“Come to the Waters”
August 25, 2019
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
We are these Lord’s Day mornings considering representative texts from the book of Isaiah, Israel’s greatest prophet. This morning we have a particularly well-known passage, both beautiful and exceedingly rich in both theological and practical instruction. It is one of those many texts, both in Isaiah and in the rest of the prophets, that reminds us how, in many ways, the difference between the religion of the ancient epoch and that of Christ and his apostles is paper thin. One commentator compares Isaiah chapter 54 to the book of Revelation “with its vision of the New Jerusalem” and Isaiah 55 to the Gospel of John “in its passionate appeal to men to open their eyes to the richness of the gifts that God is offering so freely and to grasp them in faith and repentance while there is yet time.” [Smart in Motyer, 452]
v.1 The three-fold “Come!” highlights in turn some specific feature of the offer. Water is for the thirsty, food for free is for the poor. Free wine and milk highlight the richness of the provision; not the bare minimum but a feast for those who could never afford such fare. This is no soup-kitchen for the indigent! [Motyer, 453] This is God lavishing his blessing on the undeserving and the spiritually destitute.
v.3 The three-fold “Come” of v. 1 is matched by a three-fold “listen” or “hear” in vv. 2 and 3. Now the metaphor is left behind and the thirsty, poor, and needy are urged by the Lord to come not to the waters but to “come to me.” What they are to listen to is, obviously, the word that God is addressing to them. The last part of v. 3 reminds us that the salvation of the Lord will come through the Messiah, the descendant of David, the servant of the Lord whose life and work Isaiah has been predicting and describing throughout the book to this point. The Lord’s “love for David” refers to the covenant he made with David (2 Sam. 7), promising him a descendant who would reign over God’s kingdom forever. He is inviting anyone and everyone to enter the Messiah’s kingdom and enjoy its blessings.
v.5 Once again, as we saw last time from Isaiah 11, the Messiah’s kingdom will draw its citizens from every nation on earth.
v.7 Those who wish to come to the Messiah’s kingdom must repent and turn from their sinful ways. Compassionate and ready to pardon as the Lord may be, his invitation and welcome are not unconditional. What is more, the opportunity to enter is limited not endless. There is urgency to this appeal to come. One must seize the opportunity while it lasts!
Now follow three “substantiating statements,” that is, statements that underscore and explain the summons to repentance and the promise of salvation we have just read in vv. 1-7. Each of them begins with “For:” so in v. 8 (repeated in v. 9), in v. 10, and in v. 12.
v.9 In the context the transcendence of God is the reason why people must repent and come to the Lord. There is a great abyss that separates man from God and still more sinful man from a holy God; and so, when God summons men and women to repentance there is no alternative but to respond in whatever way God commands. We are hardly in a position to know what God requires of us; we cannot know what would reconcile him to us; so, we must do what he says and answer the summons he has addressed to us. God tells us to come to him and to repent. How wonderful then repentance must be if it can bridge the chasm that separates us from God! [Young, III, 383-384; Motyer, 457]
v.11 Think of the Word of God in this context as the summons to repentance and the promise of welcome and entrance into God’s kingdom. Like the rain that waters the ground, the Word of God – his word of welcome – brings untold blessing to sinners.
v.13 The last two verses and the final substantiating statement describe what happiness and success will come to those who do come to the Lord and forsake their sinful ways.
Now what we have in this text, as in many others in the Bible, is what theologians refer to as “the free offer of the gospel.” The free offer is also known as “the well-meant offer” of the gospel. It is free because we need not earn it or pay for it – couldn’t if we tried – and it is well meant because the Lord wants us to come; he hopes we will!
In Isaiah 55 – one of the most beautiful chapters in the Bible and full of memorable statements – the Lord seems very clearly to be saying to anyone and everyone: I am offering you salvation, eternal life, fellowship with me forever. I am asking you to come to me, to trust me and my word. You must repent of your sins, to be sure, for you cannot truly trust me or follow me if you continue to live in defiance of my will, but if you will repent, I stand ready to give to you everything you could ever hope for, both in this life and the life to come.
That is how most Christians have read Isaiah 55 and, no wonder. How else are we to understand:
“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”?
What is more, this is hardly the only place in the Bible where the Lord speaks in such terms. Think of Christ’s very similar and equally beautiful invitation that we find at the end of Matthew 11:
“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.” [vv. 28-30]
Or think of the assurance he adds to his invitation in John 6 – a passage littered with “anyone(s)” and “whoever(s)” – “whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” [v.37] Anyone who comes will find a welcome; salvation is for everyone who will believe and act on that belief.
