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In the February 1989 issue of The Free Presbyterian Magazine (hereafter TFPM) appeared an article on “The Extent of the Atonement and the Gospel Offer.” The article is of special interest to us because the magazine in which it appears is issued by a synod committee of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. This is the denomination that a number of families in Northern Ireland now urgently requesting help from the Protestant Reformed Churches in the form of a preacher believed themselves unable to join in good conscience before God. As a result, these Presbyterian families were compelled to separate from their church, which had decided to join the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, thus leaving these families without a local church, a grievous situation. One of the issues standing in the way of their joining the Free Presbyterian Church, in the minds of these families, was the teaching of the Free Presbyterian Church on the “offer of the gospel.”

The article in TFPM consists of a lengthy quotation from William Cunningham’s Historical Theology, to which is prefixed a very brief introduction, presumably by the Editor of TFPM (the introductory paragraph carries no signature). As the title indicates, Cunningham is treating of the “gospel offer” in connection with the doctrine of the atonement. Specifically, he is refuting that objection to the doctrine of limited atonement which consists of appealing to Scripture’s command to the church to preach the gospel to all men indiscriminately. Those who hold universal atonement argue that the calling of the church to preach to all proves that Christ died for all, as though the only basis for preaching to all is Christ’s death for all. Cunningham, renowned Scottish theologian of the 19th century, denies the validity of this argument. That the gospel must be preached to all and that all must be called to faith in Christ, he readily acknowledges. That this exposes the doctrine of limited atonement as false and proves universal atonement to be true, he emphatically denies.

It is worthy of note that when Cunningham comes to give the ground for the church’s preaching to all (and not to the elect or regenerated only), he deliberately refuses to ground promiscuous preaching in the sufficiency of the cross to save all. This is often done, as Cunningham recognizes. Reformed defenders of limited atonement will speak at this point of the cross’ being efficient for the elect, but sufficient for all. Cunningham, seemingly fearful that positing a universal reference of the cross even in this qualified sense jeopardizes the truth of limited atonement, insists that the ground of our preaching to all is simply God’s command to the church to do so. (Our readers can find this passage in Cunningham’s Historical Theology, Volume II, pp. 343-348, in the Banner of Truth edition.)

About Cunningham’s doctrine, as given in the quotation, we have no question. It is solid, straightforward Presbyterian doctrine. Our question concerns the use to which this doctrine, and particularly Cunningham’s description of the preaching as the “free offer,” is put by TFPM. The paragraph that introduces Cunningham in TFPM reads as follows:

Our Scottish divines, though Calvinists of unquestioned orthodoxy, have all along held the doctrine of the free offer of the gospel while holding that Christ died only for those who were given Him by the Father, We find this teaching in the sermons of the most honoured of the Scottish preachers such as Samuel Rutherford, Thomas Boston, Ebenezer Erskine, Ralph Erskine, Robert Murray MacCheyne, Dr. John Macdonald and Dr. John Kennedy, etc. This is the doctrine taught in our Confession of Faith. It is to be clearly distinguished horn the Arminian view that the free offer of the gospel is a corollary of the doctrine of a universal atonement. Dr. Cunningham in the following extract brings out certain points that are worthy of consideration.

One could wish that some word of explanation had been given, why TFPM brings up the matter of the offer of the gospel. Is there some controversy about it in Scotland? Does the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland face some challenge to its position on the free offer?

From the introduction itself, it is evident that TFPMintends the quotation from Cunningham to prove two things: 1) that the Scottish divines have taught the free offer of the gospel; and 2) that the doctrine of the free offer of the gospel is Presbyterian orthodoxy. In passing, I note that the latter does not necessarily follow from the truth of the former. It is conceivable that some Scottish divines have taught a certain doctrine, but that that doctrine is unsound. Infallibility is the perfection of Scripture alone. Our question toTFPM, however, concerns its assertion that the Scottish divines taught the free offer, of which assertion William Cunningham is put forward as evidence.

That Cunningham spoke of the free offer is plain enough from the quotation from his Historical Theology. Nor is this at all surprising. As a confessional Presbyterian theologian, he used the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which, in Chapter VII, describes the preaching of the gospel under the new covenant as God’s freely offering unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ. Similarly, Reformed theologians have employed the term, “offer,” inasmuch as the Canons of Dordt state that Christ is offered in the gospel (Ill, IV/9).

