The text of this article is from the web site of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia (www.epc.org.au), and appears here by kind permission.
The Biblical offer of the Gospel An analysis and answer to Rev. K.W. Stebbins’ Christ Freely Offered in light of Scripture and the Confessions
By Rev. C. J. Connors, Minister of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia
Which gospel is an urgent question facing the Reformed Churches today, for the truth is under fierce attack from the lie of universalism.
The student of Church History soon learns that the lie which preaches a universal love of God, sovereign-man and self-salvation is a chameleon, constantly changing its appearance in order to infiltrate the church and gain control of the content and preaching of the gospel.
Augustine engaged this foe when he defended the sovereignty of God’s grace against the rank universalism of Pelagius. The Reformers dealt it a mighty blow when they demolished Rome’s stronghold of semi-Pelagianism. The Synod of Dort, when it condemned Arminianism attained a glorious victory over it. Undaunted however, it assumed the even more plausible guise of Amyraldianism, but was again driven back by the Church of Scotland in the 18th century Marrow controversy.
The old enemy has not abandoned the field, nor has it been idle. Having transformed itself yet again, it now marches under the banner of common grace and a well-meant offer. Its battle cry is that God loves and desires the salvation of all men in the preaching of the gospel. It has finally gained the ascendancy and now vaunts itself in the Reformed Churches as Reformed orthodoxy. The battle field which witnessed such great feats of courage is now ominously – deathly – quiet.
It becomes absolutely necessary, therefore, that those who are still holding out against the enemy rise up and rally to the defence of the doctrines of God’s sovereign grace.
To this end, we present the following analysis and answer to Rev. K.W. Stebbins’ doctrine of the well-meant offer. It is our prayer that God might be pleased to take our humble and imperfect efforts in defence of His truth, and use them to maintain and defence the doctrines of sovereign grace in the biblical offer over against the fatal compromise with universalism that is evident in the well-meant offer.
Christopher J. Connors.
Chapter One. The Occasion and Issues.
Rev. K. W. Stebbins of the Presbyterian Reformed Church of Australia has attempted to give an answer to three questions put by Professor D. J. Engelsma of the Protestant Reformed Churches (USA) to the proponents of the well-meant offer. To this end he wrote the book Christ Freely Offered. The implications of the “free offer” or well-meant offer, acknowledges Rev. Stebbins, are summed up in the following three questions:
1. Does God desire the salvation of everyone?
2. Does God offer the gospel to all because He loves all men? Does God love all?
3. Does God offer Christ and salvation to everyone in the preaching of the gospel?
Rev. Stebbins gives an affirmative answer to each of the above questions. He in effect says:
1. Yes, God desires (delights in and pursues) the salvation of every man.
2. Yes, God loves everyone and His grace is for all.
3. Yes, God offers (desires to give) Christ to every one in the preaching of the gospel.
Though Rev. Stebbins teaches that God loves all men, he also insists that God has decreed and immutably determined to save only the elect, that Christ and saving grace is only for the elect, and that God effects the salvation of only the elect through the well-meant offer of the gospel. Rev. Stebbins is in effect saying “yes” and “no” to each of the above questions. A well-meant offer, he thinks, is grounded in the “yes” while the contradiction created by the “no” of reprobation is left to God to resolve. According to Rev. Stebbins just how God can say “yes” and “no” and be one, simple, eternally unchangeable God is “the mystery!”
In opposition to Rev. Stebbins we believe that the Reformed faith must answer these three questions negatively. God desires to save only the elect. God’s love and grace are particular to only the elect in Christ. God does not desire the salvation of all in the preaching of the gospel, nor does God make conditional promises to the reprobate.
In this chapter we must consider in more detail how Rev. Stebbins arrives at the point that he believes he can answer “yes” to the above questions.
Rev. Stebbins’ Answer to The First Question.
How does Rev. Stebbins arrive at the conclusion that the God of sovereign predestination delights or desires to save all men, including the reprobate?
Rev. Stebbins yes rises out of an active “principle of God’s nature” that is revealed not in God’s decretive will, but in God’s preceptive will. This will of precept indicates, supposedly, that God according to His natural goodness “delights” in the salvation of all. We have, he says:
… two basic principles of God’s nature. The first is that whereby He delights that men would turn to Him; the second is that whereby He delights in sovereign love. God expresses both of these in His dealings with men generally. Because He delights in sovereign love He manifests sovereign benevolence which includes provision of the means intrinsically useful for finding salvation.
Rev. Stebbins does not find a basis for his well-meant offer in the will of God. He does not find it in a vicarious and limited atonement either. He does not even find his basis in the command of God that all men repent and believe. Rather, he finds his basis in an “active principle of God’s nature” that stands behind God’s revealed will. Let the reader be fully aware that although Rev. Stebbins says God “sovereignly” loves all men, he insists that this principle of “delight is not a free act of will but a necessary principle in God.” This means God must love and pursue the salvation of all men through the gospel offer, even while according to His decree God actively wills to withhold mercy love and grace from the reprobate.
