By Wilhelmus à Brakel on August 2, 1702, in Leiden
Extracted from Guilelmus Saldenus & Wilhelmus à Brakel, In Remembrance of Him: Profiting from the Lord’s Supper, trans. J. A. De Jong; ed., B. Elshout (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 119-133.
Herein is set forth how by free grace alone a man can be converted to God and be led to faith in Christ, and also how spiritual life will manifest itself in such a person.
Friends, we wish to speak a few words at this occasion. I will not preach a sermon, but I do wish to speak briefly to you about many matters. The one is an argument for and a transition to the other.
Therefore, let us begin with God’s eternal purpose. The conversion of a person and the illumination of his soul by way of the gospel do not proceed from good qualifications within himself. Rather, they proceed from God’s eternal good pleasure. You probably also could have said this, since you all grasp this intellectually. However, have you already learned it experientially, knowing that you neither can begin nor have begun without the Lord and that everything is granted to the elect according to God’s eternal good pleasure? When someone comes under conviction and is led to God, it proceeds from this: “Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love. Therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn you” (Jer 31:3). And thus, the bestowal of a greater measure of grace on this one rather than that one proceeds from eternal love, resulting in the conversion of the one and not the other.
I will focus on four words that are expressive of four activities: The calling, from which proceeds regeneration, which in turn yields conversion, that culminates in holiness. And though the Scriptures do not always make such a sharp distinction, it is yet profitable for your spiritual state to grasp the orderliness of all these matters.
Let us therefore first consider calling. What does it mean to call someone? Imagine a person, for example, who is traveling toward a given destination, and you know that he will be overtaken by murderers. You will call and warn him, pointing him to an alternative route where he will be safe. But what does God’s calling consist of? That is nothing less than the proclamation of the gospel. This is the declaration that man, having fallen away from God, can only be delivered from eternal perdition by way of a surety. And it is the gospel that reveals the Son of God is such a surety. As surety, He has taken upon Himself human nature as well as the sins of all His elect. He has endured the punishment of which they were worthy. It is He who exclaims, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me”; “Look unto me, and be saved, all the ends of the earth”; “Come, for all things are now ready”; “For why, (O poor man) will you die?” (Jn 7:37; Isa 45:22; Lk 14:17; Ezk 33:11).“Is this the way in which you are determined to go to hell and eternal perdition, investing your time in and attaching your heart to vain and worldly things?”
This is what constitutes the calling.
The question, however, is whether either God or Christ is calling you specifically, calling you, so to speak, by your first and last name. Perhaps there are those who think, “If only I knew that Jesus wants to receive me and that He would say to me, ‘I will do everything for you that needs to be done, and I will save you.’ ” Then everyone being convinced of this, so you think, would hasten to take hold of Him.
But my children, I wish to declare to you that Jesus is calling all who are here present, as well as all who throughout the entire world live under the ministry of the gospel. Faith is not a work within us on the basis of which God the Lord would grant us Christ, as if we would thereby be persuaded to receive Him. Children, this is not how it is. It is similar to a young man who asks a young woman to marry him. What else must such a young woman do but respond affirmatively to his proposal? This is the only thing required of her. Consider therefore that the Lord Jesus by means of the gospel is knocking and inviting you so that He may gain entrance. Therefore, if Jesus knocks and says, “Open to me,” would you then not consider that person who would have Jesus knock without opening to Him to be an ungodly person?
If, therefore, we hear the inviting voice of the gospel, then all that is required is that we respond affirmatively, just as the young woman would respond to her suitor.
Friends, this evening you will be called upon to say “yes.” You may possibly think, “But how do I go about this? Is it this easy to get to heaven, that is, simply by responding affirmatively to the offer of the gospel?” Yes, indeed, my friends, that is all that is needed, provided, however, that this would occur in the right way. All the unregenerate will say that they indeed want to go to heaven. However, you must know what it is to which you are to respond affirmatively. Even if this room were filled with unconverted people, they would all say, “We do indeed desire to have Jesus as our portion, for who would not desire Him?”
