[This article was transcribed from a lecture given by Rev George G Hutton, at a public meeting of the Inverness Branch of the Scottish Reformation Society, on Monday, 17 January 2005.]
The term ‘the Free Offer’ is generally used with reference to a particular presentation of the Gospel when preaching. It is, nevertheless, true that the attitude of any preacher to such terminology is an indication of what his personal, theological position is in the discipline of Soteriology. The preacher who is satisfied that this terminology is theologically orthodox will inevitably feel he has a scriptural warrant to offer, uninhibited, Christ in the Gospel as a Saviour to sinners of every description. On the other hand, those who are not convinced of the free offer may genuinely fear they are doing both God and the sinner a great disservice, should they attempt to offer Christ as a willing Saviour to sinners indiscriminately.
This difference of opinion has led to numerous theological debates throughout the centuries since the Reformation. Good and exercised men have on occasions become bitter antagonists over this issue, allowing themselves to be dragged into a theological quagmire where they flounder in the morass of cold reason and intellectual argument, unable to find solid footing on the firm ground of divine revelation.
The Arminian, who adheres to the theory that man possesses a free-will to choose or reject what is offered to him, has no difficulty whatever with the terminology “the Free Offer of the Gospel”. For the Arminian, the free offer makes perfect sense. Some Calvinists, however, convinced from Scripture that man’s will since the Fall is in bondage to his corrupt nature, have great difficulty in reconciling the concept and the practice of the free offer to sinners indiscriminately with the doctrine of Sovereign Predestination or Election. For some of these, such an indiscriminate offer is not only illogical, but it is tantamount to the most cruel deception.
The Apostolic Presentation of the Gospel
It is not the purpose of this paper to engage so much in this theological debate nor indeed to involve ourselves with the related, but separate issue of the extent of the Atonement. Rather, we would simply endeavour to present in a positive way what we understand to be the Biblical or Apostolic presentation of the Gospel to men. In order to do this, we must begin with the Commission of the Saviour, Himself, as we find it in the Gospels. We are all familiar, I’m sure, with the words of Jesus to His Apostles in Mark 16:15:
Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
John tells us in 1 John 5:19, that “the whole world lieth in wickedness.” All to whom the Gospel is to be preached will therefore naturally reject it. None can be expected to show any spiritual interest in it. The carnal mind of the natural man is at enmity with God and will not receive the things of God. The Gospel to be preached is in its entirety spiritual. Christ, who is at the heart of the Gospel, and the Alpha and the Omega of it, will be to those to whom it is preached just as those described by Isaiah the prophet in chapter 53. “He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2).
Christ in the Gospel will be despised and rejected by all men without exception as they are found in a state of nature. Under such conditions it would appear to be a most futile activity to preach the Gospel to those from whom there can be no expectation of a fruitful response. Nevertheless, one thing should be very obvious from the words of the Saviour’s Commission – and that is that no category was to be excluded from hearing the Gospel. It was an all-inclusive Gospel. Every man, woman and child; in any country, from any social background, whatever the cultural differences; and in any generation, was to be considered by the preachers of the Gospel to be a legitimate subject to be addressed when preaching that Gospel.
The preaching of the apostle Paul can be taken as a prime example of how the Gospel ministry was exercised in New Testament times. In 1 Corinthians 2:1-2 we read his own testimony in the words, “I came, . . . declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Paul did not attempt to reason through all the intricacies of the mysterious purposes and operations of a sovereign God in the salvation of sinners. Instead, he declared to the same Corinthians, “And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God.”
To the wise men of the world, both the activity of preaching the Gospel, and its contents, might appear to be folly, but for Paul the wisdom of God was behind his commission. For the Apostle, the wisdom of the world was but foolishness before God. Both Jews and Gentiles therefore, heard the same message from the Apostle, as he himself stated:
The Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor. 1:22-24.)
The “called”, and the “uncalled”; or, those who were ordained from eternity to be effectually called, and those who were not, both heard the same message. Christ and His atoning death was preached to all indiscriminately. How they reacted or responded to the preaching was not for the Apostle to concern himself with. His duty was to preach a crucified Saviour, whose death atoned for sin. We do not believe for a moment that the Apostle felt in the least bit inhibited when preaching the Gospel to certain categories of hearers. There was one Gospel suitable for all.
How did Paul present Christ?
