Archive for July, 2007

Weekly Update 13

July 28, 2007

For the next few weeks I’m going to be blogging through one of the best sermons I have ever read.  It is Gospel Presentations are the Strongest Invitations.  This sermon of Durham’s is found in The Unsearchable Riches of Christ, Rept. Morgan:  Soli Deo Gloria, p43-79.  It is the locus classicus for the free offer in Durham’s preaching, and probably for Scottish preaching of the mid-seventeenth century in general.  It was speaking of this sermon that Durham’s co-pastor and brother-in-law John Carstairs said:

…he [Durham] spoke some way as a man who had been in heaven, commending Jesus Christ, making a glorious display of the banner of free grace, holding forth the riches of it very clearly and convincingly. He brought the offers thereof very low, wonderfully low, so that, in hearing some of those sermons, particularly the one on Matthew 22, I was made to think that the rope or cord of the offer of salvation was let down and hung so low to sinners that those of the lowest stature among them all, though but as pygmies might catch hold of it, who through grace had any mind to do so. He so vehemently and urgently pressed home on so sweet and easy terms to be embraced that I have been sometimes made to wonder how the hearers could refuse or shift them.
Carstairs, pvii

I think that should whet appetites for the contents of this sermon!

Gospel Presentations are the Strongest Invitations 

“All things are ready: come unto the marriage.”
Matthew 22:4

Durham begins his sermon by noting straight from the text:

The preaching of the gospel is like a man’s making a marriage for his son.

This illustration of the gospel as a man [God] coming to woo for marriage is used again and again by Durham throughout his sermons.

God the Father, and the King’s Son the Bridegroom, are not only content and willing, but very desirous to have sinners come to the marriage. They would fain (to speak with reverence) have poor souls espoused to Christ.

One of the most basic things assumed in asking someone to marry you is that you want them to say yes.  Otherwise why would you ask them?  So why does God, to speak with reverence, invite sinners to the marriage with Christ?  According to Durham the answer is because he “is not only content and willing, but very desirous to have sinners come to the marriage”.  Durham is quite happy here to follow the scriptural metaphor through to this conclusion – God is “real” in his offers as we saw last week.  Durham uses “desire” or “desirous” on a number of occasions in his preaching to speak of God’s attitude to the Gospel offer.

When the Master sends out His servants in His name their great work is to invite to the wedding and to close the marriage.

We have seen this point before.  For Durham the great work of ministers is to invite people to come to Christ.  If a minister is not doing this, then they are failing in their great work.

When people are invited to this marriage, it is their duty … to come.

Again we have seen this point before.  Durham believed in duty faith.  He stands in direct opposition to later hypercalvinistic developments as seen in e.g. John Gill.

I’m going to have to stop here as it is late.  The themes of God’s willingness to save sinners, of the importance of the free offer of the gospel to proper preaching and of duty faith are common in Durham and will recurr as we go through this sermon.

This week I’ve finished reading Thomas, G.M. The Extent of the Atonement: A Dilemma for Reformed Theology from Calvin to the Consensus. Carlisle: Paternoster Publishing, Paternoster Biblical and Theological Monographs, 1997.  Though I wouldn’t accept a number of key points in his thesis he does a good job of touring round a number of neglected early reformed theologians.  He did highlight some comments made in submissions to the Synod of Dort which were essentially hypercalvinistic, which surprised me.  (Basically a couple of submissions said the gospel was only for “thirsty” sinners and nothing is offered to men in general.)  Given the actual wording of the Cannons, which we saw in weekly update 10, it appears Dort rejected these submissions out of hand – thankfully!

In terms of work coming up I have a bundle of theses to read through including:

Williams, C.A. The Decree of Redemption is in effect a Covenant: David Dickson and the Covenant of Redemption, PhD. Calvin Theological Seminary, 2005

Van Dixhoorn, C.B. Anglicans, Anarchists and the Westminster Assembly: The Making of a Pulpit Theology, MTh, Westminster Theological Seminary, 2000

Su, Yohan. The Contribution of Scottish Covenant Theology to the Discussions of the Westminster Assembly (1643-1648) and its Continuing Significance to the Marrow Controversy (1717-1723). PhD, University of Glamorgan, 1993

Weekly Update 12

July 21, 2007

Back to Durham at last!  But err…. not on either of the subjects I mentioned last week (common grace and the pastoral benefits of definite/efficacious atonement).  I will post on these subjects in the coming weeks but this week I want to post Durham’s responses to two common objections to accepting the gospel among hearers of Reformed preaching:

  • Election of a limited number of individuals to salvation
  • The inability of man to believe apart from special divine grace

First let’s set some context.  Durham has just gone through two vital areas with his congregation:

1) The “grounds that a lost sinner has to receive Christ”

These are “the fullness and sufficiency of the mediator Jesus Christ”, “the well orderedness, freeness and fullness of the covenant of grace” and “the nature of the offer of grace in the gospel” (Christ Crucified: Or the Marrow of the Gospel, Dallas, Naphtali Press, 2001, p124-125).

