This series is taken from Chafer's Systematic Theology by Lewis Sperry Chafer, Volume III, Chapter XX (under Soteriology):
None of the errors being considered seems more reasonable than this, and none strikes a more deadly blow at the foundation of divine grace. The error includes the claim that the sinner must "seek the Lord," or that he must plead with God to be merciful. These two conceptions, though nearly identical, should be considered separately.
1. "Seek Ye the Lord." This phrase, quoted from Isaiah 55:6, represents Jehovah's invitation to His covenant people, Israel, who have wandered from their place of rightful blessings under His covenants, to return to Him. It was appointed to that people to "seek the Lord while he may be found" and to "call upon him while he is near"; but the gospel of the grace of God in the present age declares to Jew and Gentile alike that "there is none that seeketh after God" (Rom. 3:11),
and that "the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10). This declaration that in this age there are none who seek the Lord, accords with the testimony of the New Testament relative to the incapacity of those who are lost to turn to God. Apart from the new birth, the unsaved "cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3), their minds are blinded by Satan (2 Cor. 4:3–4), and they can exercise faith toward God only as they are enabled to do so by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:8). In the light of these revelations, there is little ground for the hope that the unsaved will "seek the Lord," and, what is far more essential to the right understanding of the way of salvation by grace, the unsaved are not asked to seek the Lord. If this is true, the unsaved should never be placed in the position of those who must discover God or prevail upon Him to be gracious.
2. Believe and Pray. The question which arises at this point is one of whether God is propitious. If He is propitious, there remains no occasion for the unsaved to try to find Him, to wait until He is on "the giving hand," or to implore Him to save. He is propitious to an infinite degree and the problem confronting the mind of man is one of adjustment to that revelation. The transforming effect of the truth that God is propitious penetrates every phase of Soteriology. His flood tide of blessing—all that is impelled by infinite love—awaits, not the imploring, prevailing appeal that might move one to be gracious, but rather it awaits the simple willingness on the part of men to receive what He has already provided and is free to bestow in and through His Son, the Savior.
Attention has been called in an earlier discussion to the fact that salvation begins in the heart of God and is precisely what His infinite love demands and ordains. Its whole scope and extent is the reflection of that immeasurable love. It embraces all that infinity can produce. The sinner's plight is serious indeed and the benefits he receives in saving grace cannot be estimated; but all this together is secondary compared with the satisfaction which God's great love demands. As before stated, but two obstacles could hinder the satisfaction of divine love—the sin of the creature He loves and the will of that creature. As the Creator of all things, even these obstacles take their place in the divine decree which ordained all things that exist. Nevertheless, He has, as the only One who could do it, met by the sacrifice of His Son the obstacle which sin imposed, and He, too, secures the glad cooperation of the human will. The effect of the death of His Son is to render God righteously free to act for those whom He loves, and that freedom for love to act is propitiation. Therefore, it must be again asserted that God is propitious. It is infinite love that now invites the sinner to eternal glories, and it is infinite love that awaits the sinner's response to that invitation.
With this marvelous revelation in view, there is no place left for the idea that the sinner must "seek the Lord," or that the sinner must plead with God to be merciful and kind. No burden rests on the unsaved to persuade God to be good; the challenge of the gospel is for the unsaved to believe that God is good. Since those great truths are revealed only in the Word of God, the unsaved are enjoined to believe God's Word, and the Scriptures hold a large share in the divine undertaking of bringing men to salvation (John 3:5). It is common, however, for some who, with great passion of soul, attempt to preach the gospel, so to fail in the apprehension of the divine propitiation that they imply that salvation is secured by entreating God, and by so much the value of Christ's mediation in behalf of the sinner is nullified.
The example of the prayer of the publican is usually cited as the best of reasons for urging the unsaved to plead with God for His mercy and salvation. What, it is asked, could be more appropriate than that the unsaved should pray as did the publican, "God be merciful to me a sinner" (Luke 18:13)? The appeal on the part of the publican is assumed to be the norm for all sinners, though, in reality, it contradicts the very truth of the gospel of divine grace. The incident must be examined carefully. It is essential to note that the publican—a Jew of the Old Testament order and praying in the temple according to the requirements of a Jew in the temple—did not use the word merciful— which word is properly associated with the idea of kindness, bigheartedness, leniency, and generosity. According to the original text, which in the Authorized Version is too freely translated, the publican said, "God be propitiated to me the sinner." The word ἱλάσκομαι, which means "to make propitiation," appears in the text. There is a wide difference between the word merciful with all its implications and the word propitiation. By the use of the word merciful the impression is conveyed that the publican pleaded with God to be magnanimous. By the use of the word propitiation—if comprehended at all—the impression is conveyed that the publican asked God to cover his sins in such a way as to dispose of them, yet, at the same time, to do this in a way that would protect His own holiness from complicity with his sins. If the publican did as Jews were accustomed to do in his day when they went into the temple to pray, he left a sacrifice at the altar. It is probable that he could see the smoke of that sacrifice ascending as he prayed. What he prayed was strictly proper for a Jew of his time to pray under those circumstances. However, his prayer would be most unfitting on this side of the cross of Christ. With reference to the word merciful, it was not in the publican's prayer nor would it be a proper word for a penitent to use, on either side of the cross. God cannot be merciful to sin in the sense that He treats it lightly, whether it be in one age or another. But with reference to the word propitiation and its implications, that word was justified in the age before Christ died and when sin was covered by sacrifices which the sinner provided. It was suitable for the publican, having provided his own sacrifice, to ask that his sacrifice be accepted and himself absolved. However, on this side of the cross when Christ has died and secured propitiation and it is established perfectly forever, nothing could be more an outraging of that priceless truth upon which the gospel rests than to implore God to be propitious. Such prayers may be enjoined through ignorance, but the wrong is immeasurable. When this prayer is made, even for God to be propitious, there is a direct assumption expressed that God is not propitious, and to that extent the petitioner is asking God to do something more effective than the thing He has done in giving His Son as a sacrifice for sin. A moment's consideration would disclose the immeasurable wrong that is committed when God is asked to be propitious, when, at the infinite cost of the death of His Son, He is propitious. The truth that God is propitious constitutes the very heart of the gospel of divine grace, and the one who does not recognize this and sees no impropriety in the use of the publican's prayer today has yet to comprehend what is the first principle in the plan of salvation through Christ. Men are not saved by asking God to be good, or merciful, or propitious; they are saved when they believe God has been good and merciful enough to provide a propitiating Savior. The sinner is saved, not because he prevails on God to withhold from him the blow of judgment that is due him for his sin, but because he believes that that blow has fallen on his Substitute. If it is thought that all this is but a mere theological distinction and that after all God is love and the sinner will be treated in love, consideration should be given to the fact that it was for the very purpose of providing a righteous ground for salvation of sinners that the Son of God became incarnate, that He died, and that He arose from the dead. To imply that all this—and there is no salvation apart from it—is only a theological speculation, is to reject the whole plan of salvation through a Savior and to assume to stand before God, who is Consuming Fire, without shelter, shield, or surety.