Beseech sinners to ask the Lord to enable them to believe or just to believe?

Discussion in 'Preaching' started by Pergamum, Nov 13, 2014.

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  1. Pergamum

    Pergamum Ordinary Guy (TM)

    Should we beseech sinners to ask the Lord to enable them to believe or just beseech sinners to believe?

    Last month I received a mild critique of one of my sermons. Here is it in paraphrase:

    What do you think? My mind goes immediately to the man in the Gospels that says, "O Lord I believe, but help my unbelief..." Would the correct response have been to have simply said, "Well..then just believe then!"

    Is there anything wrong with imploring sinners in a sermon to pray that the Lord grants them saving faith or should we just tell them then and there to believe savingly?
  2. MarieP

    MarieP Puritan Board Senior

    My own pastor says both. Lately, he's been using the latter more. Interestingly enough, I sent him a "mild critique" (well, probably not as mild as that!) 5 years ago or so when I was in the process of being rid of some hyper-Calvinistic tendencies. I didn't like the "ask the Lord for a new heart" because I thought it was misleading. My problem was that I was separating regeneration and faith in a way the Scripture doesn't. To add to your verses, I would add "Son of David, have mercy on me" and "Have mercy on me, the sinner."

    Several examples of the verbiage in line with the critique (the first combines the two!): "Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O house of Israel?" (Ezekiel 18:31). "Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord" (Acts 3:19).
  3. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Senior

    The gospel in its essence is set forth by Paul in I Corinthians 15:3-4. What is central is the person and work of Christ, particularly His death, burial, and resurrection.

    The exhortation that arises out of the gospel is repentance and faith: this is everywhere in evidence, especially in the apostolic preaching of the cross in Acts. We say "trust in Christ, and in Him alone," "believe on the Lord Jesus Christ," and the like, as well as "see your sin, hate your sin, turn from your sin" and the like. The reason that we say that and the like is not only because this follows the biblical pattern and points them to Christ, but also because beseeching them to "ask the Lord to enable them to believe" tends to point them to look for an experience and not to look to Christ. We are not asking people to have some religious experience; we are calling them to "come to Christ," meaning that we want them to look to Him and Him alone, not look for a particular religious experience, which what you did has the tendency to do.

    The man who cried out "I believe, help my unbelief" was believing, brother, not unbelieving. What needs to be said to such a one? "Yes, we are full of unbelief, are we not? What's the remedy? Come to Him who will in no wise cast you out! Draw near to Him and He will draw near to you!" All this is to say--point him to Christ, not to himself (except insofar as you call him to repentance, which is what we are to do when we see ourselves).

    What we do is preach Christ in all His merits and mediation and call men to trust in Him: we set Him forth in the all-sufficiency of His person and work and freely offer Him to all who hear. We show the warrant of faith from the free gospel offer to all who hear: why should you believe? Because He calls you to believe, because He commands you to believe, and because He does, he enables and empowers you to believe. Thus we set Him forth in all His glory and tell sinners that Christ has done everything for them from first to last and they need to flee to Him, look to Him, lean upon Him and none other.

  4. Pergamum

    Pergamum Ordinary Guy (TM)

    So we should simply tell people to repent and believe and not ever tell them to pray that the Lord would enable them to do so?

    If they are seeking or doubting, does this still hold true or might we tell them to pray that the Lord opens their eyes and removes their unbelief?
  5. Scott Bushey

    Scott Bushey Puritanboard Commissioner

  6. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Senior

    I agree with Scott, Trevor: the answer lies in that thread and also somewhere like WLC 172. If one doubts, one is to be pointed to Christ. If one seeks, one is to be pointed to Christ. Not to seek some experience.

    The hymn "Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy" well expresses the proper sentiment.

  7. MW

    MW Puritanboard Amanuensis

    As long as the sinner is called upon to believe it is proper to show him the use of prayer as a means of grace as a part of answering the doubts which arise from an inability to believe by nature.
  8. MW

    MW Puritanboard Amanuensis

    From William Guthrie, Christian's Great Interest:

    "Therefore, for answer to the objection, I entreat thee, in the Lord's name, to lay to heart these his commandments and promises, and meditate on them, and upon that blessed business of the new covenant, and pray unto God, as you can, over them, "for he will be inquired to do these things," and lay thy cold heart to that device of God expressed in the Scripture, and unto Christ Jesus, who is given for a covenant to the people, and look to him for life and quickening. Go and endeavour to be pleased with that salvation in the way God offers it, and to close with, and rest on Christ for it, as if all were in thy power; yet looking to him for the thing, as knowing that it must come from him; and if thou do so, "he who meets those who remember him in his ways," will not be wanting on his part; and thou shalt not have ground to say, that thou movedst towards the thing until thou couldst do no more for want of strength, and so left it at God's door: it shall not fail on his part, if thou have a mind for the business; yea, I may say, if by all thou hast ever heard of that matter, thy heart loves it, and desires to be engaged with it, thou hast it already performed within thee: so that difficulty is past before thou wast aware of it."
  9. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Senior


