Archive for the ‘Marrowmen’ Category

The Marrow Controversy: A Fantastic Resource

October 5, 2010

I have long been of the view that one of the most instructive controversies in the history of the Reformed churches is the Marrow Controversy in early 18th century Scotland.  The Marrow Controversy went to the heart of the gospel itself.  An excellent article from the Mid America Journal of Theology on the Marrow Controversy, as it specifically relates to the free offer of the gospel is now online:

This is highly recommended reading.  A few important quotes from the article:

  • “The heirs of Calvin have sometimes departed from the balance of the Genevan Reformer, allowing the nerve of evangelism to be severely strained, if not cut altogether. In this way God’s gracious sovereignty is allowed to swallow up man’s responsibility. Calvin himself did not take this path. In his Institutes, after treating the doctrine of reprobation, Calvin remarkably stresses that believers should try to make everyone they meet partakers of Christ.  It is therefore lamentable that some in the Reformed churches in the past as well as today have failed to maintain the balance between an electing God whose salvation is all of grace and a gospel freely offered to all. This has been to the impoverishment of such churches and constitutes disobedience to the Great Commission of our Lord. There have been tendencies to allow the very important truth of the particularism of the covenant of grace to overshadow the free offer of the gospel. We see this not only in the Marrow Controversy of the eighteenth century in Scotland … but its reemergence in the Scottish church in the nineteenth century. In this century similar tendencies have been reflected in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the United States during the 1940s, which called for the official affirmation of the free offer of the gospel. Sadly, the denial of the free offer of the gospel has become the official position among some Dutch Reformed, especially the Protestant Reformed Churches, as well as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia.”
  • “…the Marrow men patiently affirmed, on the one hand, God’s well-meant offer of the gospel to all men universally. On the other hand, they rejected the doctrine of universal atonement or universal salvation. The “gift and grant” inherent in the gospel offer is not that of “possession,” which is given only to those actually believing in Christ. Nevertheless, the “gift and grant” is a divine, well-meant offer which warrants persons to believe in Christ. The offer is not simply a bare verbal offer, but an offer and revelation of Christ himself to be believed and received. Thus there is no separation of Christ from the offer of grace. To offer the gospel is to offer the Christ of the gospel; it is therefore to offer the grace of the gospel.”
  • “Although the Marrow men were charged with antinomianism and Amyraldianism, their teaching and preaching was, in my judgment, fully biblical and confessional. Indeed the burden of proof was upon the moderatistic, doctrinally declining Scottish Church to demonstrate that the Marrow men compromised the truth. Consequently no apodictic certainty regarding these charges ever came. By their testimony, even to the point of expulsion from the church, the Marrow men promiscuously preached and taught the gospel of free salvation, thereby restoring Reformation integrity to at least a small segment of the Scottish Church.”
  • “Particularly we must ask ourselves whether we affirm the free offer of the gospel in relation to the doctrine of predestination. Our answer is of utmost importance. Our Lutheran brothers (though not Luther himself [cf. Pieper, et al.]) are quick to charge the Reformed with rationalism and precisely in denying the free offer of the gospel the “rationalist” label sticks. Lamentably, we must own that charge if we fail to reckon God’s Word and wisdom as higher than our own (see Romans 11:33-36). Thus when God’s Word affirms both election and the well-meant offer of the gospel, proper theological methodology bids us simply to believe God’s revelation and act upon these truths according to the measure of revelation given to us. We do not claim to comprehend fully all that his Word teaches us. To fail to proceed along this path is sheer hubris. In that connection, dare we call our Lord’s tears, shed over unrepentant Jerusalem, “crocodile tears?” Dare we claim to know with certainty who are the elect, apart from their having heard the free offer of the gospel, having placed their trust in Christ, and living a credible testimony? It is much better to emulate Augustine and Calvin in their desire to see all reconciled to Christ and partakers of all his benefits. They did not arrogantly pretend to know who the elect are. Neither do we know who the elect are. Since this is so, we proceed to preach the gospel promiscuously to all people. That gospel is not a gospel, a “good message,” devoid of grace or divorced from Christ; rather, Christ is the grace offered. Christ is himself the message of the gospel; he is offered to sinners. Therefore we may not deny the offer of the gospel of grace to all sinners, for we have the warrant of God’s Word (Isaiah 55:1-3; John 3:16, passim.). Moreover, if we embrace the confessions, let us recall that our votive integrity of subscription calls us to the same faithfulness of offering the gospel to all freely (Canons of Dort, II, 5; III/IV, 8-9; Westminster Confession of Faith, 14:1-2; 15:3, Larger Catechism, Q/A 191).”

Amen, and amen.

Law and Gospel According to the Marrow

February 2, 2009

I’ve posted a few times on the law gospel distinction and this is an area I’d like to read more widely on.  Here are some thoughts from a classic Puritan work mentioned in my last post The Marrow of Modern Divinity.

There is a section entitled simply “The difference between the Law and the Gospel.”  The author of the Marrow E.F begins here be stating that there is little in the Marrow from him – all the credit he can claim is gathering the doctrines of the Marrow from other respected theologians.  He is trying to articulate an already extant Reformed law/gospel distinction (with a heavy dose of Luther) rather than inventing something novel.

He begins by quoting Luther to the effect that “in the case of justification, [we are] to separate the law and the gospel as far asunder as heaven and earth are separated.”  E.F. outlines the leading differences between law and gospel:

… the nature and office of the law is to show unto us our sin, (Rom 3:10), our condemnation, our death, (Rom 2:1, 7:10). But the nature and office of the gospel is to show unto us, that Christ has taken away our sin, (John 1:29), and that he also is our redemption and life, (Col 1:14, 3:4). So that the LAW is a word of wrath, (Rom 4:14); but the GOSPEL is a word of peace, (Eph 2:17).