The question then arises, how did the same Apostle actually present Christ to his hearers when addressing them? Let us hear him speak for himself, in 2 Corinthians 5:20, where he says, “Now we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.” Paul didn’t simply consider himself to be a messenger conveying a message faithfully and accurately to sinners on the behalf of the One who had committed it to him. He actually stood before men as the very voice of the Saviour. All the passion, human feeling, intensity of desire, fervour and earnestness with which he pled with men to be reconciled to God, was intended to exhibit to his hearers, the heart desires of God Himself. He was like the prophet Haggai, of whom we read in Haggai 1:13 that he spake as “the Lord’s messenger in the Lord’s message unto the people.”
Not only was it impossible to separate the man from his message; but he was himself, in his sincerity, zeal, and mannerisms, manifesting to the limited extent possible in a fallen creature, the feelings of God for His people. Christ, the eternal Son, in and through His sinless humanity reveals what is in the heart of God toward perishing sinners. The vehicle of human nature is that which God has ordained to be the particular means of reaching fallen men with His message of grace and mercy. With all the peculiar faculties that belong to man, as a man, he is the instrument best suited to communicate God’s message with the proper feelings and passions to those appointed to hear it. The preaching of the Gospel is not a mere, mechanical exercise, but a living, practical representation, as well as presentation, of the earnest desire of God for the salvation of sinners.
Our Warrant for the Offer
What then, we may ask, is our warrant for the free offer of the Gospel when preaching? There is but one final arbiter in this matter, and that is the Word of God in the Scriptures. As the Westminster Confession states in Chapter 1, Paragraph 10:
The supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentences we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the scripture.
Men may debate from now to the end of time, but the controversy can only be settled by bowing before the supreme majesty and authority of the Scriptures with unbiased and unprejudiced minds. If we are prepared to listen to what God the Holy Spirit has to say to us, then we will, I’m certain, conclude that our warrant for the Free Offer of the Gospel is an indisputably valid one.
We have already noted the Saviour’s commission to His Apostles to go into the world and preach the Gospel to every creature; but it is necessary to take cognisance of the words in Matthew 28:20, the words of promise:
Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.
The assurance of the Lord’s presence with those engaged in preaching the Gospel to every creature, is in itself, clear evidence of not only His approval of such a universal declaration, but of His spiritual involvement in the activity itself. Further to this, in Mark 16:20 we read concerning those who had been commissioned to preach the Gospel that:
they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord [that is, the glorified Christ] working with them, and confirming the word with signs following.
This divine involvement with the preaching of the Gospel cannot be dismissed lightly. We cannot simply conclude that the extent of the exalted Saviour’s involvement was that by the operation of the Holy Spirit, the preached Word was applied savingly to the elect. It was the Word preached, or the substance of the message that was divinely confirmed to be the truth. The Word was confirmed in the sense that it was worth believing because of its source and substance; not merely that it was confirmed in the sense that some who heard were convinced by it and enabled to believe it experimentally, though this was also undoubtedly true. If the Gospel preached included the free offer of salvation to the hearers, then it is an indisputable fact that the glorified Redeemer Himself, was inseparable from it, and by His Spirit involved in it. The offer was, and remains in fact to be His offer.
What is Offered in the Gospel?
This brings us to the vital question: What is actually offered to sinners in the Gospel?
In the seventh chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, section 3, we have a succinct definition of the offer in the words:
Man by his fall having made himself incapable of life by that covenant [the Covenant of Works], the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the Covenant of Grace: whereby he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved; and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.
Similarly in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, in answer to question 31, “What is effectual calling?”, we are reminded that:
Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.
These words remind us that it is Jesus Christ who is freely offered. We have the offer of a Saviour: life and salvation by Jesus Christ. Salvation is offered to undeserving sinners. This amazing offer is made upon the basis of the eternal Covenant of Grace. The offer is made with a promise to those who meet the divine requirements. Those who have the Gospel preached to them are required to appropriate to themselves what is offered through the exercise of faith.
Those of us who subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith as the confession of our own faith, or particular interpretation of revealed truth, are persuaded that God makes an offer of salvation through Christ to all to whom the Gospel is preached. Whether those to whom the offer is made are capable of receiving it, or whether they are willing to respond to it, is not the point. If they accept what is offered by faith they shall certainly be saved.