 2) The “warrants and encouragements a sinner has” to come to Christ

First, Durham notes the free offer of the gospel provides all the warrant anyone needs to trust on Christ.   “Do you not think that the offer of the gospel is a sufficient warrant, and ground of encouragement to believe on him?” p125.  He also makes the interesting statement “If you think Christ real in  his commands, is he not real in his offers?”  For Durham the gospel offer is “real”.  It is, and by its nature must be, genuine and well-meant.

Second, Durham notes that “He has so ordered the administration of this gospel, as he has purposely prevented any ground that folks may have of scaring  [fearing] to close with Christ” p125.  Durham notes Rev 22:17 Whosoever will, let him come and take of the water of life freely and comments “It is not only, to say so with reverence, those whom he [God] wills, but it is whosoever will” p125.  Durham goes on to note that Christ “sometimes weeps and moans because sinners will not be gathered (as Luke 19:41-42 and Matt 23:27).  Can there be any greater evidences of reality in any offer?” p125.  The last part here is very important.  For Durham it is impossible to conceive of an offer more genuine than the free offer in the gospel.  (This use of Christ’s weeping over lost sinners is similar to what we saw in Clarkson’s preaching a few weeks ago).

Durham also notes we receive a warrant to believe from “the manner and form of God’s administration” namely by “covenant and many promises” which God has ratified by an oath making them doubly sure.  The great command being to believe (1 John 3:23) also gives us warrant to take Christ as our Saviour (p126-127).

Durham concludes this section on warrants to believe, with a stirring exhortation:

“… we would again exhort you, in the name of Jesus Christ, and in his stead, not to neglect so great salvation.  O!  Receive the grace of God, and let it not be in vain.” p127

Having considered the grounds and warrants of faith, Durham proceeds to “remove a doubt or two, that may stand in the way of sinners resting on this ground”.  I’ll consider these in turn.

First Durham considers the objection from election.  “It may be some will say, that the covenant is not broad enough, because all are not elected, all are not redeemed nor appointed to be heirs of salvation…” p127.  Durham responds to this in two ways:

  • He denies that election is the cause of anyone’s unbelief.  “How absurd is this reasoning… we are… speaking… to the nature of the gospel; so that, whoever perish, it is not because they were not elected, but because they believe not; and the bargain is not of the less worth, nor the less sure, because some will not believe…”p127.
  • Durham says that to seek knowledge about whether I am elect or not before I will believe in Christ is to “overturn the whole course of Christ’s administration, and of the covenant of his grace” for “Did he [Christ] ever, a priori, or at first hand, tell folks they were elected? … God’s eternal purpose or decree is not the rule of our duty, nor the warrant of our faith, but his revealed will in his word…” p127.

So Durham essentially says, no one will be condemned on the ground of being non-elect so this should not be your concern.  Unbelief is what men will be condemned for so worry about that!  And in any case no one can know whether they are elect or not apart from coming to Christ.  So don’t worry yourself about the hidden things, look to the revealed will of God and act accordingly.

I think this fits in well with the WCoF’s direction that “The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men, attending the will of God revealed in His Word…”

Next Durham considers the objection from the moral inability of man to believe.  “But secondly some may object and say, “I am indeed convinced that believing is my duty; but that believing being a thing I cannot do, why therefore should I set about it?”  Durham again answers in two ways:

  • First “This is a most unreasonable and absurd way of reasoning; for if it be given way to, what duty shall we do?  We are not of ourselves able to pray, praise, keep the Lord’s day, nor to do any other commanded duty; shall we therefore abstain from all commanded duties?  Our ability or fitness for duty, is not the rule of our duty, but God’s command; and we are called to put our hand to duty; in the sense of our own insufficiency, acknowledging God’s sufficiency; which if we did we should find it go better with us…” p127
  • Second “None that ever heard this gospel, shall in the day of judgment have this to object… that they would fain have believed, but their mere infirmity, weakness and inability did impede them.  For it is our sin and guilt that we are unable; yet where the gospel comes, that is not the controversy, but that folks would not come to Christ, would not be gathered, that when he would, they would not…” p128

So Durham answers that apart from God we are unable to do anything, but that doesn’t stop us going about other duties, so why should it stop us believing?  In any case, the real issue is not that “we would believe if we could, but we can’t”.  Rather it is that we are unwilling to believe, even though Christ is willing that we should come to him.