    Your OP dealt quite specifically with the question of preaching and to what we are to exhort people in preaching. You said "Should we beseech sinners to ask the Lord to enable them to believe or just beseech sinners to believe?" You put the question quite pointedly as an either/or. We are to call sinners to believe, I responded. I stand by that.

    You responded by continuing to pose this as a dichotomy. I responded by noting that we call men to trust in Christ. Not to look to something else. Do I tell men, as part of what it means to come to Christ, to trust in Christ, to use the means of grace? Of course, I do; the means of grace are key in this: when I receive the preaching of the Word in faith, I draw near and come to Christ; similarly for the Supper and for prayer. Coming to the Table and praying in faith both involve trusting Christ. So, of course, I tell hearers to use the means of grace (in response to what MW is saying).

    I urge hearers to pray for faith, to pray to pray when they can't pray, and so forth. I urge those coming to the Table to bewail their lack of faith and to come in faith. But none of this quite amounts to "asking God for a new heart." It all presupposes a new heart. So does seeing and lamenting one's doubt. So does seeking the Lord (otherwise, there are none who seek Him, Romans 3).

    I stand resolutely by what I've said here and beseech all readers to see and think about the difference between saying to those to whom I am preaching, "Come to Christ, poor needy sinners" and "pray and ask God to give you a new heart." One is the gospel invitation and bears the warrant of the gospel. The other points you to ponder "Do I have a new heart?" That is not the pattern of apostolic preaching.

  10. Pergamum

    Pergamum Ordinary Guy (TM)

    Dr Strange,

    Thanks for your comments. I consider myself evangelistic and I would hate to think I am appealing to people in a way that puts up hindrances to the seeker or the hearer.

    I do believe it is the duty of all men to pray, even unbelievers. The debate over whether God hears the prayers of unbelievers or not is a secondary issue for me since it seems clear that prayer is demanded from all.

    I also believe that we are to urge unbelievers to pray for salvation, i.e., to pray for true faith and true repentance. This does not mean that I also do not urge them to exercise true faith and true repentance. In the past I have stated that "You must truly believe and truly repent" and I have sometimes added that if they think that they cannot presently do those two things, that they ought to pray that the Lord enable them to do so. I have also sometimes explained that there is nothing that keeps them from salvation except their own will and desire not to come.

    Do you find anything objectionable in those statements?

    You wrote:

    How is urging hearers to pray for faith any different than urging hearers to pray for a new heart? Why is it okay to pray for one and not the other, since to urge hearers to pray for one seems the same as to pray for the other? It sounds like my practice is very close to yours.

    How are we to take Jeremiah 31:18, where Jeremiah represents penitent Ephraim as beseeching God so to prepare him that he may indeed "turn."

    How are we to understand David's prayer in Psalm 51:

    Would it not have been better for Jeremiah to represent Ephraim merely saying, "I'm gonna turn" or David saying, "Seeing that the desire in me for You to renew a right spirit within me is already evidence of your present working, I'm gonna get better..."
  11. Don Kistler

    Don Kistler Puritan Board Sophomore

    The Puritan Thomas Goodwin, and various others, said, "If you can't go to God WITH a right heart, then go to God FOR one."
  12. Pergamum

    Pergamum Ordinary Guy (TM)

    I really like that. Do you have a citation? I have also read Gerstner a lot where he explains how Jonathan Edwards appealed to sinners.

    I agree that there is an immediacy required for people to repent and believe and take no excuse for delays. I am wondering if my current practice is consistent with that immediacy or if I need to refine how I appeal to hearers.
  13. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Senior


    I've always appreciated your humble servant's heart. I also appreciate your response here.

    Perhaps I can answer what you've asked by tagging on to Dr. Kistler's excellent Goodwin quote, with which I fully agree: "If you can 't go to God WITH a right heart, then go to God FOR one."

    I would always urge one to come to the Lord for everything, which is precisely what Goodwin is doing. He's urging us to come to Him. And if we do, He will never cast us out--only those who are His come to Him for a right heart. Similarly only those who are His can cry "make me yours, Lord." If to seek Him in this needy and helpless way is not coming to Him, I don't know what coming to Him is. One can't pray "give me a new heart" without having a heart to do so. We do believe in total inability. The one who cries out to God, comes to God. He may be full of doubt and every sort of thing, but there's no proper asking God for anything without doing so in faith.

