If William Ames is not that well known, then we may say John Ball (1585-1640) is almost totally forgotten. Yet he was one of the most influential Covenant Theologians of his time in England. His works on covenant theology are recognised as a significant influence on the covenant theology of the Westminster Standards. Recently one of his books, A Treatise on the Covenant of Grace, has been reprinted:
This book was commended by six men who were commissioners at the Westminster Assembly. He was very well respected in his day. What does this influential Puritan make of the doctrine of the free offer of the gospel? (A similar story to last week – I don’t profess to be an expert on Ball so any corrections are welcome).
Every man called, whether he hearken to God’s calling or not, is bound to believe that Christ is offered to him as Saviour, so as if he believe he shall be saved: but that Christ died for him in particular for the impetration of righteousness… that he is not bound to believe…
Ball, John. A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace. London: Printed by G. Miller for Edward Brewster on Ludgate hill near Fleet-Bridge at the Signe of the Bible, 1645, p222-223
Ball sets out clearly that he does not believe in “universal redemption” and correspondingly we are not called by the gospel to place our faith in the tenet that Christ died for me. Rather we are called to lay hold of the offered Saviour, and in believing we shall be saved. As we see his views of the free offer, bear in mind he held to a definite atonement. Also note Christ is offered even to those who never “hearken to God’s calling”.
There is one act of faith, whereby we believe that sins are pardonable: this is builded upon this ground, that Christ is an all-sufficient and efficient Saviour, in whose name Salvation is freely offered, by faith to be received. There is another act of faith whereby we rest upon Christ for salvation… There is the third whereby we believe that our sins are already pardoned…
Ball expands on this by explaining the actings of faith. First, because an all sufficient Saviour is offered to us (one who is able to save to the uttermost all who come to God by him) we may believe that our sins are pardonable. Based on this we rest on Christ for salvation. Then upon believing we have assurance that our sins are pardoned. Again note the central place given to the free offer of the gospel in the definition of faith. Without the free offer of salvation in Christ there can be no solid ground for faith.
As an aside. Ball believed in “common grace” which men could and sadly did “fearfully abuse” by their sins. Ibid. p230
That men are seriously invited to repent in the Ministry of the Word, and that the promise of Salvation is faithful and true, so that he that believeth shall never perish. These things be not questioned, nor whether some effects or benefits of Christ’s death be common to all men, but whether he died equally for all men, to purchase actual reconciliation for them on God’s part…
Note the vocabulary Ball uses here. The gospel is a serious invitation. It is not simply a command, not simply a declaration of facts – it is an invitation. How many times have I said this now? Again it is a serious invitation. The free offer is not a sham – it is sincere and well meant. Again Ball highlights his belief in a definite, efficacious atonement while not denying that some benefits of Christ’s death come to all men. Durham says something very similar which I will share when I eventually get round to posting on his view of the atonement.
…but the invitation is general…the invitation is serious, shewing what God is well pleased with, and doth approve in us… he persuadeth with arguments in themselves forceable to move and incite, and what he will perform, if we make good the condition… no man of what state or condition whatsoever is hindered or kept back from coming to Christ by any cause efficient or deficient out of man himself…
Again there is no limit in the offer/invitation. It is “general”. Again God is “serious” in the offer. By this Ball means God desires the salvation of those who hear the gospel. If you don’t believe this read on! Also note we can not blame the decree of God (election) for our unbelief. The only cause of unbelief is our own wilful sin in rejecting Christ’s invitations to come to him.
The Lord who doth whatsoever he will… in his deep and unsearchable council never intended to make every man actually and effectually partakers of the benefit promised… nevertheless, the invitation is serious, showing what we ought to do, and God doth approve and desire on our parts…
There we have it! The invitation to come to Christ “is serious, showing what… God doth approve and desire“. To say, as some do today, that the phrase “God desires your salvation” is Arminian would make John Ball an Arminian! Of course he is as far from being an Arminian as North is from South. Now Ball doesn’t believe God intends the salvation of all men. What God intends he accomplishes. Ball separates desire from intention.
They [Arminians] ask what sign doth God show of desire or approval that men should believe, when he gives them not power so to do. This that he commandeth, intreateth, persuadeth them to repent and believe, waiteth with long-suffering and patience for their amendment, promises mercy if they will return…
Along comes the Arminian who says to Ball, “You don’t believe in common sufficient grace, you don’t believe in a universal atonement. How then can you say, without being hypocritical, that God desires the salvation of the hearers of the gospel?” (Remember Rutherford responded in his writings to an almost identical objection). Ball answers, of course God desires the salvation of the hearers of the gospel. Why else would he command, entreat, persuade them and wait with longsuffering on them?