The next step of his argument teaches that a necessary principle of the Divine nature means that God delights that all sinners turn and live (Ezekiel 18:23,31,32; 33:11). God therefore delights to save all men because of an active principle of His very nature. Rev. Stebbins prefers not to say that God “desires” all men to be saved, but that God “delights” that all be saved. He does not feel comfortable with the word “desire” which sounds a bit too volitional, so he substitutes what he imagines is the more passive term “delight.” In this way, God out of a principle of His very nature is said to delight in what He has decreed not to do; namely, save the non-elect through the preaching of the gospel.
Thus, Rev. Stebbins finds the basis for the well-meant offer to be a necessary principle in the nature of God. God, according to Rev. Stebbins, just can’t help loving and delighting in the salvation of all men head for head.
Rev. Stebbins’ Answer to The Second Question.
How does Rev. Stebbins arrive at the conclusion that God loves all and His grace is for all? Again, God’s love flows to all men out of a necessary principle of His nature.
Rev. Stebbins finds the same principle of God’s nature that moved Him to delight in universal salvation to be the source of a species of universal love. This love that is manifest as “common” grace and mercy, flows to all men from the necessary principle of God’s natural goodness. Goodness, he says, is that “attribute of God by which He delights to deal bountifully and kindly with all His creatures.” To remove the sovereign will of God in reprobation, which is the Biblical barrier to such reasoning, Rev. Stebbins argues that God’s decree of reprobation (“Esau have I hated”), “says nothing about God’s attitude toward the reprobate . . . nor about their destiny.” Therefore, says Rev. Stebbins: “All acts of God’s goodness toward men are acts of love or benevolence and flow from a nature inclined towards benevolence.” If God communicates His goodness to all, He must be graciously and kindly disposed to all. This principle of goodness is “common” grace. This is grace for all in the good things bestowed upon all men. Rev. Stebbins defines God’s grace as undeserved favour, but he insists that grace is in God as the giver – and – in the gift that proceeds from God’s nature. Therefore, all God’s good gifts are grace, to both elect and reprobate alike.
Rev. Stebbins’ next joins his first two necessary principles, (delight to save all, and love and grace to all) to the further notion that God is “pursuing” all men with salvation. God, he says, pursues all men’s physical well-being through temporal blessings and pursues all men’s eternal salvation through the means of grace. At this point the reader must clearly understand that the “necessary principle of God’s nature” is no longer confined to action within the Divine Mind (ad-infra). It is now volitional and active outside the being of God (ad-extra) toward and in the creation. God is actively pursuing the salvation of all men.
At this point Rev. Stebbins’ view is all but indistinguishable from Arminianism’s “general” grace in the conditional offer of salvation. Rev. Stebbins, however, seeks to stop short of this heresy. He recognises that “common” grace and God’s necessary principle of delight can not possibly achieve the desired end. God’s eternal, immutable decree stands in its way as an insurmountable barrier. Therefore, he draws a distinction between “common” grace and “special” grace. God loves mankind as a class with benevolent love, and loves the elect as a class with electing love. “God therefore pursues man’s preservation, including its highest form in salvation but in the elect alone He has determined to pursue it to the end.” God’s love and hatred, it follows, are common to the reprobate and elect alike. God embraces elect and reprobate alike with a species of love called “sovereign benevolent love” for a time. After a brief time under God’s love while in this world, God withdraws His love from the wicked who resisted it, and they are eternally damned. God goes on from “common love and grace” to love the wicked who obey Him with a higher and abiding love called “pleasurable love.”
To summarise Rev. Stebbins’ argument thus far, we must say that God delights to save all, loves all, is gracious toward all, and therefore, pursues all men with salvation in the well-meant offer of the gospel – but – God fails to realise His delight in the salvation of the reprobate.
Rev. Stebbins’ Answer to the Third Question.
The question is: Does God “offer” Christ to all in the preaching of the gospel? That is, does the preaching of the gospel indicate that God desires to give Christ to the reprobate if he will but take Him?
Rev. Stebbins does not define the term “offer”. He does say, however, that: “The gospel is a gracious offer of salvation to man if he will perform his duty.” Rev. Stebbins in effect has God making a conditional promise to save the reprobate if he will fulfil the conditions. The question, Rev. Stebbins rightly says, is this: “Whether God merely commands all men to repent and believe or whether He earnestly and seriously calls upon all men to receive salvation by repenting and believing.” The crucial question, as Rev. Stebbins acknowledges. “How can God offer salvation to those for whom it was neither ordained nor purchased?” The whole position of Rev. Stebbins stands or falls on this point. If he cannot demonstrate a true basis for a well-meant offer from Scripture, then, Rev. Stebbins’ view must be rejected. Rev. Stebbins provides no basis! His “necessary principle in God” is no help to him here. That principle was supposed to provide a basis for “non-saving” love and grace. Rev. Stebbins is unable to give any basis for his universally well-meant offer in God’s sovereign decree of election and reprobation; nor, as he acknowledges, can he show any basis for it in Christ’s limited atonement. He stands before a glaring contradiction at the very heart of his argument and declares:
There is no more I can say as to God’s warrant for offering the gospel to all. Endeavouring to explain further what is essentially mysterious, can only result in darkening counsel by words without knowledge . . . Such endeavours, where we have nothing to draw with and the well is deep, betray a shallow apprehension of the limits of our faculties.