I think that gives quite a clear indication of how Durham responded to arguments against receiving the free offer of the gospel from election and moral inability.

Having discussed these momentus subjects Durham notes “If folks soberly and gravely considered of what concernment it is to make use of the gospel, and what depends on the profitable and unprofitable hearing of it, how serious would both speakers and hearers be?” p131.  The utter levity of a lot of modern “reformed” preaching (where jokes outnumber exhortations to believe in Christ) is a sad sign that we have lost sight of “what depends on the profitable and unprofitable hearing” of preaching, namely, the eternal destiny of souls.  How many today preach “as never sure to preach again, as a dying man to dying men”?

I’ll close with a little plug.  If you go to the May edition of the Free Church Witness ( then you will find an article Towards a Christian View of Recreation by yours truly.  It was on pages 8&9 in the print version  but the pages are a bit random on the online version when my article is on pages 15 & 18!  The mystery Puritan I quote is of course George Swinnock.  See, I do occasionally talk about things besides the free offer of the gospel!

Weekly Update 11

July 14, 2007

John Calvin on Faith & the Free Offer of the Gospel

I will get back to Durham next week, DV, but I’m going to stick with Calvin for this weekly update. This week I’ve been typing up some of my notes on Calvin’s Institutes. One of the things that struck me was how similar Calvin’s definition of faith is to the Westminster Standards. I’ll take you on a tour of Calvin and highlight the similarities with Westminster.

We need the promise of grace which can testify to us that the Father is merciful; since we can approach him in no other way, and upon his grace alone the heart of man can rest… it would not help us to know at all that God is true unless he mercifully attracted us to himself. Nor would it have been in our power to embrace his mercy if he had not offered it… It will be rash for us to decide that God is well disposed towards us unless he give witness of himself, and anticipate us by his call… Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence towards us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ.
John Calvin, Institutes Vol 1, p550-551 (I apologise again for the shoddy manner in which I am giving these references. Once again I lack the time to give the book/chapter/subsection numbers.)

There are a number of vital points to be drawn out here:
• Without the “promise of grace” salvation is impossible. We “need” that to know that “the Father is merciful”.
• If God had not “offered” his mercy to us in particular salvation would have been impossible. For unless God “anticipated” us his “offer” and “promise” and “call” it would have been “rash” for us to believe he were “well disposed towards us”.
• Faith must be “founded upon” the free offer of mercy in Christ.

So for Calvin the free offer of the gospel is so foundational to faith, that faith is (properly speaking) impossible without it. We saw a similar point from the Westminster Standards in Weekly Update 10.

Faith embraces Christ as offered to us by the Father (cf. John 6:29).
John Calvin, Vol 1, p552

This is virtually identical to the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q86 which is “Q. 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.”

So we need to be cautious when people draw a dichotomy between Calvin’s view of faith/assurance and that of the Westminster Standards. Especially given that the definition of faith is virtually identical and that the free offer of the gospel is the key to both! Perhaps it is because the free offer of the gospel has not received much attention in historical research that this view of a dichotomy has been allowed to develop?

Here, indeed, is the chief hinge on which faith turns: that we do not regard the promises of mercy that God offers as true only outside ourselves, but not at all in us; rather that we make them ours by inwardly embracing them.
John Calvin, Vol 1, p561

Appropriating the promises of mercy as true to us is the “chief hinge” of faith. Just as justification by faith alone, for Calvin, is the “chief hinge on which religion turns” so the free offer of the gospel is the “chief hinge” on which faith turns. It is that important.

We make the freely given promise of God the foundation of faith because upon it faith properly rests… Faith properly begins with the promise, rests in it and ends in it… Faith seeks life: a life that is not found in commandments or declarations of penalties, but in the promise of mercy, and only in a freely given promise… we must buttress [faith] with the promise of salvation, which is willingly and freely offered to us by the Lord… there is nothing that can establish faith except the generous embassy by which God reconciles the world to himself [cf. 2 Cor. 5:19-20]… the gospel is the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ [2 Cor 5:18], no other sufficiently firm testimony of God’s benevolence to us exists, the knowledge of which faith seeks.
John Calvin, Vol 1, p575

So once again Calvin emphasises that the free offer of the gospel (“freely given promise”) is foundational to faith. It is the “willingly” and “freely” offered gospel promises which “buttress” faith. Indeed “nothing” can establish faith but the free offer of the gospel expressed in the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ which is a “sufficiently firm” testimony of God’s “benevolence” to us.