… as God commandeth wicked men to repent and believe, so he testifieth what he doth desire and approve…
Again, for Ball, when God commands something it is a testimony he desires that is should be done. When God commands the wicked to repent it is a testimony he desires them to repent. You dont find this way of speaking in some passages in Owen.
As men are called to repent that they might live, and God doth in calling them avow it is his desire, they would repent that they might live, so the end of the invitation is life and salvation. This is manifest, in that the Lord doth earnestly again and again call upon impenitent and obstinate sinners to repent and believe, protesting that he desires not their death, but rather that they should repent and live…
And it keeps on coming! It is God’s desire that wicked men repent. God desires that even impenitent and obstinate sinners should be saved.
As an aside Ball speaks of “restraining grace or common gifts”. Ibid. p337
Stepping back in Ball’s work here are his comments on John 3:16. They are long, but important, so I would urge you to read them:
[On John 3:16] God so loved the world, (as we read in the Evangelist) that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the World: but that the world through him might be saved. And I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.
Here the motive from which the gift of Christ is derived is common love. The word World cannot be taken for the elect only: for then it will be as if it had been said, God so loved the elect, that he gave is only Son, that whosoever of them that believe in him should not perish. The world that Christ came to save, was that world in which he came; and that comprehends both believers and unbelievers: and in the same place, it is divided into them that shall be saved, and them that shall be damned: and there should be no force of reasoning in the latter place, if the world did not comprehend unbelievers under it.
Thus these passages are urged for universal redemption. But the principle texts speak plainly of the days of grace, when God sent his Son into the world, and when according to the prophesies and promises made before, the Gentiles were to be called to the faith, added to the church, and received into Covenant.
And the world is taken communiter & indefinite, for the world, as it is opposed to the Jewish Nation alone, not universaliter pro singulis, for every man in the world of what time or age soever, or of this time special. The sense then is, In the fullness of time, God manifested so great love unto the world of Jew and Gentile, not of the Jew alone, That he gave his only begotten Son, and in the Ministry of the Gospel, seriously invited them to believe, and entered into Covenant to bestow life and happiness upon the condition of their unfeigned faith on Jesus Christ. As God loved Israel, whom he chose to be his peculiar people under the Old Testament: so in times of grace he extended his love to the world of Jew and Gentile. And as amongst the Jews, so much love to the body of that nation , as to enter into Covenant with them, and vouchsafe unto them the means of grace, but unto some he showed more special love, so as to call them effectually, and make them heirs of salvation: In like manner in the last times or days of the New Testament God manifest so much love to the world, as it is opposed to the Jewish Nation, as that in the ministry of the Gospel he entreated them to be reconciled, and entered into a Covenant of Peace with them: but unto some he bare and manifested a more peculiar love, in that he called them effectually and made them heirs also.
There are a number of very interesting points here in this long quote:
- The love in John 3:16 is common love. This is the position of Thomas Boston & the other Marrowmen.
- Ball rejects the argument that the world in John 3:16 is the elect, otherwise the text becomes a truism. God so loved the elect that whosoever of the elect believe will not perish… “Does this make sense” is Ball’s question? This is the argument of my favourite theologian Robert Dabney who takes John 3:16 indefinitely.
- Ball does not believe John 3:16 supports universal redemption. Rather it speaks of the giving love in the gospel offer. This is classic Marrow doctrine (i.e. Boston & the Erskine’s).
- The love of John 3:16 extends as far as the preaching of the gospel. It is not speaking of a saving love which applies only to the elect.
- Note that for Ball the preaching of the gospel is a token of God’s love, even to those who never accept the gospel.
- How common is Ball’s interpretation of the love in John 3:16 as non-saving general love amongst the reformed? I think it is probably a minority view. Calvin of course held this view. We could add Thomas Manton, Thomas Boston, Robert L. Dabney and a small number of others. But many other’s held John 3:16 to be speaking of a saving love to the elect e.g. Gillespie, Rutherford, Owen etc.
In order of fairness I should highlight that a portion of this quote was posted into the blogsphere by Marty Ford, John Owen researcher.
There are also a number of similar statements in Ball’s work:
Ball, John. A Treatise of Faith Divided into two Parts: The first shewing the Nature, The Second the Life of Faith. London: Printed for Edward Brewster, and are to be sold at his Shop at the signe of the Crane in Pauls Church-yard, 1657.
To quote them would make a long post inordinately long so I will stop here.
Next week I’ll be covering the significant Scottish theologian and contemporary of Durham, John Brown of Wamphray on the free offer of the gospel. Brown was a close associate and disciple of Rutherford.