Just as it was with the Philippian jailer, the Apostle assured him that if he would believe on the Lord Jesus Christ he would be saved, so it is true with regard to any sinner – if he or she will put their faith in Christ as their Saviour, they will not be disappointed. The Apostle did not tell the jailer that if he could discover that he was elect then he should believe in Christ. Neither did he require him to wait until he, by some course of examination, could be confident that he was among the elect in Christ Jesus, before he would cast himself upon the Saviour’s mercy. There was no hesitation on the part of the Apostle; no restriction or qualifications with his counsel to the jailer; no obstacles or inhibitions in his way of embracing what was freely offered to him.
We come then to elaborate upon the question: To whom is the offer to be made? or:
What is the extent of the offer of the Gospel?
A Universal Offer
Firstly, based upon what we have already stated, it is a universal offer. In the little book by W G T Shedd, entitled Calvinism: Pure and Unmixed (A Defence of the Westminster Standards), Shedd writes:
that the offer of mercy in Christ is universal goes without saying, because if it is offered at all it must be offered universally. It is impossible to offer the atonement of Christ only to the elect. No man knows who are the elect, and therefore the ambassador of Christ must offer salvation to everybody, or else, to nobody. Any offer at all must, from the nature of the case, be unlimited.
The third head in the Sum of Saving Knowledge, produced by the Westminster Divines and usually attached to copies of the Confession, refers to the outward means appointed to make the elect partakers of this Covenant [that is the Covenant of Grace], and all the rest that are called to be inexcusable. It states: “In the Word of God preached by sent messengers the Lord makes offer of grace to all sinners upon condition of faith in Jesus Christ.”
It is from the Scriptures, of course, that we must seek confirmation for such an assertion. Writing to the Romans, the apostle Paul declared: “There is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom 10:12-13).
The divine promise is that whoever calls by faith upon the Lord for salvation will be saved. No distinction is made between men, whatever their social, historical, or religious background. The spiritual need is the same in all, while the offer and promise of salvation is held out equally to all who will call for it. The Jew may be blessed with privileges, but he has no preference. The Greek or Gentile may be overwhelmed with ignorance, but he is in no way debarred from the offer of saving mercy. There is no commission or warrant to present two different versions of the Gospel, one for the Jew and another for the Gentile. One Gospel was suitable for all. God is rich in mercy and generous with grace to all that call upon Him.
A A Hodge wrote that in the administration and gracious application of the Covenant of Grace:
Christ the mediator offers the blessings secured by it to all men on the condition of faith. That is, He bids all men to lay hold of these blessings by the instrumentality of faith, and He promises that if they do so they will certainly enjoy them. And He, as the mediatorial surety of His people ensures for them that their faith and obedience shall not fail.
As you will note from Hodge’s remarks, it is not an offer made by men but by Christ Himself. It is as the Mediator between God and ruined men that Christ the Redeemer offers the blessings He Himself has secured for sinners. Lost sinners are confronted with a divine offer. Such an offer cannot therefore be rejected without incurring divine anger. It is an offer arising from the complete fulfilment by the Son of God in our nature, to the extent of divine perfection, all that was required by the demands of Law and Justice according to the terms of the eternal Covenant of Grace.
The preacher of the Gospel has a warrant to make this generous, gracious offer to all men because of the accomplishments of Christ. Christ offered Himself to God as the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world. He made it abundantly clear that no man could take His life from Him. His death was the evidence of His willingness to give His life a ransom for many. Christ Jesus laid down His life of Himself, and as He promised, He took it again. He offered Himself to God as the substitute sacrifice for sin, and now offers Himself to sinners as the One who has made the all-sufficient atonement for sin.
John Murray, in his little book Redemption – Accomplished and Applied, wrote:
This offer may be regarded from several viewpoints. It may be regarded as invitation, as demand, as promise, and as overture. But from whatever angle we may view it, it is full, free, and unrestricted. The appeals of the gospel cover the whole range of divine prerogative and of human interest. God entreats, he invites, he commands, he calls, he presents the overture of mercy and grace, and he does this to all without distinction or discrimination.
A Sincere Offer
Secondly, concerning the offer, it is a sincere offer. It would be utterly absurd to imagine for a moment, that there was any insincerity whatever, with God. His Word is His bond. This of course, will not be denied by those who find themselves unable to accept the concept of the free offer of the Gospel. It is precisely because they believe that God is always sincere, and His Word is always reliable, that they conclude that there cannot be a sincere offer of Christ and salvation made to all sinners.
