Is there a Gospel Offer ?
Here the minister of Snizort Free Church takes up a very important theme: the question of the terms in which the gospel is to be presented to the unbeliever — a difficult subject which needs to be clearly grasped if we are to come to a balanced understanding of doctrine.
The preaching of the gospel is the first duty of the church. It is very easy to become caught up in the organisation and management of programmes of witness and well-doing; but if churches renege on the primacy of preaching Christ to sinners, they have lost their vision.
Yet the nature of preaching itself is a controversial topic. How is Christ to be preached? Does preaching mean the stating of Biblical facts? Or ought preaching to engage with the minds of individual hearers to impress upon them personally the need to close in with Jesus? Are we warranted, in our preaching, to make an indiscriminate offer of Christ to our audiences?
Problems with a Gospel Offer
Some people are suspicious of preaching an offer of salvation in these terms. They are afraid that somehow it compromises either the fact of God's sovereignty in salvation, or the fact of man's spiritual impotence. So the argument goes: "If God is sovereign in election and predestination to life, how can the gospel be offered to all?" Or, similarly: "If the natural man cannot receive the things of the Spirit, of what benefit is a gospel offer?"
Others go further. One recent publication accused churches of having "a popular moderate Calvinism ... which embraces the errors of 'common Grace' and the 'The Free Offer of the Gospel'." Similarly, it has been written of J. K. Popham (J. H. Gosden, Valiant for Truth) that "he did not accept that ministers could sincerely offer salvation to all men and women, while knowing that Christ's redeeming work was particular solely to the elect". Such statements are liable to create a confusion in the minds of reformed preachers of our day: are we warranted to make an offer of Jesus to sinners?
A Reformed Emphasis
It was certainly the view of historic Reformation theology that we are. The Shorter Catechism, dealing with effectual calling, tells us that God's Spirit, who convinces us of sin, "persuades and enables us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel". Similarly, the Westminster document, The Sum of Saving Knowledge, draws our attention to the first five verses of Isaiah 55 and says that God
maketh open offer of Christ and his grace, by proclamation of a free and gracious market of righteousness and salvation... He craveth no more of his merchant but that he be pleased with the wares offered, which are grace, and more grace; and that he heartily consent unto, and embrace this offer of grace, that so he may close a bargain, and a formal covenant with God.
The Westminster divines, therefore, embracing as they did a Biblical and robust emphasis on the sovereignty of God (as witnessed in chapter 3 of the Westminster Confession on God's Eternal Decree, for example) made it clear that there is indeed a warrant to believe — an open offer to sinners to come to Christ's market.
A Historic Emphasis
When we read the sermons of men used by God in the history of his Church, we see the same emphasis. John Elias, the famed Welsh preacher used so mightily of God some two centuries ago, writes under the title What it is to preach the Gospel: "It is to publish Christ as everything which a sinner needs … It is to invite lost sinners to Christ; to urge them to believe in him, to receive him, and to make use of him." This is classic Reformed preaching — the publication of Christ and his salvation, with the offer of pardon to all who will come.
Thomas Boston, who, according to his biographer, "in his day found reason to complain of the leaven of the Arminian scheme", expostulates with his hearers in these terms: "... whatever qualifications you have, or have not, yet if you are a sinner of Adam's race (and I hope you doubt not that), Christ is offered to you, together with his righteousness, and all his salvation. For howbeit there are indeed certain qualifications necessary to move you to take Christ; yet there are none at all to hamper the gospel offer; but Christ is really offered to you, be in what case you will." So too "Rabbi" Duncan declares that
the gospel does not address convinced sinners as such with offers of reconciliation, but fallen sinners ... The convinced sinner would be the last to embrace an offer made to convicted sinners; but proclaim the gospel to a vile, guilty sinner, and he saith 'That is I'.
Samuel Rutherford, in a beautiful sermon on Luke 15 entitled The Forlorn Son — the Grounds why he came home stated that "it is no small matter of a bastard of hell to be made an heir and a son of heaven; of one who has no claim to Christ to be made one who has free right to Him. And if it be not so, it is our own fault... His offer of mercy and reconciliation is so broad."
The examples could surely be multiplied. In the reformed tradition, truly biblical preaching, preaching which hangs upon the mysteries of God's gracious and sovereign election, does not stop short of commending Jesus and his salvation in the making of a genuine offer.
But examples of men are not enough. What saith the Scriptures?
A Scriptural Emphasis
It is clear in Scripture that preaching is several things. Preaching is a commanding (Acts 17:30); it is a beseeching (2 Corinthians 5:20); it is an exhorting (2 Timothy 4:2). But is it an offering?
This question may be answered from three perspectives. There is an offer, first, in the gospel invitations. What are the "Come to the waters" of Isaiah 55:1; the "Come unto me" of Matthew 11:28; and the "Repent ... and receive" of Acts 2:38 if they are not offers addressed to sinners? To be sure, none will respond apart from the power of God (John 6:44), yet the offer is to be made and is free to the chief of sinners, not despite the sovereignty God but because of it — the King of salvation who saves whom He will is the one who issues the invitation and extends the offer.
There is an offer, secondly, in the gospel call for decision. As Rebekah was asked "Wilt thou go with this man?" (Genesis 24:58) and as the people were asked "Choose you this day whom ye will serve" (Joshua 24:15), so sinners must be presented with the choice that will settle their eternity destiny. Jesus says that Jerusalem might have known peace, but refused the offer (Matthew 23:37). There is a warning in the gospel to be ready for the coming of the King (Matthew 24:42). Implicit in this warning is a decision to be taken — a choice to be made. The very fact that this is so tells us that the gospel presents men with an offer which they must reject or accept.
We may, justifiably, be sceptical of evangelists who press for decisions and issue altar calls; and we may have little faith in decision prayers or decision cards. Yet the Bible is clear that preaching must press for what Spurgeon called an "urgent request for an immediate answer". He illustrates what he means in a powerful sermon on Genesis 24:49 under that title in this way;
As I think of some here who have never found peace, I say to myself that if I could only get you to Christ, how happy you would be! If you would come and trust him, your everlasting fortune would be made. If you would yield yourselves to him, there would be an end of sin, an end of doubt, an end of fear and an end of terror. You would be saved.
This is Biblical preaching - preaching that presses for a positive response to a gracious offer.
Thirdly, there is an offer in the assurances and guarantees given by Jesus to sinners. This is the question of the warrant for believing: what warrant do I have for coming to Jesus? I have the warrant of his unconditional guarantee, that those who come to him will not be rejected (John 6:37), and that there is life promised to all who trust in Christ (John 3:16). To accept the gospel offer is to come to Jesus by laying hold on these divine guarantees. Edward Fisher, reputed author of the famous Marrow of Modern Divinity, describes this as God's "deed of gift and grant" to a lost world: "go and tell every man without exception that here are good news for him, and if he will take him and accept of his righteousness he shall have him". The message is not: Christ has died for all; but the offer is for all to come to a Christ dead at Calvary for sinners.
Is this Calvinism or Arminianism? For many people, the answer to that question depends on where they are standing at the time. It is easy to apply a label without checking the contents. One thing is clear: true, biblical, Calvinistic teaching recognises that "it is on the crest of the wave of God's sovereign grace that the free overtures of the gospel break upon the shores of lost humanity" (John Murray, Vol. 3, p. 209).
Because that is so, we need to plead with men to respond to the free offer and come to Christ. We need our Calvinist preachers to stop "stopping short" in their Gospel presentation, and grip the minds of their hearers with a passionate and concerned plea to accept God's offer of salvation while it is on the table.