Weekly Update 16 – William Ames

I know I still have to finish off Durham’s sermon Gospel Presentations are the Strongest Invitations and I will do that.  But this week I want to share some of my reading of the Puritan William Ames (1576-1633).  Ames is most widely known today for his book The Marrow of Theology.  His importance to Puritan & Reformed theology should not be understated.  A recent doctoral dissertation on Ames has stated that Ames’ thought has a “seminal place in the development of the Reformed system”.  (Jan Van Vliet, William Ames: Marrow of the Theology and Piety of the Reformed Tradition, PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary, 2002).  Such claims are well founded.

What then does Ames make of the free offer of the gospel and related topics?  (Caveat lector: I am no expert on Ames.  I have read a fair bit of him and I think I am representing him fairly but, as always, I am open to correction.)

 … it is not lawful to make the least delay at all in our conversion to God… As soon therefore as God shall require us to correct our lives, and to be converted , so soon ought this duty to be performed… Whosoever therefore shall keepe and nourish sinne against God’s Will… he thereupon doth bring upon himself a very grievous guilt.
The Works of the Reverend and Faithful Minister of Christ William Ames, London: Printed for John Rothwell, 1643, Of Conscience and the Cases Thereof The Second Booke, p6

First, we see here that Ames does not urge delay in conversion until we have gone through certain stages (preparationism – e.g. a prolonged period of labouring under conviction of sin before coming to Christ).  Now, today is the day of salvation, and there is no excuse for delay.  Second, we see Ames explicitly advocating ‘Duty Faith’.  To be converted is our duty.  Third, we see that Ames speaks of conversion as being God’s revealed will for us.

… by what motives may a [man] be stirred up to embrace the call of God… Fourthly, if he doe also consider what the cause is that moves God to call him, which he shall find to be nothing else but God’s incomprehensible mercy towards his enemy, Rom.8.10. 2 Cor.5.10. He must have a heart of Iron, that is not moved with such goodness as this, as we may see by Saul, 1 Sam.24.17.19.
Ibid, p12

Ames here states that the motive behind the gospel call is one of “incomprehensible mercy” and “goodness“.  His example is of David’s kindness in not killing Saul.  This is an important point.  Even for those who reject the gospel call God’s motive in calling them is still one of mercy and goodness.

[To obtain faith in Christ] … he ought to fasten the eyes of his mind, upon the promises of the Gospell; For the Gospell is the Ministry of the spirit of righteousness and of life, 2 Cor.3.6,8. the reason is, because Christ is neither offer’d of God, nor can be apprehended by man, but onely in the promises of the Gospell… Now in fastening our eyes upon the promises of the Gospell, we must consider first, that Christ onely is propounded in them, and that crucified, 1 Cor.1.23.34, & 2.2.2. Secondly, that in Christ there is a perfect sufficiency of redemption, and salvation, provided for them that be in him, John 3.16… Thirdly, that this grace is particularly offer’d to all those to whom it is preached, Mark 16.13.
Ibid, p13

Right.  For Ames the object of faith is Christ offered in the promises of the gospel.  This is standard doctrine but it is still worth pausing over because it highlights again the importance of the free offer.  It is impossible to “apprehend Christ” without the promises of the gospel being offered to us.  More precisely faith fastens on the atoning death of Christ and its sufficiency for all who will come to him as they are held out in the promises of the gospel.  Ames again states standard reformed doctrine when he notes the gospel is a particular offer to each hearer.  It is not an indiscriminate offer which is not really to you as an individual.  No, the offer of Christ is to each individual as if it were by name, to paraphrase Durham.

Now God is the object of faith, not as he is considered in himself, but as we by him doe live well. 1 Tim.4.10. We hope in the living God, who is the preserver of all men, especially of those that believe.
The Marrow of Sacred Divinity, London: Printed by Edward Griffen for John Rothwell at the Sun in Pauls Church Yard, n.d. The First Book of Divinity, p6

What I understand Ames as saying is that we don’t place our faith in an unknown or hidden God, but we place our faith in the God who has revealed himself as good to all men, and especially to those who believe in him.  The object of faith is God as he has revealed himself in Scripture.  I think his comment is along the same lines as Calvin’s, who also took Saviour to mean preserver:

… the word σωτὴρ is here a general term, and denotes one who defends and preserves. He means that the kindness of God extends to all men. And if there is no man who does not feel the goodness of God towards him, and who is not a partaker of it, how much more shall it be experienced by the godly, who hope in him? Will he not take peculiar care in them? Will he not more freely pour out his bounty on them? In a word, will he not, in every respect, keep them safe to the end?

Now, I’m more of a Marrowman (Thomas Boston, Ralph & Ebenezer Erskine) in my view of 1 Tim 4:10 in that I think Saviour means Saviour and not preserver.  I prefer their exposition that Christ is the Saviour of the world “by office”.  That is like a doctor would be the doctor of a town without actually healing every individual in that town.  He is still the doctor of all, but only those who go to him for healing are healed.