E.F. notes the law gospel distinction is not a distinction between the Old and New Testaments as law and gospel are found in both.  So as there is no simple Old New classification of law and gospel “we are to take heed, when we read the Scriptures, we do not take the gospel for the law, nor the law for the gospel, but labour to discern and distinguish the voice of the one from the voice of the other.”  The way to do this is to:

…  consider … that when in Scripture there is any moral work commanded to be done, either for eschewing of punishment, or upon promise of any reward, temporal or eternal—or else when any promise is made with the condition of any work to be done, which is commanded in the law—there is to be understood the voice of the law.   Contrariwise, where the promise of life and salvation is offered unto us freely, without any condition of any law, either natural, ceremonial, or moral, or any work done by us, all those places, whether we read them in the Old Testament, or in the New, are to be referred to the voice and doctrine of the gospel; yea, and all those promises of Christ coming in the flesh, which we read in the Old Testament; yea, and all those promises in the New Testament, which offer Christ upon condition of our believing on his name, are properly called the voice of the gospel, because they have no condition of our mortifying annexed unto them, but only faith to apprehend and receive Jesus Christ; as it is written, (Rom 3:22), “For the righteousness of God, which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all, and upon all that believe,” &c.

He goes on to give some helpful examples:

Law. The law says, “Thou art a sinner, and therefore thou shalt be damned,” (Rom 7:2, 2 Thess 2:12).
Gos. But the gospel says, No; “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”; and therefore, “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, (1 Tim 1:15, Acts 16:31).

Law. Again the law says, “Knowest thou not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God; be not deceived,” &c. (1 Cor 6:9). And therefore thou being a sinner, and not righteous, shalt not inherit the kingdom of God.
Gos. But the gospel says, “God has made Christ to be sin for thee who knew no sin; that thou mightest be made the righteousness of God in him, who is the Lord thy righteousness,” (Jer 23:6).

Law. Again the law says, “Pay me what thou owest me, or else I will cast thee into prison,” (Matt 18:28,30).
Gos. But the gospel says, “Christ gave himself a ransom for thee,” (1 Tim 2:6); “and so is made redemption unto thee,” (1 Cor 1:30).

Law. Again the law says, “Thou hast not continued in all that I require of thee, and therefore thou art accursed,” (Deut 27:6).
Gos. But the gospel says, “Christ hath redeemed thee from the curse of the law, being made a curse for thee,” (Gal 3:13).

Law. Again the law says, “Thou are become guilty before God, and therefore shalt not escape the judgment of God,” (Rom 3:19, 2:3).
Gos. But the gospel says, “The Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment to the Son,” (John 5:12).

E.F. concludes with the importance of the law/gospel distinction in justification:

Therefore, whensoever … any doubt or question arises of salvation, or our justification before God, there the law and all good works must be utterly excluded and stand apart, that grace may appear free, and that the promise and faith may stand alone: which faith alone, without law or works, brings thee in particular to thy justification and salvation, through the mere promise and free grace of God in Christ; so that I say, in the action and office of justification, both law and works are to be utterly excluded and exempted, as things which have nothing to do in that behalf. The reason is this: for seeing that all our redemption springs out from the body of the Son of God, crucified, then is there nothing that can stand us in stead, but that only wherewith the body of Christ is apprehended. Now, forasmuch as neither the law nor works, but faith only, is the thing which apprehendeth the body and passion of Christ, therefore faith only is that matter which justifies a man before God, through the strength of that object Jesus Christ, which it apprehends; like as the brazen serpent was the object only of the Israelites’ looking, and not of their hands’ working; by the strength of which object, through the promise of God, immediately proceeded health to the beholders: so the body of Christ being the object of our faith, strikes righteousness to our souls, not through working, but through believing.


Luther the Second Paul?

January 31, 2009

One of my favourite books is the Marrow of Modern Divinty with Thomas Boston’s notes.  Has to be up there in my all time top ten.  It gets the core of the gospel right and therefore is always a tonic to the soul.  Boston’s notes also add much value to the book as he provides some balanced commentary where the text of the Marrow is liable to various interpretations.  One of his excellent comments relate to Luther which I quote in full:

That great man of God, a third Elias, and a second Paul, (if I may venture the expression) though he was no inspired teacher, was endued with a great measure of the spirit of them both, being raised up of God for the extraordinary work of the Reformation of religion from Popery … The lively savour he had of the truths of the gospel in his own soul, and the fervour of his spirit in delivering them, did indeed carry him as far away from the modern politeness of expression as the admiration and affection of this last is likely to carry us off from the former … for my part I would neither use some of these expressions of Luther’s, nor dare I so much as in my heart condemn them in him; the reason is onr; because of the want of that measure of the influences of grace I conceive he had when he uttered these words.

Luther was a big influence on the Marrow theology which kept the flame of the Reformed faith burning brightly through some dark times in Scottish church history.

Some Marrow to accompany your Law and Gospel, Sir?

June 2, 2008

One of the most important distinctions in theology is between law and gospel.  Getting our understanding of law and gospel right is fundamental to avoiding the two perilous extremes of neonomianism and antinomianism.  One group of theologians who achieved this were the Marrowmen (Thomas Boston, Ralph Erskine, Ebenezer Erskine, etc).  Their discriminating understanding of the difference between “law” and “gospel” was not appreciated by the neonomian leaning Church of Scotland of their day who set the Marrowmen the following question, “Whether are there any precepts in the gospel that were not actually given before the gospel was revealed?”  At first sight this might appear a strange question but the Marrowmen used it as a springboard to define the gospel.

