No, it’s not that time of the year already! This post is about a sermon from the great Scottish preacher and theologian Thomas Chalmers entitled “On the Universality of the Gospel Offer” based on the words of Luke 2:14 (Thomas Chalmers, Sermons and Discourses, New York: Robert Carter, 1844, Vol 1, 234-241).
Why post on Thomas Chalmers? Well he is a significant figure in his own right and worthy of study. But more importantly he illustrates the way the disruption Free Church of Scotland understood the free offer of the gospel. There are two things necessary to understand how a creed functions within a church. First, it is necessary to understand the original intent of the confession. This is what I am looking at in my thesis. But in order to understand fully how a confession functions within a church it is necessary also to consider the animus imponentis or the intention of the church subscribing to the creed. Thomas Chalmers helps us to understand the intention of the disruption Free Church in confessing that Christ is “freely offered in the gospel” (WCF 7:3).
In his sermon on “good will toward men” Chalmers is not emphasising the terrors of the law (a necessary truth) or the glorious worth of the Saviour the gospel calls us to, but rather, he emphasises the well meant nature of the gospel offer. “The goodness of the things to which you are invited is one thing. The good-will with which you are invited is another. It is the latter argument which we are at present called upon to address to you.” (p235). By this good will Chalmers means “the desire of God after you – it is His compassionate longing to have back again to Himself, those sinful creatures who had wandered away from Him…” (p235)
Chalmers expounds on this good will in the gospel offer under three headings which we consider in turn.
I) The principle of the gospel message – good will
Chalmers here notes that it is a work of “greater difficulty” than might be expected to get sinners to accept the truth of “God’s willingness to take every sinner into acceptance” noting “there is a barrier in these evil hearts of unbelief, against the admission of a filial confidence in God.” (p236). This is a great tragedy for “If you saw the good-will of God, in all that kindly and endearing character which belongs to it, you would find a treasure in which you would greatly delight yourself.” (p236). This is of relevance for those who are “smitten and softened under a sense of unworthiness” and yet cannot obtain a sense of God’s goodness to them. Even though true in general, this goodness of God is particularly suited to help smitten sinners for it is those who feel sin who will seek a Saviour, “He pleads the matter with you. He beseeches you to accept of reconciliation at His hand. He offers it as a gift, and descends so far as to knock at the door of your hearts and to crave your acceptance of it.” (p237). Note the evangelistic use of Rev 3:20, the description of the offer as God “beseeching” and “craving” acceptance.
II) The object of the gospel message – men
Chalmers argues that “much is to be gathered, from the general and unrestricted way” in which Luke 2:14 is stated. In particular “the generality of the term may tell us that no one individual needs to look upon himself as shut out from the good-will of his Father in heaven. Let him be who he may, we cheer him on to confidence in God’s good will to him…” (p237). Chalmers insists, “We see no exception in the text; and we make no exception from the pulpit.” (p237). The universality of the gospel offer means that, “If the call be not listened to, it is not for want of kindness and freeness and honesty in the call… There is no straightening with God. It is all with yourselves.” (p238). Chalmers explains the good will in the gospel offer as follows, “Turn ye, turn ye, why will you die? We speak in the very language of God, though we fall infinitely short of such a tone and of such a tenderness as He has over you. If you think otherwise of God, you do Him an injustice.” (p238).
But there is of course a question to be answered, “how does the declaration of God’s good-will in the text, consist with the entire and everlasting destruction of so many of the species?” (p238). In answer to this question we are to understand, first, that “the good-will of the text, consists, not in the actual bestowment of eternal life upon all” – for that would be inconsistent. (p239). Rather the good will is “the holding out, in this world, the gift of eternal life to the free and welcome acceptance of all”. (p239). Because of this there is no inconsistency. For example, “We hold out a gift to two people, which one of them may take and the other refuse. The good will in me which prompted the offer, was the same in reference to both. God in that sense willeth that all men shall be saved.” (p239). There is no inconsistency here. Also, note that for Chalmers it is perfectly acceptable to speak of God willing the salvation of all.
Chalmers ends this section by urging, “Be assured every one of you, that God has good will towards each and towards all. There is no limitation with Him; and be not limited by your own narrow and fearful and superstitious conceptions of Him.” (p239).
III) The application of the gospel message
Chalmers concludes by noting that “You are guilty; and to you belong all the weakness, and all the timidity of guilt. The idea of God is apt to send terror into your hearts…” (p240). The grand application is to these people, that they should look to the truth of “God being gracious, of God being willing to take you back again unto himself, of God pressing your return with every offer of friendship and every feeling of tenderness…” (p240). In trusting these truths in Christ they would then “set to your seal that God is true” and be saved. (p240)
The doctrine of the free and well meant offer is the doctrine of the Free Church’s foremost founding father. May this doctrine always be the staple of the Scottish pulpit!
As an aside, Steve Carr has an interesting post on this verse over at Beholding the Beauty – it can be found here.