It is this free or well-meant offer that, through the ages, Christian preachers and evangelists – preachers and pastors; laymen and women – have repeated in their own words to as yet unsaved groups of people or individual acquaintances: to people in church meetings, to friends and acquaintances in their living rooms, and to strangers sitting next to them on a train or an airplane. “Come to the waters… Come to Jesus Christ…and find rest for your souls.” Christian ministers and Christian people of all stripes – or the best of them – have always taken their cue from the Lord in texts like these and been great pleaders with men and women, urging them to forsake their sins and go to Christ who alone can save them, change them for the better, and at last take them to heaven. Entrance is free and there is a welcome for everyone!
In imitation of the Lord himself, we urge unbelievers to come and drink of the life-giving water. And through the ages vast multitudes have responded in faith and repentance, found life in Jesus Christ, and in the beautiful words of this chapter they went out in joy and were led forth in peace. In this way the Lord’s renown has increased throughout the world, as multitudes of people have discovered that he who has the Son has life!
The free or well-meant offer – and so the responsibility of people to respond to it – is so deeply woven into the way of salvation described and illustrated in the Bible that witness is born to it also on those occasions when the unbelieving refuse to come to waters. Think of that remarkable lament of the Lord Jesus, summoned up from the depths of his heart, by the intransigent unbelief of the Jews of his day.
“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]
The Lord had plead with the Jews to come to the waters, to repent of their sins and come to him for salvation, but they refused. No matter the Lord’s miracles, the attestation that he had come from God; no matter his teaching, so full of light and truth and love; no matter his remarkable character; they would not come. Such is the stubbornness of the human heart; such is human pride that it would rather refuse the gifts of God than submit to his will.
Lying behind the Lord’s appeals is the fact that, as the Bible repeatedly affirms, the Lord wants all people to be saved. He does not desire the death of the wicked but that all should come to repentance. The offer of salvation that we have here in Isaiah 55 and elsewhere is prompted by the Lord’s desire that people would come to the waters; that they would seek the Lord while he may be found.
All of this seems straightforward enough, does it not? But there is a problem. There have always been some who have questioned the well-meant offer of salvation, the free offer of the gospel. This has been a question that has repeatedly surfaced, and surfaces still today, in the Reformed or Calvinistic wing of the church. And since we belong to that part of the church, we are the ones who need to think most clearly about the gospel offer. Today there exist entire denominations whose origin is found in past controversies about the free offer of the gospel.
And it is hardly difficult to see why. If God has chosen those to be saved before the foundation of the world, as Calvinists believe is taught plainly and emphatically in the Bible; if Jesus Christ came into the world to save those whom the Father had given to him, as Calvinists believe is taught plainly and emphatically in the Bible; if the Holy Spirit must grant living faith in Christ – that is, if faith and repentance themselves are the free gift of God and impossible without that divine work in the heart, as Calvinists believe is taught plainly in the Word of God; if God does not plan to save everyone, as Calvinists believe – and rightly – is taught plainly and emphatically in the Bible; I say, if these things are true, how can God sincerely offer salvation and promise salvation upon faith and repentance to those whom he has not chosen to save, whom Christ has not redeemed by his death and resurrection, and to whom the Holy Spirit will not grant faith and repentance?
How can God say to sinners, to each and every sinner, “If you will come to me,” or, as we read last Lord’s Day evening from Isaiah 45, “if you will look to me, you will be saved from sin and death,” when he knows perfectly well that many of them will not be saved because he has not chosen to save them? How can God say,
“Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon”
when no one will come to Christ, no one will forsake his way, no one will repent, no one will turn to the Lord unless the Father in heaven draw him, unless Christ has redeemed him, and unless the Holy Spirit grants him or her a new heart?
It is precisely these questions that have led a number of Christian preachers and theologians – some devout and useful men – to doubt that there is such a thing as the free or the well-meant offer of salvation in the Bible. The free offer, in their thinking, is an offense against logic, an offense against honesty; it is impossible to reconcile with the Reformed commitment that salvation is sola gratia, by grace alone, a free gift, the work and the achievement of God from start to finish. If salvation is the gift and work of God, how could he possibly offer salvation to those upon whom he does not plan to bestow the gift and in whom he does not plan to do the work? In their view the theology of salvation taught in the Word of God demands that we accept that God does not have a favorable attitude toward those he has not chosen to save and that, in fact, he obviously does not want all men to be saved. If he did all would be saved! Does not the Scripture teach that “God does what pleases him in heaven and on earth”?
How would you like it if someone offered something wonderful to you, in a tone absolutely sincere and heartfelt, but you were to find out later that what he was offering did not exist and he knew it didn’t exist? To suggest that God would do such a thing, these teachers say, is to attribute something unworthy to God.
