It is first of all the public and authoritative declaration of what God has done in Christ. It is the glorious wonder of Christ crucified and raised which is to be published and proclaimed to all who hear. The preacher comes as a herald and ambassador of Christ to say, "thus saith the Lord." In that preaching, Christ is displayed in all the fullness of His death and resurrection, as the wonder work of God's sovereign mercy, to save and effectually redeem His people from their sins. The gospel is the glad tidings of the God of our salvation, that God has fulfilled the promises which He spake to the fathers in the Old Testament in His Son Jesus Christ, and has accomplished atonement and reconciliation for the sins of His people. It involves the objective declaration of the facts of the gospel as the truth of God in Christ, together with the horrible reality of man's sin, depravity and corruption, and of his terrible guilt before a Holy God.
The good news of the gospel includes the whole counsel of God; it is not limited to the objective facts of the cross, to what is called in Dogmatics the locus of Christology. It includes the wonder of God's electing grace and mercy, His sovereign eternal good pleasure, His eternal purpose and glory in Christ and His church. and that as good news. It includes also the glad tidings that God in Christ saves to the uttermost. That Christ by the effectual working of the power of His death and resurrection, regenerates and quickens dead sinners to life, calls and converts men, works repentance and imparts saving faith unto men who were dead in themselves, and bound in sin. It includes all the loci of Dogmatics from Theology to Soteriology to Eschatology.
Its purpose is to preach the whole Word of God, to set before men their wretched and miserable state and condition in themselves and to proclaim the wonder and glory of God in Christ, Whose own arm has wrought salvation, and Who reaches down to save His people from their sin. It leads one to stand in the presence of the holiness of God and the glory and wonder of His grace, to worship Him out of a broken and contrite heart, and to earnestly seek to walk before Him in newness of life in true gratitude. That word of the gospel is as much present, in principle, when one preaches on the glory of God's institution of marriage, as it is when one preaches a sermon on Jesus' death. It is complete, full and uncompromising. It hides nothing in the closet of theology. It is that gospel which is the power of God unto salvation. It is a gospel which is proclaimed as propositional factual truth, as a gospel of certainty, of what is surely to be believed. It preaches Christ, as the apostle Paul says to the Galatians, "before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you," Gal. 3:1.
It is in the light of that glorious gospel that we also distinguish two aspects in the preaching, following the Canons of Dordt, that of command and promise. The gospel in its proclamation confronts men with the call to repent and believe. By the very reality of sin and the glory of God's work in Christ men are confronted with the command and duty to repent and believe. This command is not only explicit in the preaching but implicit in the very truth of man's sin and the glory and wonder of the gospel. That call is a serious one, for standing before a Holy God, wretched and miserable in themselves and standing before the glory of His wonder in Christ, men ought to repent and believe. That they cannot do so of themselves because they are fallen does not change the seriousness of this demand. Nor does the particularity of the gospel in any way mitigate the truth that what is good and acceptable in the sight of that Holy God of the wonder is that man should repent and that the called ought to come unto Him.
That command, however, in the good pleasure of God has a twofold effect upon them that hear. In the heart of the wicked and unbelieving it works a hardening of heart, stubbornness and rebellion. The glorious gospel of Christ is for them a savor of death unto death. Seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, but willfully reject the gospel and put it a way from them. It is foolishness unto them. They do not obey the gospel.
In the heart of God's elect, however, God works by that demand of the gospel the obedience of faith, graciously calling forth faith and repentance by the power of His grace, and quickening in us the obedience of faith. This is wrought both by the grace of God through the objective call of the gospel and the internal efficacious working of the Spirit in the heart. It is one work of God by an efficacious irresistible call.
To that command God has joined the promises of the gospel, as the sure word of His grace to His people. By the promises He addresses His sheep by name and calls them, according to their spiritual characteristics, into the certain spiritual blessings which they have in Christ. By the promises of the gospel God comforts the broken-hearted and assures them of pardon for sin and life eternal. He speaks His word as Jesus did to the man sick of the palsy, "thy sins are forgiven thee," Luke 5:20. Those promises are unconditional and particular, and that exactly because they are personally addressed and intended, and grounded in the finished and accomplished work of Christ. They are God's sure word unto His people. The promises of the gospel therefore do not address God's people as merely offered to be accepted or rejected, nor as a check to be endorsed by our believing, but as a receipt stamped "paid in full" with our name on it. They address us as weary and laboring, as those who sorrow and mourn because of sin, as hungering and thirsting after righteousness, as saints who fear God. By them Christ calls His sheep by name, and we hear His voice and follow Him.