    MW often quotes Boston and if there's anyone who knew that you ought not "to let conscience make you linger, nor of fitness fondly dream" and "the only fitness He requireth is to feel your need of Him," and "if you tarry til your better, you will never come at all" it was Boston. Yes, come and seek Him for everything needed but in so doing you manifest that you are His and have all that you need in Him.

  14. Ask Mr. Religion

    Ask Mr. Religion Flatly Unflappable

    <--- this, indeed.
  15. Pergamum

    Pergamum Ordinary Guy (TM)

    Thanks for your guidance.

    You wrote that you agree fully with the quote below:

    This quote seems to imply to me that we are doing nothing wrong if we pray to God for a new heart or we point others to do the same in our preaching. Am I missing something here?

    I do not believe that all those uttering prayers such as, "Lord, help me believe" or "Lord, give me a new heart" already, in fact, have a new heart.

    Many say these things with mixed motives or in a time of great need, thus praying out of a love for self rather than a love for God (i.e., the sailor at sea who seems to pray fervently and repent, only to return to his misdeeds once good weather returns). Or some pray these things with true sincerity but have a false view of Christ as not fully God and fully man, etc. Many Arians in the past were profoundly sincere, yet most consider them to err to greatly to be saved until they repair their view of the person of Christ.

    The prayer, "Lord help me to truly believe and truly repent, and help me to have true sincerity and understanding as I ask these things" seems like appropriate prayer, does it not?
  16. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Senior


    Anyone praying "God give me a new heart" or the like in faith is, by such, coming to Christ and evidencing that he has a new heart. Of course, one may not only pray "Lord, help me believe" but also "Lord, I hereby come to you" and not do so in faith. Whatever one does in faith, one does as a gift of God. Whatever one does that is not in faith, and that includes teaching and/or preaching in a confessional seminary or church, is not truly coming to Christ.

    Any true calling on God is efficacious. But what we don't want to do is to ask people to look for a certain experience rather than to look to Christ. "Mixed motives"--really? Do you think that any of us have pure motives? The best of us are always mixed, as we have remaining sin. I grant you that we bewail our mixed motives, as we do all of our sin, but I preach "come to Christ" not some version of "come to Christ if you are the elect," which always leaves the honest person looking to himself not Christ.

    Whenever we look at ourselves--we should repent; whenever we look at Christ--we should believe. Tell people all you want to cry out to God for this--any such crying out with a believing heart involves coming to Christ. Do you believe that the one who cried out--"I believe; help my unbelief?" was believing or unbelieving. Clearly, he was believing.

  17. Pergamum

    Pergamum Ordinary Guy (TM)

    Dr Strange:

    I agree that "Anyone praying "God give me a new heart" or the like IN FAITH is, by such, coming to Christ and evidencing that he has a new heart." However, the phrase "in faith" is sometimes a hard diagnosis to make.

    There are people who pray this prayer as unsaved people and still yet remain unsaved afterwards. This is due to lack of pure motives, praying outwardly but not totally believing it inwardly, possessing only a partial and temporary resolve, lack of knowing the basics of the Gospel or who Jesus is, entertaining grossly errant view of God or Jesus, etc. They do not pray this prayer "in faith" and yet believe that they have. People may even deceive themselves. They may feel moved or under conviction and pray and yet emerge out the other side of this time period to prove themselves to be apostate. These apostates may truly believe themselves to have been truly saved and may have believed themselves to have been praying in all correctness and sincerity with pure motives. Because of such, I do not yet believe that all those who pray for the new birth actually have it and I believe that it is impossible to diagnose whether such a prayer was ever prayed "in faith" or not until we come to the Final Judgment.

    I agree that we ought not to do anything to point the person to a past experience, yet even the question, "Have you yet truly believed?" may do this, for it forces the hearer to consider himself and to consider whether he has ever truly, in fact, believed and repented. The new birth does, indeed, happen at a moment in time and it seems useful to make the hearer ponder as to whether such a thing has ever yet truly happened to them. Although, it is the believer's present belief that is important, not some past act. How do I fit these two things together? There are so many people who believe they are okay and yet are living under the power of sin and have never truly been converted. How do we wake them up?

