Calvinism and Matthew 11:28?

Question
God calls on people to obey, choose and be taught of him (Matt 11:28). These calls would be nonsense if we weren't absolute free moral agents. Everyone has absolute free will to do anything they desire to do!
Answer

Matthew 11:28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Let's look at Matthew 11:28 in its fuller context of Matthew 11:25-30 and Matthew 11:20-24.

In Matthew 11:20-24, Jesus teaches that "if" he had done mighty works in Tyre, Sidon, (Matt 11:21) and Sodom (Matt 11:23-24) they would have repented! However the fact is God chose not to do those mighty works and these towns were destroyed. So, without a doubt God does not desire all people saved. Those who are the seed of the serpent (Gen 3:15; John 8:44-45) will be punished in Hell forever (Matt 11:22, 24).

In Matthew 11:25-29, we observe Jesus in prayer thanking God the Father for hiding some things from some while manifesting them to his little children (Matt 11:25; 13:10-11). This was according to God's will (Matt 11:26; cf. 1 Cor. 1:26-31). So, once again we see that God is sovereign over whom receives certain things.

In Matthew 11:27, Jesus makes some extraordinary claims: (1) God's sovereign disposition of all things has been committed to him. As in Daniel 7:13-14, the Son of Man has received all power and dominion. (2) Jesus possesses an exclusive knowledge of the God the Father, and only the Father truly knows him. His knowledge is therefore equal to the Father's, and his sonship is unique. (3) Jesus sovereignty extends even to deciding who will know the Father.

So, having established the fuller context - God is sovereign over whom he reveals himself and saves (Matt 11:21, 23-24, 27) - we now come to Matthew 11:28-30. Matthew 11:28-30 forms a chiastic structure (a writing style that uses a unique repetition pattern for clarification and emphasis) focusing upon God's people learning from Christ:

  • A. all who labor and are heavy laden (Matt 11:28)
    • B. rest (Matt 11:28)
      • C. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart (Matt 11:29)
    • B'. rest (Matt 11:29)
  • A'. my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matt 11:30)

Jesus, having removed unbelievers from consideration in this topic, teaches believers to take [his] yoke upon [them], and learn from [him], for [he is] gentle and lowly in heart ("C," Matt 11:29). In this, his people will find "rest" (Matt 11:28, 29). So, Matthew 11:28 has nothing to do with Jesus asking everyone in the world to "come" and "learn" of him. This privilege is only given to believers.

This said, there are many Scriptures in which God calls upon everyone without exception to obey and repent, etc. (Matt 4:17; Mark 1:15, et. al.). Jesus taught his disciples to share the gospel with all (Matt 10:7; 28:18-20). Are these calls nonsense if we don't have absolute free moral choice to do obey the gospel? Heavens no.

In Scripture, we observe two different calls of God: (1) General Call and (2) Effectual Call.

The General Call

The General Call of the gospel is to be delivered to all without exception. This is part and parcel of the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20). The gospel contains many elements: (1) the message of the Cross (1 Cor 1:23-24; 15:1-4), (2) an invitation and command to repent and believe (Luke 14:23), and (3) the promise of forgiveness and salvation to those that believe (Rom 10:9-10).

This is a universal call of the gospel (Matt 22:1-14; Luke 14:16-24). "For many are called, but few are chosen" (Matt 22:14). God calls upon all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30; cf. Rev 22:17). As Paul states, "Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God" (2 Cor 5:20). This is a well-meant offer; one that is true and earnest (Ezek 33:11; 18:23). It involves God's will of disposition. See "What are the Wills of God?" below.

So, the General Call is an external call, a gospel call, that is seriously meant (Num 23:19; Psa. 81:13-16; Prov 1:24; Isa. 1:18-20; Ezek 18:23; 33:11; Matt. 21:37; 2 Tim 2:13). See CD III -IV, 8.