By that command and particular promise God leaves no one in doubt, neither the wicked nor His children, as to their own duty, spiritual state or the certainty of the truth of the gospel. It is in the light of this reality of the gospel, that we must evaluate the well-meant offer or the so-called free offer of the gospel.
The theory of the offer belongs to a certain semi-Arminian trend which has been present in the Reformed and Presbyterian community since the time of the Synod of Dordt. It is an attempt to marry the conditional universalism of Arminanism to the truth of sovereign particular grace of Calvinism. Perhaps the best description of this error is to call it hypothetical universalism.
This synergism was first taught at the time of the Synod of Dordt by John Cameron in France and England and both then and later by his notable disciples Amyraud in France and Davenant the British delegate to the Synod of Dordt. In its original form it was an attempt to join the Reformed and Arminian doctrines of election by teaching two distinct decrees of election, one an Arminian decree that God decreed to save all and every man in Christ on condition of faith, and the second semi-Calvinistic decree, that God decreed to fulfill the conditions and give faith to only some. Briefly, this is the notion that God wants to save all but wills to save only some. It is a contradictory dualism, a two-track theology. Its universal election is conditional and Arminian, and in the light of the notion of a particular decree to save some, it is also only hypothetical. This view was resisted by the Synod of Dordt which teaches in the Canons, whenever God's intention, design and purpose is mentioned, only an intention and design to save the elect.
As Amyraud and his following continued to teach this notion after the Synod, his views were condemned under the leadership of Francis Turretin by the second Helvetic consensus as Arminian and inconsistent with Dordt. Similarly when the views of Davenant and his followers were promoted in England they were opposed by the Puritan John Owen in his book The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.
It is particularly in the area of the doctrine of the covenant both in connection with preaching and baptism that this Amyrauldian heresy continues to raise its head. This usually takes the form of a general conditional promise, the so-called Heynsian view. This view involves more than a general conditional promise, it involves a separation not only between the covenant and election but also in the work of Christ. In Reformed theology all of God's works are rooted in eternity, in His decrees. To teach that God's covenant is established with elect and reprobate, upon conditional promises, as an objective bequest to all who are baptized or brought under the preaching, is first of all to teach something about God's eternal decree of that covenant. All of God's works are eternal, their realization in time is the working out externally (Ad Extra), of that which He has purposed in Himself internally, (Ad Intra). Slogans, such as calling this principle "scholastic, rationalistic etc.," simply evade the issue.
Along with this separation of the covenant and election is to be found a dispensational like corruption of the doctrine of the Mediator. To maintain this separation those who hold it teach that Christ is the "Mediator of the covenant" but the "Head of the elect. " In doing this they do not mean to merely draw a fine distinction between the meaning of two terms Mediator and Head but to separate them This covenant of which Christ is the Mediator according to this view is established by promise, though conditionally, with elect and reprobate, all who are outwardly included in the church. Christ is the Mediator of God's covenant with Esau.
This involves a fundamental corruption of Christ's work as the Mediator. It is exactly as He is the legal representative Head of the elect, the Christ, that He in His mediatorial work establishes and confirms the new covenant in His blood, as the Lord our Righteousness. This is plain from the teaching of the Canons which explicitly joins Christ's mediatorial office and His headship and make it clear that He is the Mediator of the elect alone. Thus we read, "Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby before the foundation of the world, He hath out of mere grace, according to His own will, chosen, from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault, from their primitive state of rectitude, into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, whom He from eternity appointed the Mediator and Head of the elect, and the foundation of salvation," Canons I, Art. 7 (italics added). That Christ is the "Mediator and Head of the elect," could not be clearer. The same is true when we read,"...it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given Him by the Father;..." (Canons II Art. 8) Again the Canons explicitly join the blood of the covenant and God's purpose in it to the Mediatorial work of Christ and election.
