Weekly Update 9

“A little view and short series of the gospel”

What kind of answer would you get if you asked a Puritan or seventeenth century Scottish Presbyterian to define the gospel in 200 words or less?

Well, of course you would get protestations along the lines of “My book titles are normally longer than 200 words; how can you ask me to define anything in less than a book title!!” But if you pressed the issue, what you would get is an answer along the lines of the following blog post.

That is because this week I’ve been thinking (in between reading Torrance’s Scottish Theology) about Durham’s “little view and short series of the gospel.” (Review of Torrance coming to a blog near you soon.)

This “short series” is found in Durham’s The Unsearchable Riches of Christ, Soli Deo Gloria, Morgan, r2002, p311-315.

Durham begins his “short series of the gospel” by defining to whom this gospel speaks: “This is the object of the gospel: sinners. The persons for whom Christ has made his testament, and to whom he has left his legacies are sinners, sinful men and women”.

Note the wide terms in which Durham begins. He does not define the object of the gospel as the elect, but more simply as sinners. That is the character of those whom Christ came to save – sinners.

He continues: “There is a grand design laid by God from eternity for the saving of many sinners, and for procuring to them remission of sins, the fruit of the ancient counsel of the blessed and glorious Trinity.”

Note well the Trinitarian thrust of Durham’s gospel. All the three all glorious and
ever blessed persons of the Trinity are intimately involved in our salvation.

(The following bit of my commentary here will probably only make sense if you are familiar with the “Calvin vs. the Calvinists” school of historical theology. If you aren’t, move on and be thankful!)

One of T.F. Torrance’s big beefs with seventeenth century reformed theology is that it is not “Trinitarian” enough. Well here in Durham’s little “sum of the gospel” is a statement that our salvation is explicitly Trinitarian. Of course what Durham is referring to in talking about this “ancient counsel” is also known as the “covenant of redemption”. Now Torrance may not like that, but it can hardly be on the basis that it is not Trinitarian.

Durham continues: “What Christ aims at in all His ordinances is to get sinners pardoned and freed from the curse due to them for sin…”

Again what grabs the attention is the terms Durham uses to express the gospel. Christ aims at the conversion of “sinners”. The terms used are as large and indefinite as possible.

He continues: “There is a covenant well-ordered, suited, and fitted to promote this great and glorious end and design of saving sinners… There is a transaction between God and the Mediator; a Surety and Cautioner is provided to take on the debt of the elect, and to satisfy justice to the fullest for all their sins.”

But Durham is no Arminian, or even Amyraldian. While the covenant is “fitted” to promote the “saving [of] sinners,” the atonement is in no way to be construed as universal in extent. It is a full and complete satisfaction of justice for the sins of the elect. But the return to universal language is immediate…

“According to this covenant and transaction our blessed Lord Jesus has really, actually and fully satisfied for the sins of believers, according to his undertaking. So that, as in the counsel of God, that great trust was put upon him and he undertook the work of sinners’ redemption…”

So we are back with indefinite terms such as “sinners” and “believers”. But what is interesting here, and in the earlier posts, is the emphasis Durham puts on “covenant” in his “short series of the gospel.” The impact of Durham’s covenant theology on his understanding of the gospel offer is something I need to understand further.

Of course the section of the Westminster Confession I’m looking at in my thesis is section 7 entitled “Of God’s Covenant With Man”. And the specific section I’m doing a case study on is “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; wherein He freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in Him that they may be saved…” So the fact that Durham puts the gospel offer in the context of covenant is in line with the Westminster Confession.

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?

Now we come to the piece de resistance of Durham’s “short series of the gospel”:

“As our blessed Lord Jesus Christ has purchased this redemption and remission, so he is most willing, desirous, and pressing that sinners to whom the gospel is offered should make use of his righteousness and of the purchase made thereby to the end that they may have remission of sins and eternal life… He [Christ] is (to speak with reverence) passionately desirous that sinners should endeavour on good ground to be sure of it [salvation] in themselves. Therefore he kindly puts it; in a legacy; makes a serious offer of it, and strongly confirms it to all who embrace it.”

So part of the “short series of the gospel” is that Christ is “willing, desirous, and pressing” that all to whom the gospel is offered have remission of sins. One of the “kind” expressions of this “passionate desire” is the “serious offer” of salvation.

So if you ever hear someone saying that it is wrong, unreformed, Arminian, and so on to preach of Christ (or the Father – for Durham says that as well, elsewhere) “desiring the salvation” of all hearers of the gospel, you now know that that is wrong. Now I am well aware that some reformed writers (e.g. Rutherford) pulled out of context can be made to seemingly disagree with what Durham preached above. But as we saw in Weekly Update 4, Rutherford actually does use “desire” in the same way as Durham does here. It is only when the word is being used while dressed up in an Arminian suit that he objects.

By the way, does anyone see in Durham a presentation of the gospel dominated by a priori conceptions of predestination, reprobation and limited atonement? No, thought not. Neither did I.

This week I’ve also been dipping into a 1996 Aberdeen University PhD thesis which covers Durham. It is entitled The popularisation of federal theology: conscience and covenant in the theology of David Dickson (1583-1663) and James Durham (1622-1658). The author is N.D. Holsteen. It makes an interesting read with some good helpful points, and also some points to disagree with.

I’m not sure what next week will cover yet. Maybe Durham on Common Grace.

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