Responsibility Does Not Imply Ability

Some state that the since Christ gives general calls such as, "repent for the kingdom of God is at hand" (Matt 3:2) that it implies that one has the ability to come. But does it? No it doesn't. An example may help us here:

When a police officer stops someone and has them do a field sobriety test he might command them: (1) to say their ABCs backwards or (2) to stretch out their hands horizontal to their body and walk in a straight line, etc. However, the commands do not imply the driver's ability to do them. The officer stopped the violator suspecting they were driving while intoxicated. The officer is not expecting a positive result from his tests! So, the commands he gives aren't meant to establish one's ability to do them, rather to establish further probable cause as to one's inability to safety drive a vehicle.

Responsibility does not imply ability! The Bible contains numerous general calls. However, these reveal our responsibility and total inability, not our ability. Even after regeneration, we need Christ to accomplish that which God commands (Phil 2:13).

The Effectual Call

The Apostle Paul gives us an abbreviated order of salvation (the golden chain) in Romans 8:30 stating, "And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified." In this definite order of salvation, he begins with "predestination," (which occurred before the world began, Eph 1:3-11) and follows it with "calling" - effectual calling. "Justification" and "glorification" follow "calling."

Effectual calling is an act of God (John 1:13; Rom 9:16) at a specific time. The call is effectual so that his people will be conformed to the image of his Son (Rom 8:29). God is specifically calling a certain people into fellowship with his Son (1 Cor 1:9) - out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Pet 2:9). He is effectually calling his elect into his kingdom (1 Thess. 2:12; cf. 1 Pet 5:10; 2 Pet 1:3), even calling them saints (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2). Saints are owned by Christ (Rom 1:6). They have come into the realm of freedom (Gal 5:13), peace (1 Cor. 7:15; Col. 3:15), hope (Eph. 1:18; 4:4), holiness (1 Thess. 4:7), patient endurance of suffering (1 Pet 2:20-21; 3:9), and eternal life (1 Tim. 6:12).

The effectual call is made effectual by the Holy Sprit, as without him a sinner will not accept the things of God, as they must be spiritually discerned (1 Cor 2:14; cf. Rom 8:7). Prior to being regenerated a man is "dead in trespasses and sin" (Eph 2:1-3). We are not able by our own depraved nature to choose God (Jer 17:9; Matt 15:19). So, God first calls us (John 6:44, 65) and then regenerates us (John 3:3, 5, 7), and then gives us the free gifts of grace (Eph 2:8) and repentance (2 Tim 2:24-26).

In the General Call above, when the gospel is preached to certain people it is a stumbling block (1 Cor 1:22-23), but to them that are Effectually Called it is the power of God unto salvation (1 Cor 1:24-31). In Luke 14:24, though many are called ("invited" = keklemenon from kaleo = "called"), not all will taste the heavenly banquet. Only the elect ("predestination" is prior to "calling," Rom 8:30) are effectually called (eklrthete from kaleo) into fellowship with the Son (1 Cor 1:9). Compare Romans 1:7; 9:23-24; 1 Corinthians 1:26; Galatians 1:15; Ephesians 4:1, 4; 1 Peter 2:9; 2 Peter 1:10; Jude 1:1; Revelation 17:14.

As the Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 10, Of Effectual Calling, states:

I. All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, He is pleased, in His appointed time, effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by His almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.

II. This effectual call is of God's free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.

III. Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.

IV. Others, not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved: much less can men, not professing the Christian religion, be saved in any other way whatsoever, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, and the laws of that religion they do profess. And to assert and maintain that they may, is very pernicious, and to be detested.

Absolute Free Will?

Can you fly like a plane? Can you jump to the moon? Can you become a real leopard? People do not have absolute free will to do anything they desire to do (Jer 13:23; Matt 7:18-19; Luke 6:43). Most people can cross a street by merely walking across it. However, not everyone has this ability. I use to be a Homicide Detective. In all my years of service, I never saw a corpse get up and cross a street. Dead people have some serious limitations!

