“Everyone is Welcome!”
The Gospel Series, No. 9
March 4, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
In the chapters preceding the verses we are about to read, we would have read of God’s great work of salvation that will embrace both Jew and Gentile alike, how it will be accomplished by the servant of the Lord, and what wonderful results will ensue. In chapter 54 the beneficiaries of this salvation are called upon to sing and rejoice at the news of this coming deliverance. And now, in chapter 55, the offer to partake of this salvation is extended to one and all.
v.1 God’s salvation is a free gift; it cannot be bought and God does not ask anyone to pay. The Servant has already paid!
v.2 The human problem is precisely that they are seeking their salvation where it cannot be found. No wonder they think they can buy it. The salvation they have in mind is nothing more than what people actually could buy; but such things have no power to make up for the moral failures, comprehensive, persistent, and defiant, that afflict the life of mankind before a holy God! As Isaiah says elsewhere, it is our sins that have separated us from God and no mere man can pay the price of sin and guilt!
v.3 The everlasting covenant is God’s promise to his people to be their God, to bring them into fellowship with himself, a fellowship of peace and love accomplished through the promise God made to David, the fulfillment of which promise, of course, would be found in the work of the Messiah, the Servant of the Lord, Jesus Christ.
We have been considering in past sermons the content of the good news, the glad tidings we have to proclaim to the world. And we have said that the good news is that God the Son has come into the world as a man to offer his life a sacrifice for our sin, that he rose from the dead having conquered sin and death on our behalf, and that in Christ we can have both the forgiveness of our sins – and so peace with God and deliverance from his judgment – and, still more, the transformation of our lives into what human life was always intended to be. The most extraordinary things that have ever happened in the history of the world took place for the sake of our salvation from sin and death. If human beings, as the sinners that they are, are threatened by divine judgment on account of their sin, if there is nothing that they can do in and of themselves to escape that judgment, if their bondage to sin is so complete that they won’t even seek to escape God’s judgment until it is far too late, then the news that God has himself intervened to deliver us from the punishment we deserve and from our bondage to sin must be the best possible news that human beings could ever hear! And that is what it is.
But will human beings avail themselves of this deliverance? Will they appreciate what God has done for them in his Son, Jesus Christ? Will they, in gratitude and love, come to Jesus Christ for what he alone can give them? Millions upon millions through the ages have done so, but many more have not. If God is all powerful; if God is love as the Bible says he is; if God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, why is it that so many human beings remain impervious to the good news, why do they fail to appreciate what God has done for them, why do they remain indifferent to their desperate situation in the face of the perfect solution that lies so close at hand?
This is the mystery of evil; this is the hardness of the human heart; this is the foolishness of human pride; and this is the greatest part of the sadness and bitterness of human life. Unbelief is a self-inflicted wound. But what is made very clear in the Bible is that human beings themselves are to blame for this. God wants everyone to be saved. It is not only here, in this beautiful passage in Isaiah 55 where a generous invitation to receive God’s gift is extended to anyone and everyone who will listen and respond. The same invitation is extended throughout the Bible, to human beings irrespective of their past deeds, of their social or economic position, of the level of their education, of their ethnic or racial or national or religious background. The church has always been and is now composed of people of every type because God has called to faith and life people of every type, precisely because he has called everyone! Why? Because he wants everyone to be saved! God, even the God who is angry with the wicked every day, even the God who is the judge of all men and women, even the God who by no means clear the guilty, even that God, is the best friend any human being has or has ever had!
That the invitation we have read in Isaiah 55 is without limitation of any kind and embraces anyone and everyone is proved by other statements in Isaiah, such as this one in 45:22:
“Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! [An extraordinary thing for a Jewish prophet to say 700 years before the birth of Christ!] For I am God and there is no other.”
Or, as the Lord says through Ezekiel (33:11):
“As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O House of Israel.”
And in another place (18:23):
“Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?
And what we find in the Old Testament we find as well in the New. It was the Lord Jesus himself, who so plaintively wept over the unbelief of his Jewish contemporaries.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” [Matt. 23:37]
And it was the Lord Jesus who, in words very similar to those in Isaiah 55, said:
“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. 11:28-29]
And his apostles learned from him. Peter, for example, reminds the Gentile readers of his second letter:
“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” [2 Peter 3:9]
And so it was that as the good news was proclaimed to the world the offer of salvation was extended to everyone wherever and to whomever the apostles preached or Christians explained their faith: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved,” they said to multitudes living in every direction from the Holy Land. True enough the offer was rejected by many, but not because God did not love them and wish for their salvation. We are commanded to love our enemies precisely because God loves his enemies! As the Jesus told his disciples:
“…love your enemies, and do good…and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” [Luke 6:35-36]
All of this and so much else in the Bible is summed up beautifully in Psalm 145:
“The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.” [8-9]
But, of course, there is a problem here, is there not? It is a problem particularly acute for Christians of our theological conviction. If God truly wants all people to be saved and God is all-loving and all-powerful, why is not everyone saved? If salvation is the work of God, from beginning to end and in all links of the chain, if man in sin is helpless apart from the intervention of God both in the work of Christ in history and in the Holy Spirit’s transformation of each human heart – all of which the Bible teaches with unmistakable clarity and tremendous emphasis – I say, if salvation is of the Lord and he wants all human beings to be saved, why is not everyone saved?