For them, “In the gospel, taken strictly, and as contradistinct from the law, for a doctrine of grace, or good news from heaven, of help in God through Jesus Christ, to lost, self destroying creatures … or the glad tidings of a Saviour … there are no precepts; all these, the commandment to believe not excepted, belong to and flow from the law, which fastens the … duty on us, the same moment the gospel reveals the … object.” (John Brown, Gospel Accurately Stated Andrew Munro: 2837, 147).  The Marrowmen believed that “in the gospel, taken strictly, there are no precepts, to us seems evident from the holy scriptures” and cited Gen 3:15, Gal 3:8 cf Gen 12:3 & Gen 22:18, Acts 3:25, Luke 2:10-11, Rom 10:5,Acts 15:7, Acts 20:36-43, Luke 4:18 cf Is 61:1-2, Acts 20:24 and 2 Tim 1:10.  The Marrowmen cited, among others, Calvin, Witsius and Mastricht as being part of “the body of reformed divines” who held that the gospel contained no precepts or law (p147).  To summarise their position: the gospel is good news – it contains no commands.

But what then of the commands in the New Testament e.g. to repent and believe the gospel?  These “belong to, and are of the law” (p147).  The Marrowmen explain: “For the law of creation, or the Ten Commandments, which was given to Adam in paradise in the form of a covenant of works, requiring us to believe whatever God should reveal or promise, and to obey whatever he should command…” (p147).  That is, if according to the law we are to “love the Lord our God” then we are bound to believe and trust in his revelation to us.  But God has revealed himself in Christ as the Saviour of sinners, therefore the law demands we trust in Christ as our Saviour.  They further argue, that to deny it is the law which demands we “repent and believe,” is inconsistent “with the perfection of the law; for if the law be a complete rule of all moral, internal, and spiritual, as well as external and ritual obedience, it must require faith and repentance, as well as it does all other good works…” (p148).  Their final argument is from the nature of unbelief as sin.  They argue that Scripture and the Westminster Standards define sin as “any want of conformity to, or transgression of the law of God.”  But we know that unbelief is a sin and a transgression of the law, so therefore, “faith must be required in the … command” (p148).  To augment their argument they note that Christ called faith “one of the weightier matters of the law” (p148).

Why does this distinction matter – that the gospel is simply good news and it is the law which commands belief and faith?  To the Marrowmen, making the gospel into a command or law led to either, or both, of the errors of neonomianism and antinomianism:

  • They believed that “if the law does not bind sinners to believe and repent, then we see not how faith and repentance, considered as works, are excluded from our justification before God; since in that case they are not works of the law, under which character all works are in Scripture excluded from the use of justifying in the sight of God” (p149).  That is, we know that all the “works of the law” are excluded from our justification but if repentance and faith are “works of the gospel” then what Scriptural grounds do we have to exclude them from our justification?  They further note that “Socinians, Arminians, Papists, Baxterians by holding the gospel to be a new, proper, prescriptive law, with sanction, and thereby turning it into a real, though milder covenant of works, have confounded the law and the gospel, and brought works into the matter and cause of a sinner’s justification before God” (p149).
  • But there is also another danger.  If the gospel is a new commandment, i.e. requiring faith and repentance, then is not the old commandment obsolete?  They quote the following, “History tells us, that it [antinomianism?] sprung from such a mistake, that faith and repentance were taught and commanded by the gospel only, and that they contained all necessary to salvation; so the law was needless” (p149).

In defence of their overall position that the gospel contains no command and that the law commands that we repent and believe the gospel the Marrowmen stated they could “adduce a cloud of witnesses beyond exception” including Burgess, Rutherford, Owen, Witsius, Dickson, Ferguson, etc (p149).

So, readers, are you neonomian, antinomian or do you take a large helping of Marrow with your law and gospel?

PS Of course the Marrowmen also recognised that we could use the word gospel in a different sense “taken largely for the whole doctrine of Christ and the apostles, contained in the New Testament” (p150).

Weekly Update 47 – John Brown of Haddington

March 22, 2008

One of the gems that I have come across in looking at previous interpretations of the Westminster Standards on the free offer of the gospel is John Brown of Haddington’s understanding of Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 31*:

Q: What is effectual calling?

A: Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.Brown makes a number of vital points in relation to the free offer of the gospel while expounding this section of the catechism: 

  • He defines the offer of the gospel as Christ “holding forth himself as able and willing to save, and inviting sinners to receive salvation from him.”  Two vital things here.  First the gospel offer speaks of the willingness of Christ to save and second the gospel offer is an invitation (as opposed to being, say, a presentation of facts).
  • He emphasizes the universal extent of the offer stating that Christ offers himself “to every one that hears the gospel, without exception”.
  • He notes the offer is “earnest” and explains this as “all the divine persons do often, in the most engaging terms, and with the most powerful motives, beseech, intreat, and command us to embrace Christ”.  This is key.  The offer does not just come from the preacher but from God – fundamentally it is God’s offer.  Also note that Brown emphasises the well meant nature of the offer.
  • Finally the offer of the gospel is our warrant to come to Christ for “Q. What warrant have we to embrace Christ in the gospel? A. … Christ’s offer offer of himself to us … [and the Father’s] setting forth Christ as the great mean of salvation, which everyone of mankind hath a right and welcome to receive, John iii. 16.”