However, you ought quietly and calmly to consider the cost; that is, you are to consider the reasons for receiving Jesus by faith. I am still dealing with the calling, seeking to persuade you that Jesus calls each of you individually. Consider me therefore to be His servant and not as someone who merely expounds the truth for you. Consider me to be as one who speaks on His behalf, so that it is as if He Himself were present here, saying to you, “People, are you willing to believe my Word? Do you not hear my Word when I am calling out to you, ‘Ho, every one that thirsteth, come to the waters; come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden’?” (Isa 55:1; Mt 11:28).
Are you not hearing this? Do not say, “I am lost, and Jesus is not calling me,” for you are hearing the voice of the gospel going forth to everyone indiscriminately.
However, are there not people being called who nevertheless perish? Yes, indeed, for many are called but few are chosen. I already intended to ask you, children, whether to perish will not be a greater judgment for those who have lived under the offer of the gospel than for the Gentiles who have never heard of Christ. Concurring with the Bible, you will respond, “yes,” for it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the Day of Judgment than for those cities in which Jesus demonstrated His power. You have answered correctly. This therefore provides me with a clear proof and argument that Jesus calls all men who live under the gospel—unless you are of the opinion that you can come in your own strength, thereby showing yourself to be of Arminian persuasion in this regard. Again, are there not people who have rejected Christ as He is offered in the gospel? (cf. Acts 13:46). How would they have been capable of rejecting Him if He had not been presented and offered to them? Does not the Savior say in John 15:22, “If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin: but now they have no cloak for their sin”?
Friends, remain focused upon your own heart. These arguments ought to persuade you fully that the Lord Jesus calls you and me and that He offers His blood and Spirit unto our salvation. Therefore, a historical faith whereby you believe that Jesus also calls you must be alive within you, even at this very moment.
But how do people respond to this calling? Many do not respond well at all. They fail to recognize that under the ministry of the Word there is a voice that calls them. The unconverted attend church; they hear the Word and read it as well. They do it as a custom, but are oblivious to the fact that God calls them in His Word, which is the reason why it bears so little fruit in their lives. Even if the least of all ministers were to expound a Bible text, even if he were to be an unconverted man, he would nevertheless be commissioned to preach to you and set before you spiritual nourishment. Whether his offer to you is of better or lesser quality, to be called is to be called. Behold, such are they who do not acknowledge that they are being called by the Word.
There are, however, some who respond in some measure while under the Word. Their hearts become agitated to such an extent that they do not know what to make of it. They become concerned, and this concern only increases. They begin to realize that they are still unconverted, subject to God’s wrath and curse, and that they are on the way to perdition. And this causes them to be perplexed. They would desire to know and ask what they must do and where they shall find Jesus.
As we said earlier, this is followed by regeneration. However, regeneration does not take place suddenly and instantaneously.1
The regeneration of a man is analogous to the original creation. We read that “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). A Hebrew word is used here that refers to a hen sitting upon her eggs and in so doing bringing forth her chicks. In like fashion, the Spirit of God gradually brought forth all creatures.
This also is how regeneration proceeds. First there is the calling, to be followed by conviction. As I set this before you, you will not all too readily grasp it. I wish, however, that you would grasp it very clearly and that you would not need me to address you regarding this matter.
Regardless, however, the truth must remain the truth. If you are already converted, you must look into this mirror to reflect upon what God has done for you. We already have said that a person will come under conviction through a variety of means, such as a dream, an unexpected event, the sudden death of an acquaintance, or whatever else could be mentioned in this regard.
However, the means unto conversion is the Word. “Of his own will he begot us by the word of truth” (Jas 1:18); “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which lives and abides forever” (1 Pet 1:23).
When by means of the Word a person comes under conviction, he will think, “I cannot go on like this; I must be converted, or I cannot be saved.” He will then begin to pray, “Oh, that I might be converted and saved!” This will even be accompanied by tears intended to move God to give him Jesus as well as faith in Him.
Children, do you see that such activity is still wrong and legalistic? This will readily become apparent. What happens to such persons who have been praying in such a fashion and therefore think of themselves as converted persons? Soon thereafter they will manifest themselves to the contrary. They will fall away, and though for a time they keep company with the godly, they will return to the world when the next opportunity affords itself. “It has happened unto them according to the true proverb, ‘The dog is turned to his own vomit again and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire’” (2 Pet 2:22). At times such individuals become the greatest enemies of the life of godliness. Paul speaks of them in Hebrews 6:4–6: “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.”
