Calvinism and Isaiah 55:1-3?
Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.
The above text has had numerous interpretations over the years. However, what does it mean?
Isaiah names the audience in Isaiah 55:1 - "everyone who thirsts."
In Isaiah 55:1, we see the term "everyone." The free offer of the Gospel extends to all who hear the word of salvation (cf. John 4:13-14). Some assume that because the Gospel is to be offered to "everyone" that all men must be able to respond in the same way to it. However, this is not biblical.
The genuine offer of the Gospel does not necessarily imply a corresponding capacity to respond positively to the Gospel. The fact that all fallen men without exception are "naturally" unable to respond positively to the Gospel is clearly seen in Romans 8:7-8. Paul says, "For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God." So, though the Gospel is offered to all, the unregenerate hearer is:
(1) hostile to God
(2) does not submit to God's law
(3) cannot submit to God's law
(4) cannot please God
So, the unregenerate man is both unwilling and unable to come to Christ on his own. They are spiritually blind (Matt 15:14) and cannot truly see God's will. They are deaf (Matt 13:15; 2 Tim 4:4) and cannot hear his Word or Spirit. Like mere idols, they are mute (Psa 115:4-6; 1 Cor 12:2) and can't confess Christ, and even if they could they wouldn't and couldn't do it from a true pure heart (Rom 8:7-8). They 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). They are lame (Acts 3:2) and cannot walk in the ways of the Lord. Like lepers (Luke 17:12), they are total outcasts. These are just a couple of ways to express the unregenerate's total inability to assist in their own regeneration. Before regeneration, we are ultimately spiritually dead to the things of God (Eph 2:1).
In all my years of being a Homicide Detective, I never had a corpse ask me for a bottle of water. Similarly, spiritually dead men don't "thirst." Only those regenerated by the Holy Spirit - given new life (John 3:1-8) - are no longer "dead in the trespasses and sins" (Eph 2:1). Only those that are made "alive" by the Spirit can "thirst" for "living water" (John 4:10) and hunger for "food that endures to eternal life" (John 6:27). Their call is what we term "effectual." There is another type of call we term as "general." It is given to all without discrimination. However, it does not produce the same results as the "effectual call," as the "natural [i.e. un-regenerated] person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Cor 2:14; cf. 1 Cor 1:18).
Who then can be saved? Only those drawn by the Spirit. It is this call that is effectual. As Jesus said, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him ... But there are some of you who do not believe... This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father" (John 6:44, 64-65). So, no one - even when they hear the Gospel - can come to Christ unless the Father draws him and there are some that the Father does not draw (i.e. in Matt 11:21, 23 God did not work miracles, so they did not and could not repent). So, though the Gospel is to be preached and shared with everyone, not all have the same capacity to respond to it.
"Thirsty ... no money" is a reference to the needy who hunger and thirst for what money cannot acquire (Deut 8:3; Pss 42:2; 63:1; Prov 9:5-6; Matt 5:6; John 4:10-11; 7:37-38; Rev 21:6; 22:17). Isaiah often used the imagery of water when speaking of divine blessings (cf. Isa 41:17-18; 44:3; 48:21; 49:10; 58:11). "No money ... buy" is something of a paradox. A paradox can be something that appears self-contradictory, but in reality expresses a truth. How can someone who is penniless "come buy and eat"? How can one who is totally bankrupt purchase anything? The paradox is that grace is free - it is a free gift for those who are made to desire it (Isa 52:3; Deut 8:3; Rom 6:23). Therefore, it can't be purchased by anything we do (2 Tim 1:9); that is money that we have, or labors that we may perform (Tit 3:5). "Wine and milk" are symbols of complete satisfaction. God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him (Psa 16:11; 22:26; 107:9; John 6:35).
Isaiah 55:3 refers to the Davidic covenant - an "everlasting covenant." In the Davidic covenant God promised David an eternal offspring, throne, and Kingdom (see 2 Sam 7:12-16; 1 Kings 8:23-26; Psa 89:27-37; Jer 31:21-22; cf. Gen 9:16; 17:7, 13, 19; Num 18:19). David's house would rule over the nations (cf. Zech 9:10). All these promises are fulfilled in Christ (Isa 4:2; 7:14; 9:6; 11:1-3). The promises of the Davidic covenant are now extended to all who "come" to God through Christ (Acts 13:34). See "The Re-Newed or New Covenant?" below.
Illustration of the Call
The nature of the call given is "effectual" in those that believe, but only "general" in those that don't. As explained above the "effectual call" is administered by the Holy Spirit. It is God alone that draws the sinner to Christ (John 6:44, 65). It is the person of the Holy Spirit alone that gives the dead (Eph 2:1) life (John 3:1-8), so they can and will believe the Gospel. It is he that does the work of regeneration alone. As Luke observes, "And as many as were ordained to eternal life believed" (Acts 13:48).
We observe the effectual call clearly in the case of Lydia in Acts 16. We are told that the reason she responded to the Gospel is because the Lord opened her heart to respond. Luke states, "One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul" (Acts 16:14). It was a sovereign work of God that brought salvation to Lydia (Acts 16:15). Note, that in this instance, it was only to "one" of many that this grace was given! So, there is a "general" and an "effectual" call. Please see "Calvinism and Matthew 11:28?" below.
Some think they will have their cake and eat it too. Some believe they can live a completely ungodly life and then at the last few seconds of it come to Jesus. However, this is mere foolishness. First, sin is no cake walk - it always has consequences. Second, being a former Homicide Detective, I can assure you that not everyone has a last few seconds in their 11th hour to respond. Death can be rather a surprise (Heb 9:27). Third, you don't know when the return of Christ will be (1 Cor 15:52; 1 Thess 5:2; 2 Pet 3:10; Rev 3:3; 16:15). It will be faster than you can even blink or believe! Fourth, you can't and won't come unless and until you are effectually called (Rom 8:7-8). You don't control the timing, God does. If God calls, you will come irresistibly and immediately. You will have a new irresistible desire to throw your sin down and run from it and not keep hold of it any longer (2 Tim 2:24-26). You will also be given the incredible gift of faith (Eph 2:8). What grace! "The Spirit and the Bride say, "Come." And let the one who hears say, "Come." And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price" (Rev 22:17).
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Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).