The original form of this error was an assault upon the doctrine of election. It developed into an assault upon the reformed doctrine of the atonement. Under the influence of its promoters in England and Scotland the focus was shifted to the idea that one could preach that Jesus was dead for all but had died for only some. That is, hypothetically, Jesus' death was not simply sufficient, considered, in itself, for all, but designed and intended to be available to all upon condition of faith and repentance. This was an attempt to marry the Reformed and Arminian doctrines of the atonement, to teach a provision for all men in the death of Christ but an efficacy for only some. This trend came together in the Marrow Controversy in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. This dualist conception of the atonement was condemned by the Presbyterian Church of Scotland as Arminianism.
It has sometimes been contended that the Synod in Scotland was influenced by liberal or rationalistic Arminian thinking, that it condemned the Marrow theology because of its evangelicalism or out of narrow-mindedness. That there were in this complex controversy elements of this, as well as miscommunication in understanding one another's position is well possible. What concerns us however is the central doctrinal issue, whether one may teach that Christ's atoning death is universal in scope, and in some sense designed and intended for all or so as to be available for all. May we preach as the offer inherently does, that Christ is dead for all, though He died for only some. May we deduce from Christ's sufficiency, a universal scope to the atonement such that it may be offered to all, or presented as intended or available to all.
In connection with this we may look at our own Canons of Dordt. The Canons certainly teach that Christ's death is "...sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world," in view of the fact that the Person of Son of God died in our flesh (Canons II, Art. 3). How could it be any less than this? The point is however that Christ died for certain persons, bought for them saving faith and the blessings of salvation through faith, and they are not all men, nor all who sit under the preaching, nor all the baptized. The Canons, and the Westminster Confession is essentially no different, find in this sufficiency of Christ, only that it leaves men without excuse in their unbelief, as there is nothing lacking in Christ or the gospel why they do not believe (Canons II, Art. 6). As to the intent and design of Christ's death, the Canons draw two conclusions, that it was intended for the elect alone and not universal, (Canons II, Art. 7,8) and that its infinite worth and value is for the benefit of "us," that is, God's elect redeemed believing people. Notice this in the language of the Canons, in explaining the source of this infinite worth and value, its bearing upon Christ's qualifications and its necessity. The Canons say, "which qualifications were necessary to constitute him a Savior for us; and because it was attended with a sense of the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin," (Canons II, Art. 4 - italics added). In discussing the blessed fruit of this infinitely valuable sacrifice of Christ the Canons find it of benefit strictly for certain persons, us. In the light of this to preach otherwise, a Christ for all or available for all, is to present not only that which is hypothetical, but hypocritical. The Canons do not find in the sufficiency of Christ a universal offer, but a profound comfort for a believer, whose sins are so great, that only a sacrifice of infinite worth and value is sufficient to take them all away. When the men who promote the offer take up this subject in the Canons, they engage in eisegesis, the reading into the Canons of their own speculative notions.
The well-meant offer, or free offer, also the notion of a general conditional promise, is really nothing more than an attempt to introduce this same semi-Arminian synergism and dualism into the whole doctrine of soteriology, the doctrine of the application of salvation, and into the doctrines of the means of grace, preaching and the sacraments. It is again an attempt to marry an Arminian doctrine of salvation and the means of grace, preaching or baptism, to the Reformed view. It involves teaching two kinds of grace, a general, common conditional and resistible grace to all under the preaching or in baptism, and a particular irresistible grace to only some. According to this theory of the offer, God does not simply call and command men to repent and believe under the preaching of the Word, but sincerely desires the salvation of all, well-meaningly offers Christ, His righteousness and eternal life to all, head for head. The preaching becomes a check which man must endorse by his faith, an objective bequest which man may accept or reject. Moreover if you object to this as Arminianism, you are told that since they also teach that God fulfills the conditions by grace in the elect, the charge of being Arminian is false.