This avoiding of the issue is totally unacceptable. Rev. Stebbins, after all, can not produce any revealed basis for a well-meant offer. He instructs us to fall down with our hands upon our mouths before a divine mystery!
This contradiction, or mystery as Rev. Stebbins calls it, is the direct result of trying to wed the particularity of the Covenant of Grace to a view of the offer which is a fundamental compromise with Arminianism. Rev. Stebbins has concocted a species of hypothetical universalism that shrouds itself in the cloak of the mystery.
Rev. Stebbins’ “necessary principles” beg the question: How can God’s necessary delight to give, stand in flat contradiction to His sovereign good pleasure to withhold? Is this not a “necessary contradiction?” Rev. Stebbins’ theology creates a contradiction in the very nature of God. We do not, however, believe that the contradictions inherent in Rev. Stebbins’ view exist in the biblical offer. His mystery is imaginary. It rises out of his erroneous view of the “offer” and of the nature and will of God.
Thus far we have sought to set forth Rev. Stebbins’ position and drawn the lines for this discussion. We can now proceed in more detail to demonstrate the erroneous nature of Rev. Stebbins’ views, and set forth what we believe is the truth of Scripture and the Westminster Confession regarding the sincere and non-contradictory offer of God in the preaching of the gospel.
Chapter Two. The Offer of The Gospel
The Term Offer Clarified.
Before we enter into a treatment of Rev. Stebbins’ argument, the term offer must be clarified. The Westminster Confession defines the biblical offer, and God’s purpose in the offer, in this way:
Man by his fall having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, (of works) the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the Covenant of Grace: whereby He freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved; and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life His holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe. (W.C.F. VII, 3).
How is the grace of God manifested in the second covenant?
The Grace of God is manifested in the second covenant, in that he freely provided and offereth to sinners a Mediator and life and salvation by Him; and requiring faith as the condition to interest them in Him, and promiseth and giveth His Holy Spirit to all His elect, to work in them that faith, with all other saving graces; and to enable them unto all holy obedience, as the evidence of the truth of their faith and thankfulness to God, and as the way which he hath appointed them to salvation. (L.C. 32).
Who are made partakers of redemption through Christ?
Redemption is certainly applied, and effectually communicated, to all those for whom Christ hath purchased it; who are in time by the Holy Ghost enabled to believe in Christ according to the gospel. (L.C. 59).
With these statements of our Reformed confession we are in complete agreement. We understand them, however, to exclude Rev. Stebbins well meant offer.
There are several points that need to be made at the outset. Firstly, our dispute with Rev. Stebbins’ presentation of the “free offer” is primarily with the notion that in the offer God actively delights or desires to save all sinners. This notion in respect to the reprobate, requires a conditional will to their salvation, Christ to have died for all conditionally, and common (general?) grace for all. These are the basic premises of Arminianism. They stand in flat contradiction to the statements of the Confession as quoted above. Secondly, we believe that the offer of the gospel must be viewed theologically and christologically before its purpose and content can be rightly understood. It is emphatically the sovereign God’s gospel of salvation in Christ. Only as such can it be that power of God unto salvation of which we need never be ashamed. We believe, that Rev. Stebbins’ well-meant offer can be grounded only in a conditional will to the salvation of all (a denial of Reformed theology), and the subsequent offer of Christ’s blood shed for all (a denial of Reformed christology). Therefore, the discussion must grapple with what Scripture reveals concerning the sovereign purpose, will and work of God in Christ at every point. This means also that the discussion must be covenantal and have God’s one saving purpose in Christ Jesus at its centre. It is after all, the offer of the covenant God, concerning Christ, the Surety and Head of the elect, the Mediator of the covenant of grace with which we are concerned.
This covenantal approach is possible, and indeed necessary, because God’s purpose concerning the salvation of sinners in Christ through the preaching of the gospel is clearly revealed in Scripture. It is true that God does not reveal the names of those individuals who are His elect, however He does reveal that He has a chosen people, that He intends only their salvation and that they alone are the recipients of grace in Christ Jesus their Mediator. God also reveals the means by which He pursues His elect’s salvation, namely, the gospel proclaimed promiscuously wherever God sends it in His all wise providence.
