Chapter 2: The Promise of the Gospel (cont.)
From all the above, that is, both from Scripture and the Confessions, it must be very evident what is the contents of the promise of God. In one word it is, according to Scripture, Christ and all His riches of salvation and blessing. It is the promise that God will raise up a Savior out of the seed of David; that this seed of David shall bear the sins of His people; that God shall raise Him from the dead and give Him glory, exalt Him on the throne of His father David, and give Him the ends of the earth for His possession. Christ is the promised seed. The promise, therefore, according to Scripture, implies the assurance of righteousness and peace, of forgiveness and sonship, of deliverance and sanctification, of eternal life and glory, of the incorruptible and undefilable inheritance that fadeth not away. It implies for Christ and all that are in Him that they shall be heirs of the world, inherit the new and heavenly kingdom, and dwell in God’s eternal tabernacle forever. And therefore, the promise also implies the gift of the Holy Spirit. That Spirit is given first of all to Christ, and then also to them that are of Him. It is through this Spirit that all the blessings of Christ are realized upon the church. It is important that we emphasize this. It is a mistake to present the matter as if God merely promised the objective blessings of salvation to the seed of Abraham, or even to men in general, so that it depends upon their consent whether or not the promise shall be realized unto them. Very definitely the gift of the Holy Spirit is included in the promise. It is God’s promise that He will pour out His Spirit upon all flesh. And through this Spirit He effectually works the salvation of Christ in the heart of all His people in the way of regeneration, calling, faith, justification, sanctification, perseverance, and glorification. Through that Spirit they are translated from darkness into light and are kept in the power of God unto the salvation that is to be revealed in the last time. All this is included in the promise, that is, in the positive declaration on the part of God that He will surely bestow these blessings and benefits of salvation upon all His people.
From all this, and especially also from the fact that the gift of the Holy Spirit is implied in the promise, it must be very evident that the promise of God is unconditional. It is not, and cannot be conditioned by anything on the part of man. This we must clearly understand. A promise is by no means the same as an offer. Also in the latter the person that makes the offer declares his willingness to do something for or bestow something upon the person to whom the offer is made. But for its realization the offer is dependent upon the willingness of the second party, upon his consent to the offer. In this sense we may say that man can really never promise anything, for he is never certain that he can realize what he promises: He is dependent upon many circumstances; and he is even dependent upon the willingness of him to whom the promise is made to receive what is promised. I can offer a man a thousand dollars. But if he refuses, the offer is vain. But a promise is different from a mere offer. A promise is a declaration, written or verbal, which binds the person that makes it to do or to forbear to do the very thing promised. It is an engagement, regardless of any corresponding duty or obligation on the part of the person to whom the thing is promised. A promise, therefore, implies the declaration of a certain good, together with the positive assurance that this good shall be bestowed upon or performed in behalf of the person to whom the promise is made. This certainty of the promise is, as regards the promise of Scripture, emphasized by the fact that it is God who makes the promise. God conceived of the promise in His eternal decree. He it is that realizes the thing promised in Christ Jesus our Lord. And He declares the promise. This implies that the promise cannot possibly be dependent on anything outside of God. For God is God. He is sovereign. And His work certainly cannot be contingent upon the will of the creature. And secondly, this signifies that the promise is as faithful and true as God is unchangeable. He will surely realize the promise. When He binds Himself to do or to bestow anything, He is bound by Himself and by all His divine attributes to realize the promise unto them to whom it is made. For He cannot deny Himself. And this idea of the promise necessarily implies that it is made to a definite party. An offer, that is contingent upon the acceptance and consent of the second party, may be general. A promise, that binds the promising party and that is certain of realization, requires a definite second party. And thus it is in Scripture. For the promise is centrally made to Christ, and through Him to the seed of Abraham, to the children of the promise, to those that are called heirs and coheirs of the promise. And that this certainly is the idea of the promise is clearly expressed in Scripture. For we read in: “For when God made promise to Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, he swore by himself, saying, Surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee . . . Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of the promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath.” To the heirs of the promise it is certain, because it is rooted in the immutable counsel of the Most High.
Chapter 3: The Preaching of the Promise
When, however, we speak of the Word of God as a key power, to open and shut the kingdom of heaven, we do not refer to the promise of God as such, but to the preaching of the promise, or the preaching of the gospel. This is evident from Qu. 83 of the Heidelberg Catechism, where we read: “What are the keys of the kingdom of heaven? The preaching of the holy gospel, and Christian discipline, or excommunication out of the Christian church; by these two, the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers, and shut against unbelievers.” And this is also evident from the answer of the Catechism which we are at present considering. The question is asked, “How is the kingdom of heaven opened and shut by the preaching of the holy gospel? Thus: when according to the command of Christ, it is declared and publicly testified to all and every believer, that, whenever they receive the promise of the gospel by a true faith, all their sins are really forgiven them of God, for the sake of Christ’s merits; and on the contrary, when it is declared and testified to all unbelievers, and such as do not sincerely repent, that they stand exposed to the wrath of God, and eternal condemnation, so long as they are unconverted: according to which testimony of the gospel, God will judge them, both in this, and in the life to come.”