While dressed in a new suit of clothes, this error is still the same error which was condemned by the Reformed and Presbyterian churches of the past. While the theology it is based on is rarely spelled out it is nothing more than that of Amyrauld. Its doctrine of the atonement is that of the Marrow. In order to make Christ's death and the preaching of it universal or an offer, they must separate from that death its efficacy and all the subjective blessings of salvation. If Christ is offered to all, then faith cannot be a benefit of the cross. You cannot very well offer faith as a blessing while requiring it as a condition. You cannot promise to all what is an entrance requirement to the promise. The offer introduces ambiguity into the doctrine of faith, conversion, repentance. Rather than being a work of grace in man, the wonder work of God in Christ and a gift of grace out of which a man himself actively repents and believes, the preaching of the offer becomes centered on the experiential moment, for faith is man's fulfilling of the condition. And yet, because they would be called Calvinists, they would also be seen as teaching that it is God's gift. The only way you can maintain this kind of dualism is to reduce faith and conversion to an experimental moment, a moment of revelation and response, of giving and yet taking and receiving. Grace becomes like a ball bouncing on a table, in the moment it touches the surface God is giving and man accepting, God is revealing and man responding. This is Barthian mysticism. It is dualism carried to its ultimate synergism.
The seriousness of this error must not be overlooked. It has practical consequences for preaching and mission work.
This affects first of all the content of the preaching and exegesis. If God wants to save all but wills to save only some, if Christ is dead for all but died for only some, if God offers salvation to all but calls effectually only some, then truth, veracity and coherence have gone out the window. The double track theology of the offer makes coherent preaching of the truth impossible. God wants what He does not want, intends what He does not intend. Authoritative proclamation of the truth of the gospel can but cease. The unity of the truth is broken. By separating Christ as Mediator of the covenant and as Head of the elect, even Christ's mediatorial work is distorted, and obscured. You cannot genuinely compare Scripture with Scripture, for Scripture contradicts itself. The fundamental principle of reformed scriptural interpretation is broken. Scripture speaks out of two sides of its mouth. You must first carefully impose this Hermeneutical dualism on the text, much like dispensationalism does when it tries to separate Israel and the church. Does this passage speak of God's universal will or His particular will? Is this passage about Christ as Mediator or as Head?
This is plain from the effect and consequences of this dualistic hermeneutic round about us as it has worked through the life of the C.R.C. If God wants to save all but wills to save only some, He may also want only men to be ministers from a creation perspective but wills that women also hold office from an eschatological perspective. Who is to judge? "What is truth?"
It is not without reason that this leads to shoddy exegesis in which one sometimes takes an Arminian interpretation, and one sometimes, though quite arbitrarily, takes a Calvinistic interpretation. Sometimes one takes a conservative or orthodox approach, while at other times a liberal one. The truth in fact becomes relative to the interpreter and his opinion, and exegesis becomes eclectic. By this error the authority power and clarity of the gospel is overthrown. The herald or preacher sounds an uncertain note on the trumpet of the gospel. Because of it the offer is a debilitated cripple when it comes to mission work and a clear proclamation of the gospel.
Moreover as God wants to save all and offers Christ to all in the preaching, the gospel is reduced to a crippled truncated version of itself. You cannot under the offer preach the doctrine of election as good news for sinners that, " all that the Father giveth me shall come to me," John 6:37. This goes into the theological closet. Likewise, since faith, repentance and conversion are the conditions man must fulfill to receive the proffered salvation, they also can no more be preached as the glorious work of God, the effectual fruit of the atonement. They too must go into the theological closet. The gospel is reduced to a truncated word about the cross, without its efficacy, design, power and purpose. That by, "one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified," Heb. 10:14 belongs in the closet, it is too definite. Soteriology and the saving efficacy of the cross in Christology, likewise join God's sovereignty in the theological closet, especially on the mission field. Instead an unfruitful divine desire to save all men must be preached.
All of this robs the gospel not only of its power, authority and clarity, but also of the wonder of the THE WONDER of grace. It does not lead to reverence and fear, to worship and praise but to the notion of a spiritually impotent God Who wants what He cannot or does not perform. It robs God of the honor and glory due His name and demeans the name of Christ, the Lord of Glory. This is emphatically debilitating to the work of missions. It is exactly the unique power, glory and majesty of God in Christ which sets the Christian gospel apart from the inventions of human philosophy and pagan religion.
The very need for a sovereign Savior of mere grace is destroyed, for God is said to offer that which was not purchased in the blood of Christ, to desire to impart to sinners that which Christ did not effect on the cross for them. It destroys the holiness, righteousness and truth of God. It sets God's mercy against His own justice by overthrowing the principles of atonement. Jesus no longer actually saves, but only wants to if we will accept Him. It is demeaning to Christ crucified.