Thirdly, it is our judgement that Rev. Stebbins’ use of the confes- sional term “offer” can more accurately be described as a well-meant offer. The term offer does not imply desire in God to save as Rev. Stebbins would have us understand. Offer in the Reformed Confessions is the Latin term offero, meaning to present, exhibit, or set forth. It is in this sense that the term “offer” is used by the Westminster Confession of Faith (W.C.F.) and associated documents. The Sum of Saving Knowledge (found in the back of most editions of the Confession) in accord with the Latin offero and biblical teaching, defines “offer” in relation to the means of grace as “to clearly hold forth Christ already crucified before our eyes.” Or again, as Larger Catechism 72 says: “(Faith) rests upon Christ and His righteousness, therein held forth.” The apostle Paul sets the biblical pattern. The gospel must be preached so that men are obliged to: “Obey the truth, (as those) before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?” “Offer” means that “the Gospel is externally proposed . . .” Therefore, although it is not Rev. Stebbins’ terminology, for the sake of clarity, and to clearly distinguish the confessional usage, we use the term “offer” in the confessional sense of “hold forth before the mind”, and the term well-meant offer with reference to Rev. Stebbins’ desire of God to save all men.
The Biblical Offer Described.
As to its content, the confessional offer includes both the clear setting forth of Christ crucified and God’s way of salvation in Him. The offer presupposes the setting forth of God’s exalted holiness and the law to convince and convict men of sin and to show the urgent need of Christ. The biblical offer sets forth and displays Christ crucified as the blessed and only saviour in all His glory, beauty, suitability and sufficiency for every kind and type of sinner. It authoritatively declares the command and call of God to all men, without exception, to repent and believe as the only way to life. It beseeches and with the cords of love and grace, tenderly draws the labouring, heavy laden sinner to Christ and salvation in Him. It promises the Spirit to the elect to make them able and willing to believe, and it proclaims the particular promise of God, that all who come will surely find mercy. In short, it must herald the good news of the gospel to sinners – nothing less, and nothing more.
The presentation of the gospel – the offer – in its totality does not constitute, or even imply, a well-meant offer to all. The presentation of the gospel implies no active delight, desire or longing within God toward the salvation of all in the preaching. All that can be rightfully deduced from the biblical gospel offer is that God is pleased to save repentant, believing sinners – not that God desires to save all sinners. The well-meant offer, however, can not stand without first presupposing a conditional will of God to the salvation of the reprobate, Christ dead for all, and general grace. These are, of course the most basic premises of Arminianism. They and the offer they create, must be rejected.
Furthermore, God’s purpose in the offer is to accomplish the salvation of the elect, and leave the reprobate without excuse in their sin. The reprobate “stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed.” This stumbing is God’s sovereign appointment and purpose which is realised through the preaching of the gospel. Thus the Sum of Saving Knowledge declares: “By these outward ordinances, as our Lord makes the reprobate inexcusable, so, by the power of His Spirit, he applies unto the elect effectually all saving graces purchased to them . . .” The offer is the means, therefore, through which God calls all men with an outward call to faith and repentance, and through which outward call He executes His purpose according to predestination, namely, to leave the reprobate as a responsible creature without excuse for his despising Christ; while at the same time, through those same means, but now graciously in the hands of the Spirit of Christ, inwardly, irresistibly and effectually to call His elect to saving faith and repentance unto life.
This understanding of the “offer” gives the framework for our discussion and reply to Rev. Stebbins.
We turn our attention now to the three questions Rev Stebbins has answered in the affirmative.
Chapter Three. Does God Desire the Salvation of the Reprobate?
Rev. Stebbins’ “Principle of Delight in God.”
Rev. Stebbins’ fundamental proposition is that the basis for his well-meant offer can be found in the very nature of God. Rev. Stebbins’ own words in this regard are as follows: “God delights that men would turn to Him because of His very nature. His delight is not a free act of will but a necessary principle in God.”
In this chapter Rev. Stebbins’ “necessary principle within God” as the basis for common grace and the well-meant offer will be examined.
God’s Single Will: Decree and Precept.
The first thing that needs to be established is the real unity, or singularity of God’s will. Rev. Stebbins agrees that “the simplicity of will and singleness of purpose of God is axiomatic in . . . all reputable theologies. True as this is, we find that this axiom is not at all evident in Rev. Stebbins’ theology. Rev. Stebbins builds his theology on a faulty view of the relationship of the preceptive will to the nature of God. His mistake is that he posits an active volitional quality in the preceptive will that results in a division of God’s one will into two contradictory wills.
The starting point for a Reformed discussion on the will of God is the truth that: God is one, absolutely sovereign, independent, and unchangeable God. God’s will is the infinitely wise, eternal, powerful, immutable and righteous essence of God actively willing. This truth determines that the will of God can not be more than one, nor can it be in any way contradictory. John Owen rightly says: “The essence of God, being a most absolute, pure, simple act or substance, His will consequently can be but simply one: whereof we ought to make neither division nor distinction.” To divide God’s will is to divide God’s being.
God’s infinite will, unlike ours, comprehends all things by a single and most comprehensive act. Francis Turretin is helpful here, when he points out that:
Although the will of God is only one and most simple, by which He comprehends all things by a single and most simple act so that He sees and understands all things at one glance, yet because that one will is occupied differently about various objects, it thus happens in our manner of conception, it may be apprehended as manifold…”
What may appear manifold to our finite minds is in reality a perfect oneness, unity and simplicity of will within the being of the infinite God. It is surely to be expected that we finite creatures will not be able to wrap our puny minds around the wisdom and will of the infinite God. But one thing around which we can and must wrap our minds is the truth that within the Being and will of God there can be no division, and therefore no hint of contradiction.
