In honor of the synods of the Reformed Presbyterian Church and Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church meeting together next week as Kyle highlighted, I want to offer a lesson I learned from the ARPs. I was especially blessed in this regard by Dr. Bill VanDoodewaard, whom I had the privilege of ministering with for two years in our congregation in Indiana about a decade ago.
Bill’s doctoral work was done on the impact of the 17th century book of practical theology called The Marrow of Modern Divinity, which helped shape the theology and practice of the Seceders who formed the ARP Church. In reading about those who became known as the Marrow Men, one of the chief ways it helped me was to expose why as a Reformed minister I can be hesitant, indifferent, and cold-hearted in preaching Christ. For one of the lessons I would share in this post is this:
Ministers are to offer Christ freely by always being ready to preach the gospel to men, not waiting until men are ready for the gospel.
A Reformed pastor can begin to allow the doctrine of election to misguide him. He can begin to think that since God will save only the elect, he as a minister will see something in people to cause him to offer Christ only to the "right" people, to those who are "ready" for it. This deadly thinking causes gospel preaching to shrivel up and become shrill in its tones. And it is in direct contrast to how Jesus Himself preached.
We see this perhaps most clearly in Scripture in the familiar passage from Matthew 11.
At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children;yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matt. 11:25-30).
Jesus, in a moment when He is clearly acknowledging His Father's electing grace, still preached and said, “Come to Me.” For when did He say these words? Note the beginning of the passage tells us that He said this “At that time.” At what time? At a time when He was condemning whole cities for not heeding the gospel, for not receiving Him. The greater context shows that "He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent" (Matt. 11:20).
These cities were in Galilee, and it is clear in Matthew 11:1 that Jesus was in Galilee preaching in the cities where His disciples were from. He is denouncing the people of those cities not at a distance but in their presence. What does he say to them?
Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you (Matt. 11:21-24).
Jesus was pronouncing judgment on these people, telling them they were hardened to Him, and not receiving Him as they ought. Yet to these same people He then goes on to say, “Come to Me.” How like the prophets of old He is! Or, better yet, how like Christ the prophets of old were. Prophets like Isaiah, who would denounce wicked nations, forecast their utter destruction, and then say on behalf of God,
Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price (Is. 55:1).
Preachers must be always ready to preach the gospel to men, not wait until they think that men are ready.
In the early 18th century, in the Church of Scotland, the presbytery of Auchterarder required ministerial candidates “to acknowledge it unsound to teach that men must forsake their sins in order to come to Christ.” They meant they did not want their pastors to tell sinners that they must clean themselves up prior to coming to Christ. But this teaching began to be condemned by the majority in the church, who instead taught that “men ought only to come to Christ the alone Saviour from sins, after they have got rid of them by repentance.” In other words, they were telling people to come to Jesus after they got themselves ready. Sinclair Ferguson says an approach such as this is “mortified reformed confessional orthodoxy.” He states that instead we need to stress “that the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is a gospel of free grace, that it is to be proclaimed freely to all.”
One of the Marrow Men, Thomas Boston, in his Human Nature in Its Fourfold State, reminds us that in man’s natural state he has an “utter inability to recover himself.” In one sense, men are never ready for the gospel. The Marrow Men knew they had to preach indiscriminately to all, trusting the Spirit to enliven those who will believe. Though it cost them, they suffered in the church or left it rather than be prevented from offering Christ freely.
For even if the hearers are not ready, preachers are to always be ready to offer the gospel. They are called to “preach the word, (to) be ready in season and out of season" (2 Tim. 4:2). The "in season" or "out of season" means whether it is a time of Spirit-induced hunger for the gospel or not.
If we believe the gospel offer is only for the elect, we will begin to slip into looking for people to meet certain conditions to show they must be elect before it is offered. We can see Jesus inviting all who are "weary and heavy-laden" as a condition to reach before Christ is truly offered. Unless we feel they are burdened, unless we see some degree of brokenness, then we cannot offer Christ. Sinclair describes this approach in this manner: “We make conviction a condition which men must meet rather than a means which God will use to bring them to Christ.” We are not to limit our call of the gospel based on whether we think the hearers show signs of election or not.
Knowing that even as we warn sinners of judgment that we can also offer Christ freely not only liberates the gospel. It also frees the preacher to preach to all with love and sincere care for their souls. I am thankful for brothers who have helped me to see this more clearly.