The two most popular answers to that question are both answers that we cannot accept because we find them so obviously contradicted by the explicit teaching of the Word of God. The first answer is that all are not saved because salvation, in the final analysis, is up to the individual human being. God may wish his or her salvation, but he is helpless unless and until that person chooses him! The second answer is that God does not, in fact, desire the salvation of everyone and that there must be another way of reading those statements from Scripture that I have read to you and a great many other statements like them.
The first answer – that salvation has always finally depended upon the decision of man rather than the power of God – is simply contradicted in the clearest possible way on virtually every page of the Bible. The second answer requires us to take perfectly clear statements made in the Bible, all sorts of statements, and give them a meaning so unnatural, so unlike their simple and straightforward form of words, that no one would ever imagine such a meaning who had no ax to grind, who was not determined to read them in some other way, any other way, than the obvious way. The first answer is that of the Arminian – God is helpless apart from the decision of man – the second answer is that of the so-called “hyper-Calvinist,” namely that God does not actually desire the salvation of all and so in fact offers salvation only to those he has chosen to save.
The position of Reformed theology, of Presbyterian theology, of Calvinism, paradoxically, has been both that God is and must be absolutely sovereign in the salvation of a sinner, that salvation is and must be God’s work both for and in the man or woman and that there can be no salvation that is not God’s gift and God’s accomplishment from beginning to end, on the one hand, and, on the other, that God desires the salvation of everyone. To put it bluntly, God saves whom he will but wishes all to be saved; God saves only some, but wishes to save all!
How can this be? Can God be sincere in offering salvation to everyone if he has, in fact, determined to save only some? If God truly desires the salvation of every human being and is the one who saves any human being, should not every single human being be saved? That is a question I cannot answer. No one can. But that salvation is God’s doing, that he does not save everyone and yet that he desires all to be saved is unmistakably the teaching of the Bible. In Christian theology, the terms of art for what we find in Isaiah 55:1-3 and many other texts are “the free offer” or “the well-meant offer of the gospel.” That is, when God says, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!” he means what he says. He wants you to come; he wants everyone to come. He wants you to be saved!
The simple fact is that the Bible itself asks the question: does God want everyone to be saved? And it answers that question again and again with a resounding “Yes!” I simply do not know and so cannot tell you how to reconcile that fact with the also emphatic teaching of the Bible that God himself both chooses to save some and not others and then saves those whom he has chosen.
Throughout the Bible we have such tender, even broken-hearted expressions being uttered by God about the unbelief of people, their unwillingness to come and be saved.
“Oh, that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea…” [Isa. 48:18]
In the same way, as we said earlier, our Savior wept over Jerusalem’s unbelief. How many times do we read the Lord God’s plaintive wish that men would have heeded his warnings or accepted his love or followed his directions! And yet, how many times do we also read that no one comes to Christ unless the Father in heaven draws him or that the Lord’s sheep, his chosen ones, hear his voice and follow him. How to reconcile these two immense bodies of texts I cannot tell you.
But then there are many such things that I cannot explain and do not understand. I know very well both that there is but one living and true God and that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three persons. How three persons are one God, that I cannot explain. No one can. No one has ever come close to explaining it. I know that Jesus of Nazareth was both God and man, fully and truly Almighty God and fully and truly a mere human being with all the limitations of his humanity. The Bible teaches me both things persistently, emphatically, and unmistakably. That both things are true, that Jesus is both God and man, I have no doubt. How both things are true I have no idea. And in the same way, it is an inscrutable mystery that God allows to occur under his absolutely sovereign government of the world so much that is contrary to his desire; and mystery it remains despite every effort of man to penetrate behind the veil that separates us from the infinite knowledge of God.