Certainly then, Rev. Stebbins may not so distinguish God’s will of precept and decree as to, in effect, divide God’s simple being into contradictory wills. This, however, is the result of teaching that the Divine nature is by necessity eternally and actively delighting in the salvation of all men at the same time as God actively wills the decree of election and reprobation.
How does Rev. Stebbins arrive at the place where, in effect he compromises the truth of the perfect simplicity of God’s will?
Rev. Stebbins rightly says that both God’s will of decree and His preceptive will flow from God’s divine nature and therefore both reveal what is pleasing to God. The mere statement of this truth, however, does not guarantee the unity of God’s will in ones theology. In Rev. Stebbins’ case the fact that the precept and decree emanate from the one Divine nature simply serves to draw the confusion he creates back within the nature of God Himself, for he has dual wills emanating from God’s one nature. Rev. Stebbins’ argument begs this question: How can the will of double predestination stand over against this necessary principle of active delight of the nature of the one God? Rev. Stebbins has the Divine Being actively willing that in which he does not delight, and actively delighting in that which He does not will. This is Rev. Stebbins’ mystery.
This division and confusion comes about because Rev. Stebbins insists that the preceptive will is the expression of a necessary and active principle within God whereby “God delights that (all) men would turn to Him because of his very nature.” This will of active delight stands behind and gives rise to the preceptive will as an expression of the nature of God. It becomes the possibility of, and basis for God’s universally well-meant offer.
We point out that Rev. Stebbins’ necessary principle of active delight within the nature of God has volitional quality, for it is manifest ad extra, (outside the eternally self-sufficient being of God) to non-elect sinners as common grace and the well-meant offer through which God pursues with Christ and salvation in Him. There is no such necessary volitionary quality within the being of the absolutely sovereign God. Every act and revelation of the nature of God ad-extra is a free act and is according to His sovereign will, not by necessity of His nature. John Owen faced the counterpart of Rev. Stebbins’ argument from the universalists of his day and replied as we must today:
That God hath any natural or necessary inclination, by His goodness, or any other property, to do good to us, or any of His creatures, we do deny. Everything that concerns us is an act of His free will and good pleasure, and not a natural, necessary act of His Deity.
The denial of any “necessary inclination” in the being of God to do good to sinful man is also axiomatic for orthodox Reformed theology. Furthermore, this denial is necessary if we are to preserve the unity of God’s will over against the attack of universalism.
No one denies that the preceptive will reveals what is pleasing or delightful to God, or that repentance and faith are things pleasing to God. But Reformed theology cannot accept the conclusion Rev. Stebbins draws from this, namely, that the precept indicates a delight, pleasure, wish, desire or any other volitional quality within God to the actual repentance of every man. That notion destroys the simplicity of God’s will. The unity of God’s will is found in the fact that the preceptive will reveals that God delights in the salvation of repentant sinners, while God’s decretive will has sovereignly determined which sinners will be granted repentance.
Between the delight of God’s nature and the will of His decree there is a most perfect and consummate harmony. The universalism that Rev. Stebbins seeks to inject into Reformed theology destroys this unity.
There is and can be no contradiction within the will of God, or between God’s will of delight and His decree. God’s decree after all, is God willing His “eternal good pleasure” or delight. Rev. Stebbins in pursuit of a well-meant offer, however, works hard to make God’s will contradictory and thereby turn it into a complex will and a “profound mystery.” He fails. God cannot be divided.
The Relationship of Decree to Precept.
The next question we must answer is this: If the decree and precept are in reality God’s one will, how then are they related so as to be one?
God’s decretive will is defined in the W.C.F Shorter Catechism as His “eternal purpose, according to the counsel of His own will, whereby, for His own glory, He hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.” The “preceptive will” on the other hand, is that revealed will of God which is set forth in Holy Scripture as the rule God is pleased to make known for man’s duty.
Rev. Stebbins, we believe, has come to his erroneous conclusions regarding God’s will because he fails to acknowledge that the preceptive will falls as a proposition under the simple will of God as established in the eternal decrees.
The first thing we need to establish is that the preceptive will can be called God’s will only in a metaphorical sense. The preceptive will, is not God within Himself (ad-infra) “willing” as a rule for His own actions, but what God “wills” to reveal outside Himself (ad-extra) as the rule for the creature’s actions. There is a clear difference between the two. The preceptive will terminates outside God’s essence as that which He actively wills to require of man, while the decretive will abides within Himself as His living will in regard to His own actions. The preceptive will therefore, falls as a proposition under God’s decretive will as that duty God is pleased to require of man. In this way the preceptive will is rightly said to be an aspect of God’s all wise providence in respect to man.
The biblical relationship as set forward in the Westminster Confession could be illustrated as follows:
God’s Nature > Decrees > Providence / Preceptive will.
