The Free Offer of the Gospel in the Westminster Standards
Is the free offer of the gospel some small appendage to reformed theology that doesn’t really matter too much? Or is it at the core of the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Standards which mark the high-water mark of reformed theology?
This is the question I want to look at in this posting. I want to do it by answering the question I posed last week which was:
“Interestingly, I think there are 12 distinct references to the free offer of the gospel in the Westminster Standards. Anyone care to try and come up with them?”
First I want to pick out the references in the The Directory for the Publick Worship of God. This profitable document can be found at http://www.epcew.org.uk/dpw/.
“To acknowledge our great sinfulness… yea, not only despising the riches of God’s goodness, forbearance, and long-suffering, but standing out against many invitations and offers of grace in the gospel; not endeavouring, as we ought, to receive Christ into our hearts by faith.”
The Directory for the Publick Worship of God, Of Prayer Before the Sermon http://www.epcew.org.uk/dpw/DPW.html#publicprayerbeforesermon
This reference to the free offer comes in the section outlining how a Minister is to pray before they preach. The particular point being made is that the minister is to confess the people’s sin of neglecting the offer of the gospel. This section raises a number of interesting points:
• Those who never come to Christ still experience God’s goodness.
• They also experience Divine forbearance and longsuffering.
• But a blessing above and beyond these is the free offer of the gospel. That is, “not only” have they received “goodness, forbearance, and long-suffering” but, above and beyond these, they have received the “free offer of grace”.
• The free offer of the gospel is equivalent to an “invitation”. There is no notion here of the free offer being merely a command or a presentation of facts. No, quite simply it is a sincere earnest invitation.
• Of course there is an unspoken assumption here. For the people to be guilty of “standing out against… offers of grace in the gospel” it presupposes that they receive the free offer of the gospel in their preaching!
“If it appear that he hath not a due sense of his sins, endeavours ought to be used to convince him of his sins… that he may be truly affected with and humbled for them: and withal make known the danger of deferring repentance, and of neglecting salvation at any time offered”
The Directory for the Publick Worship of God, Concerning Visitation of the Sick
Those who penned the Westminster Standards were aware of their pastoral responsibilities. If someone outside of Christ were unwell, it was the duty of the minister when visiting them to point them to their need of salvation and the danger of neglecting the salvation that was offered to them.
“If he hath endeavoured to walk in the ways of holiness, and to serve God in uprightness, although not without many failings and infirmities; or, if his spirit be broken with the sense of sin, or cast down through want of the sense of God’s favour; then it will be fit to raise him up, by setting before him the freeness and fulness of God’s grace, the sufficiency of righteousness in Christ, the gracious offers in the gospel, that all who repent, and believe with all their heart in God’s mercy through Christ, renouncing their own righteousness, shall have life and salvation in him.”
The Directory for the Publick Worship of God, Concerning visitation of the sick
The free offer of the gospel has other pastoral applications. Reminding people of the “gracious offers in the gospel” can “raise up” the spirits of those who are downcast in their souls.
It is interesting to note the adjective given to the offer of the gospel is “gracious”. The offer of the gospel (even to those who never believe) is gracious and flows from the goodness of God.
Second the Shorter Catechism. This can be found at http://www.epcew.org.uk/wsc/index.html.
Q. 31. What is effectual calling?
A. 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.
Shorter Catechism, Q31
This question expounds basic reformed theology – irresistible grace. But it is worth noting that in the work of bringing us to God, the Spirit draws us to Christ, enabling us to embrace him as he is “freely offered to us in the gospel”. So fundamental to the Westminster view of the outworking of the Spirit’s drawing us to Christ is the free offer of the gospel. It is as we receive this offer that we are drawn to Christ.
Q. 86. What is faith in Jesus Christ?
A. Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.
Shorter Catechism, Q86
This covers similar ground to Q.31 but this time from the perspective of faith. Again when we come to address the subject of faith, the free offer of the gospel is key. It is here we come to the pastoral implications of the free offer. How can I “receive and rest” upon him [Christ] unless he is offered to me? How can I “receive and rest” upon him [Christ] if I don’t know whether he is willing to receive me?
Third let’s look at the Larger Catechism. This can be found at http://www.epcew.org.uk/wlc/index.html.
Q. 32. How is the grace of God manifested in the second covenant?
A. The grace of God is manifested in the second covenant, in that he freely provideth and offereth to sinners a Mediator, and life and salvation by him; and requiring faith as the condition to interest them in him, promiseth and giveth his Holy Spirit to all his elect, to work in them that faith, with all other saving graces; and to enable them unto all holy obedience, as the evidence of the truth of their faith and thankfulness to God, and as the way which he hath appointed them to salvation.