 Of course John Brown (Haddington) was heir to the Marrow tradition of Boston & the Erskines so we would expect him to be good on the free offer of the gospel – and he is! The Marrow tradition represents Scottish Calvinism in all its glory.

*All quotations from John Brown, An Essay, Toward an Easy, Plain, Practical, and Extensive Explication of The Shorter Catechism (Philadelphia: Printed by Henry Frick for M’Carty & Davis, 1818), 142-3. 

Weekly Update 35 – Anyone for some Marrow?

December 29, 2007

William Greenhill will be back in the near future but I was looking over the Marrow of Modern Divinity (London: Thomas Tegg and Son, 1837) again this week and a few things struck me as interesting. 

Now given that the Marrow really came to prominence in Scotland in a controversy in the 18th C it is all too easy to forget that the original context of the work was mid 17th C.  Again, it is easy to forget (given how controversial the Marrow became in the 18th C) that the Marrow is really nothing more than a compendium of Reformed thought up to 1650 (with a bit of Luther thrown in for free).  According to its author “much of the matter contained in the ensuing Dialogue” came from the great figures of the development and codification of the Reformed faith e.g. Calvin, Beza, Ursinus, Perkins, Ames, Peter Martyr, Polanus, Sibbs, Goodwin, Ball etc (p xx).  So really there should not have been much in the Marrow to complain about!

All this is interesting but what has it got to do with my thesis?  Well, for one the Marrow provides an insight into the general theological context in which the Westminster Standards were framed.  This is important for my work.  It also provides an insight into how mid 17th C theologians interpreted earlier Reformed theologians and used their works.  Again this is important.  Additionally, the Marrow was also cleared for the press by Joseph Caryl, a member of the Westminster Assembly, and was published with commendations from two other Assembly members.  So clearly there were members of the assembly who upheld “Marrow doctrine”.

Still, even though useful in these respects and though commended by 3 members of the Assembly we can’t argue for 1:1 identity between Marrow doctrine and the Westminster documents – can we?  Well, granted not on the basis I have provided above.  More work would need to be done – but has someone else done that work already?  Enter Thomas Boston!

Now in his notes on the Marrow, Boston has an extensive comment on the section, “God… moved with nothing but with his free love unto mankind lost, hath made a gift and grant unto them all, that whosoever of them all shall believe in this his Son, shall not perish, but have eternal life” (p106).  Boston begins by noting that the phrase comes from Ezekiel Culverwell in a work commended by Westminster Divine William Gouge.  He then proceeds to identify this “gift and grant” with the gospel offer of John 3:16 explaining that: “Where the gospel comes, this grant is published, and the ministerial offer made; and there is no exception of any of all mankind in the grant” (p106).  This speaking of the gospel offer as a “gift and grant” giving all sinners a warrant to believe in Christ is for Boston, “the good old way of discovering to sinners their warrant to believe in Christ; and it doth indeed bear the sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ for all, and that Christ crucified is the ordinance of God for salvation unto all mankind, in the use-making of which only they can be saved; but not an universal atonement or redemption” (p106).  So a couple of points here.  Boston equates Marrow doctrine with “good old doctrine”.  For him it is nothing more or less than Reformed orthodoxy.  Secondly, Boston here relates the gospel offer to the sufficiency of the atonement (so did John Owen) but this is done in the context of rejecting a universal atonement/redemption.

But what specifically does Boston mean by “good old doctrine”?  Well, he means standard Scottish doctrine and he quotes James Melville to this effect.  But more specifically he means Reformed theology as set out in the great Reformed confessions.  He quotes Westminster Confession of Faith 7:3 (my thesis topic via James Durham), Westminster Larger Catechism 63 as supporting the “gift and grant” in the gospel offer (p106).  He also quotes Dort 2:5-6, ” Moreover, the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.  And, whereas many who are called by the gospel do not repent nor believe in Christ, but perish in unbelief, this is not owing to any defect or insufficiency in the sacrifice offered by Christ upon the cross, but is wholly to be imputed to themselves.”  So for Boston, Dort and Westminster are one on the gospel offer and on Marrow doctrine.  Boston also quotes the Sum of Saving Knowledge, “Again, consider, that this general offer in substance is equivalent to a special offer made to every one in particular; as appeareth by the apostle’s making use of it, Acts 16:31. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. The reason of which offer is given, John 3:16.”  Now the SoSK was, of course, written by James Durham and David Dickson.  Thus Boston aligns his view of the gospel offer with that of James Durham.

So for Boston, the Marrow theology of the free offer is the theology of Westminster Assembly and Dort and the Sum of Saving Knowledge and therefore of James Durham!  But is he right?….. yes 🙂  This is all very pertinent to my thesis and to the chapter I’m currently writing on: the free offer in the Reformed creeds.

Another item of interest is the proof texts that the Marrow uses to outline its doctrine of the free offer.  They are John 3:16 and Mark 16:15.  Now what are two of the “proof texts” for WCoF 7:3? – yes, you guessed John 3:16 and Mark 16:15.  More evidence for similarity of doctrine!

Weekly Update 23 – Light from an unexpected source!

October 6, 2007

M. Charles Bell’s book Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1985) is one book I have been working through recently.  It is ambitious in scope, in that it aims to give a tour of Scottish theology from John Knox to John MacLeod Campbell (against the background of Calvin) focusing on the issue of assurance and related topics.  A lot of neglected theologians are covered in the book and Durham gets a significant place in the book which is good in that it gives me plenty to work on in my thesis!

