Rutherford: Is the preaching of the gospel Common Grace?

There are those who argue that it is “unreformed” to speak of a universal gospel promise to all who hear the preaching of the gospel.  There are also those who argue that it is “unreformed” to speak of the preached gospel as a common grace even to those who never believe.  By this standard Samuel Rutherford is unreformed.  Let me explain Rutherford’s position on all this and the gospel offer.

First Rutherford has no problem with the terminology of the gospel as an offer noting all who hear preaching “are under the call and offer of Christ in the Preached Gospel” (The Covenant of Life Opened (Edinburgh: Andrew Anderson, 1655), 86).

Second Rutherford argues that this preached Gospel contains a promise to all the hearers of it, even the reprobate.  Speaking on the basis of Acts 2:38-9, (Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the LORD our God shall call) he states:

“… the promise and word of the Covenant is preached to you … Now to Simon Magus and Demas, and numbers of such, Peter could not say the promise is made to you … if it only be made to really and actual believers … [but] an offer of Christ is made in the preached Gospel to you.  Then it cannot be denied, but the promise is to all the Reprobate in the Visible Church whether they believe or not, for Christ is preached and the promises of the Covenant are preached to Simon Magus, to Judas, and all the Hypocrites who stumble at the Word…”
Ibid, 87-8

This is really important for Rutherford as he argues that if there is no universal gospel promise there can be no “command … to hear the Gospel and the covenant offer made in Christ” and sinners can have no “warrant” to appropriate the gospel to themselves “until they be believers” and have a promise (Ibid, 89).  This would place sinners in a hopeless circle of despair i.e. I have no warrant to believe unless I believe but I cannot believe without some warrant (e.g. gospel promise to all).

Of course this general and conditional promise “believe and I will give you the Holy Spirit” is to be distinguished from the absolute promise made to the elect to give them a new heart which is not, by its very nature, common to all (Ibid, 92).

Thirdly it is necessary to distinguish between the will of God in the gospel offer and the will of God in the decree of election.  Rutherford notes that “the Reprobate in the Visible Church, be so under the Covenant of Grace, as some promises are made to them, and some mercies promised to them conditionally, and some reserved [i.e. to the elect] promises of a new heart, and of perseverance belong not to them.”  But this is not a problem because the conditional promises to all reveal “only the will of precept” (Ibid, 94).  So although “salvation be offered [to all] … [yet] it is intended in the Preached Gospel to none but to the elect..” (Ibid, 341).  The offer is the revealed will of God expressing his “approving, commanding and forbidding will … our obligation and duty … what is morally good and to be done” the later intention to only save the elect is God’s “purpose, or decree” (Ibid, 341-2).

Fourth this universal gospel promise or offer is an expression of God’s common grace and love.  Rutherford says that “It is a state of common grace to be within the visible church” i.e. to receive the gospel offer (Ibid, 107).  He further states, this external calling is of Grace and so Grace … For whosoever are called [externally], not because [they are] elect, but because freely loved of such a God… so are all within the Visible Church” (Ibid).

As an aside Rutherford speaks of the unconditional gospel promise where there is “no command” as follows:

… [Jer 31:31-33, Ezek 11:16-20, 36:25-27, Is 59:20-21] in a pure Evangelic way … the Lord speaks of the Covenant  … as principally it holds forth his Gospel promise, what he shall effectually do according to his decree … there is not one word of command in these places…
Ibid, 344

I need to read his explicit take on Luther as per Marty’s suggestions (too much fishing on holiday, not enough reading) but I suggest it is passages like this the Marrowmen were referring to as I mentioned here.


13 Responses to “Rutherford: Is the preaching of the gospel Common Grace?”

  1. Rutherford on the Free Offer « Heidelblog Says:

    […] July 7, 2008 in Uncategorized At James Durham Thesis […]

  2. Steven Carr Says:

    Samuel Rutherford: Proof that one can be a supralapsarian and hold to the free offer of the gospel. Of course Calvin is proof of that as well:)

  3. David Says:

    Hey Steve,

    For you, what would constitute counter-factual evidence that Calvin was not a supralapsarian?

    Would something like election out of the corrupt mass do it?

    Just wondering.

    Take care,
    David 🙂

  4. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi Steve

    Yes, Rutherford does indeed show that. It’s good he is so clear on this.

    However, I’m not convinced that we should call Calvin supra – though I’m aware quite a few from Battles to Fesko do. I’ve been influenced by T.C Johnson on this in his bio of Dabney where he says we should not call Calvin in on this debate as it is not something he explicitly covers.

    Every blessing

  5. David Says:

    hey Donald,

    Have you read Fesko? It was disappointing. It is very deductivist in its approach. And he leaves out relevant material from Calvin which demonstrate the opposite.