Larger Catechism, Q32
This question highlights a distinction between the grace of God being manifest in a common way and a special way. The common grace is that God “freely provideth and offereth to sinners a Mediator, and life and salvation by him; and requiring faith as the condition to interest them in him”. The special grace is that God “promiseth and giveth his Holy Spirit to all his elect, to work in them that faith”. So the free offer of the gospel is a manifestation of common grace or goodness. Interestingly of course this is set in the context of covenant (a point I highlighted last week).
Q. 63. What are the special privileges of the visible church?
A. The visible church hath the privilege of being under God’s special care and government; of being protected and preserved in all ages, notwithstanding the opposition of all enemies; and of enjoying the communion of saints, the ordinary means of salvation, and offers of grace by Christ to all the members of it in the ministry of the gospel, testifying, that whosoever believes in him shall be saved, and excluding none that will come unto him.
Larger Catechism, Q63
This question highlights the idea that receiving the free offer of the gospel is a “privilege”. Even though it may be rejected and become a “savour of death” (2 Cor 2:16), to be given the free offer in itself is a privilege and not a curse.
Q. 67. What is effectual calling?
A. Effectual calling is the work of God’s almighty power and grace, whereby (out of his free and special love to his elect, and from nothing in them moving him thereunto) he doth, in his accepted time, invite and draw them to Jesus Christ, by his Word and Spirit; savingly enlightening their minds, renewing and powerfully determining their wills, so as they (although in themselves dead in sin) are hereby made willing and able freely to answer his call, and to accept and embrace the grace offered and conveyed therein.
Larger Catechism, Q67
Q. 68. Are the elect only effectually called?
A. All the elect, and they only, are effectually called: although others may be, and often are, outwardly called by the ministry of the Word, and have some common operations of the Spirit; who, for their wilful neglect and contempt of the grace offered to them, being justly left in their unbelief, do never truly come to Jesus Christ.
Larger Catechism, Q68
These two questions and answers on effectual calling expand on the one question in the shorter catechism. They highlight the difference between the elect and the non-elect. But interestingly there is no difference when it comes to the free offer of the gospel. Both receive this. Both also see some work of the Holy Spirit in their lives but for the non-elect it is only “some common operations” for they are not objects of God’s “free and special love to his elect”.
Fourth let’s look at the Westminster Confession of Faith itself. This can be found at http://www.epcew.org.uk/wcf/index.html.
Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein 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 eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.
The interesting points here are:
• That the free offer is set within the context of covenant theology
• That the free offer is made to sinners as sinners
• The elect only will, in addition to receiving the offer, be enabled to accept (close with) the offer
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.
This makes points which have already been covered by the Shorter and Larger Catechisms.
So I think we have seen that as far as the Westminster Standards go the free offer of the gospel is an important part of their system of doctrine.
• According to the directory of public worship the free offer permeates the preaching of the word and prayer in worship, and it should also be on your mind when visiting the sick.
• According to the shorter catechism the free offer is central to the doctrines of effectual calling and faith.
• The larger catechism adds common grace, covenant theology and the doctrine of the church (ecclesiology).
• The WCoF highlights covenant theology as the context for the free offer of the gospel
So if you disagree with the Westminster Standards doctrine of the free offer it is likely at the root you will find disagreement with at least one of the Westminster Standards views of:
• Preaching, prayer and the pastoral work
• Effectual calling
• Common grace
I’ve left out two references as I didn’t think they were germane to the thrust of this post. There are also other sections of the standards which speak to the offer of the gospel (e.g. WCoF 10:4) but I have only picked out sections which use the word offer.
Now the Westminster confession was not the first reformed confession to include the free offer of the gospel. See also:
The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man.
39 Articles, Article 7
Article 8: The Serious Call of the Gospel
Nevertheless, all who are called through the gospel are called seriously. For seriously and most genuinely God makes known in his Word what is pleasing to him: that those who are called should come to him. Seriously he also promises rest for their souls and eternal life to all who come to him and believe.
Article 9: Human Responsibility for Rejecting the Gospel
The fact that many who are called through the ministry of the gospel do not come and are not brought to conversion must not be blamed on the gospel, nor on Christ, who is offered through the gospel, nor on God, who calls them through the gospel and even bestows various gifts on them, but on the people themselves who are called. Some in self-assurance do not even entertain the Word of life; others do entertain it but do not take it to heart, and for that reason, after the fleeting joy of a temporary faith, they relapse; others choke the seed of the Word with the thorns of life’s cares and with the pleasures of the world and bring forth no fruits. This our Savior teaches in the parable of the sower (Matt. 13).
The Canons of Dordt, The Third and Fourth Main Points of Doctrine, Articles8& 9