This applies to all who consider themselves to be converted. To presume ourselves to be converted without good reason is a devious device of Satan and our evil heart.
However, for others such conviction is followed by the gracious operation of the Spirit. I am now referring to the internal call, for the external call comes to all. In such situations, the Lord deals differently with each soul. In praying, such a soul meets with resistance. He no longer knows how to pray, and his heart stagnates when he desires to approach unto God, because he now sees things in an entirely different light. He beholds God’s holiness, knowing that God can have no fellowship with a sinner. He considers God’s justice, recognizing that God cannot allow sin to go unpunished, and therefore he dares not to proceed. In fact, he perceives that it is impossible to come unto God apart from the satisfaction of a surety, and although he previously had heard of a surety, he now begins to perceive how very much he needs Him.
However, the matter is not yet resolved. They proceed and pray that for Jesus’ sake they might be saved. They carefully seek to avoid sin so that they will not provoke Jesus to anger.
Oh, my friends, these are all grounds of our own making with which we must dispense if our experience is ever to be in truth! But the Lord now proceeds with such people and permits them to fall into great sin. That is grievous indeed, but for them this is sometimes very necessary. They will then be beside themselves, for all their broken reeds and sandy foundations are of no avail. How could they have fallen in such a fashion when their intentions had been so very different? Now they no longer know how to incline Jesus to be favorable toward them! Everything has fallen apart! What are they to do now?
Additionally, there will be various temptations. There will then be a voice within: “You have not been born again; you will not be saved; others are not as ungodly as you are; if the godly were to know who you really are, they would not tolerate you in their company.”
They can be assaulted to such a degree that they fear they will lose their minds. Even their bodies can be affected to such an extent that haltingly they must go to Bethel. The fact that it takes so long to escape this quagmire has to do with the fact that the right spiritual exercises are lacking. When such a person finds himself in such a despondent condition, he will cry out, “There is nothing I can do, and I remain in bondage to sin. If ever I am to be saved, God will have to intervene,” and here he arrives at the point where he will receive Jesus by faith in order to enter into covenant with Him. He will say, “If only Jesus would be there to help me! I now realize that it is true what He has said, ‘Without me you can do nothing.’ If only I could avail myself of His blood for cleansing! If only He would be favorably inclined toward me! If only He would lead me out of these dreadful experiences!” (see Jn 15:5).
This will finally yield sound spiritual exercises. Such persons become acquainted with Jesus as an all-sufficient surety who offers Himself to them for their salvation. The fact that some do not get beyond this point has to do with the fact that they do not begin where they ought to begin. They fail to see that a heartfelt surrender to the Lord Jesus to be saved in His way is also an act of faith.
At this point there will come increasing clarity. When the Lord Jesus beholds a person in that condition, as loathsome, despairing of self, and one whom no man pities, He will address such a person as He addressed that sick man at the pool of Bethesda, saying, “Will you be made whole?” Do you believe that I can do so? “Live! Yes, I said unto you when you were [struggling] in your own blood, Live” (Jn 5:6; Ezk 16:6.).
This is how Jesus becomes precious to this person and how his eyes are being opened. He receives clearer views of God’s holiness, of the beauty of Jesus, and of his own wretched condition. He now views his misery with a clearer understanding. He beholds the justice of God and understands the impossibility of ever being reconciled with God apart from this surety.
He now becomes acquainted with Jesus in His person, in His offices, and in His states. He increasingly thinks about how exceedingly glorious it is to be reconciled with God, to have his sins forgiven, and to be in a state of grace. He exclaims, “Oh, what glorious matters these are!” There is progression after this—if you don’t know this, learn it, and if you do know it, make good use of it—for Jesus reveals Himself to such ones in all His perfections, and He asks them whether they desire to have Him as such.