But Calvinists in general have not been deterred by these objections. My grandfather was a Presbyterian, and so a Calvinist. He was also a very influential evangelist in the first third of the 20th century. Large numbers of people heard him gladly and many became Christians under his preaching. After several weeks of his preaching in Grand Junction, Colorado, on the Sunday following his last sermon more than 300 people joined Grand Junction churches. I knew people in my youth who had become Christians under his preaching. Some of you remember that our beloved elder Ken Anderson, who went to be with the Lord in January 2003, was the son of a man who had been converted in 1914, having been invited to a gospel meeting in Minnesota where my grandfather was preaching. By his conversion Oscar Anderson became the first Christian in his family, a family that now numbers many Christians.
My grandfather was a Calvinist, but the difficult and controversial features of Calvinist theology almost never surfaced in his preaching because he understood that his task as an evangelist was to extend to sinners the same invitation and the same offer of salvation that the Lord had extended to them in his Word. He would have agreed with John Bradford, the English reformer and martyr, who famously said, “Let a man go to the grammar school of faith and repentance, before he goes to the university of election and predestination.” As a result, Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists and many others came to hear him as well as many who had no church affiliation. And many heard God’s invitation and sought the Lord, forsook their way and turned to him.
And so it has been in the Calvinistic church. Many of the church’s greatest evangelists, some of the most effective pleaders with men to be saved, have been firm believers in election and sovereign grace. Think of Augustine, first and foremost a pastor and preacher, who invited multitudes to the waters in the 4th and 5th centuries. Think of the 14th century Lollards, the followers of John Wycliffe, a Calvinist before Calvin, whose preaching across Britain brought many to faith a century and a half before the Reformation. Think of George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards during the Great Awakening, convinced Calvinists and always pleading with men to find salvation in Jesus Christ and offering full and free forgiveness and eternal life to any and all who would turn to the Lord. Or think of Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher of London in the middle 19th century, who was often criticized, if not mocked for his sturdy Calvinist theology but who was a champion of the free offer of the Gospel and a man through whom great multitudes came to faith in Christ. I wonder, frankly, if there has been anyone in Christian history who has been responsible – humanly speaking – for more conversions to Christ than Charles Spurgeon. Think of Martyn Lloyd Jones in the 20th century whose ministry brought many to faith in Christ.
It is simply a fact that Calvinists have, as a rule, been defenders of the free offer of the Gospel, no matter their commitment to sovereign grace and predestination. And the reason for that is not that they can explain how it is that God wants all people to be saved but has not determined to save all people or how it is that God calls upon all people to repent and turn to him when it is impossible for sinners to do so apart from his grace and the working of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. They could not explain such things and openly confessed their ignorance.
No, the reason that Calvinists have been ardent defenders of the free or well-meant offer of the gospel – of God’s desire for the salvation of all men – is that this is what the Bible teaches them to believe. The reason they remained unpersuaded of the objections raised by some that the free offer of salvation was inconsistent with sovereign grace was that they found the efforts of such men to get round the statements, the many statements of the free offer – such as here in Isaiah 55 – or the numerous statements that God wants all men to be saved, utterly unconvincing. They were being asked to read those statements to mean what no ordinary reader would have thought them to mean; to mean what the words themselves manifestly do not mean. John Gill, the 18th century Calvinistic Baptist preacher and theologian, and a prominent denier of the free offer of the Gospel, argued that when the Lord Jesus lamented Jerusalem’s unbelief and said that he had longed to gather the Jews to himself like a hen gathers her chicks, he meant only that he wished to gather them together to hear him preach and that the Jews might have profited in some temporal ways from having heard him. I wonder if there was a single person in the first century or for several centuries thereafter who took the Lord’s words in that way!
But according to Gill, the Lord could not have meant he wanted the Jews to come to him and be saved because, as he put it, “all those whom Christ would gather in this sense, were gathered…” [An Exposition of the New Testament, vol. 1, 362] But surely Gill twisted the obvious meaning of the Lord’s statement. And for the deniers of the free offer of the gospel there are many texts that must be wrenched from their obvious meaning into saying something an ordinary reader would never take the words to mean. To be frank, the interpretations offered for these texts by the deniers of the well-meant offer are preposterous. For Gill the issue is systematic consistency. For most Calvinists the issue has always been: what does the Bible actually say!
And text after text seems very clearly and emphatically to say that God desires the salvation of all men and that he invites anyone and everyone to his feast if only they will turn to him and repent of their sinful ways.