    Take care,

  6. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Yes, I’ve read Fesko. Here is Jonathan Moore’s take:

    John Fesko build his whole case for Ussher being a supralapsarian on Usher, Works, XI:203. However, this page does not even speak to the question, and, if any inference may be drawn at all, it would be that Ussher was infralapsarian … (Fesko, Diversity within the Reformed Tradition, pp. 247-48). More alarming still are the lengths to which Fesko goes in attempting to explain how “the supralapsarian Ussher” could have subsequently “composed” the “infralapsarian” Irish Articles … Similar mishandling of the evidence occurs throughout Fesko’s book.
    Jonathan Moore, English Hypothetic Universalism, (Eerdmans, 2007), 188

  7. Steven Carr Says:

    One the most in-depth articles which has the claim that Calvin was infra was Cunningham’s “Calvin and Beza.” Although Richard Muller’s article in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reappraisal, although it does not come out and say that Calvin was either Supra or Infra, at least shows that Calvin had no problems with Beza’s Supralapsarianism. I do not think that Calvin was either unaware of the issue since the Supra/Infra debate goes back to the Medieval Period, nor do I think that he was silent on the issue. On a side note, Zwinlgi’s Essay on Providence is considered by many to be Supra.

  8. Steven Carr Says:

    Strike out the “although” before “Richard Muller.” I wish these comment blocks had an edit button.

  9. Steven Carr Says:

    David, counter-factual evidence would have to be a fairly in-depth language study of Calvin. Comparing Supra language with Infra and then comparing Calvin. Here is an interesing quote from Calvin: “Here, surely, the fall of Adam is not presupposed as preceding God’s decree in time; but it is what God determined before all ages that is shown, when he willed to heal the misery of mankind.” Infra or Supra? You decide.

  10. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi Steve

    I think though that we have to construct Calvins’s lapsarian position rather that him present us with his view like later theologians? I think Derek Thomas holds this view as well, and this is what Cunningham says in the article referenced:

    “there is real ground for doubt … as to what Calvin’s sentiments upon this subject were; and the cause of this is, that the question was not discussed in his time, – that it does not seem to have been ever distinctly presented to his thoughts as a point to be investigated,- and that, in consequence, he has not been led to give a formal and explicit deliverance regarding it.” (p364).

    For me personally I prefer to keep away from this debate (following Dabney) and would probably find myself described by Cunningham:

    It is a point of abstract speculation upon the logical consequences of doctrines, rather than a matter of direct revelation; and it is one on which many judicious Calvinists, in modern times, have thought it unnecessary, if not unwarrantable, to give any formal or explicit deliverance,- while they have usually adhered to the ordinary representations of Scripture upon the subject, which are at least practically Sublapsarian.

    If pushed I’m infra but I do think the WCoF was wise to maintain liberty on this point.

    Every blessing

  11. David Says:

    Hey Steve,

    You cite Calvin: “Here, surely, the fall of Adam is not presupposed as preceding God’s decree in time; but it is what God determined before all ages that is shown, when he willed to heal the misery of mankind.” Infra or Supra? You decide.

    David: All Augustinians held and do hold that the fall was decreed or ordained. That is not a marker for a specific lapsarian ordering. What is the marker, as I understand it, is whether or not the objects of election and non-election were creatures conceived in the mind of God as in the pure pass, as creatable, but not yet created, not yet fallen.

    The issue is not are the so-called lapsarian decrees ‘unified’ but what is the nature of that unity. All accept that in the mind of God, the decrees are unified and coherent, but that is not the same as a supra-lapsarian ordering (even an infra- one). Turretin and Bavinck both have good discussions on this.

    Does that help clarify? What you would need from Calvin–to prove that was a supralapsarian–is something a little more specific.

    Take care,

  12. David Says:

    Hey Donald,

    I think some folk confuse Calvin’s commitment to the basic axiom “the last in action is the first in intention.” Calvin does have that operating in his system to some extent when he speaks of some being created for destruction. Here he speaks of their final ends of the reprobate, in terms of ‘remote’ goals of God. But how this works itself out via means is tricky in Calvin. He never “harmonizes” this idea by a supra-lapsarian schema.

    And we do know that he is clear that the objects of reprobation (preterition included) are fallen and sinful men and women. I think Calvin has two premises which at his time, never needed to be resolved into each other, or one to be excluded. So it would seem to be the case that if we speak of decretal mechanics, it is an election and reprobation of fallen creatures, out of the corrupt mass. If we ask him, what is the ultimate goal of God’s creation of the reprobate, he would say, their destruction, and that for the glory of God.

    Thus he has a “unity” with a causal-mechanic “diversity.”


  13. Rutherford on the Free Offer | The Heidelblog Says:

    […] At James Durham Thesis […]

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