Even God has some divine self-ordained limitations, as there are many things he can't do. God can't deny his nature! God can't sin, he can't lie, he can't make a rock so heavy that he can't lift it, etc. See "Things God Can't Do?" below. God too is bound by his nature, which is completely holy, just, and good (Rom 7:12).

When it comes to salvation all of us have limitations. We call these limitations "total depravity" or "total inability." All of us, except Christ, have a sin nature. We are depraved. It's not a pretty word, but it properly describes our condition. Our depravity is due to the Fall and our own personal sin. We inherited Adam's corruption (Rom 5:12-21) and have our own as well (Rom 3:23). You may not think that is fair that we inherit Adam's sin, but we must remember he was perfect (Gen 1:31). We would have done much worse. We are naturally sinful evil beings (Eccl 9:3; Jer 17:9; Matt 15:19). We are slaves to sin (John 8:34; Rom 6:6, 16-17, 19-20; 7:14; Gal 4:8-9; 2 Tim 2:25-26; Tit 3:3; 2 Pet 2:19). We are "dead in trespasses and sin" (Eph 2:1-3). This is all very limiting (Jer 13:23).

Being spiritually "dead" (Eph 2:1-3) is a huge limitation - like the dead person above who couldn't cross the street. But, it gets even worse. Besides being dead, we are spiritually blind (Matt 15:14) and cannot truly see God's will. We are deaf (Matt 13:15; 2 Tim 4:4) and cannot hear his Word or Spirit. Like mere idols we are mute (Psa 115:4-6; 1 Cor 12:2) and can't confess Christ, and even if we could we wouldn't and couldn't do it from a true pure heart (Rom 8:7-8). We have withered hands (Mark 3:1) and cannot accept the gifts of God - including faith and repentance (Eph 2:8; 2 Tim 2:24-25). We are lame (Acts 3:2) and cannot walk in the ways of the Lord. Like lepers (Luke 17:12) we are total outcasts.

In this horrible condition, we cannot choose to make ourselves righteous (Jer 13:23; 17:9; cf. Prov 27:22; Isa 1:5; Jer 2:22; 4:22). We don't even desire too (Rom 8:7-8). We might try to do some good things from time to time, but that is not the same as true righteousness, as without Christ all our works are tainted with sin (Isa 64:6). We may attempt to cover our sins like Adam and Eve did in the Garden, but mere fig leaves (Gen 3:7) will not undo what each of us has done (Rom 3:23). God will only accept a blood sacrifice; and it isn't yours, but his (Gen 3:21; John 1:29; 1 Pet 1:18-20; Isa 53:1-12).

However, our depraved limitation does not mitigate our total accountability. We are still responsible for all our sins; whether they be sins of omission or sins of commission. We are still commanded to choose life that we may live (Deut 30:19). As sinners we are commanded repeatedly to repent and believe (Matt 3:2; 4:17; Acts 3:19; 1 John 3:23). And every call to repent and believe is a call to choose and yet our depraved nature remains resistant to the things of God (John 1:11; 3:19; 5:40; Acts 7:51). Dead men don't/can't obey (Rom 8:7-8; Eph 2:1-3).

Things look really bleak at this point don't they? Is there anything that can be done? Who can heal the blind, the deaf, the mute, those with withered hands, the lame, the lepers, and raise the dead? Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!

Matthew 11:5 the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.

Matthew 15:30 And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them.

Only Jesus can heal the heart. Isaiah speaking of Jesus said, "The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, Because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners" (Isa 61:1; Luke 4:18). Yes Jesus! He alone is the author of salvation (Heb 12:2). He chooses on whom he bestows faith, mercy, and grace, and he doesn't choose everyone. Tyre, Sidon, (Matt 11:21) and Sodom (Matt 11:23-24) would have repented if God had worked certain miracles there. But he didn't. Jesus said, "Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes . . . And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day" (Matt 11:20-24). "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb 10:31).

