John Frame wrote:
Why is it, I wonder, that in our circles whenever anybody gets an interesting idea, it produces a party that makes it a test of orthodoxy, leading to another party that opposes it, and then to battles between these parties in the churches? Why can’t those who think they have new insights quietly teach their insights to others while embracing them as brothers and sisters in Christ? If some don’t “get it,” why should that amount to heresy? Why not simply permit both views to be taught until the Spirit convinces God’s people generally that one view is Scriptural and the other is not?
In recent Reformed history, we have had these partisan battles over Van Til’s apologetics (and now, different schools of Van Tillian apologetics), common grace, the incomprehensibility of God, supra/infralapsarianism, theonomy, the relation between grace and law in the covenants, Shepherd’s view of justification, nouthetic counseling, exclusive Psalmody, contemporary worship, means of church growth, redemptive-historical preaching. None of these is resolved in our Reformed confessions, but partisans act as if they were. They think their view alone is orthodox, and their opponents are dangerous heretics. Can’t we just lighten up a bit? Can we never admit our fallibility? Is there not a place, on some issues, for teachability, even tolerance? Can’t we ever agree to disagree in peace and love, working together on those matters where we agree?
In the spirit of that quote (and in the spirit of this blog post), I would like to resume the discussion on Gill’s view of the free offer of the gospel.
I’m going to begin by presenting my understanding of the issue from both perspectives. I am not trying to stir up trouble, but to work through a theological question and its implications.
On the one hand we have John Gill who is asserting [and defending] the proposition that to speak of the gospel in terms of an offer is theologically unnecessary, systematically untenable and biblically unsound. His argument is not that the gospel should not be preached to everyone, but that to couch it in offer language is incorrect.
On the other hand is an intense desire to preserve the goodness of the good news. The gospel is the good news of God’s Son defeating sin, death and the Devil on the cross, and that all who believe in him have the promise of life eternal. And it is good news to all creatures (even those who do not believe) because benefits are secured in Christ, apart from whom there is no good news at all. Further, it is freely offered to all creatures with sincerity. Whosoever will may come.
It seems good to do some work on the words we’re using in this discussion. Someone somewhere said something like, “Communication wouldn’t be so difficult if it weren’t for all the damnable words.” There are three words that I think need more fleshing out. They are the gospel, grace and offer.
The gospel is the message of the Lordship of Jesus the Messiah, crucified and risen, over all creation (and everything that that means). N.T. Wright has observed:
The word ‘gospel’, like Paul himself, has had a chequered career in the course of Christian history. During the first century, it could refer both to a message proclaimed by word of mouth and to a book about Jesus of Nazareth. In more recent times it has been used to denote a particular sort of religious meeting (a ‘gospel rally’), and as a metaphor for utterly reliable information (’gospel truth’). Many Christians today, when reading the New Testament, never question what the word means, but assume that, since they know from their context what they mean by ‘the gospel’, Paul and the others must have meant exactly the same thing. Everybody who knows anything about the word knows that it means ‘good news’; but what sort of good news?
The word ‘gospel’ and the phrase ‘the gospel’ have come to denote, especially in certain circles within the church, something that in older theology would be called and ordo salutis, an order of salvation. ‘The gospel’ is supposed to be a description of how people get saved; of the theological mechanism whereby, in some people’s language, Christ takes our sins and we his righteousness; in other people’s language, Jesus becomes my personal saviour; in other languages again, I admit my sin, believe that he died for me, and commit my life to him. In many church circles, if you hear something like that, people will say that ‘the gospel’ has been preached. Conversely, if you hear a sermon in which the claims of Jesus Christ are related to the political or ecological questions of the day, some people will say that, well, perhaps the subject was interesting, but ‘the gospel’ wasn’t preached.
The trouble is, of course, that though there are obviously difficult concepts in the New Testament, which send any intelligent reader off to the commentaries and dictionaries, there are others which are in fact equally difficult but which are not recognized as such. If we continue to use a word that we find in the New Testament in a sense which the New Testament itself doesn’t support, that is our responsibility. But if we then seek support for our ideas by consulting a passage where the word occurs, we are locking ourselves in to misunderstanding the text in question, and locking ourselves out from the possibility of ever really understanding what the text actually does say.
(N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, pp.40-41)
Wright says that the gospel is:
…a fourfold announcement about Jesus:
- In Jesus of Nazareth, specifically in the cross, the decisive victory has been won over all the powers of evil, including sin and death themselves.