Nevertheless, this is not a book that is recommended bedside (or any other kind of) reading.  The author, in my opinion, misreads Calvin and then attempts to set him against 17th C Scottish theology. Incidentally, I think he has also misread Scottish theology to an extent (or at least cast it in as bad a light as possible).  17th C Scottish theology in this book is judged as being simply very bad theology.  The book then is, in my view, historically and theologically suspect.  Having said that the book is not all bad and if you have the ability to sift the (small amount of) wheat from the (large heaps of) chaff there are a number of interesting points made.  One of the best is in Bell’s discussion of Ebenezer Erskine on the gospel offer.  Here are a couple of good quotes.

[Ebenezer Erskine] teaches that only the elect shall savingly close with Christ in the covenant since ‘all saving influences’ of God’s Spirit are peculiar to the elect. (Works, Vol 1, p4,48)… such teaching is, for many, an obstacle to their coming to Christ… [Erskine’s] usual response is to assert that we have nothing to do with election since this is hidden in God’s secret will. (3:100,125,278,431). We should interest ourselves in God’s will as revealed in his promises… The promises, then, are a door by which faith may enter into the new covenant (3:261), and by them ‘the reprobate have as good a revealed warrant for believing as the elect have’ (1:387). In reference to God and his promises, Erskine states that we should view the Scripture’s promises as a genuine revelation of God’s thoughts and feelings towards us, ‘for unbelief is ready to suggest that he says one thing and thinks another’ (2:146). With this statement, Erskine brings us to the heart of the matter, and that is the issue of one’s doctrine of God.

Here Bell notes that Erskine believes and teaches election (for Bell that is a bad thing).  This raises questions in the minds of the hearers of the gospel – am I elect?  How does Erskine respond?  The same way Durham does, by directing us away from the hidden things to the revealed things.  And when we turn to the revealed things we see all, elect and reprobate, have the same warrant to come to Christ.  Interestingly, Erskine, just as Durham does, moves beyond this to assert the sincerity of God in the gospel offer.  Bell’s comment regarding those who have an issue with a genuine gospel offer is to the point, “the issue is one’s doctrine of God”.  If we are unable to maintain the sincerity or well meant nature of the free offer of the gospel then something has gone wrong with our doctrine of God.  Interestingly, D.B. Williams PhD thesis, Herman Hoeksema’s theological method (University of Wales, Lampeter, 2000) notes that Hoeksema’s views on “common grace and the well meant offer could not have been other than they were” given his theological method.  Therefore those who seek to evaluate Hoeksema on the free offer and common grace directly “have entered the Hoeksema edifice at the back door”.  It is his theological method that really drives his particular views.  So to get a handle on denials of the free offer we need to step back from the direct issues and consider theological method and the doctrine of God as well.  That is an important point.  (I haven’t read Williams’ thesis yet – the point I quoted here was from his abstract).

Erskine… urges us to realise that God’s heart as revealed in Jesus Christ is full of grace and love for lost sinners. He pleads that we ‘not think that a God of truth dissembles with you, when he makes offer of his unspeakable gift, or that he offers you a thing he has no mind to give.’ (1:220).

Now Ebenezer Erskine was a thoroughly orthodox Scottish ‘Calvinist’ – he clearly espouses a definite atonement.  Yet he also clearly maintains that the free offer is well meant.  God does not “dissemble” with us in the free offer.  That is, he does not give a false or misleading appearance; he does not put on an appearance of sincerity or merely feign an offer of salvation.  The free offer is genuine, well meant and is not an offer of a thing “he has no mind to give”.

John J. Murray, coming at this from an orthodox angle as opposed to Bell’s unorthodoxy, makes a similar point commenting on Thomas Boston (a close friend of Erskine):  “Boston shows us how to hold the doctrines of election and particular redemption together with the preaching of the full and free offer of Christ to all men.  Holding the most exalted Reformed orthodoxy we can invite sinners to the Lord Jesus… The love that flows from the heart of God to sinners as we see in the parable of the prodigal son is free and unconditional.  Are we guilty of hedging about the love of God so as to protect it? … it is … revealed as a love that desires the salvation of all men.  The offer of Christ and his benefits is a bona fide offer.  We as ambassadors for Christ beseech sinners in God’s stead.” (‘The Marrow Controversy – Thomas Boston and the Free Offer’, Preaching and Revival, The Westminster Conference, 1984).

Marrow theology is reformed theology at its best (and despite some different nuances, e.g. on the covenant of redemption, it is essentially the same theology as Durham).  Read Thomas Boston, Ralph Erskine and Ebenezer Erskine – they will do your soul good!

Weekly Update 17 – John Ball

August 25, 2007

If William Ames is not that well known, then we may say John Ball (1585-1640) is almost totally forgotten.  Yet he was one of the most influential Covenant Theologians of his time in England.  His works on covenant theology are recognised as a significant influence on the covenant theology of the Westminster Standards.  Recently one of his books, A Treatise on the Covenant of Grace, has been reprinted:

This book was commended by six men who were commissioners at the Westminster Assembly. He was very well respected in his day. What does this influential Puritan make of the doctrine of the free offer of the gospel? (A similar story to last week – I don’t profess to be an expert on Ball so any corrections are welcome).

Every man called, whether he hearken to God’s calling or not, is bound to believe that Christ is offered to him as Saviour, so as if he believe he shall be saved: but that Christ died for him in particular for the impetration of righteousness… that he is not bound to believe…
Ball, John. A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace. London: Printed by G. Miller for Edward Brewster on Ludgate hill near Fleet-Bridge at the Signe of the Bible, 1645, p222-223

Ball sets out clearly that he does not believe in “universal redemption” and correspondingly we are not called by the gospel to place our faith in the tenet that Christ died for me.  Rather we are called to lay hold of the offered Saviour, and in believing we shall be saved.  As we see his views of the free offer, bear in mind he held to a definite atonement.  Also note Christ is offered even to those who never “hearken to God’s calling”.

