (Bunyan, Come and Welcome, 24). A physical act is not the true means of coming to Christ for salvation.
Likewise, coming to Christ is not merely a volitional act. Making a decision to follow Jesus is not what makes Christ’s calling effective. The Bible says that no one is able to come to Christ of his own volition. We cannot meet the conditional promises of this calling; we are so helpless that we need something more than our volitional act. If salvation were left to our wills to come to Christ, we would all be hopelessly lost. None of us would come. None would follow Christ. God makes the call effective by a spiritual act, which, as John Flavel says, is a “supernatural and mighty power” that causes us to come to Christ. Effectual calling, therefore, is the Holy Spirit’s powerful work in us ( John 6:63) which then results in our volitional act of coming to Christ. We are made willing (Ps. 110:3) and enabled (Eph. 2:1) to come in the day of God’s power.
The Puritans labored to show how sinners can know if they have come to Christ, or, as they often put it, have closed with Christ, or appropriated Christ, or apprehended Christ. All of these terms are synonymous in the Puritan mind. The Puritans defended their explanations by anchoring them in Scripture. We come to Christ, they said, when we are (1) drawn actively by faith to Christ (2) as He offers Himself in the gospel, (3) through the power of the Holy Spirit. Let us look at each of these briefly.
1. We must be drawn actively by faith to Christ. Bunyan spoke of coming to Christ as a mental act. He said those who come to Christ are so affected in their hearts that they mentally come to Him. What he means is that the person who comes to Christ is made willing to come; he comes voluntarily. This coming is by no means easy belief, which we have already repudiated. Rather, Bunyan says, “the Lord Jesus positively determines to put forth such a sufficiency of all grace as shall effectually perform this promise” (Bunyan, Come and Welcome, 23).
Christ does not force us to come to Him; He changes our mentality so that we can do nothing other than come to Him. He makes us willing in the day of His power (Ps. 10:3). Faith willingly believes from the heart what the Scriptures teach about man’s sinfulness, God’s holiness, and Christ’s saving work. As the sinner encounters God’s awesome holiness, his faith repudiates self- righteousness. It brings him to need Christ as revealed in Scripture. Faith abandons all self-merit as it is increasingly allured to Christ and His merits (Rom. 7:24 –25).
It is important to emphasize that Christ is the object of this active faith. Properly speaking, faith has never saved anyone. As believers, we do not have faith in our faith; we exercise faith in Christ. True faith lays hold of Christ, embraces Christ, and rests upon Christ for total salvation. As J. G. Pike said, “This central truth is the principal and proper matter of faith, and Christ or God in Christ appearing in it, is the proper and only object of faith” (Brown, 261).
The two brief words to Christ refer to two important causes of coming to Christ. Bunyan says, “Firstly, there is in Christ a fullness of all-sufficiency of that, even of all that, which is needful to make us happy. Secondly, those that indeed come to him, do therefore come to him that they may receive it at his hand” (Bunyan, Come and Welcome, 67). It is to Christ we go. It is to Christ we come. It is to Christ we turn to receive bounty at His hand.
Faith surrenders to the gospel and falls into the outstretched arms of Christ. Faith looks away from self to Christ, moved entirely by grace. It flees with all the soul’s poverty to Christ’s riches. It moves with the soul’s guilt to Christ as Reconciler, with the soul’s bondage to Christ as Liberator. Faith confesses with Augustus Toplady (1740 –1778):
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to thee for dress;
Helpless, look to thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.
Faith unites a sinner with his Savior. As John Calvin (1509 –1564) said, “Faith justifies in no other way than as it introduces us into a participation of the righteousness of Christ.” It apprehends (fides apprehensiva), closes with, and grasps Christ in a believing embrace, surrendering self, clinging to His Word, and relying on His promises.
Christ is not only the object of faith; He is also present in faith. For faith rests in the Person of Christ by coming, hearing, seeing, trusting, taking, embracing, knowing, rejoicing, loving, and triumphing in Him. It leaves its case in the hands of Christ as the great Physician, following His directions and trusting in His finished work. As Martin Luther (1483 –1546) wrote, “Faith clasps Christ as a ring clasps its jewel.” Faith wraps the soul in Christ’s righteousness. It appropriates with a believing heart Christ’s perfect righteousness, satisfaction, and holiness of Christ. It tastes the efficacy of Christ’s blood-righteousness as the righteousness of God Himself (Rom. 3:21–25; 5:9; 6:7; 2 Cor. 5:18 –21). It weds the soul to Christ, experiences divine pardon and acceptance in the Beloved, and makes the soul partake of every covenant mercy.
