Andrew Fuller Fridays: Andrew Fuller on Passages that Seem Contradictory (John 5:40, 6:44-45, 64-65)

We are launching something new at Prince on Preaching that we are calling Andrew Fuller Fridays. I attempt to read some from Andrew Fuller’s (1754-1815) Complete Works each day and I am constantly amazed and helped by his Christ-centered pastoral sensibility.  If you are not familiar with Andrew Fuller, here is a blog post I wrote about my ministry debt to him on the 200th anniversary of his death.

Every Friday we will post something by Fuller for you to enjoy. We are beginning Andrew Fuller Fridays with his treatment of biblical passages that seem contradictory. He deals with 29 of these, some treatments are long and some short. We will post a new one every Friday.

“And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life.”—John 5:40.

“No man can come to me except the Father, who hath sent me, draw him. * * * It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me.”

“Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not: and he said, Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father.”—John 6:44, 45, 64, 65.

Admitting the Divine authority of the Holy Scriptures, their harmony ought not to be called in question; yet it must be allowed by every considerate reader that there are apparent difficulties. Nor is it unlawful, but laudable, to wish to see those difficulties removed, and to aim at a perception of the particular beauty of God’s word, as well as a general persuasion of its harmony.

My thoughts on the above passages will be comprised in the seven following observations:—

First, There is no way of obtaining eternal life but by Jesus Christ. This observation is fully implied in the first passage, and I suppose may stand without any further confirmation.

Secondly, They that enjoy eternal life must come to Christ for it. Coming is not an act of the body, but of the mind and heart. It is a term which in the New Testament is commonly used as synonymous with believing in Christ. In common speech we frequently apply it to the yielding of a person’s mind who has heretofore been in a state of enmity or variance. When we see a change in his views of things, his proud spirit begin to subside, his prejudice give way, the high tone of his expressions lowered, and his heart inclining towards a reconciliation, we say, He is coming.

Thirdly, It is the revealed will of Christ that every one who hears the gospel should come to him for life. This position, I should think, is equally evident from the text in question as either of the above. Our Lord would not have complained of the Jews for not coming to him, nor have imputed it to the obstinacy of their will, if the contrary had not been their duty, as well as their highest interest. Every one who hears the gospel must either feel willing to be saved in God’s way, or unwilling, or neither the one nor the other. If we are willing, we are true believers; if unwilling, we are what the Scriptures style disobedient, like these Jews, and like them fall under the displeasure of Christ. But may we not be neutral? That a being positively unwilling to be saved in God’s way is sinful seems to be almost self-evident; but is there no such thing as a medium? To which I answer, If there be a medium between a being willing and unwilling, it must consist in that state of mind wherein a person feels indifferent; that is, neither for Christ nor against him. But this is declared to be impossible: “He that is not against us,” said Christ, “is on our side.” If a person could feel indifferent in this case, that indifference would be deemed disloyalty. As the curse fell upon Meroz for his not coming forth to the help of the Lord against the mighty, so an Anathema Maranatha is denounced against any man that loveth not our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. It is inconsistent with the perfections of God to allow any sinner who hears the gospel of Christ to feel their aversion or indifference towards him.

Fourthly, The depravity of human nature is such that no man, of his own accord, will come to Christ for life. This position, it may be objected, is not sufficiently evident from Christ’s words in the first of these passages; seeing it does not follow that, because the Jews would not come to him, therefore none else would. To this it is replied, Be it so; it is sufficiently evident from this passage, taken in connexion with other scriptures, and even with those two with which it is here attempted to be reconciled. To come to Christ for life is to feel the danger of our situation, and be in real earnest after escape; in such earnest as one that was fleeing to the city of refuge, with the avenger of blood in pursuit of him. But men are naturally at ease, or if awakened by the alarms of providence or conscience, are disposed to fly to any refuge rather than Christ. To come to Christ for eternal life is to feel and acknowledge ourselves destitute of every claim on his favour, and worthy of eternal death; but this is too humiliating to human pride. To come to Christ for life, in short, is to give up our own righteousness, and be justified by his; our own wisdom, and be guided by his; and our own will, and be ruled by his: it is to receive him as our all in all: but man by nature is unwilling to part from his idols; he had rather hazard his soul’s eternal welfare than give them up.