- In Jesus’ resurrection the New Age has dawned, inaugurating the long-awaited time when the prophecies would be fulfilled, when Israel’s exile would be over, and the whole world would be addressed by the one creator God.
- The crucified and risen Jesus was, all along, Israel’s Messiah, her representative king.
- Jesus was therefore also the Lord, the true king of the world, the one at whose name every knee would bow.
It is, moreover, a double and dramatic announcement about God:
- The God of Israel is the one true God, and the pagan deities are mere idols.
- The God of Israel is now made known in and through Jesus himself.
(N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, pg. 60)
The ‘gospel’, then, is, as Paul says in Romans 1:16, ‘the power of God for salvation’. The word for ‘power’ here is ‘dynamis’, from which we get ‘dynamite’. To understand Paul’s meaning, we may invoke a further technical term. Paul speaks in Acts (20:24) of ‘the gospel of the grace of God’. But what is grace? Grace is not a ‘thing’ – a heavenly gas, a pseudo-substance, which can be passed to and fro or pumped down pipelines. The word ‘grace’ is a shorthand way of speaking about God himself, the God who loves totally and unconditionally, whose love overflows in self-giving in creation, in redemption, in rooting out evil and sin and death from his world, in bringing to life that which was dead. Paul’s gospel reveals this God in all his grace, all his love.
But it doesn’t just reveal all this so that people can admire it from a distance. It reveals it precisely by putting it into action. The royal proclamation is not simply the conveying of true information about the kingship of Jesus. It is putting into effect that kingship, the decisive and authoritative summoning to allegiance. Paul discovered, at the heart of his missionary practice, that when he announced the lordship of Jesus Christ, the sovereignty of King Jesus, this very announcement was the means by which the living God reached out with his love and changed the hearts and lives of men and women, forming them into a community of love across traditional barriers, liberating them from the paganism which had held them captive, enabling them to become, for the first time, the truly human being they were meant to be. The gospel, Paul would have said, is not just about God’s power saving people. It is God’s power at work to save people.
(N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, pg. 61)
Obviously there is more that can (and has been, and will be) said, but the point here is that I think this is what is meant by the gospel.
It is the message of hope and it carries with it explicit promises and commands. For those who believe, it is the message of abundant and eternal life, and deliverance from bondage to sin and death. It also is a command issued to everyone everywhere to repent – to turn from idolatry in all its forms – and follow Christ the King. This message is intended to reach into all the cosmos, to every creature, and, according to my eschatological perspective, will meet with overwhelming success. This message, specifically the content of the message, is the very power of God unto salvation.
Grace is understood in two categories for the purpose of this discussion, it seems. There is God’s common grace which is extended to all creatures. This means that the drawing of the next breath, the provision of food and whatever comforts are enjoyed are purely by God’s grace. There is nothing in any man that merits this favor from God. In fact, the opposite is true – every man deserves swift and utter judgment and destruction. So to call it grace is to name it correctly.
But there is another kind of grace that reaches deeper. This is God’s efficacious grace that turns an unbeliever (who is one by nature) into a believer – the grace that regenerates a human heart. This is, as Calvinistic soteriology insists, the consequence of election by the Father, redemption by the Son, and regeneration by the Spirit. This, clearly, is a monergistic event to which the sinner contributes nothing (except the sin that makes it necessary).
So when we talk of grace, it seems to me that there are different kinds or categories of grace. One general or common, and the other specific and efficacious.
Offer can mean a couple of things, I suppose. First is the idea that something is presented for approval or acceptance. Implied in the word offer is the ability to accept or reject on the part of the one to whom something is offered. If our understanding of human corruption is that man is, by virtue of his fallen nature, incapable of any action that commends him to God (which seems to include making right choices since it extends into all of man’s faculties), then it seems only logical to conclude that man will not avail himself to any offer of grace because his governing disposition inclines him away from God. Therefore, man will always reject any offer of grace from God unless he is enabled by God to make that choice. God, then, does not offer grace (in this efficacious sense), but gives it.
Now there is another sense (though I’m not sure if this is what is intended), in which offer can mean to show or put on display. In this sense, I think, God does offer grace in that he displays in both common and efficacious ways his matchless grace in the cosmos in general and in the lives of his people (the church and her members) specifically. This may be bending the word to try to finagle agreement, but it may be equivocation in the end. (Blessed are the peacemakers, though…huh?)
This is a good place to pick up the conversation, I think. I sincerely offer you the opportunity to correct me where I’ve erred, or to fill out my understanding of things.
I’m also interested in the implications of our various perspectives. Just what is at stake? But perhaps that is better left for another post.