God freely chooses to reveal the goodness of His being. This revelation is not necessary but free, and it is always by means of, or, according to His sovereign good pleasure. God willed that the precept be revealed as the chief means whereby He will accomplish His eternal purposes among men.
Rev. Stebbins’ view on the other hand would have to be illustrated as follows:
Decrees = saving grace > God’s Nature > Providence Precept = common grace >
Rev. Stebbins’ order requires dual wills, one of precept – willing universal grace, another of decree – willing particular grace. Both these are emanating from the one Divine nature. The former runs free of the particularity of God’s decree of election and reprobation and enables grace to flow to the reprobate directly from God’s nature. At the same time God’s sovereign will causes saving grace to flow purposefully to others through election in Christ. Unavoidably God has two contradictory good pleasures at work within Himself and within the world.
Francis Turretin is again helpful when he demonstrates how the precept falls as a proposition under the decree.
The will of sign (preceptive will) which is set forth as extrinsic (outside of God) ought to correspond with some internal (intrinsic) will (decree) in God that it may not be false and deceptive; but that internal will is not the decree concerning the gift of salvation to this or that one, but the decree concerning the command of faith and promise of salvation if the man does believe, (which is founded both upon the connection established by God between faith and salvation and the internal disposition of God by which, as he loves Himself, He cannot but love His image wherever He sees it shining and is so much pleased with the faith and repentance of the creature as to grant its salvation).
All that can rightly be deduced from God’s preceptive will is that God is pleased to command faith and repentance to sinners as the only way of salvation. The precept says nothing concerning God’s desire to grant these to any particular sinner. From the general precept we can not conclude that God is gracious toward or delights to save every sinner. The preceptive will is an aspect of God’s providential dealings with man as a rational moral creature. It is a means whereby God realises His sovereign will according to election and reprobation.
Secondly, we must understand that the preceptive will is that which God has given as the duty of man, not His own purpose. The will of decree, having to do with what God Himself will do as sovereign Creator and Saviour can never be resisted, whereas the will of precept, having to do with God’s moral requirements as the duty of man, can be and often is resisted by sinful man.
Whether God Himself wills an action of man in fulfilment or non-fulfilment of the command can not be determined from the preceptive will itself. “All the activity of the Divine Mind concerning His precepts belongs to God’s decretive will.” The preceptive will tells us only what it pleases God to propose as man’s duty.
The pleasure of God can be, but is not necessarily in the personal fulfilment of the preceptive will as Rev. Stebbins wrongly asserts. Turretin explains that when God’s preceptive will is called His “delight,” Scripture, means nothing more than the mere complacency by which God approves anything as just and holy and delights in it (and besides, wills to prescribe it to the creature as His most just duty). Hence it does not properly include any decree of volition in God, but implies only the agreement of the thing with the nature of God (according to which He cannot but love what is agreeable to His holiness).
The delight of God, therefore, is in the precept as a thing “pleasing” in itself. In this sense God is said to “delight in it.” The action of the creature that conforms to the precept is incidental to God’s delight in the precept itself. God’s active delight in the person fulfilling the precept is coincident, and wholly dependent upon God by His Spirit regenerating and working in the sinner both to will and to do of His good pleasure. It is thus coincident only when God’s decree determines that God by irresistible grace makes it so. That is to say, God works faith and repentance graciously and irresistibly in the heart of the elect sinner according to the decree of election, so that the purpose of God and the fulfilling of the precept meet in the grace of Christ Jesus, by which grace, faith and repentance are alone made possible.
It is in this sense that God is said to delight in the actions of men that conform to His preceptive will. This delight of God in precept and person can, therefore, never be apart from the mediation and imputed righteousness of Christ through faith. “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” Therefore, Rev. Stebbins’ assumption that “God’s delight would be not just in repentance and faith as things in themselves but in the wicked repenting and believing” is erroneous.
John Owen is certainly correct when he says: “From our duty to God’s purpose is no good conclusion, though from His command to our duty be most certain.” Rev. Stebbins, however, argues from our duty to God’s “necessary principle of nature” and would attribute to God an unfulfilled delight. We insist that God’s delight is constantly in all that which He has freely decreed according to His good pleasure.
God’s One Determinative Purpose.
Obviously, God has many subordinate ends that all work together in perfect harmony to achieve the ultimate end; God’s glory. This is God’s wisdom. The chief end, God’s glory, must be realised in the lives of both elect and reprobate. The means of grace including the gospel offer, stand in relation to this purpose as a means to an end. God’s clearly revealed purpose to glorify Himself in the way of double predestination is determinative in laying a biblical foundation for the “offer” of the gospel.
Rev. Stebbins, however, does not teach or even want to acknowledge that there is an eternal decree of predestination that determines God’s purpose in the offer, nor men’s destiny. He insists that “preterition (reprobation CJC) says nothing about God’s attitude towards those passed over” (the reprobate CJC) . . . nor about their destiny.”