Fifthly, The degree of this depravity is such as that, figuratively speaking, men cannot come to Christ for life. It is not here supposed that they would come to Christ but cannot; nor that they could not come if they would. It is true, when the word cannot is used in its literal and proper sense—that is, when it is applied to a natural inability—this idea is always implied: “Ahijah could not see, by reason of his age.—“The king of Moab would have broken through the hosts of his enemies, but he could not.”—“The mariners rowed hard to bring the ship to land, but they could not.” In each of these cases there was properly a want of power, which denominated the parties unable, though they were, or might be supposed to be, ever so willing. But it is usual, both in Scripture and in common speech, to express the state of a person under the dominion of an exceedingly strong propensity by the terms cannot, unable, &c. “They that are in the flesh cannot please God.”—“Why do ye not understand my speech? Because ye cannot hear my word.”—“Having eyes full of adultery, and cannot cease from sin.”—“Joseph’s brethren could not speak peaceably to him.”—“How can ye, being evil, speak good things?”—“How can ye believe, who receive honour one of another?” Now, when the word is used in this sense, it would be a contradiction to suppose a willingness, or an incapacity in case of willingness, seeing it is the want of willingness wherein the incapacity consists.

That the term cannot, in John 6:44, denotes the strength of evil propensities, and not any natural and excusable hinderance, is evident from the cure here mentioned; namely, the Father’s drawing. When we are drawn by Divine influence to come to Christ, it is a drawing of the heart towards that to which it was before averse; consequently it was the aversion of the heart wherein the inability consisted.

It has been usual with writers to express the difference between these two different kinds of inability by the terms natural and moral. To this it has been objected, “that the scripture knows of no such distinction.” If by this is meant that the Scripture does not expressly make such a distinction, it is true; but if this be a proof that the Scripture knows nothing of the thing, it will at the same time prove that the Scripture knows nothing of the doctrines of the Trinity, Divine providence, the satisfaction of Christ, with many other acknowledged truths of the last importance. After all, terms are not worth disputing about, provided the ideas included under them are admitted. That the ideas in this case are Scriptural is sufficiently evident from the forecited passages. Every person of common understanding, whether he will or not, must of necessity perceive a difference between the inability of the mariners recorded in Jonah and that of the adulterers mentioned by Peter; and that the one rendered the parties excusable, and the other consituted them the more highly culpable. Let this difference be but admitted, it matters not what terms are used, provided they do but sufficiently express it.

Sixthly, A conviction of the righteousness of God’s government, of the spirituality and goodness of his law, the evil of sin, our lost condition by nature, and the justice of our condemnation, is necessary in order to our coming to Christ. I think each of these ideas is included in the phrase “learned of the Father.” Without this, there can be no solid conviction of the need of a Saviour. The sinner will be whole in his own account; and they that are whole need not a physician. A knowledge of the Father, as the Lawgiver of the world, must precede a hearty reception of Christ as a Saviour. It is “through the law we become dead to the law, that we may live unto God. The law is our schoolmaster, to bring us to Christ.” It is therefore very unreasonable, as well as unscriptural, for any, under the pretence of knowing Christ, to decry the law of God, seeing it is by learning at that school we are prepared to come to Christ.

Lastly, There is absolute necessity of a special Divine agency in order to our coming to Christ. “No man can come unto me, except the Father, who sent me, draw him.” Those who deny the grace of God to be invincible in its operations, understand this, and other passages, of what is sometimes called, I think, moral influence; that is, such influence as men may have upon the minds of each other in a way of persuasion. And so they suppose the sense of the text is, that no man can come to Christ unless he have the gospel preached unto him. But it ought to be considered that “drawing,” in ver. 44, is tantamount to having “learned of the Father,” in ver. 45, where it is declared that “every man that hath heard and learned of the Father cometh unto Christ.” But it is not every one that hath been objectively instructed by the preaching of the gospel who comes to Christ: it must therefore be such an instruction and drawing as is peculiar to true believers; such a drawing as that whereon our coming certainly follows: and thus we believe “according to the working of his mighty power.”

Upon the whole, we see from these passages taken together, first, if any man is lost, whom he has to blame for it—himself; secondly, if any man is saved, whom he has to praise for it—God.

Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Memoirs, Sermons, Etc. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 1, pp. 667–684). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.
By |September 11th, 2015|Categories: Blog|Tags: , |

About the Author:

David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, the BGEA and Preaching Today