There is one act of faith, whereby we believe that sins are pardonable: this is builded upon this ground, that Christ is an all-sufficient and efficient Saviour, in whose name Salvation is freely offered, by faith to be received. There is another act of faith whereby we rest upon Christ for salvation… There is the third whereby we believe that our sins are already pardoned…

Ball expands on this by explaining the actings of faith. First, because an all sufficient Saviour is offered to us (one who is able to save to the uttermost all who come to God by him) we may believe that our sins are pardonable. Based on this we rest on Christ for salvation. Then upon believing we have assurance that our sins are pardoned. Again note the central place given to the free offer of the gospel in the definition of faith. Without the free offer of salvation in Christ there can be no solid ground for faith.

As an aside. Ball believed in “common grace” which men could and sadly did “fearfully abuse” by their sins. Ibid. p230

That men are seriously invited to repent in the Ministry of the Word, and that the promise of Salvation is faithful and true, so that he that believeth shall never perish. These things be not questioned, nor whether some effects or benefits of Christ’s death be common to all men, but whether he died equally for all men, to purchase actual reconciliation for them on God’s part…

Note the vocabulary Ball uses here.  The gospel is a serious invitation.  It is not simply a command, not simply a declaration of facts – it is an invitation.  How many times have I said this now?  Again it is a serious invitation.  The free offer is not a sham – it is sincere and well meant.  Again Ball highlights his belief in a definite, efficacious atonement while not denying that some benefits of Christ’s death come to all men.  Durham says something very similar which I will share when I eventually get round to posting on his view of the atonement.

…but the invitation is general…the invitation is serious, shewing what God is well pleased with, and doth approve in us… he persuadeth with arguments in themselves forceable to move and incite, and what he will perform, if we make good the condition… no man of what state or condition whatsoever is hindered or kept back from coming to Christ by any cause efficient or deficient out of man himself…
Ibid. p243-245

Again there is no limit in the offer/invitation.  It is “general”.  Again God is “serious” in the offer.  By this Ball means God desires the salvation of those who hear the gospel.  If you don’t believe this read on!    Also note we can not blame the decree of God (election) for our unbelief.  The only cause of unbelief is our own wilful sin in rejecting Christ’s invitations to come to him. 

The Lord who doth whatsoever he will… in his deep and unsearchable council never intended to make every man actually and effectually partakers of the benefit promised… nevertheless, the invitation is serious, showing what we ought to do, and God doth approve and desire on our parts…

There we have it!  The invitation to come to Christ “is serious, showing what… God doth approve and desire“.  To say, as some do today, that the phrase “God desires your salvation” is Arminian would make John Ball an Arminian!  Of course he is as far from being an Arminian as North is from South.  Now Ball doesn’t believe God intends the salvation of all men.  What God intends he accomplishes.  Ball separates desire from intention.

They [Arminians] ask what sign doth God show of desire or approval that men should believe, when he gives them not power so to do. This that he commandeth, intreateth, persuadeth them to repent and believe, waiteth with long-suffering and patience for their amendment, promises mercy if they will return…

Along comes the Arminian who says to Ball, “You don’t believe in common sufficient grace, you don’t believe in a universal atonement.  How then can you say, without being hypocritical, that God desires the salvation of the hearers of the gospel?”  (Remember Rutherford responded in his writings to an almost identical objection).  Ball answers, of course God desires the salvation of the hearers of the gospel.  Why else would he command, entreat, persuade them and wait with longsuffering on them?

… as God commandeth wicked men to repent and believe, so he testifieth what he doth desire and approve…

Again, for Ball, when God commands something it is a testimony he desires that is should be done.  When God commands the wicked to repent it is a testimony he desires them to repent.  You dont find this way of speaking in some passages in Owen.

As men are called to repent that they might live, and God doth in calling them avow it is his desire, they would repent that they might live, so the end of the invitation is life and salvation. This is manifest, in that the Lord doth earnestly again and again call upon impenitent and obstinate sinners to repent and believe, protesting that he desires not their death, but rather that they should repent and live…
Ibid. p247-248

And it keeps on coming!  It is God’s desire that wicked men repent.  God desires that even impenitent and obstinate sinners should be saved.

As an aside Ball speaks of “restraining grace or common gifts”.  Ibid. p337

Stepping back in Ball’s work here are his comments on John 3:16.  They are long, but important, so I would urge you to read them:

[On John 3:16] God so loved the world, (as we read in the Evangelist) that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the World: but that the world through him might be saved. And I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.

Here the motive from which the gift of Christ is derived is common love. The word World cannot be taken for the elect only: for then it will be as if it had been said, God so loved the elect, that he gave is only Son, that whosoever of them that believe in him should not perish. The world that Christ came to save, was that world in which he came; and that comprehends both believers and unbelievers: and in the same place, it is divided into them that shall be saved, and them that shall be damned: and there should be no force of reasoning in the latter place, if the world did not comprehend unbelievers under it.

Thus these passages are urged for universal redemption. But the principle texts speak plainly of the days of grace, when God sent his Son into the world, and when according to the prophesies and promises made before, the Gentiles were to be called to the faith, added to the church, and received into Covenant.