The deniers of the free or well-meant offer supposed that they could harmonize biblical truth into a system that made perfect sense to them. They were confident in the powers of their reason. But the Bible reminds us, not only here in Isaiah 55:8-9 but in many places, that our minds are too small to comprehend the ways of God. Even the wisest, the most learned of Christian men and women have reason to say, especially when thinking about God and his thoughts and ways, “What we know is very little; what we do not know is immense.”
In an extraordinarily perceptive comment about the theology of John Calvin – the original Calvinist if you will, though he would have called himself a disciple of Augustine and would have hated the very idea of anyone calling himself a Calvinist – one scholar says this. “Clarity of individual themes, incomprehensibility of their interrelations – this is a hallmark of Calvin’s theology.” [Dowey, The Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Theology, 40] That is: Calvin would say that we can know that God is sovereign in salvation, that the salvation of a sinner is God’s doing from first to last, and that it is at every point impossible for man to achieve by himself. That is so clearly and emphatically and frequently taught in Holy Scripture that we are without excuse for not believing it. In the same way, that God desires all men to be saved and that he invites all men to come and promises salvation to all who will turn to him is clearly the teaching of the Bible. So clear indeed that, again, we have no excuse if we deny it. But how those two doctrines relate to one another, in what way they are true at one and the same time, is impossible for us to say, not only because the Bible does not explain this to us – and it never does – but because the truth is too great for us to comprehend. We’re talking about the divine mind, the divine will, the divine heart! Of course, we cannot comprehend! We are incapable of seeing all things at once as God does. We cannot see the harmony of truth in so vast a reality, which harmony is perfectly obvious to God. Such questions have to do with the very nature of the infinite God whose ways are far above us and past our finding out. There are mysteries at every turn in the Christian faith because at every turn we are dealing with Almighty God, who he is and what he does. We can understand many things, but there are likewise severe limitations to our comprehension. We can now compute the distance between galaxies, millions of light years in many cases, but no matter the computation, our minds are too small to comprehend distances so vast. We can compute the distance, but we cannot grasp it. Well, how much more of God. We can understand what we are told, but comprehending all that we are told is simply beyond us. And so it must be when the creature is seeking to comprehend the Creator. Or, as Dr. Packer put it,
“In Christianity, as I see it, paradox is not a concession; it is an indispensable category, a sheer necessity – a logical necessity – if our faith is to be unswervingly biblical.” By paradox Dr. Packer means two teachings that can seem to be contradictory but seem so only because our minds are not capable, as God’s mind is, of seeing the whole of reality and the harmony of truth.
Actually, mysterious as this is and must be – the free offer of the gospel and sovereign grace – I don’t think most Christians struggle at this point. I think most Christians with a Bible in their hands know that salvation is God’s doing – whatever they may say when standing on their feet debating the point – they know that their own salvation was God’s gift and God’s doing! But they also have come to know something about God, about his love and compassion, and they have no difficulty believing that their heavenly Father wants all men to be saved and is grieved by the unbelief of so many. How those two realities fit together they do not know but they are not troubled by that fact because they have such good reasons to believe them both.
The Lord God calls on you to turn to him and be saved. The only thing that would prevent your happiness forever and ever is your failure to take full advantage of the Lord’s promise. Here is how one great Calvinist preacher ended one of his many sermons offering in Christ’s name water to the thirsty and a feast to those too poor to provide it for themselves.
“Oh, my hearers, Will any man choose for himself to be lost? Will he count himself unworthy of eternal life, and put it from him? If you will be damned, you must do it yourselves. Your blood be on your own heads. Go down to the pit if you deliberately choose to do so; but know this, that Christ was preached to you, and you would not have him; you were invited to come, but you turned your backs on him; you chose for yourselves your own eternal destruction! God grant that you may repent of such a choice…” [Spurgeon, in I. Murray, Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism, 88]
You see his point, don’t you? If God is offering you eternal life, if he is ready to shower upon you the blessings of his love and salvation, if all he asks of you is to turn to him – really to turn to him – then it is your fault if you will not turn, yours and no one else’s. So, turn to him, turn to him every day, turn to him in every way, repent of your ways and turn to him so that your soul will delight in the richest of food, so that your soul may live, and so that you will go out in joy and be led forth in peace!
People who deny that God not only wants all people to be saved but calls them all to salvation, summons them all, urges them all, pleads with them all to come to him to find life forever – this is the verdict of history – I say people who deny God’s well-meant offer of salvation freely extended to everyone, will forever find themselves in very small, isolated churches that will soon cease to exist. Our faith is good news, magnificent news for absolutely everyone. To deny that is to deny the Word of God!