Their logic reasons, that if God sincerely offers salvation to all, then He must either have sincerely intended all to be saved who hear the Gospel, or else all men must possess an inherent ability to believe and receive what is offered to them. Rejecting the notion that fallen sinners have the ability to accept any offer, they conclude that since God has sovereignly ordained by an eternal decree some to eternal life, while predestinating others to be passed by, leaving them to perish in their sins; there is no point in offering to such what they cannot possibly have or what God never actually intended to give them, or rather what God never purposed to enable them to receive.
These argue that a sincere offer can only be made legitimately to those that God has purposed, through divine quickening, to receive what is offered. While, however, the absolute sovereignty of God is rightly emphasised in such reasoning, there is a failing to take into account the indisputable responsibility of the one to whom the offer is made. God offers Christ and salvation to rational, responsible creatures; not to irrational, pre-programmed robots. We might just as reasonably conclude that there is no point in preaching the Gospel at all, since the decree of God has already settled the matter. Those who are to be saved will be saved. The fact is, that God has but one eternal decree inclusive of all that He has purposed in and of Himself, with all the means to produce that purposed end. We cannot escape the fact that God has equally determined the means, every bit as much as the end. The Westminster Confession of Faith sums the matter up neatly for us, in Chapter 3 in the first paragraph:
God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
An Indiscriminate Offer
God has purposed that preachers of the everlasting Gospel should preach that Gospel to every creature indiscriminately, none of whom possess the willingness to receive what is offered. Because none are willing, but all are incapable of responding positively to the overtures of His Gospel offer, He has sovereignly purposed to demonstrate His own divine power in Effectual Calling, and His own mercy and willingness to receive sinners in the offer made in the actual presentation of that Gospel. God is the God of both the elect and the non-elect. As such, it is His divine prerogative to require of all His subjects that they meet certain obligations or that they universally submit to certain demands.
If God therefore requires all men everywhere to repent of their sins, can we argue that since God knows that they have neither the will, nor the ability to repent, this is an unjust requirement? Are we to suggest that God is being unreasonable in His dealings with the non-elect when He requires from them what their sin has rendered them incapable of performing? Sin and its consequences in this respect is man’s problem, not God’s. If however, God in His infinite mercy purposes to bestow His saving grace upon a number from such a mass of fallen creatures, all are universally unworthy; so that none can complain of any injustice if he is left in his native state and to his own devices.
The fact that God, in the proclamation of the Gospel, offers to wretched sinners indiscriminately what they are unwilling to appropriate is a reflection upon the condition of the sinner, rather than upon the justice of God. God will sovereignly have mercy upon whom He will have mercy. Mercy is perfectly justified without any reflection on the integrity of a holy, offended God. The free offer of grace and mercy in the Gospel to all men is a manifestation of God’s glory through His willingness to save such as are of themselves, obdurately unwilling. Since God has a people, chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, it is perfectly reasonable that He will provide the means by which such a merciful purpose is made known and executed. All those who perish in their sins under the Gospel, perish in and because of their own unwillingness.
What the Saviour said to some during His earthly ministry is applicable to all such as reject the Gospel: “Ye will not come to me, that ye might have life” (John 5:40). It is not the case that they cannot come, but that they will not come. They refuse to come, that they might have life.
Willingness and Unwillingness
The Son of God in our nature, was eternally, truly God and it is not an insignificant incident therefore, recorded in the Gospels that He spoke with pure, sinless passion and feeling:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!
The patient, longsuffering willingness of God is set before us in stark contrast to the intractable unwillingness of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Luke informs us that the Saviour wept over the city’s inhabitants as He lamented their hardness and prophesied their downfall. We cannot imagine that there was the least particle of insincerity in the Saviour’s grief. It is impossible to think that the inevitable ruin of Jerusalem gave any delight to the Son of God. These sinners were responsible for their own obduracy, with all its justified consequences, and yet the Saviour had no delight in their fate. It was just as we read in Ezekiel 33:11,
As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked should turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?
Not one of the House of Israel, or of the inhabitants of Jerusalem who would perish, would be justified in raising the finger of accusation against God. None could ever absolve themselves from guilt on the grounds that God, who is sovereign, could have made them willing or given them repentance, but He refused to do so. All sinners who refuse to repent will perish under divine justice, and yet God, for His glory, has purposed to work savingly in some so that they come most willingly and most freely to embrace the offered mercy in the Gospel.