There is no promise of [God’s] which is not a testimony of his love… Nothing prevents [the wicked], in habitually rejecting the promises intended for them, from thereby bringing upon themselves a greater vengeance. For although the effectiveness of the promises only appears when they have aroused faith in us, yet the force and peculiar nature of the promises are never extinguished by our unfaithfulness and ingratitude. Therefore since the Lord, by his promises, invites man not only to receive the fruits of his kindness but also to think about them, he at the same time declares his love to man. Hence we must return to the point: that any promise whatsoever is a testimony of God’s love towards us.
John Calvin, Vol 1, p579

This is very interesting. To be given the free offer of the gospel is “a testimony of God’s love”. Even to those who reject the promises, “the peculiar nature of the promises are never extinguished”. Even to the wicked “any promise whatsoever is a testimony of God’s love”. Thus, for Calvin, the free offer of the gospel is an expression of God’s love, even to those who never believe.

Weekly Update 11 – Postponed

July 7, 2007

Apologies but there won’t be an update this week. We have guests staying and there isn’t the time to gather together anything worth posting on. I do know what I’ll post on in the next couple of weeks:

• Durham on the pastoral benefits of believing in a definite (limited/efficacious) atonement
• Durham on common grace. I didn’t post on this last week as Durham’s essay on common grace in largely a friendly polemic against some of Richard Baxter’s views expressed in his Saints Everlasting Rest. I therefore needed more time to consider the relevant portion in Baxter’s work before I could fully grasp the context of what Durham was saying.

In the mean time here is a quote from Calvin on common grace which teaches us again regarding the importance of context in interpreting anyone’s writings. Hear Calvin:

If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole foundation of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonour the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we contemn and reproach the Spirit himself. What then? Shall we deny that truth shone upon the ancient jurists… philosophers… [they] who developed medicine… mathematical sciences. Shall we consider them the ravings of madmen? No… we marvel at them because we are compelled to recognise how pre-eminent they are. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognising at the same time that it comes from God?… Let us accordingly learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human virtue even after it was despoiled of its true good… we ought not to forget those most excellent benefits of the divine Spirit, which he distributes to whomsoever he wills, for the common good of mankind… Nor is there reason for anyone to ask, What have the impious, who are utterly estranged from God, to do with his Spirit? We ought to understand the statement that the Spirit of God dwells only in believers [Rom 8:9] as referring to the Spirit of sanctification through whom we are consecrated as temples to God [1 Cor 3:16].

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (2 Vols.), The Library of Christian Classics Vol XX. & XXI, Ed. John T. McNeill, Trans, F.L. Battles, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, n.d., p273-275 (I know I should give the book, chapter, and subsection number but I don’t have the work to hand now or the time to look it up!)

So ok it is clear that Calvin believes in the common grace. The Spirit gives many “excellent benefits” to the “impious” for the “common good of mankind”. But lo and behold a few pages later Calvin says this:

“We have nothing of the Spirit, however, except through regeneration”.
Vol 1 p289

So here Calvin says only the regenerate have the Spirit. This quote could easily be highlighted by someone to “prove” Calvin did not believe in common grace/operations if the Spirit. Only the “regenerate” have the Spirit. Of course that would be an absolute travesty of Calvin’s actual views. For in our earlier quotation Calvin said “We ought to understand the statement that the Spirit of God dwells only in believers [Rom 8:9] as referring to the Spirit of sanctification”. So when Calvin denies the Spirit to the unregenerate he is speaking of the sanctifying activity of the Spirit.

This is why “proof texting” from Calvin (or Owen or Rutherford etc) is a dangerous pastime. Time must be taken to understand the context of any particular quotation and any other statements in the authors writings which impinge on the topic must be considered. To e.g. read a Display of Arminianism and then to thing you understand Owen’s mature thought and exegesis is a mistake. Now of course the fundamentals are unlikely to have changed, but emphasis may change and so may exegesis of particular passages.

Calvin very convictingly said, “If you ask me concerning the precepts of the Christian religion, first, second, third, and always I would answer ‘Humility’.”
Vol 1, p269

If you were to ask me the precepts of Historical Theology first, second, third, and always I would answer “context”!