Fairbairn on the Free Offer (He’s good here too!)

Patrick Fairbairn was probably the best exegete the Free Church of Scotland produced.  Sinclair Ferguson says that he “was one of the brightest stars in the galaxy of brilliant biblical theologians in nineteenth century Scotland.”  His works on The Interpretation of Prophecy, The Typology of Scripture, The Revelation of Law in Scripture and Opening Scripture: A Hermeneutical Manual Introducing the Exegetical Study of the New Testament are magisterial treatments of the subjects covered from a reformed perspective.  In addition to these works the application of Fairbairn’s exegetical principles can be see in his works on Ezekiel, The Pastoral Epistles and Jonah.  He also wrote a work on Pastoral Theology.

I might post some time on Fairbarin’s painstaking work on how the NT writers quoted the OT.  Roger Nicole comments “It is high time that in the midst of controversies in which all kinds of accusations are leveled against the use of the Old Testament by New Testament authors that the painstaking work of Patrick Fairbairn and his monumental scholarship be once again taken into consideration.  I am sure that those who read his volumes will find themselves amply rewarded.” (Standing Forth: Collected Writings of Roger Nicole, Mentor, 2002, 87).  Sadly, it is evident that Nicole’s plea has not been headed.

However, this week I’m posting on his views on the free offer as his works on the Pastoral Epistles and Ezekiel touch on two verses related to the free offer debate:

[God] who wills/desires all men to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.
1 Tim 2:4

Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? says the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?
Ezek 18:23 & 33:11

Fairbairn understands these verses to speak of the desire of God for the salvation of all who hear the gospel.  On 1 Tim 2:4 Fairbairn comments, “And the whole character of the Gospel of Christ, with its universal Call to repent, its indiscriminate offers of pardon to the penitent, and urgent entreaties to lay hold of the hope set before them, is framed on the very purpose to give expression to that will;[1] for, surely, in pressing such things on men’s acceptance, yea, and holding them disobedient to His holy will, and liable to aggravated condemnation, if they should refuse to accept, God cannot intend to mock them with a mere show and appearance of some great reality being brought near to them.  No; there is the manifestation of a benevolent desire that they should not die in sin, but should come to inherit salvation (as at Ezek. xxxiii. 11) … This, necessarily, is implied; and it is the part of the church … to give practical effect to this message of goodwill from Heaven to men, and to do it in the spirit of tenderness and affection which itself breathes.” (The Pastoral Epistles, 114). 

[1] Fairbairn defines will here as revealed will i.e. not with any “implied purpose or intent”.

Now Fairbairn is aware that given God elects some to salvation and not others, and that God does not even send the gospel to some “grave questions are ready to arise as to whether  … God can be sincere in seeking through His church the salvation of all.”  In framing a response to this he notes that these things touch on “the deep things of God” and that “it is impossible for us, with the materials we now posses, to answer satisfactorily to the speculative reason.”  However, “Knowing who and what He is with whom in such things we have to do, we should rest assured that His procedure will be in truth and uprightness; and the mysteries which meanwhile appear to hang around it will be solved … when the proper time for doing so shall have arrived.” (Ibid, 115).  As I read him, he goes on to limit “all” in v6 to be speaking of “not the preserved of Israel alone, nor a few scattered members besides of other nations, but also the fullness of the Gentiles” (Ibid, 117) i.e. all refers to Jews + Gentiles not Jews only.

Given his reference to Ezekiel 33:11 above Fairbairn’s understanding of this text is clear but I’ll quote it for completeness: “You [unbelieving Israel] think of me as if I were a heartless being, indifferent to the calamities that befall my children [outward covenant people], and even delighting to inflict chastisement on them for sins they have not committed.  So far from this, I have no pleasure in the destruction of those who by their own transgressions have deserved it, but would rather that they turn from their ways and live.  Thus he presents himself as a God of holy love, – love yearning over the lost condition of wayward children, and earnestly desiring their return to peace and safety…” (Ezekiel, 207).

In these extracts Fairbairn is simply expressing standard Free Church of Scotland doctrine.  [I hope Fairbairn’s misguided (in my view) support for Moody & Sanky and union with the United Presbyterians will not devalue what he has to say on this subject.]

Now in offering Fairbairn’s understanding of 1 Tim 2:4 I am not asserting that it is the only viable reformed view of that text (or even necessarilly mine).  Whilst Charles Hodge and many others take the same view as Fairbairn, a large group who have held firmly to the free offer have understood “all men” in this text as limited in application to the elect.  There is no “consent of the Reformed fathers” on how texts like 1 Tim 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9 and John 3:16 are to be understood. (Although there probably is on Ezek 18:32!)  Exegesis of these text as relates to the meaning of “world” or “all” is not a case of “reformed” or “not reformed” but, rather, is a debate between confessional reformed believers who all affirm the well meant offer.

4 Responses to “Fairbairn on the Free Offer (He’s good here too!)”

  1. David Says:

    Hey Donald,

    I see your qualifier at the end. The good thing tho is that opting for an unlimited reading on any or all of the verses you list is not a betrayal of Calvinism. I am not saying you are saying that, I know you are not. Yet so many out there think that it is. There are so many “Calvinists” on- and off-line who think that an unlimited reading of Jn 3:16, etc is an absolute denial of Calvinism. I wish we could get away that. Sometimes, tho, it feels like pushing a heavy stone up-hill.


  2. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi David

    Yes, people need to be aware that there is not a uniform “reformed” or “calvinist” way of understanding 1 Tim 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9 and John 3:16. To speak as if there is evidences a lack of historical knowledge.

    Every blessing
    Donald John

  3. Don Says:

    A most excellent work on this subject that really nails it down precisely is Christ Freely Offered, by Ken Stebbins, a rebuttal David Englesma of the protestant Reformed Church in his book Hyper-Calvinsm and the Call of the Gospel.
    The book may have to be ordered from the seminary in Australia but I hope to obtain permission to post it online someday. I have asked him to do a new edition where he also agrees he would need to soften his criticism of the Marrowmen, that being what Fisher a non-elder, wrote in the allegorical text of The Marrow Of Modern Divinity, having 1 or two possible mis-statements is not what the ministers who utilized this famous work would say themselves, Boston having clearly explained the whole matter masterfully in the Appendix to the book.

    I heartily recommend Stebbins book to all who proclaim the free offer that they may in carefulness not misrepresent the truth of God, honor Him and proclaim the free offer without falling into the subtle error of the Arminians.
    Covenanter Press, John Knox Theological College Sydney, Aus where he lectured.

  4. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Yes, I think Stebbins work is good. He does effectively dismantle the PRC polemic.

    He is also fair in his historical analysis (although he does get the Marrowmen wrong as you say) in that he notes that virtually every reformed theologian of note from Calvin down has used the word desire in connection with the free offer. I, however, don’t share his misgivings over this word – it has a very well attested historical pedigree in Reformed theology, and in scriputre.

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