The issue will now be whether we say “yes.” Jesus says, “Do you desire to be delivered from all the guilt, pollution, and punishment of sin?” Oh, friends, keep your heart engaged and consider yourself as being in the presence of God. Do you desire to be delivered from the wrath of God, the curse of the law, an accusing conscience, the abuse of Satan, and eternal damnation? Is it indeed your desire to go your way in freedom, being delivered from the dominion of sin? Would that fully satisfy you?
Such a soul will reverently respond, “These are not the only things I desire, but rather, God must be my God and I must be His child. I must have intimate communion with Him, and I must sense that I cannot be without Him. And when He is absent from me, it must be to my credit to mourn about this absence, and grieving, to still follow the Lord and cleave unto Him (cf. Hos 11:10; Ps 63:9; 1 Sam 7:2) until He again reveals Himself in His favor.”
The Lord Jesus then says, “Do you wish to be delivered by my mighty arm not only from the dominion but also from the vestiges of sin? Do you not now deem it to be a blessing to wrestle prayerfully against the body of sin and death, and to do so in dependence upon my strength?”
Oh, that out of love to God and in obedience to His commandments you would continue on the way to heaven, to be in the presence of God forever as a weaned child and without your heart cleaving to this earth! Furthermore, do not expect your spiritual strength merely from the means of grace and not even from the most spiritual of ministers. Rather, while earnestly making use of the best of means, let your expectation be based only on the Lord’s influence as you abide in the power of His grace and utter this heartfelt petition: “Teach me your way, O Lord; I will walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name.” Do not these words arise in your heart: “O Lord, You and me, king and slave”?
The Lord Jesus also asks, “Is your complete salvation and desire dependent on the covenant of grace? Is fellowship with God all that you desire? Is evangelical holiness your heaven? Would you indeed be willing to deny everything in order to live for God alone? Would God’s face have to shine upon you in all things to give you inner peace?”
If so, then hear this: The Lord Jesus, as a sweet-smelling savor to God, has given Himself as a sacrifice for sin for all His elect. He gives His blood unto atonement, His power for the deliverance from all enemies, and His Spirit as a pledge in order to seal, to comfort, and to lead them into all truth. And to all who live under the gospel and have been made desirous of these blessings, He says, “All of these I desire to give you. If you are desirous of these blessings, then I offer them to you in all sincerity and uprightness. Do indeed believe this! Come, you who are hungry and thirsty, stretch forth your hand, for now is the time to say ‘yes.’ ”
Do not object by saying, “Anybody can say ‘yes,’ ” for to this I reply that this is not so. It is not everyone who grieves over feeling and seeing his wretched condition, and it is not everyone who has an upright desire to live by faith in union with Christ and to the honor of the triune God! I am not speaking here of a sudden rush of emotion—even though it is a blessing if in some measure we have a natural inclination toward this—but this is what it is all about: the upright inclination of the heart and the voluntary and all-encompassing surrender of ourselves with soul and body to God and Christ, doing so upon His terms. Do not respond by saying that you would act too boldly in doing so, or that you do not know whether Jesus is calling you. In the preceding, I have already said enough about that, and I have attempted to make things clear. Instead, you should be troubled by your unbelief whereby you are making out the God of truth to be a liar by not embracing these proven and transparent evangelical truths.
But perhaps you have already given your heart to Jesus in this fashion long ago. If so, then do it consciously once more. I am hereby not saying that you should view yourself as not having had grace prior to doing this. Children of God, that would certainly not be true concerning you. Therefore, do not tamper with your foundation, but declare afresh, “Lord Jesus, do you desire to have me? My desire is toward you alone, and I thereby renounce all creatures.”
Behold, this is the manner in which the Spirit draws when the call is extended. The effect of this is as powerful as we have described it, and regeneration then follows upon it.
I must speak of these matters in this sequence, for this is the way our mind relates to them. Regeneration naturally occurs first chronologically, it being a work of God in us. Faith then follows the work God has done in us. However, it is not so important whether the one is mentioned before the other, as long as your hearts are moved to surrender yourselves to Jesus.
Regeneration is therefore a complete transformation from death to life. It is because of sin that we are separated from God and are spiritually dead. The Lord, however, by the uncovering and drawing work of His Spirit not only gives us a lively understanding of the truth, but He also plants the principle of spiritual life in the soul. Take note that spiritual life neither primarily nor solely consists in deeds alone, but in this principle.