2. We come to Christ by active faith as He is offered in the gospel. The Christ we come to is not an abstract idea. He is not a Christ of our imagination. He is not a Christ of our own picking and choosing, but the Christ of Scripture revealed to us by God in sacred writ.
The Christ we come to is held out to sinners in the gospel. This means the only way you can come to Christ is in your sin. Bunyan explained, “It is a moving of the mind towards him, from a sound sense of the absolute want that a man has of him for his justification and salvation. Indeed without this sense of a lost condition without him, there will be no moving of the mind towards him” (Bunyan, Come and Welcome, 27).
The Puritans said that an awareness of our need of Christ for justification and sanctification is a primary means by which we come to Christ. Flavel said the Law is given to “kill vain confidence, and quench carnal mirth in the hearts of men” (Flavel, Works, 2:295). We come to the Christ of the gospel, who lived, died, rose again, and ascended on high to fulfill our every need. David Clarkson (1622–1686) argued that since we must understand our misery apart from Christ, many people fail to come to Christ because they do not see their need.
By the Spirit’s grace, have you turned in faith to Christ as He is offered in the gospel as your only hope for salvation? This is a sure sign of coming to Him!
3. Finally, we come to Christ only through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the efficient cause of our coming to Christ. Faith comes by God through the hearing of the Word (Rom. 10:17) — the Word of the offered Christ. Those who hear can do so only because the Spirit’s power has regenerated them. This is the only effective faith that a person coming to Christ can have. Only after the Holy Spirit works upon sinful men, removes their blindness, unstops their ears, and regenerates them can people have any hope of heeding God’s spiritual, unconditional promises. Thus Paul wrote that “no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost” (1 Cor. 12:3).
As the Spirit applies salvation in the offered Christ to the hearts of the elect, He gives supernatural power to sinners to stretch out their withered arms and hands to embrace Christ by active faith. What we do not want to do and cannot do ourselves, the Spirit enables us to desire and do. Flavel put it this way: “For though God does not force the will contrary to its nature, yet there is a real internal efficacy implied in this drawing, or an immediate operation of the Spirit upon the heart and will, which, in a way congruous and suitable to its nature, takes away the rebellion and reluctance of it, and of unwilling, makes it willing to come to Christ” (Flavel, Works, 2:70).
Thus, we conclude with the Puritans that we come to Christ when we are (1) drawn actively by faith to Christ (2) as He offers Himself in the gospel, (3) through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Let me conclude this article with two Puritan convictions. First, the Puritans stress that the works of the Trinity are undivided in a sinner’s coming to Christ. Christ makes the promise in John 6:37 that all the Father gives to Him will come to Him. In John 6:44, Christ says that only those whom the Father draws will come to Him. Jesus says in John 6:63 that the Spirit gives life but the flesh profits nothing. Christ is saying that He is willing to save by the operation of the Holy Spirit all those whom the Father is willing to draw to Himself. There is no division in the Godhead. The Father freely, graciously, and mercifully draws souls to His blessed Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, when Christ offers His unconditional promises, we can be assured that the Father and the Holy Spirit are of the same mind. Christ is a willing Savior, the Father is a willing drawer (Eph. 1:4–6), and the Holy Spirit is a willing enabler (Rom. 8:15). All three persons of the Trinity are equally able and willing to save sinners through Jesus’ atoning work.
Second, the marks of saving grace are an important method of assuring us that we have truly come to Christ by faith. The Puritans were fond of giving us many marks. We can sum up what they say by pointing to a few characteristics.
• Those who come to Christ know the urgency of the gospel. They know the seriousness of their sin and whom they have sinned against.
• They know that only Christ can relieve them of their sins and burdens, so they covenant with Him and He becomes theirs.
• In so doing, they fight their sinful flesh by the Spirit.
• They share in communion with Christ and walk in newness of life.
• They despise their own righteousness and the accolades of the world, and seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.
The Puritan understanding of coming to Christ is, therefore, a holistic approach. Those who come to Christ learn throughout the remainder of their lives that God must be glorified in everything. Their purpose for living, as the Puritans say, is to “glorify God and to enjoy Him forever” (WSC, Q. 1).
Have you, too, come to Christ holistically? Is your earnest prayer that you might “glorify God and enjoy Him forever”?
Dr. Joel R. Beeke is president and professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and a pastor of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation of Grand Rapids, Michigan. This article was given as an address for the annual conference of De Tabernakel at Hardinxveld-Giessendam, the Netherlands.