Rev. Woudenberg is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, Michigan.
For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.
Inasmuch as we are called by Christ to proclaim the gospel to every creature—that is, to “offer” it, in the historical Latin sense of the word,¹ but not in the modern colloquial sense²—there are a number of questions that arise: How are we expected to bring this gospel? To whom in real and practical terms is it to be brought? And what are we to say when we bring it? These are questions that call for answers if we are to understand and fulfill Christ’s mission in this world.
To begin with, therefore, how? And, particularly, is the gospel to be conditionally or unconditionally brought?
It is now over two hundred fifty years ago, in the early 1700s that a presbytery in the small village of Auchterarder, Scotland composed what has come to be known as the Auchterarder Creed: “I believe,” it said, “that it is not sound and orthodox to teach that we must forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ, and instating us in covenant with God.”³ The purpose of this creed was to test young men seeking entrance into the ministry. The wording may have been awkward, but it was very purposefully devised to keep what the Auchterarder men thought to be a doctrinal perversion out of the churches which they served.
(For those of us in the Protestant Reformed Churches who lived through our controversy in the early 1950s this might well have a familiar ring. Not only is the subject matter similar, but also the need to pin down some strange and elusive sounds that were being heard. To one who has never lived through such problems, the effort might seem nit-picking and trivial; but for those who care, there are at times necessities that demand being met.)
For a good century prior to that time, from the days of the early Puritans on, the churches of England and Scotland had been struggling with the problem of the gospel address. If the gospel is to be preached in this world, it was reasoned, presumably there will always be hearers who are reprobate, those whom God has not ordained unto salvation through faith, Can then the gospel, which is “good news,” be properly addressed to such? Is there not something about the very nature of the gospel that, for the sake of honesty to God, limits its proper address to those alone who by it can be blessed? The dangers they saw were various. What if some should presume themselves saved who are not? What if the gospel should be offered to some to whom it does not belong? What if salvation should be promised to those to whom it cannot be given? And, on the other side, what if some of God’s elect should think themselves lost because to them the gospel had never been properly brought?
Through the years many theologians, some of the most eminent in English history, struggled with these questions; and various answers were tendered. Through it all, however, regardless of these answers, a common conviction had arisen that in gospel preaching care should be taken to determine whether the person spoken to is elect, and thus able to receive that which is presented. Failure to do so, it was thought, could only lead to all kinds of misconceptions; and there was a way in which it could be done. Before a person is brought the positive promises of the gospel he should first be presented with the covenant of works, or—as we might say—the law with its commandments, warnings, and threats. If before this he bows, grieving and fleeing from sins, he can properly be called to Christ, to the Lord’s Supper, and full acceptance as a member of the church of Christ. In practice, however, what happened was that in many situations an inordinate emphasis was placed on sorrowing and grieving for sins, as the work which had first to be done, while the comforts of the gospel were left unsaid.
It was to this the presbytery at Auchterarder objected. Not only did it limit gospel proclamation, contrary to the command of Christ, but it made it conditional, dependent on something the hearer must do prior to his union with Christ. This they believed was Arminian, and wrong. But not everyone agreed with that. It wasn’t long before a young man who had failed their test appealed his case to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. The matter was heard, the Auchterarder creed rejected, and the presbytery’s decision overturned.
But Auchterarder was not without defenders. Among those attending the General Assembly was a group of young ministers—some of whom were to become the most celebrated of their day, men like James Hog, Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine, and even Thomas Boston—who had sympathy for what Auchterarder was trying to say. In behalf of it they were ready to raise a lance; and they did. They brought forth from the past a book, seventy years out of publication, which they had found and come to love. It was entitled The Marrow of Modern Divinity, written by a certain Edward Fisher.
As a book it was rather quaint, but effective in its way as well. Dealing with the difference between the law and the gospel, it brought out the dangers of legalism on one hand and of antinomianism on the other, while at the same time placing sanctification, or the keeping of the law, in its proper place after salvation rather than before—much as the Heidelberg Catechism does. Moreover, and important in the Auchterarder matter, it warned:
In this covenant there is not any condition or law to be performed on man’s part, by himself; no, there is no more for him to do, but only to know and believe that Christ hath done all for him.4
This was well said, but, having said that, it went on shortly, in an effort to defend a general proclamation of the gospel, to add:
I beseech you consider, that God the Father, as he is in his Son Jesus Christ, moved with nothing but with his free love to mankind lost, hath made a deed of gift and grant unto them all, that whosoever of them all shall believe in this his Son, shall not perish, but have eternal life . . . that is, Go and tell every man without exception, that here is good news for him; Christ is dead for him; and if he will take him, and accept of his righteousness, he shall have him. Wherefore, you having so good a warrant as God’s command, and so great an encouragement as his promise, do your duty; and by the doing thereof you may put it out of question, and be sure that you are also one of God’s elect.5
Now whether this is what Auchterarder had in mind is hard to say; but upon the thinking of Edward Fisher, and of the Marrow men—as Thomas Boston and his friends have come to be known—it certainly sheds a different light. While rejecting the idea of a conditional covenant on one hand, they were quite ready to receive it on the other; while accusing the General Assembly of Arminianism, they were in much the same frame of mind themselves.