    I still believe it is appropriate for all those interested in the Gospel (whether such an interest is born out of a converted heart or not) to pray, "Lord, save me" or "Lord, grant me saving faith" or "Lord, help me to believe." I am having trouble understanding how such a prayer could be deficient in any way, except that it might remove the immediacy required...and yet, I recognize that some people who hear the Gospel are not yet ready/willing to believe but are curious. I even believe that some hearers may like and want to believe the Gospel and are enamored by it, and yet are not yet saved ("That is a beautiful is moving...I just wish it were true....I wish I could believe in it. if it is true, Lord, I want to believe it!"). Do you acknowledge that such scenarios might exist?

    I believe I was saved at 18, yet for several months prior to that point of true conversion, I began to understand the Gospel and wished that it was true even when I doubted whether it was or not. "This is a wonderful story...if only I could believe that it were true!" was often my sentiment.
  18. Scott Bushey

    Scott Bushey Puritanboard Commissioner

    Is it possible that you were regenerated at this point, but not converted? A man cannot *understand* things of the kingdom outside of regeneration.
  19. Pergamum

    Pergamum Ordinary Guy (TM)


    I believe that the Spirit often does some "ploughing work" before that seed is planted. The Spirit draws people, and some conversions are the result of many years of such slow drawing. Many folks begin to apprehend some of the things of God prior to conversion. I believe that a man can, indeed, understand some of the things of the kingdom outside of regeneration.
  20. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Senior

    That is quite similar to my story, Trevor. What I've since come to see is that I have no clear way of knowing precisely when I believed in that time period. I do know when I first came to an assurance that Christ died for me. But that's not to say that I was not already in the exercise of faith. We can be in the exercise of faith and not know that we are in the excercise of faith. That's just what our Confession says: it does not identify believing with believing that I believe.

    Yes, in some sense, as the continental Reformed say, true faith involves a confidence in Christ, which is part of trust; yet such does not necessarily involve my self-awareness of faith. I would challenge you as to your certain knowledge of when your "true conversion" occurred. You came to trust in Christ somewhere in there, though your coming to see that you were believing was not necessarily co-terminous with that.

    You note that that whether someone is truly in the exercise of faith is sometimes a "hard diagnosis." Right, this is why we engage in what's called "the judgment of charity." If someone professes to trust in the person and work of Christ, and evidences the understanding requisite for active faith in Christ as well as a life that seeks to serve the Lord, we do not try to diagnose that too closely but accept such, recognizing, as you say, that we rest all this in His hands until the Judgment Day. We even preach the evidences of true saving faith so that persons can be challenged to make sure that they truly trust in Christ, while being careful not to break bruised reeds or quench smoking flax.

    Edwards was renown for not looking for a certain narrative of grace (he admitted that he did not have the kind of conversion that many in "Old and New England did") but for teaching that "Charity and Its Fruits" was the chief evidence of saving grace.What this means is that "love to God and to neighbor" is the chief evidence of saving faith. This cuts us all to the quick, doesn't it, because the best of us (whoever that is) little evidence such. Plenty claim all sorts of conversion experiences and the like but the thing is love of God and neighbor (as far as evidences are concerned). You might find this article on Edwards interesting with regards to that:

  21. Scott Bushey

    Scott Bushey Puritanboard Commissioner

    Christ said that unless a man be born from above, he cannot 'see' the kingdom of God'. I have no references biblically where I can support a 'ploughing' that you describe; as mentioned, if there is 'ploughing', it is secondary to regeneration only. God does not plow ground He will not ultimately use, hence all of the regenerate will be converted.

    Spiritual things cannot be perceived by the unspiritual. Until a man be regenerated, it is mental gymnastics alone. As far as drawing goes, I believe the word used in John 6:44 and Acts 16:19 and James 2:6 use the same greek word. If I am not mistaken, in classical greek renderings it is used to describe the tugging of water from a deep well, which is not without a great effort.

    Food for thought...
  22. Pergamum

    Pergamum Ordinary Guy (TM)

    "Puritan Evangelism" by Dr. J. I. Packer

    Also, here is a link to Gerstner's book on Jonathan Edwards the evangelist:

    Jonathan Edwards, Evangelist (John Gerstner (1914-1996)): John H. Gerstner, John H. Grestner: 9781573580069: Books

    It seems that "awakening" or conviction of sin often occurs prior (and sometimes for a protracted period) prior to the conversion of some people. As such, it is appropriate to speak of some people as "awakened sinners" or "inquirers" that the Lord may be dealing with and drawing them to salvation. It is not necessary to assume that all of these must be considered already born again to gain such an interest or curiosity.
  23. Ask Mr. Religion

    Ask Mr. Religion Flatly Unflappable

    How do you reconcile this with the plain teachings of Scripture, in that the lost...

