Weekly Update 8

I am continuing to look at the views of the Puritan contemporary of James Durham, David Clarkson, on Rev 3:20. I am picking up where I left off halfway through the sermon.

Highlights of the post:
• The idea of the condescension of Christ pervades Clarkson’s conception of the free offer.
• Answers to:
o Are the gospel promises conditional on the recipient?
o Why is there a free offer of the gospel to ‘dead’ sinners?
o Did the Puritans believe in common grace?

Clarkson notes that the gospel offer is a mercy. To reject Christ as he stands and knocks is to sin, “Against mercy; mercy in its choice appearances and manifestations in the world; and against not only the mercy of God, but the indulgence of Christ. What more grievous offence than that which is against love, against mercy?” (Clarkson, Works, Vol 2, p60).

Clarkson highlights four ways Christ specifically shows mercy in the free offer of the gospel:
1) In that he shows “condescension” in stooping “so low as to stand at a polluted heart”.
2) In that he draws near, “coming to you, standing at your heart”.
3) In that he is “willing to come in”.
4) In that Christ is “waiting to be gracious”.
(Ibid)

Clarkson makes a similar point to one Durham makes in a number of his sermons, that if God is not glorified in his mercy towards a sinner, he will be glorified in his justice. A solemn thought. (Ibid p64).

There is a very instructive section dealing with the condescension of Christ in the free offer of the gospel which I’ll quote here:

“Oh consider this! Let the wonderful patience of Christ in standing, let the gracious importunity of Christ in knocking lead you to repent… The Lord makes use of the wonderful strangeness of his condescension as a motive… to open to him, Jer xxxi. See how his bowels yearn to wretched sinners [Jer 31:20]… and hear him expostulating, wondering at thy delay to open to him… That Christ should stand and knock, that Christ should seek to thee, it is a new thing, a thing so strange and wonderful, as the like is seldom seen on the earth. It is as if a woman should offer love to a man… solicit… woo… seek love, when she should be sought to; forgets herself, her sex, her condition, against all custom… Thus far does the Lord stoop, thus strangely does Christ condescend, when he comes and offers love to sinners… He seems to forget himself (if we may say so) when he so strangely condescends to seek to sinners, to stand and knock at their hearts. This is a new thing, a wonderful thing; and since his love herein is so strange, so admirable, it should be a strong motive for sinners to entertain it.”
Ibid p64-65.

So for Clarkson one great motive for sinners to embrace Christ is his wonderful condescension in the gospel offer. For Clarkson this is an astonishing, almost a shocking thing, “against all custom”. Yet so it is.

The whole idea of the condescension of Christ in the gospel offer seems almost lost in present day preaching. We are rightly anxious to safeguard the glory of Christ – but surely one aspect of that glory is his act of condescension in the gospel offer?

This brings me to one of the interesting points in Clarkson’s sermon. A point which he acknowledged has been the subject of a “controversy started in this age” (Ibid p65). This is the conditional nature of the gospel promises. In order for Adam to be right with God there was a condition to fulfil, “This do, and live”. But in gospel times are there any conditions we have to fulfil to enjoy salvation? And if there are, in fulfilling them do they bring us any glory or merit?

Clarkson begins answering these questions by noting simply that Rev 3:20 “is propounded conditionally. Christ’s presence and communion with him is offered upon condition.” This verse therefore contains a promise “I will come in and will sup with him and he with me” which will be performed on the fulfilment of a condition, “If any man hear my voice and open the door”.

He then makes a general point, as noted above, that “the promises of the law, which belong to the covenant of works” are conditional. He then goes on to state that this is also true of “the promises of the gospel, special branches and articles of the covenant of grace”. Indeed “such is this text”. (Ibid)

Clarkson realises what he has just said is liable to cause “mistakes” and “controversy” and so he proceeds to explain what he said “in such a way as may prevent mistakes, and leave no room for any controversy” noting we are “to prefer truth and peace before contention”. (Ibid). To do this Clarkson notes 5 things he is not saying:

1) Performing this condition does not bring any merit to us, “When the condition is performed, we do not thereby deserve the Lord should bestow the mercy promised”.
2) Performing this condition is “not in the will, in the power of man, to perform”. See, I told you he was a “Calvinist”!
3) Our performing the condition does not change God or cause him to act otherwise than he intended.
4) God is not uncertain as to whether someone will fulfil the condition or not, as man is.
5) Even if we perform the condition it is still of pure pardoning mercy that Christ will enter in given how provoked he has been by our shutting the door for so long.
Thus there is no “shadow upon the glory of free grace to grant some promises to be conditional,” so long as we bear in mind the condition is no more than a “necessary antecedent” and not a meritorious cause.
(Ibid p65-66).