As such the offer is incapable of proclaiming a serious call to repentance and faith. It is no more a divine summons which seriously addresses men with the will of the Holy God to turn from their wicked way. Rather it becomes a pleading invitation, something that God wants to be true for all. The gospel no more confronts men with an imperative, a command, but a wish, a pleading, a begging, with moral suasion and emotional appeals to accept the proffered salvation. Not only so, but the faith called for is not a powerful transformation that grace alone can give, but a work which man must perform and a condition he must fulfill on the basis of whose worthiness men are saved. Oh, to be sure if you press those who preach the offer, they maintain that God by His grace fulfills the conditions in man. They formally reject free-willism. Nevertheless it is my faith, my repentance, my acceptance upon which the salvation offered to me rests.
This is the doctrine of salvation upon the worthiness of my faith and repentance. It is Arminian. In fact it is the doctrine of justification because of faith and works, which is the doctrine of Rome. The offer is warmed-over Jesuit theology masquerading as Protestantism. However much free-willism is denied, the practical fruit of that error, a trusting in one's own works of believing, repenting, and coming is maintained and taught in practice, if not in theory.
Moreover the wicked are left with the principle that after all if God wants to save them so much and is trying so hard to offer salvation to them, there is really no urgency about the matter. If God wants to save them, would He now give up and judge? The fact is that the offer tempts men to despise God's very simpering impotence.
As if that were not enough, by making the promises general and conditional, the personal sure comfort of the gospel is lost. There is an irony here in calling the offer, the "free offer of the gospel." There is nothing free about promises with strings attached. Sovereign grace is free, genuinely free, rooted in the grace of election. The effect of the offer is to leave the hearer in doubt whether after all those promises are for them. Have I really repented? Do I really believe? Either I must boast in my own works of believing and acceptance of the gospel or I am left with the conclusion that after all my whole spiritual welfare is in doubt. The offer, rather than leading one out of oneself to Christ to be justified by faith as God's free gift, leads one inward to a seeking of signs of revealed grace, to a mystical spiritual "belly-button watching." It overthrows the tender conscience of those who know that they "have not perfect faith." On the mission field it leaves one who is broken by his sin and guilt, who cries out, "Men and brethren, what shall we do," (Acts 2:37) with neither a clear direction, "repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of the Lord Jesus," (Acts 2:38) nor with a sure promise, "thy sins are forgiven thee," (Luke 5:20). The offer leads to mysticism, and an unwholesome experientialism. It robs the sheep of that sure comfort which they have in Christ and ought to have.
In this connection I recall specifically a sermon on the resurrection of the body from the dead, out of the Catechism, by a prominent so-called conservative. The glory and beauty of that work of God was adequately set forth. But then he had to add the offer to it all. We had to attain unto it by our believing. The whole sermon was concluded with the hope that we would attain to the resurrection. This was his hope and he hoped (???!) it was true for the congregation. The wonder and glory were taken away and the congregation was left with only doubt, a comfortless question mark, an unsure hope that maybe it would be true for them. It was an abomination, which robbed the sheep that Sunday morning of the hope and comfort of the resurrection from the dead. What was done with the sermon was the same fear tactic that the church of Rome uses by holding purgatory over the heads of the people. The well-meant offer dangles the promises of God which are yea and amen in Christ before the people of God, holding them out of reach. Its professed love for sinners is false and cruel.
It is the offer which is crippled, debilitated and anemic in preaching the gospel. This is particularly true on the mission field, for it comes with neither clarity nor power, neither a clear command to repent and believe, nor a sure promise. It destroys a serious call to repentance rather than establishing one. It robs the sheep of their comfort. Abraham Kuyper put it well, when he spoke of the advocates of a "Christ for all." He said, "In reality, it is they who are in an increasingly painful and sad situation, for in spite of that "pro omnibus,"(for all), they are still not able to persuasively move the soul to believe," (Dat De Genade Particular is; Abraham Kuyper, Part 1, chapter 1, p. 3; - translation mine). It is the offer which cannot do genuine mission work for it does not faithfully serve the cause of Him Who said, "I will build my church."