    - is deceitful and desperately sick (Jer. 17:9);
    - is full of evil (Mark 7:21-23);
    - loves darkness rather than light (John 3:19);
    - is unrighteous, does not understand, does not seek for God (Rom. 3:10-12);
    - is helpless and ungodly (Rom. 5:6);
    - is dead in his trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1);
    - is by nature a child of wrath (Eph. 2:3);
    - cannot understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14); and
    - is a slave of sin (Rom. 6:16-20).
  24. Pergamum

    Pergamum Ordinary Guy (TM)

    This link also contains many quotes on a sinner's preconversion experience of conviction:

    Quotes about Conviction | Puritan Paperbacks & Reformed Quotes

    Also of interest is this article by Dr. William Young entitled "Conversion" (Fall 1993, PRC Magazine)

    Here is John Owen, in his third volume of Works (the section, "Works of the Holy Spirit Preparatory Unto Regeneration").

    John Owen, Works, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: Banner, repr. 1966), p. 229
  25. Scott Bushey

    Scott Bushey Puritanboard Commissioner

    in my opinion, one must consider the order in relation to this subject. The distinction, if not considered can cause one to misinterpret what the men you quote are saying. For instance, many use the terms 'regeneration' and 'conversion' interchangeably. I have been guilty of this at times. When discussing this subject however, it must be considered. For instance:

    Do the scriptures show us this? John 3 tells us no. 1 Cor 1:18 tells us that the gospel is 'foolishness' too them who are not regenerate. 1 Cor 1 tells us that God uses 'foolishness', but not in the way you intend. If man is yet unconverted, is he at enmity w/ God? In the compound sense, he may be elect; in the divided, he remains an enemy. Did God use the torment of Paul's persecution of believers in the regeneration and conversion of Paul? Well, yea in his witness after his conversion; but prior to that, it played no part in the decree to regenerate and convert Paul on that Damascus road. I believe Young is speaking about regeneration vs conversion specifically. This is why, in my personal walk, I have struggled when men tell me that the order is not chronological; in some instances, it can be. For example, a child regenerated in the womb......
  26. Toasty

    Toasty Puritan Board Sophomore

    Tell sinners to repent of their sins and to trust Jesus for salvation.
  27. RPEphesian

    RPEphesian Puritan Board Junior

    This is a subject that's been on my mind a lot in the past few months because I know the church you attended and I heard some messages preached by "Brother T--" on this matter.

    As I thought on the comments made in his messages I've come to agree more. John 3:18 says, "He who believes is not condemned; he who believes not is condemned already." As long as a sinner is not believing and repenting they are living in sin whether or not God has given them a new heart; therefore they are to flee immediately to Christ. The stage of "seeking" is not a safe one, assuming the one labeled a seeker is not converted yet, but the wrath of God abides on them.

    I do believe God uses preparatory work. He did it with me. He did it with the crowds in Acts 2 who murdered Christ by convicting them with the law first before the way of salvation was opened to them.

    However, knowledge of the Puritan doctrine of preparation for grace is dangerous if it gets in the wrong hands. What often happens is an awakened sinner or Christian lacking assurance gets hold of the Puritan teachings on preparation and they interpret them as steps they need to take before they may trust on Christ. They say "I haven't had the John Bunyan style conversion" or "I never felt like I was living in hell above ground", and so their efforts turn into getting this experience. And when they find that their conviction of sin is small, their repentance isn't as deep as others (or they don't see any), that there is still pride in their hearts, or they haven't wept enough they conclude they are not saved. They then focus their efforts on trying to exercise those graces so God might reward them with salvation. They try to increase their sincerity, resignation to God's sovereignty, humility, etc. They catch at everything but the finished work of Christ. If they would look to Christ they would be saved immediately, yet that's the one thing they are not doing.

    I wonder if the seeker's praying for a new heart is similar. It's not that they trust Christ, but they trust the new heart. "Well, these graces of resignation, humility and sincerity come with a new heart; so if I get the new heart I will have grounds to trust Christ!" But until they look to Christ, regardless what they see in their hearts, they are not safe.
  28. Pilgrim

    Pilgrim Puritan Board Doctor

    If I'm not mistaken, it was "just beseeching sinners to believe" that got Mr. Spurgeon into trouble with the hyper-Calvinists.
  29. RPEphesian

    RPEphesian Puritan Board Junior

    Sermons like this one?

    Sermon No. 361 - "None But Jesus" - (John 3:18)

    The sermon is applicable to our discussion too.
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