The offer, is an objective propounding of Christ, as of a means sufficient and necessary to salvation. 1 Cor.23,24. We preach Christ the Power of God and the Wisdome of GOD. Hebr.7.25. He is able perfectly to save those that come to God by him. Acts 4.12. Neither is there any other name under Heaven, which is given among men, by which we must be saved… The offer of Christ is outward, or inward… The outward is a propounding, or preaching of the Gospell or of the promises of Christ. Acts 9.15. That he may beare my name in the sight of the Gentiles… The promises as touching the outward promulgation, are propounded to all without difference, together with a command to believe them, but as touching the propriety of the things promised… they belong only to the elect… The inward offer is a spiritual enlightening, whereby those promises are propounded to the hearts of men… This is also sometime, and in a certain manner granted to those that are not elected. Hebrews 6.4 & 10.29. Mat.13.20.
Ibid, p110-111

The offer of the gospel involves a proclaiming of Christ’s sufficiency to save and that salvation is only to be found in him.  There is an outward offer of Christ, and preaching of the promise of the gospel which does not differ between the elect and non-elect.  But while the promise of the gospel belongs outwardly to all hearers the thing promised only belongs to the elect.  To explain, the promise believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved is a promise to all, but Christ and actual salvation in him will only belong to the elect.  Ames also endorses common grace in that the Spirit also works in the non-elect and is granted to them “in a certain manner”.

Preaching therefore ought not to be dead, but lively and effectual, so that an unbeliever coming into the Congregation of the faithful he ought to be affected, and as it were digged through with the very hearing of the Word, that he may give glory to God. 1 Cor. 14.25.
Ibid, p159

Oh what need there is of earnest lively preaching today!

Now here ariseth a question… Whether all and every particular man be meant thereby, when it is said, that God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance?… The patience of God according to its nature hath that use and end, to lead all sinners unto repentance, Rom2.14. and in that sense might their interpretation be admitted who understand these words and the like of all and every particular man; But… the Apostle in this place [2 Peter 3:9] hath special reference unto the elect…
An Analytical Exposition Of both the Epistles of the Apostle Peter, Illustrated by Doctrines out of every Text. London: Printed by E.G. for John Rothwell, at the Sun in Pauls Church Yard, n.d. p244 

This is Ames’ exposition of 2 Peter 3:9.  Ames believes this text relates only to the elect.  But what is interesting is that Ames admits that the exposition which sees this verse speaking of a patience and goodness of God to all men is theologically sound, it is just not the proper exegesis of this verse.  My own position is very similar.  I have no issues with the doctrine of Calvin in his comments on 2 Peter 3:9 below, I just don’t think they are appropriate to the verse at hand:

So wonderful is his love towards mankind, that he would have them all to be saved, and is of his own self prepared to bestow salvation on the lost. But the order is to be noticed, that God is ready to receive all to repentance, so that none may perish; for in these words the way and manner of obtaining salvation is pointed out. Every one of us, therefore, who is desirous of salvation, must learn to enter in by this way.

But it may be asked, If God wishes none to perish, why is it that so many do perish? To this my answer is, that no mention is here made of the hidden purpose of God, according to which the reprobate are doomed to their own ruin, but only of his will as made known to us in the gospel. For God there stretches forth his hand without a difference to all, but lays hold only of those, to lead them to himself, whom he has chosen before the foundation of the world.

Next week I’ll share some thoughts on John Ball’s doctrine of the free offer.  He is a largely forgotten but hugely significant Puritan, whose works were influential at the Westminster Assembly.

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2 Responses to “Weekly Update 16 – William Ames”

  1. Tony Says:

    Hi Donald,

    Your readers may be interested to know that James Durham’s The Law Unsealed: Or, A Practical Exposition of the Ten Commandments is available online to dowload and search for free, as well as The Sum of Saving Knowledge.

    I have two questions:

    1) I found this statement by Ames to be confusing: “the reason is, because Christ is neither offer’d of God, nor can be apprehended by man, but onely in the promises of the Gospell…” What does he mean by “Christ is neither offer’d of God”?

    2) Out of curiosity, what makes you inclined to take a decretal reading of 2 Peter 3:9? Is it the letterhead argument (i.e. the “us” or “you” references those addressed in the letterhead, hence the appeal to “context”)? Or do you follow Shedd in his appeal to the particular word used for “willing” (boulamai) as having decretal connotations? Or both of these arguments? Something else?

  2. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi Tony

    “the reason is, because Christ is neither offer’d of God, nor can be apprehended by man, but onely in the promises of the Gospell…”

    I understand Ames as saying that the only place Christ is offered to us is in the promises of the gospel. That is, nature doesn’t offer us Christ, the law doesn’t offer us Christ. It is only in the gospel that we have Christ freely offered to us.

    I remember Shedd’s discussion of the difference between 1 Tim 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 in Calvinism Pure & Mixed. I’m afraid I am not competent enough in Greek to be able to comment on the validity (or otherwise) of the distinction he draws. For me it is the drift of the passage in 2 Peter that seems to indicate he has the Lord’s people in view. I know John Murray argued against the limitation from context quite strongly. For those reading this for Prof Murray’s view on the free offer see:
    http://www.wscal.edu/clark/freeoffer.php

    Every blessing
    Donald John

    PS I thought your quotation from Jonathan Edwards got to the heart of the matter – “He stands at our door and knocks. He does not merely command us to receive him, but he condescends to apply himself to us in a more endearing manner. He entreats and beseeches us in his word and by his messengers.” That is a crucially important point.

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