How then are we to define life? Philosophers give a good description of it when they say: “When I speak, listen, and look, for that is when an internal and living principle is at work; but it is not life itself.” This is also applicable here. By virtue of union with God and Christ, the principle of spiritual life becomes operative. How shall I make this clear?
It is something that turns away from sin and all things related to it. It has an aversion for sin, and it is grieved when the old nature nevertheless is inclined toward sin and relishes it. It will oppose and resist that old nature as naturally as the sparks of fiery coals rise upward. It is a principle that turns Godward to obtain inner light, life, and joy. By faith such persons will approach God in Jesus, ceasing from their own works. Such persons will acquiesce in everything that Jesus asks of them, seeking through Him to become partakers of all these benefits and having confidence that He will do everything because He has called them.
With heart and soul such a person looks to the Lord alone, and will come as he is—polluted, sinful, and vile—saying, “Lord, are you willing to receive me as such? I cannot make any promises that I will not depart from you, and yet it is the commitment of my heart to abide with You. Lord, my eyes are focused upon these promises of Yours: ‘I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me’ (Jer 32:40); ‘I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh’ (Ezk 36:26). Amen, Lord, and may your words be fulfilled, for you who have begun a good work will also finish it.”
This is the manner in which a person becomes one of the blessed ones who trusts in the Lord. In Hebrew, faith is occasionally designated by a word that is the equivalent of allowing oneself to be carried like a suckling infant that quietly entrusts itself to its wet-nurse.
In like fashion, a soul entrusts herself to the arms of the all-sufficient Jehovah, allowing itself to be led and carried with confidence as it pleases Him. If the way for her is free of obstacles, then the holier the better. If, however, the way is muddy and rough, as it was for Israel while traveling through the wilderness to Canaan, then this is agreeable as well. With unconditional surrender she only prays, “Lord, teach and guide me, and cause me to walk before your face.”
If this disposition truly is yours, we may assure you that you are in a state of grace. Gratefully acknowledge this in your inner chamber, and do not despise the day of small things, for the Almighty One has done nothing less than work a gracious miracle on you and within you.
You may consider it to be problematic if you cannot say at what precise moment you were drawn to God. There will be thousands in heaven who were not able to relate the exact moment of their conversion. Many of them failed to consider their spiritual exercises calmly and considered a work of conviction and preparation to be the true work of regeneration.
You also need not be concerned if your conviction has not been as deep and lengthy as with others. It is sufficient if you have been stripped of all false foundations and as a naked sinner have come to Jesus, for the Lord is sovereign as to how He deals with each.
There are some who have very deep convictions, such as the jailor and as Paul, who neither ate nor drank for three days. Others, such as Zacchaeus, have but gentle convictions. Also, be not concerned as to how you will fare in the future. All will be well with you, for there is life!
And how does such life become evident? By way of light. Previously there was also light that resulted in conviction. However, this was followed by increasing light and discernment, though not all at once. It resembles the rising of the sun. Initially it is pitch black, and then light begins to glimmer. There is little or no light, but then the light begins to shine with increasing clarity, and it continues until the day has fully dawned.
How does such a soul conduct herself when light begins to arise? The world then becomes despicable to her, and what once appeared so delightful to her has now become loathsome. That which she previously loved she now hates, and she now loves what she previously hated. Her desires and inclinations are now entirely different, and she says, “O, if only I could have God as my portion!” She now wishes to pray in total dependency upon the will of the Lord and to His honor. It is now her delight in all things to lean upon her beloved. With Him, she would even be willing to walk through the night, and when indwelling corruption manifests itself and when she is inwardly tempted to withdraw from Him, she is nevertheless assured that the Lord will keep His Word: “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Heb 13:5). She has denied everything for Jesus’ sake. He called her, she came, and she said “Yes” to him. He has seen all her struggles, her sorrow, and her troubles until all of this taught her to surrender everything into His hands.