Moving on, what are we to understand by the “voice of Christ” in Rev 3:20? Well, it is “that which you hear principally in the gospel” (Ibid p67). Christ speaks in the gospel in different ways:

1) By command. Christ “exercises his authority as King and Lord of the world, sends out his royal edicts, his commands.” Indeed, “this is the great command of the gospel to open to him [Christ].” (Ibid p67)
2) By threatening. “If ye will not suffer Christ to enter into your hearts, ye shall never enter into his rest. This is his terrible voice; it can rend the rocks, and cause the mountains to tremble.” (Ibid p68)
3) By promising. Christ “promises his presence and fellowship with him to all that will open to him”. (Ibid)
4) By persuading. Christ “counsels, that is he advises; and he urges it, enforces his counsel with many motives and arguments.” (Ibid)
5) By entreaty. “Ministers of the gospel are Christ’s ambassadors; they are sent, employed, authorised by him. He gives them instructions to pray, to beseech sinners, and they do it… ‘in Christ’s stead.’ It is as if Christ should do it; it is as if he should with his own mouth pray, beseech, entreat you to open to him… And the wonder of Christ’s stooping so low as to beseech you, should be a strong motive to open…” (Ibid)
6) By reproof. Proverbs 1:23 “Turn you at my reproof”. (Ibid p69)

All these elements are involved in the proclamation of the gospel. To say the gospel is a command, or a presentation is not enough. To say that is to speak with a muted “voice of Christ”. To speak with the full voice of him of whom it was said “grace is poured into thy lips” Ps 45:2 is to add entreaty, promising and persuading to commands.

Clarkson turns his attention to the important question that every proponent of the free offer must face, “Why does the Lord call upon sinners to open, who can not of themselves open?” (Ibid p76). Clarkson provides four answers:

1) “Sinners were once able, but they have disabled themselves, they had power, but have wilfully lost it… We had power in Adam to obey Christ’s voice, but in him we sinned that power away… If you entrusted a man with a sum of money, and he go away and spend it in gaming, drinking and unwarrantable courses; will you not, therefore, think it reasonable to demand it of him? Will you lose power to ask what he owes ye, because he has prodigally spent it?” (Ibid)
2) “The word of Christ is operative. He many times empowers his word to effect what he calls for… He speaks to Lazarus who was dead… ‘Lazarus come forth;’ but there was a secret power accompanied the voice which made it effectual; he spake and it was done.” (Ibid p77)
3) “The Lord may call upon them to open who are not able, that they may go to him to make them able.” (Ibid)
4) “Sinners may do more than they use to do, than they are willing to do, and therefore there is reason to call upon them.” (Ibid p78)

On this last point there is a fascinating sermon by the Puritan member of the Westminster Assembly William Greenhill. The sermon is entitled “What must and can persons do toward their own conversion?” (Puritan Sermons 1659-1689: Being the Morning Exercises at Cripplegate, Richard Owen Roberts, Illinois, r1981). As the sermon is twelve pages long you can take it for read that his answer isn’t “nothing”. I will need to blog through this sermon at some time as I hope to bring Greenhill into my thesis given the insights into the free offer provided by his sermons on “Whosoever will, may come”.

Okay, you may think we have cleared that question up – it seems reasonable that we should offer the gospel to dead sinners. But along comes the Arminian question, wouldn’t it make even more sense if men had the power to believe, that is if common sufficient grace [to believe] were given to all men? Clarkson answers this objection in four ways:
1) He rejects that there is such a thing as common sufficient grace. “To grant that the Lord vouchsafes sufficient grace for the salvation of all and every man is both against Scripture and the experience of the world in all ages” (Ibid p78-79).
2) But there is such a thing as common grace and men do not make use of it. “We grant that the Lord vouchsafes all more grace, i.e. more common assistance, than ever they make use of. He enables them to do much more towards opening to Christ… than they are wont to use, or willing to improve.” (Ibid p79).
3) Further, Clarkson says his definition of common grace embraces all that the ‘Arminian’ definition embraces. “We grant that the Lord vouchsafes to those who enjoy the gospel, and to many of those who never open to Christ, all that sufficient grace which the patrons of free will contend for…” (Ibid). This includes “… arguments and motives… apt to persuade those who hear them… some illumination of the understanding, convictions of sin and misery, some common motions of the Spirit exciting the will to yield to Christ…” (Ibid).
4) But more than common grace is needed for the conversion of a sinner. “But we say more is needful… we hold that the Lord disposes his [special] grace so as to make both conversion and perseverance certain… to his chosen.” (Ibid).

I found this section fascinating. Clarkson’s answer is essentially this. “I too believe in everything you ‘Arminians’ term common grace but it is insufficient. In addition I believe in sufficient converting and persevering grace for the elect only.” I am not sure how common this type of answer was. Ah well – more research!

I’ll close with one further example of Clarkson “entreating” with unconverted sinners:
“All his knocking, calling has not prevailed. Is this nothing to you, all ye that pass by? See if there be any love like Christ’s love, and condescension like Christ’s, any patience, any importunity; and see if there be any hatred, contempt, neglect, unkindness, like yours. Shall Christ come to his own and his own not receive him? Would you have him still a man of sorrows and sufferings? Shall he have still occasion to complain, ‘Who has believed our report?’ Who has hearkened when I have called? Who has regarded when I have stretched out my hands? Who has yielded when I have entreated? Who has opened when I have knocked? Shall it be thus still with Christ? Shall he not have a place whereon to lay his head?” (Ibid p84).

Remember Clarkson had a reputation as one of the “harsher” Puritans. He was a colleague of John Owen. And yet this was how he preached. This I hope to show in my thesis is the Reformed and Puritan free offer of the gospel.

I’m afraid I’ll leave off Durham’s “Short Sum of the Gospel” until next week. There is more than enough in Clarkson to think through.

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