Surely, here is a parting of the ways between Reformed orthodoxy and Rev. Stebbins. Rev. Stebbins denies the reality and ultimacy of God’s decree of reprobation. He denies that God has eternally, sovereignly and unchangeably determined that the destiny of the reprobate be eternal destruction. He consequently stands in flat contradiction to the Westminster Confession which does not draw back from declaring that:
By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death.
This clear statement of the W.C.F is based squarely upon Romans 9:22-23, which reads:
What if God, willing to make his power known, endured with much long suffering the vessels of wrath fitted for destruction? And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy which he had afore prepared unto glory?” (emphasis is the Confession’s).
Any distinction that exists between “predestination” and “foreordination” is irrelevant, for both terms refer to the sovereign decree, which is apart from and without any consideration of the works of the creature in the first instance. The unconditional nature of God’s decree of predestination is also axiomatic to orthodox Reformed theology.
Rev. Stebbins denies the whole truth concerning reprobation in order to allow room for the universalism of the well-meant offer. This denial is of fundamental importance not only to this discussion, but to the Reformed faith itself. When one denies sovereign unconditional reprobation, as Rev. Stebbins does at this point, as sure as night follows day the truth of sovereign unconditional election and the Reformed faith itself will eventually be lost.
The purpose of God in having the gospel preached is according to, and governed by, the decree of double predestination. God purposes to glorify His grace in Jesus Christ through the salvation of the elect by the preaching of the gospel. The negative of this is His purpose to glorify His justice in the condemnation and eternal punishment of the reprobate. God has before the foundation of the world set His love upon those who are “chosen in Christ unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love.” God has “withheld mercy” from the rest of mankind “to the praise of His glorious justice.” According to Scripture and the Reformed Confessions, God’s decree of double predestination is determinative.
It is in this context that the passages in Ezekiel 18 and 33 which are held forth as the biblical basis for Rev. Stebbins’ “necessary principle in God” are to be considered.
The Ezekiel Passages
Here we ask: is Rev. Stebbins correct in his assertion that the Ezekiel passages teach that God actively delights that all men be saved?
The passages read:
“Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23).
Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel? for I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord GOD: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye.” (18: 31-32).
Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11).
These passages have been hotly debated over the years. Rev. Stebbins, however, gives no careful exegesis of these passages, but asserts that it is quite legitimate to deduce from them, that it is God’s nature to delight in men turning to Him and His abhorrence that they die. From this he concludes that God loves, is gracious to and desires the salvation of every sinner.
Rev. Stebbins is not saying that God by nature abhors death and loves life, but that He delights in all men’s repentance and salvation. In other words, he is speaking not about God’s precept, but about a will of delight within the being of God, other than the decree, and in contradiction to that decree!
The passages are God’s reply to the proverb spoken in Israel: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” (Ezek. 18:2). Judah accused God of injustice, (18: 19,25,29). Furthermore, many sought to justify a wicked refusal to turn from sin by asserting that it was no use, because God is not a God of mercy but a God who delights in judgement and death. To this blasphemy God replies: “Are not my ways equal? are not your ways unequal?” (18:29). God is not a cruel tyrant, but a righteous Judge: “I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord God.” The problem lies with the sinner, not with God. The command of God to the accountable sinner is:
“Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions: so iniquity shall not be your ruin,” (18:30). This command of God is designed to correct and encourage Judah in the knowledge that God has no fiendish delight in their suffering and death, but, as the faithful covenant God, commands the wicked to repent as the sure way to life and happiness.
The emphasis in the whole passage and book clearly falls upon the command to repent. This command comes to the nation of Judah, elect and the reprobate alike, indicating that God delights in repentance and life. The promise of life that is made is particular. It is to those who turn.
Calvin’s treatment of these verses in his polemic against the semi-Pelagian, Pighius is most helpful. Calvin points out, that:
After God had terrified them with the apprehension of His wrath, and had duly humbled them as not being utterly desperate, He encourages them with the hope of pardon, that they might feel that there was yet left open a space for remedy. Just so it is with respect to the conditional promises of God, which invite all men to salvation. They do not positively prove that which God has decreed in His secret counsel, but declare only what God is ready to do to all those who are brought to faith and repentance.
Calvin also instructs us as to God’s non-delight in the death of the wicked and delight in their life:
God requires of us this conversion, or “turning away from our iniquity,” and in whomsoever He finds it He disappoints not such an one of the promised reward of eternal life. Wherefore, God is as much said to have pleasure in, and to will, this eternal life, as to have pleasure in repentance; and He has pleasure in the latter, because He invites all men to it by His Word. Now all this is in perfect harmony with His secret and eternal counsel, by which He decreed to convert none but His own elect. None but God’s elect, therefore, ever do turn from their wickedness.
Turretin expresses this same understanding when he says:
God wills perceptively with respect to the reprobate the means to salvation in its material, but does not will them effectively in their formal. God wills to teach the reprobate what means for salvation are furnished, but does not will to effect them, (so that they should be performed by them as undoubted means to salvation to be attained).