Now the idea of the gospel is that it is glad news about the promise of God. Glad news of glad tidings is the meaning of the word evangel. It is glad news for two reasons: in the first place, because the heirs of the promise, that is, the elect of God, are in the midst of the world, and therefore in the midst of misery and death. In the world they are subject to sin and corruption, to all kinds of suffering and tribulation. The present experience of the heirs of the promise is one of sorrow and grief, of affliction and torment, of misery and groaning. And the promise holds before them the deliverance from their present state of misery and destitution. And secondly, the gospel is glad news because of the unspeakably great riches of the inheritance that is promised. For the promise holds before the heirs not such a deliverance from sin and death as will restore them to a former state and condition of bliss, but fills their hearts with a hope of glory such as never was conceived in the heart of man. It stands to reason that this glad news concerning the promise could only be imparted by Him that conceived of the promise, that is, God. God proclaims the promise. He preaches the gospel through Jesus Christ our Lord. The gospel that speaks of things which eye hath not seen, and ear hath not heard, and which have never been conceived in the heart of man, can only come through revelation, But this revelation of God, this divine proclamation of the gospel, always took place through the agency of men. Hence, he is a preacher of the gospel who can with authority declare in the name of God glad news about the promise, about its certainty of fulfillment, about its riches of blessings, about its progress and the realization of it in history. All through the history of the world there are in the world heirs of the promise. And they know the promise. They are anxious about it, long for its realization. They inquire about its contents and the nearness of its fulfillment. And he that can answer this anxious inquiry, and bring some glad news about the promise was, and still is, a preacher of the gospel.
It is this preaching of the gospel, according to the Heidelberg Catechism, which is one of the keys of the kingdom of heaven.
What is preaching? For a complete answer to this question I may refer you to the Triple Knowledge, Vol. V, pp. 29, ff. Here it is sufficient if I only recapitulate briefly what I wrote in that connection. First of all, preaching, as has been explained above, is the proclamation of the gospel. And the gospel is the sure promise of God concerning salvation to the heirs of the promise. The contents of the preaching, therefore, may be nothing else than the gospel of Jesus Christ, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. Secondly, preaching is authoritative proclamation of that gospel. For the preacher is an ambassador, one that is sent to proclaim glad tidings of good things, the things that are promised in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thirdly, for that very reason, it is the church that preaches the gospel. For she only can speak with authority as the one that is sent. And that church proclaims the gospel through its official ministry. And finally, preaching is such official proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the service of the living Word of God through Christ. Especially the last element of our definition of preaching is important here. For it is only through the powerful and living Word of Christ Himself that preaching can possibly be or become a key to open or shut the kingdom of heaven. As we have said before, it is not in the power of any man either to open or to shut that kingdom. Only Christ has the keys. But it pleases Him to exercise that power of the keys through men, through the apostles, and through the church which is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. And therefore, through the preaching Christ speaks His own efficacious and living Word. And it is only because it pleases Christ to speak His own Word, that the preaching becomes effective as a key power.
From all this it will be evident that if the preaching of the gospel is to be a power to open and to shut the kingdom of heaven, it can never be a well-meaning offer of salvation. The promise must be preached. It must never be offered. Thus it is also constantly presented in Scripture. Jesus preaches the gospel of the kingdom. ; ; . Paul preached the gospel among the Gentiles. . He preached the gospel of God among the Thessalonians. . Or, he spake unto them the gospel of God with much contention. . Or again, he testified of the gospel of the grace of God. . And frequently also the word evangelize, or to declare glad tidings, is used to denote the preaching of the gospel of God in Christ. ; ; ; . But never do we find in all the Word of God that the gospel is offered, or that it presents the promise of God as a well-meaning offer of salvation to all that hear the preaching of the gospel. If the promise of God were for all men, there would be no distinctive preaching of the gospel possible. There would be an opening of the kingdom of heaven, but no shutting of that kingdom. Nor is preaching of the gospel as a key of the kingdom of heaven possible when it is conceived as an offer, as a well-meaning offer on the part of God to all that hear. For in that case the preaching presents the door of the kingdom of heaven as always standing wide open. In that case the preaching does not open the gate, but man simply enters the kingdom of heaven by his own free will. And again, in that case the preaching does not shut the gate of the kingdom of heaven, but it is closed by man, that rejects the offer and refuses to enter in. For an offer is a conditional proposition: it depends and is contingent on its consent by man. And, let me emphasize that if the gospel were such a well-meaning offer on the part of God, dependent on the will of man, no man would ever enter into the kingdom of heaven. If the promise were the preaching of a conditional offer, there is nothing in the condition which man can possibly fulfill. He cannot of himself believe the promise. He cannot even will of himself to believe in Christ. He cannot repent and turn, unless God first realizes the promise unto him. And therefore, the promise of God in the preaching of the gospel is either unconditional, or it is impossible of realization. But the preaching is never an offer of salvation to all men. The promise is not given to all, according to Scripture, but to the seed of Abraham, to those that are of Christ, to them that are in sovereign grace elected unto salvation from before the foundation of the world.