No doubt all of this is a perfect harmony in the mind of God, infinitely large as his mind must be; but in our tiny minds, in our so severely limited intellect, while we are fully able to understand the two facts in isolation from one another, they remain inscrutable in their relation to one another. The total picture remains beyond our comprehension. Long as Christians have puzzled over these things, indeed some of the greatest minds in the history of the world, no one has been able to propose a solution or offer an explanation that does not diminish, if not deny altogether, one or the other of those luminous truths: the freedom and responsibility of everyone to embrace the gospel, on the one hand, and God’s sovereignty in salvation on the other.
John Calvin spoke often of the limitations of our knowledge of these things. Again and again he reminded his readers and hearers that “our minds cannot plumb the profound depths” of the will of God. Why should we ever suppose that we would have been able to do that?] God, who made this vast universe and also made our minds – minds capable because we are made in the image of God, minds capable of calculating the immense distance that separates the bodies in outer space from one another – these millions and billions of light years – and yet a mind that cannot begin to grasp how great those distances actually are. But it is clear that the sovereign God, who rules over all, who determines all things, nevertheless wishes to gather all to himself; thought he does not. [Harmony of the Gospels, vol. 3, 69-70] We worship a God who is far, far beyond our comprehension. We can know what we are told and what we can comprehend, but there is a universe of reality that we cannot grasp, only the fringes of which we can even get a glimpse.
But this morning my point is not that this fact: that this free offer of salvation made to everyone confronts us with a deep mystery. My point is that God wants everyone to be saved! As Paul reminds us in 1 Timothy 2: “God our Savior…desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” And as our Savior said to his disciples in describing the work of the Holy Spirit, once he had come into the world at Pentecost, he will convict the world of sin because they do not believe in him. It is a sin not to answer the Lord’s summons to believe and to be saved. God has offered you eternal life; how dare you refuse such a gift from such a merciful and generous God, your own creator!
This too, you see, is the good news. You have a friend in the highest conceivable places. You have someone who wishes you well. Indeed, there is someone who wants for you things more wonderful than you have ever even imagined wanting for yourself. You have a friend who is more concerned, much more concerned for your welfare, for your happiness, for the fulfillment of your life both in this world and in the world to come, much more concerned for those things that you have ever been! There is someone who knows what lies ahead, knows of both heaven and hell, and wants heaven for you!
St. Patrick, infuriated by the raid of an English warlord – a man who would have considered himself a Christian – on which raid who had murdered a number of Irish men returning home from their baptism and carried off into slavery a number of the newly baptized women and children, wrote a stinging rebuke to the leaders of the English church excommunicating the offenders and demanding justice. His Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus begins with these words:
“I am Patrick the ignorant sinner and, I declare, a bishop in Ireland – a position I believe I was appointed to by God himself. I am a stranger and an exile living among barbarians and pagans, because God cares for them.” [Freeman, St. Patrick, 133-134]
He begins with the key thought. God cares for the Irish, even those who are not yet, even those who will never be followers of Jesus Christ. Many in England in those days would not have thought so. They didn’t care for the Irish and so didn’t imagine God did either. But Patrick knew better. The burden of Patrick’s argument was that if God cared for the Irish, what would he think of and what would he do to those who had so brutally murdered and mistreated them!
Well, apply the point to yourselves and to those you know, even the most intractable unbelievers you know. God cares for them! He wants them to be saved. As surely as he has ordained who will be saved, he wants them all to be saved. Don’t worry about how to understand all this. Just believe what God says again and again in his word and in some of the most beautiful passages of his word: he wants them to be saved. He wants them to enter into the fullness of life. He wants them to live forever in the world where everlasting joy rests on everyone’s head! That is good news! Perhaps the very best news of all! God wants all people to know him as their heavenly Father, and Jesus his Son as their Savior, and the Holy Spirit as their ever-present helper.
To those who live in this world, subject to the fear of death, as all men are, alienated from others, rudderless, heavy-hearted, troubled about this or that, made afraid by their own weakness and by the perverseness they find within themselves, could there be better news than this: that God himself, the creator of heaven and earth, the giver of all life, cares for them, wants what is best for them, and has offered in his Son to give them eternal life, which is to say, give them everything they have ever hoped for and so much more. He cares for them; he cares for you!
Perhaps the pinnacle of the good news is just this fact: that God loves everyone and stands ready to give to everyone both the forgiveness of their sins and the life that is worthy to be called life. This is the best news of all, this promise that the Savior made:
“…whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”
That is good news indeed. There is a way for me, even for me; there is a way for you, a sure and certain way, to the life we were made for and to the heaven we long for! We are not, no one is without hope, I will never be without hope so long as I, thirsty as I am, can come to Jesus Christ, come to the waters, come to buy and to eat without money and without price. And God is forever urging us to come.