It wasn’t, of course, as though they admitted this. In fact, Thomas Boston went on to republish Fisher’s book with an extensive series of notes defending the Reformed validity of The Marrow’s presentation. His arguments are close knit and often difficult to follow, but they are interesting and worth trying to understand.
On the one hand Boston wanted to defend Fisher’s Reformed credentials. He quotes extensively from the historical Reformed confessions (pp. 124, 125); and he speaks of “the elect, the chosen, or believers, whom Christ represented, and obeyed, and suffered for” (p. 129). He argues that Fisher did not mean to tell every person “Christ died for him” (p. 127); and he repudiates “Arminius and other Universalists” (p. 128). But at the same time Boston did not believe that the doctrine of election could be the basis for an evangelical proclamation of the gospel, as he said, “that God hath given eternal life to the elect, can be no such foundation” for “faith, and warrant to all to believe in the Son of God” (p. 119). If we are to expect unsaved people to believe, we must show that they are provided a real “common interest” in Christ (p. 119) based on a real “love for mankind lost.” And this can be done because of the “sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ for all” (p. 126) so that it can be said, if “not, ‘Tell every man Christ died for him,'” at least, “‘Tell every man Christ is dead for him;’ that is, for him to come to, and believe on; a Savior is provided for him . . . the use-making of which he may be saved” (p. 128). Clearly Boston, having rejected the condition of repentance, was seeking simply to substitute another, in this instance that of believing in Christ.
And with that we come perhaps as close as we can to the origin of the “offer of the gospel” in its modern concept. Boston was convinced that, if evangelism is to be done, one has to be able to offer something to everyone, as motivation for them to fulfill the required condition. If then salvation itself cannot be promised to everyone, at least the conditional offer can; and if the hearer will do his part, God certainly can be relied upon to follow through and provide the grace needed to bring about true saving faith—even though, of course, we know that in the end those who do this will be the elect alone.
In effect what Boston was doing was bringing into evangelical thinking an equivocal kind of casuistry, the supposition that in good conscience one can confess a certain truth outwardly while maintaining as an inward reservation almost the exact opposite. One may confess the sovereignty of God in all things, including the election and reprobation of men, while at the same time conceiving of a secondary level of grace in which God loves all men and would like to see them all come to Him. It is this latter then that can be used in evangelism, going forth to tell everyone of God’s willingness to save each of them if only they will do what He wants—even while we know that God has chosen and will give the grace so to do to only some.
But such reasoning has its consequence; it brings into the church’s concept of God an ambivalent kind of duality, almost a split personality. On the one hand it sees God as sovereign Lord foreordaining in quiet greatness and in the uniformity of infinite wisdom all things which come to pass, while on, the other it presents. Him as standing in uncertainty wishing for much more than ever does come to be, because in the end it finally depends on the will of men. He makes His offer; but, unless man meets the condition, His desire cannot prevail. And lost through it all is that most basic wonder of God, His oneness and simplicity.
Throughout Scripture this oneness, this harmonious consistency of God, is fundamental in everything, as Moses said, in Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God is one LORD.” Upon it rested the embryonic moral precept, verse 5, “And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” It wasn’t new; Moses had met it first already at the burning bush, Ex. 3:14, 15, “And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you . . . . this is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations.”
What the Marrow men said is true: the gospel must be preached to all men—and no one should impose conditions to limit this. But neither should conditions be added of a different sort in order supposedly to enhance its universal appeal. And, above all, the oneness, the consistency, and simplicity of our God, must not be compromised or lost, as Paul wrote in I Timothy 2:5, 6, “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.”
1. “Offero: to bring before, to exhibit, to obtrude” Classic Latin Dictionary, Volley Publishing Co., Chicago, 1952
2. “An undertaking to do an act or give something on condition that the party to whom the proposal is made do some specified act or make a return promise.” Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, G & G Merriam Company, Springfield, MS 1970
3. The Great Debate, Alan P.F. Sell, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1983, p. 56
4. Fisher, Edward. The Marrow of Modern Divinity: with note by the Rev. Thomas Boston, Reiner Publications, Swengel, PA. 1978, p. 116
5. Ibid, pp. 126, 127, 132