Is it presently so that it appears to you as if your pathway is not directed toward Canaan and as if He has forgotten you? Then let this indeed be a matter of concern for you, but do not discredit your spiritual state on account of it. Permit the Lord to direct your steps, and if it pleases Him to manifest His love toward you, it is well. However, if it pleases Him to lead you in a way of darkness, then it is also well. Let nothing but His good pleasure be your sole delight. Persevere in seeking the Lord. And friends, let me add that he who can pray ought never to complain.
This will be followed by conduct that is markedly different. Such a person will no longer be satisfied that he refrains from evil and practices that which is good, but rather, all that has not been done as in the presence of God will no longer be delightful to him. It becomes his desire to act in pure filial obedience, and if this is not his motive, he finds no delight in it.
This also results in choosing social fellowship that is of an entirely different nature. Are you still at ease in worldly company? Are your bosom friends to be found in that environment? Do you consider it to be an act of civility to be everyone’s friend? If so, then believe me that you are still unconverted. Granted, a Christian will manifest a measure of civility, and his moderation should be known to all men. However, it ought not to have a worldly flavor.
Do not object that in order to live such a life you have to remove yourself from the world or that your nature is still what it is and that it is permissible to have a winsome and pleasant character. To this I respond that if your profession is intertwined with such worldly company so that it is impossible but that you must commit sin, then you have an occupation that is not suitable for you. However, if such interaction is but incidental, then it remains true that there must always be a distance between you and the world, for “the righteous is more excellent than his neighbor” (Prov 12:26). If necessity dictates that you must be in company with worldly people, as may often be the case, then this must nevertheless be in your heart: “Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech”; “Depart from me, ye evildoers”; “I am a companion of all them that fear the Lord” (Ps 120:5; 119:115; and 119:63).
Love for God’s people yields a clear mark that a person is in a state of grace, for we know that whosoever loves God will also love his brother (1 Jn 4:21).
You may say that if this is a clear mark of grace, then there are indeed many godly people, for many unconverted people do not hate the godly. Some even try to employ godly servants. To this I respond that they do this not because they love the godly for their godliness, but because they have a sweet character or a tender conscience, and will not defraud anyone. However, if we love the godly because of their virtues, although they may subscribe to an opinion differing from ours, if we love them even when they are hated by everyone—including by the wise and wealthy of this world—and if loving them brings us harm rather than advantage, then this is a clear mark of godliness.
Therefore, people of God, in conclusion, does not this describe your conduct? From eternal election proceeds the calling, and from this issues forth both regeneration and faith with its fruits, including love for the brothers. What rich opportunity I have here to pronounce this people blessed! They are the precious children of Zion, to be esteemed of greater value than fine gold. They are a people who are born of God, partakers of the heavenly calling, yes, partakers of the divine nature who have God as their Father (Heb 3:1 and 2 Pet 1:4). What a great matter it is indeed to have received the adoption of sons (Gal 4:5)! With such faith we must against hope believe in hope (Rom 4:18). Live, therefore, to the glory of God the Father. Magnify the free grace manifested to you in Christ. Freely exclaim: Abba, Father, my Father, who has known me in Your eternal love and has delivered me from the power of darkness, and has translated me into the kingdom of His dear Son (Col 1:14).
Believe, therefore, also that God, being your Father in Christ, will care for you as His beloved children. And thus say: “God my Father shall have pity upon me in all my struggles. He shall hear my prayers in accordance with His will, and I will unburden my heart to Him as my Father. Joyfully I will ask for all that I am lacking, trusting that He who has begun a good work in me will not forsake me. He shall guide me with His counsel, and afterward receive me to glory. There I shall see my beloved Jesus and speak to Him, doing so mouth to mouth. There I will sing an everlasting hallelujah.” Oh, it will be a salvation that is inexpressible and beyond our comprehension! Children of the Lord, all of this will be your portion. “And every man that has this hope in him purifies himself, even as he is pure” (1 Jn 3:3).
May the Almighty bless what has been spoken to His glory. Amen. Ω
1 à Brakel is here using the word regeneration in its classic wider sense, which includes not only the transfer from death to life (i.e., regeneration in its narrow sense, as is commonly used today), but also the entire life of conversion that follows the initial regeneration.