Christ did not die for all, but for "many" (Isa 53:12; Matt 20:28; Heb 9:28). He gave himself for a particular people (Eph 1:4-5, 11; Tit 2:14). Who are these particular people? All whom the Father has "given" Jesus (John 6:37). Who are those that are given to Jesus? All those that are effectually "called" by God (John 6:44, 65). Who then hears this call of God? All of those born of the Spirit of God (John 3:1-8). Those born of the Spirit of God are no longer blind and can "see the Kingdom of God" (John 3:3). They are no longer lame and can "enter the Kingdom of God" (John 3:5). As Jesus says, "You must be born again" (John 3:7).

It is the Holy Spirit who regenerates those effectually called of God so they may be justified. Salvation is mongeristic - God's work alone (John 1:12-13; Rom 9:14-16). God first changes us, so that we can willingly know him as Lord and Savior (Rom 10:9-10).

Thus, the order of salvation. Ordo salutis is Latin for "the order of salvation," which deals with the logical sequence of stages involved in the salvation of a believer: (1) election, (2) effectual calling, (3) regeneration, (4) faith, (5) repentance, (6) justification, (7) adoption, (8) sanctification, (9) perseverance, and (10) glorification (see Rom 8:29-30). Some of the benefits are applied at the same time and cannot be separated, and yet one is the logical cause of the other. John Frame in an article entitled, "Salvation and Theological Pedagogy," states:

Of the various descriptions of salvation in Reformed theology, ordo salutis, order of salvation, is the earliest. The purpose of the ordo is to list the events in the life of every saved person that join him to Christ. Typically, the list of events looks like this: [election], effectual calling, regeneration, faith, repentance, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, glorification. In effectual calling, God summons the elect person out of sin and into union with Christ. This gives him a new spiritual birth, a new heart, or regeneration. That regenerate heart enables the redeemed person to believe or trust in Christ (faith) and to repent of sin. Repentance is the opposite side of the coin from faith. Faith is turning to Christ, repentance turning away from sin, and you cannot do the one without doing the other. Justification, God's imputation to us of Christ's righteousness, is by faith, so it follows faith and repentance in the ordo. Those whom God justifies, he adopts into his family. Then there is sanctification, which means both that we are separated from the sphere of the world into the sphere of God's kingdom ("definitive sanctification"), and also that we become progressively more and more holy by the work of the Spirit within us ("progressive sanctification"). This new life within enables us to persevere in faith and love, until the consummation of all things when our glorification is complete. (italics added for emphasis)

As one can see in the text above our wills are given new ability to believe and repent, only after election, effectual calling, and regeneration. Our previous limitations to salvation are only lifted when we are born again. However, God continues to work in us after regeneration in justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, and at the consummation of all things, glorification. So, salvation involves an ongoing relationship as well as being an act of God upon us! I like to say it this way, we are saved (justified), are being saved (sanctification), and will be saved (glorification).

So, we have "free-agency" and are limited by our natures and not "free-will" - at least not the "free-will" that believes that we can do anything at anytime by any means.

Related Topics

Calvinism and Joshua 24:15?
Calvinism and Psalms 69:28?
Calvinism and Isaiah 55:1-3?
Calvinism and Ezekiel 18:32; 33:11?
Calvinism and Matthew 23:37?
Calvinism and John 3:16?
Calvinism and John 6:33?
Calvinism and Acts 7:51?
Calvinism and 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, 19?
Calvinism and 1 Timothy 2:4, 6?
Calvinism and 1 Timothy 4:10?
Calvinism and Titus 2:11?
Calvinism and Hebrews 2:10?
Calvinism and 2 Peter 2:1?
Calvinism and 2 Peter 3:9?
Calvinism and 1 John 2:2?
Calvinism and Revelation 3:5?
What is Reprobation?
What are the Wills of God?
Things God Can't Do?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).