And the world is taken communiter & indefinite, for the world, as it is opposed to the Jewish Nation alone, not universaliter pro singulis, for every man in the world of what time or age soever, or of this time special. The sense then is, In the fullness of time, God manifested so great love unto the world of Jew and Gentile, not of the Jew alone, That he gave his only begotten Son, and in the Ministry of the Gospel, seriously invited them to believe, and entered into Covenant to bestow life and happiness upon the condition of their unfeigned faith on Jesus Christ. As God loved Israel, whom he chose to be his peculiar people under the Old Testament: so in times of grace he extended his love to the world of Jew and Gentile. And as amongst the Jews, so much love to the body of that nation , as to enter into Covenant with them, and vouchsafe unto them the means of grace, but unto some he showed more special love, so as to call them effectually, and make them heirs of salvation: In like manner in the last times or days of the New Testament God manifest so much love to the world, as it is opposed to the Jewish Nation, as that in the ministry of the Gospel he entreated them to be reconciled, and entered into a Covenant of Peace with them: but unto some he bare and manifested a more peculiar love, in that he called them effectually and made them heirs also.

There are a number of very interesting points here in this long quote:

  • The love in John 3:16 is common love.  This is the position of Thomas Boston & the other Marrowmen.
  • Ball rejects the argument that the world in John 3:16 is the elect, otherwise the text becomes a truism.  God so loved the elect that whosoever of the elect believe will not perish…  “Does this make sense” is Ball’s question?  This is the argument of my favourite theologian Robert Dabney who takes John 3:16 indefinitely.
  • Ball does not believe John 3:16 supports universal redemption.  Rather it speaks of the giving love in the gospel offer.  This is classic Marrow doctrine (i.e. Boston & the Erskine’s).
  • The love of John 3:16 extends as far as the preaching of the gospel.  It is not speaking of a saving love which applies only to the elect.
  • Note that for Ball the preaching of the gospel is a token of God’s love, even to those who never accept the gospel.
  • How common is Ball’s interpretation of the love in John 3:16 as non-saving general love amongst the reformed?  I think it is probably a minority view.  Calvin of course held this view.  We could add Thomas Manton, Thomas Boston, Robert L. Dabney and a small number of others.  But many other’s held John 3:16 to be speaking of a saving love to the elect e.g. Gillespie, Rutherford, Owen etc.

In order of fairness I should highlight that a portion of this quote was posted into the blogsphere by Marty Ford, John Owen researcher.

There are also a number of similar statements in Ball’s work:
Ball, John. A Treatise of Faith Divided into two Parts: The first shewing the Nature, The Second the Life of Faith. London: Printed for Edward Brewster, and are to be sold at his Shop at the signe of the Crane in Pauls Church-yard, 1657.

To quote them would make a long post inordinately long so I will stop here.

Next week I’ll be covering the significant Scottish theologian and contemporary of Durham, John Brown of Wamphray on the free offer of the gospel.  Brown was a close associate and disciple of Rutherford.

Weekly Update 16 – William Ames

August 17, 2007

I know I still have to finish off Durham’s sermon Gospel Presentations are the Strongest Invitations and I will do that.  But this week I want to share some of my reading of the Puritan William Ames (1576-1633).  Ames is most widely known today for his book The Marrow of Theology.  His importance to Puritan & Reformed theology should not be understated.  A recent doctoral dissertation on Ames has stated that Ames’ thought has a “seminal place in the development of the Reformed system”.  (Jan Van Vliet, William Ames: Marrow of the Theology and Piety of the Reformed Tradition, PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary, 2002).  Such claims are well founded.

What then does Ames make of the free offer of the gospel and related topics?  (Caveat lector: I am no expert on Ames.  I have read a fair bit of him and I think I am representing him fairly but, as always, I am open to correction.)

 … it is not lawful to make the least delay at all in our conversion to God… As soon therefore as God shall require us to correct our lives, and to be converted , so soon ought this duty to be performed… Whosoever therefore shall keepe and nourish sinne against God’s Will… he thereupon doth bring upon himself a very grievous guilt.
The Works of the Reverend and Faithful Minister of Christ William Ames, London: Printed for John Rothwell, 1643, Of Conscience and the Cases Thereof The Second Booke, p6

First, we see here that Ames does not urge delay in conversion until we have gone through certain stages (preparationism – e.g. a prolonged period of labouring under conviction of sin before coming to Christ).  Now, today is the day of salvation, and there is no excuse for delay.  Second, we see Ames explicitly advocating ‘Duty Faith’.  To be converted is our duty.  Third, we see that Ames speaks of conversion as being God’s revealed will for us.

… by what motives may a [man] be stirred up to embrace the call of God… Fourthly, if he doe also consider what the cause is that moves God to call him, which he shall find to be nothing else but God’s incomprehensible mercy towards his enemy, Rom.8.10. 2 Cor.5.10. He must have a heart of Iron, that is not moved with such goodness as this, as we may see by Saul, 1 Sam.24.17.19.
Ibid, p12

Ames here states that the motive behind the gospel call is one of “incomprehensible mercy” and “goodness“.  His example is of David’s kindness in not killing Saul.  This is an important point.  Even for those who reject the gospel call God’s motive in calling them is still one of mercy and goodness.