But it is not plain from the quotation in TFPM that Cunningham meant by the “free offer” what many Presbyterians mean by it today. It is widespread among Presbyterian and Reformed churches and theologians in our day to mean by the “free offer,” or the “well meant offer,” a preaching of the gospel that expresses the love of God for all without exception who hear the preaching and that originates in a desire (will) of God to save all without exception who come under the preaching. This is not what Westminster meant by the free offer. That Westminster had no such notion about preaching in mind when it spoke of God’s freely offering salvation to sinners is evident, not only from its doctrine of predestination in Chapter III, particularly its teaching in Article 7 that God’s pleasure concerning the rest of mankind, whom He did not elect, was to pass them by with His mercy and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, but also from the concluding words of the very article in which it describes the preaching of the gospel as a free offer. These words are, “. . . and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.” Election controls the preaching. Election is an important part of the message of the preaching. The promise that is the heart of the gospel is for the elect only: “all that are ordained unto life.” Unless the Westminster divines contradicted themselves in the short space of the same article, indeed in the same sentence, maintaining both that God loves all who hear the preaching and that He loves only those ordained to life and teaching that in the preaching God both wills to save all and wills to save only those ordained to life (a charge that no one who knows these worthies would dare to lodge against them), they clearly meant by the offer nothing other than the indiscriminate proclamation of the gospel. God will have the gospel preached to all, not only to those whom the church has somehow determined to be elect or regenerate. Christ is presented in the gospel to all who hear. All are externally called to believe on Him. This is their duty. To all it is announced that every one who believes shall be saved.

Radically different is the doctrine of a proclamation of the gospel that manifests a universal love of God for sinners and a universal will of God for the salvation of sinners. This is what many Presbyterians and Reformed have in mind with the “free offer” today. This is the Arminian conception of preaching. It is not the case, as TFPM implies in its introduction to the Cunningham quotation, that a theory of preaching is Arminian only if it overtly attacks limited atonement. Just because a Presbyterian does not actively use his theory of preaching as universal grace to destroy the doctrine of limited atonement, his theory of preaching does not for this reason escape the condemnation, Arminian. To say it differently, the doctrine of preaching held by the Arminians in the late 16th and early 17th centuries was not erroneous only because it conflicted with the doctrine of limited atonement. It was false doctrine’ also because it assailed predestination, irresistible grace, total depravity, and ultimately the perseverance of the saints. It assailed these doctrines inasmuch as it taught that the gospel expresses divine love for all without exception and inasmuch as it taught that the gospel is rooted in a will of God for the salvation of all without exception.

Of the “free offer” in this Arminian sense, there is not a hint in the quotation from Cunningham. He wrote not one word about a love of God for all men. Neither did he so much as suggest that the gospel is preached to all men because God has a sincere desire that all men be saved. There is every reason to conclude that for Cunningham the free offer was nothing other than promiscuous preaching of Christ that confronts every sinner with his duty to believe on Christ, by which God realizes His will to bring to Christ and save the elect whom He loves.

Our question to TFPM is this: What version of the offer are you defending in your article of February 1989? the universalistic version of Arminianism? or the particularistic version of creedal Presbyterianism? Presumably, your answer to this question will also indicate what version of the offer is held and practiced by the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, since you are a denominational magazine.

We confess, forthrightly, to some apprehension in the matter. For among the Scottish divines appealed to by you as having taught the free offer are the “Marrow men” (so called because of their adherence to the doctrine contained in the book, The Marrow of Modern Divinity)—Boston and the Erskine brothers. But these men taught that the preaching of the gospel is grounded in a “giving love” of God for all men without exception. Necessarily, they themselves acknowledged that such a doctrine of preaching bears on the vital question of the extent of the atonement. For the “Marrow men” also taught that by Gods design there is a general reference of Christ’s death to all sinners without exception. In His “giving love” for all men, God “hath made a deed of gift and grant unto all men, that whosoever shall believe in His Son shall not perish, but have eternal life.” The “Marrow men,” therefore, said to every sinner, “Christ is dead for you.” This, they insisted, is the indispensable basis for preaching the gospel to all.

This is a form of the Arminian conception of preaching. It characteristically undermines the truth of limited atonement. It worked itself out in the history of Scottish Presbyterianism in a full-blown confession of universal atonement. Scottish theologian, John Macleod, himself sympathetic to the men of the “Marrow,” writes, in his Scottish Theology:

Thus the end of the record of the “Marrow” tradition in the largest body of the Secession went so far to justify those who from the first connected it with the teaching of a Redemption that was universal . . . an extreme way of saying to the unconverted, Christ died for you, or, the Saviour is dead for you, was forced by a kind of logical necessity to justify its own statement by holding . . . that He actually died for each and all to whom the Gospel comes when its Word calls upon us to believe (p. 243).

Is this the free offer defended by TFPM?

Or, as we hope, do you rather confess a promiscuous preaching of a particular love, a particular will to save, and a particular promise, that is, a particular Christ—a Christ for those only whom the Father has given Him, repudiating Arminian universalism?

This is our question, a fair and reasonable one, we think.

May we have your answer?

—DJE