In the opening book of Scripture we have sinful man driven out from the presence of God. But following the unfolding plan of God’s covenant redemption throughout the Bible, it concludes with the divine invitation and welcome to be reconciled. Approaching the final words of the canon of Scripture, we have the disclosure of the mind of the glorified Redeemer in Revelation 22:17. There the Saviour Himself refers to His testimony to the churches, and in such a context declares:
The Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.
The Holy Spirit, as promised by Christ, was commissioned to lead the Church in the world into a spiritual understanding of divine Truth. Only as the Church therefore acts in harmony with the Truth, as taught by the Holy Spirit, can she claim to be expressing the mind of God. If the Spirit therefore says, “Come”, then the Church is duty-bound to say nothing more nor less than this. If the Spirit of God gave such an open invitation to come, it must be the height of great arrogance on the part of any who dare to contradict His Word.
It is clear from John 14:26, if indeed we need confirmation of the fact, that there is no contradiction between the mind of the Spirit and the mind of Christ. The Spirit says, “Come”, because Christ Himself says, “Come”. It has been in fact observed that one of the favourite words in the vocabulary of the Saviour, during His earthly ministry was, “Come”. Every time the Lord Jesus expressed Himself in this manner to men or women, He was offering Himself to them as a source of help. He possessed what they needed, and He offered Himself to them as a helper, a healer, or a succourer. It would be absurd to think that the Lord Jesus was in any way indebted to men, that He was under a mere moral or legal obligation to render service to them. Christ gave freely out of love.
The Gospel Preacher’s Expectations
It is necessary then to enquire in conclusion, with what expectations does the Gospel preacher make the Free Offer? This brings us back to the eternal Covenant plan and purpose of the Triune God. It requires us to consider the sovereign activity of the Holy Spirit, who applies the work of Redemption. The Westminster Larger Catechism reminds us in answer to question 58, “How do we come to be made partakers of the benefits which Christ hath procured?”:
We are made partakers of the benefits which Christ hath procured, by the application of them unto us, which is the work especially of God the Holy Ghost.
The faithful Gospel preacher goes forth with the offer of salvation, knowing that not one of those whom he addresses can ever by his own volition receive what is offered, or comply with any requirement to repent, believe or receive. What he does know however is that God, who has commanded him to preach the Gospel, has purposed to operate upon the faculties of the souls of His elect so that they, being made willing and able, do appropriate to themselves the benefits of the redemption wrought by Christ.
The same faith and obedience required in Ezekiel’s vision to address dead and very dry bones, is requisite in those who are called and sent forth to preach the Gospel to those who are dead in trespasses and sins. As far as the heralds of Christ are concerned, they are preaching the Gospel of Salvation to those who are universally, spiritually dead, and therefore totally unresponsive to the message. None have a readiness to embrace Christ, as He is freely offered to them in the Gospel, any more than rocks or stones do. The preacher, nevertheless, sows the seed by faith; and God, as it pleases Him, gives the increase. The Spirit of God does the quickening. The Apostle to the Gentiles was no more able to penetrate the unfathomable mystery of the purpose of God than any other Gospel ambassador, but he was satisfied to declare, as we have it in 2 Corinthians 2:14-17:
Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in everyplace. For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish. To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things? For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ.
Paul did his duty as a Gospel preacher, content in the understanding that God knew who were His from all eternity, and to whom therefore the benefits of Christ’s redemptive work were to be applied by the operation of the Holy Spirit. His triumph was not in his apparent success as far as external responses to his preaching was concerned, but rather in the fact that he was, in his presentation of Christ to sinners, even in them that perished, pleasing God and honouring Him. If we find ourselves, as poor finite creatures, awed by what contains in it a large element of mystery, let us always demonstrate the humility of the psalmist in Psalm 139:6 where when he was confronted with the infinite knowledge of God transcendent he expressed himself in the words: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.”
Faith apprehends what darkened, finite human reason has not the ability or the capacity to comprehend. Through faith we understand. God commands the Gospel preacher, “Go”. He says through the preacher and his message, “Come”. Christ in the Gospel says to every sinner: “Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out”.
None by nature can come. None by nature will come. Nevertheless, the Saviour is expecting a number, which no man can number, to come. The Gospel preacher with the Spirit of Christ within him, goes forth to preach with the same expectation.