[To obtain faith in Christ] … he ought to fasten the eyes of his mind, upon the promises of the Gospell; For the Gospell is the Ministry of the spirit of righteousness and of life, 2 Cor.3.6,8. the reason is, because Christ is neither offer’d of God, nor can be apprehended by man, but onely in the promises of the Gospell… Now in fastening our eyes upon the promises of the Gospell, we must consider first, that Christ onely is propounded in them, and that crucified, 1 Cor.1.23.34, & 2.2.2. Secondly, that in Christ there is a perfect sufficiency of redemption, and salvation, provided for them that be in him, John 3.16… Thirdly, that this grace is particularly offer’d to all those to whom it is preached, Mark 16.13.
Ibid, p13

Right.  For Ames the object of faith is Christ offered in the promises of the gospel.  This is standard doctrine but it is still worth pausing over because it highlights again the importance of the free offer.  It is impossible to “apprehend Christ” without the promises of the gospel being offered to us.  More precisely faith fastens on the atoning death of Christ and its sufficiency for all who will come to him as they are held out in the promises of the gospel.  Ames again states standard reformed doctrine when he notes the gospel is a particular offer to each hearer.  It is not an indiscriminate offer which is not really to you as an individual.  No, the offer of Christ is to each individual as if it were by name, to paraphrase Durham.

Now God is the object of faith, not as he is considered in himself, but as we by him doe live well. 1 Tim.4.10. We hope in the living God, who is the preserver of all men, especially of those that believe.
The Marrow of Sacred Divinity, London: Printed by Edward Griffen for John Rothwell at the Sun in Pauls Church Yard, n.d. The First Book of Divinity, p6

What I understand Ames as saying is that we don’t place our faith in an unknown or hidden God, but we place our faith in the God who has revealed himself as good to all men, and especially to those who believe in him.  The object of faith is God as he has revealed himself in Scripture.  I think his comment is along the same lines as Calvin’s, who also took Saviour to mean preserver:

… the word σωτὴρ is here a general term, and denotes one who defends and preserves. He means that the kindness of God extends to all men. And if there is no man who does not feel the goodness of God towards him, and who is not a partaker of it, how much more shall it be experienced by the godly, who hope in him? Will he not take peculiar care in them? Will he not more freely pour out his bounty on them? In a word, will he not, in every respect, keep them safe to the end?

Now, I’m more of a Marrowman (Thomas Boston, Ralph & Ebenezer Erskine) in my view of 1 Tim 4:10 in that I think Saviour means Saviour and not preserver.  I prefer their exposition that Christ is the Saviour of the world “by office”.  That is like a doctor would be the doctor of a town without actually healing every individual in that town.  He is still the doctor of all, but only those who go to him for healing are healed.

The offer, is an objective propounding of Christ, as of a means sufficient and necessary to salvation. 1 Cor.23,24. We preach Christ the Power of God and the Wisdome of GOD. Hebr.7.25. He is able perfectly to save those that come to God by him. Acts 4.12. Neither is there any other name under Heaven, which is given among men, by which we must be saved… The offer of Christ is outward, or inward… The outward is a propounding, or preaching of the Gospell or of the promises of Christ. Acts 9.15. That he may beare my name in the sight of the Gentiles… The promises as touching the outward promulgation, are propounded to all without difference, together with a command to believe them, but as touching the propriety of the things promised… they belong only to the elect… The inward offer is a spiritual enlightening, whereby those promises are propounded to the hearts of men… This is also sometime, and in a certain manner granted to those that are not elected. Hebrews 6.4 & 10.29. Mat.13.20.
Ibid, p110-111

The offer of the gospel involves a proclaiming of Christ’s sufficiency to save and that salvation is only to be found in him.  There is an outward offer of Christ, and preaching of the promise of the gospel which does not differ between the elect and non-elect.  But while the promise of the gospel belongs outwardly to all hearers the thing promised only belongs to the elect.  To explain, the promise believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved is a promise to all, but Christ and actual salvation in him will only belong to the elect.  Ames also endorses common grace in that the Spirit also works in the non-elect and is granted to them “in a certain manner”.

Preaching therefore ought not to be dead, but lively and effectual, so that an unbeliever coming into the Congregation of the faithful he ought to be affected, and as it were digged through with the very hearing of the Word, that he may give glory to God. 1 Cor. 14.25.
Ibid, p159

Oh what need there is of earnest lively preaching today!

Now here ariseth a question… Whether all and every particular man be meant thereby, when it is said, that God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance?… The patience of God according to its nature hath that use and end, to lead all sinners unto repentance, Rom2.14. and in that sense might their interpretation be admitted who understand these words and the like of all and every particular man; But… the Apostle in this place [2 Peter 3:9] hath special reference unto the elect…
An Analytical Exposition Of both the Epistles of the Apostle Peter, Illustrated by Doctrines out of every Text. London: Printed by E.G. for John Rothwell, at the Sun in Pauls Church Yard, n.d. p244 

This is Ames’ exposition of 2 Peter 3:9.  Ames believes this text relates only to the elect.  But what is interesting is that Ames admits that the exposition which sees this verse speaking of a patience and goodness of God to all men is theologically sound, it is just not the proper exegesis of this verse.  My own position is very similar.  I have no issues with the doctrine of Calvin in his comments on 2 Peter 3:9 below, I just don’t think they are appropriate to the verse at hand:

So wonderful is his love towards mankind, that he would have them all to be saved, and is of his own self prepared to bestow salvation on the lost. But the order is to be noticed, that God is ready to receive all to repentance, so that none may perish; for in these words the way and manner of obtaining salvation is pointed out. Every one of us, therefore, who is desirous of salvation, must learn to enter in by this way.

But it may be asked, If God wishes none to perish, why is it that so many do perish? To this my answer is, that no mention is here made of the hidden purpose of God, according to which the reprobate are doomed to their own ruin, but only of his will as made known to us in the gospel. For God there stretches forth his hand without a difference to all, but lays hold only of those, to lead them to himself, whom he has chosen before the foundation of the world.

Next week I’ll share some thoughts on John Ball’s doctrine of the free offer.  He is a largely forgotten but hugely significant Puritan, whose works were influential at the Westminster Assembly.