God deals with sinners in the gospel as rational, moral creatures from the ethical view point. The passages speak of the wicked who turn and the wicked who do not turn. For all the wicked it is true that life can be found only in the way of turning. Turning and living are in the highest sense pleasing to God, as we have seen. For in the turning sinner God’s precept and decree meet and agree. However, it is clear that it is only the wicked who turn who shall live and have life bestowed upon them according to the delight of God.
The prophet’s instruction that the death of the sinner is not pleasing to God is designed to assure believers that God is ready to pardon them as soon as they are touched by repentance, but to make the wicked feel that their transgression is doubled because they do not respond to God’s great kindness and goodness. God’s mercy will always, accordingly, go to meet repentance, but all the prophets and all the apostles, as well as Ezekiel himself, clearly teach to whom repentance is given.
The passages reveal the glory of the goodness of God: “I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth,” (18:32.) And again: “As I live saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” The glory of God’s goodness however is not that God has an active pleasure, delight or desire that all men should receive life through repentance. Such an active principle of delight within God Himself would necessarily remain unfulfilled, for the majority of Judah did not repent. This would mean that God is less than perfectly blessed in Himself, and that Divine goodness is also unable to make its miserable objects blessed. This can never be. The passages do clearly teach, however, that the God of the everlasting Covenant of Grace reveals Himself in a way that is full of encouragement to burdened and guilty sinners. Does God really delight in bestowing life in the way of repentance? The answer is yes. God is life and the source of all life in and of Himself. As such He actively and necessarily delights in life and only in life, and is pleased to open up a way to life for sinners through faith and repentance.
That God delights in life means firstly, that God delights in the perfect, all blessed life of communion with Himself. This is all blessed life and delight in life that God has in and of Himself as Father, Son and Holy Ghost. This life lacks for nothing. This life is the possibility of the way of life provided and set forth to unworthy sinners through the gospel of God’s wondrous grace. Secondly, and importantly for our text, it is into this life of blessed communion that God delights to bring lost sinners as adopted sons alone through Jesus Christ, and alone in the way of repentance and faith. Yes! God delights in life. The fearful sinner under the conviction of sin and deep sense of his unworthiness may be assured that God delights abundantly in bestowing eternal life upon every sinner who turns. The Lord delights in this with a perfect and righteous joy and the heavenly hosts join their rejoicing to that of Jehovah. Thirdly, and in the highest sense of the word, God delights in bestowing heavenly life upon the redeemed, sanctified and glorified sinner. Thus He brings His adopted children into the fruition of creaturely blessedness in communion with Himself through Jesus Christ. This delight is in the life of the glorified saint as a precious son or daughter with whom God fellowships and communes. This life in the experience and fruition of all good in Him is the realisation of man’s chief end in the enjoyment of God forever. God delights that the sinner who turns should live. God delights in bestowing life upon the sinner who turns.
God’s delight in the life of those who turn is in perfect harmony with his delight in the administration of the penalty of death as demanded by His righteous justice. However, when we speak of God’s delight in life and His delight in justice, it is to be insisted that life and death meet and are perfectly reconciled in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is the death of the Mediator which purchases life for all elect wicked. He it is who satisfies the justice of God by enduring the infinite wrath of His offended justice in their stead.
God’s delight in life, therefore, is displayed to sinners only through the person and work of Jesus Christ on behalf of His elect. Christ and His elect body cannot be separated. God’s delight in life is focused upon the living of His elect people in Christ. Still God is one, as is His purpose, as is the object of His delight.
The passages are therefore, full of sweet comfort and encouragement to any and every guilt-laden sinner who longs for deliverance. The way is clearly set before every sinner. All who repent will find God to be abundant in mercy, and may be assured that they like the prodigal son will be met by the open arms of their heavenly Father. These verses are fashioned by the sweet grace of God to draw labouring and heavy-laden sinners through the doorway of faith and repentance into that blessed rest and life laid up for them by Christ in communion with God. The verses, however, say nothing of a delight within God for the salvation of those who do not turn.
John Knox on the Ezekiel Passages.
It is instructive for us to pause a while to hear the testimony of our Reformed father, John Knox on these passages. A comparison of the clear sound of Knox with the confusion of Stebbins, we believe, demonstrates just how dim the gold of modern-modified Calvinism has grown.
Knox insists at the very outset that double predestination is a working principle when explaining Scripture, and applies this to the Ezekiel passages. “Let the simple understand,” declares Knox,
that such general sentences of necessity must be so restrained, that difference may be kept between the Elect and the Reprobate; else we shall do nothing in explaining Scriptures but confound light and darkness.
Furthermore, insists the hard hitting Knox:
Whosoever doth deny, that from the beginning there has been, this day are, and to the end shall remain, two armies, bands or companies of men, whom God in his eternal counsel has so divided, that between them there continues a battle which shall not be reconciled until the Lord Jesus put a final end to the miseries of the church: Who doth not understand the truth of this, (I say), doth neither know God, neither his Son Christ Jesus, neither yet do such believe his Word, in which both the one sort and the other are most manifestly expressed.
God’s purpose, according to Knox, is to bring the elect people of God in Israel to repentance and life:
The mind of the prophet was to stir such as had declined from God, to return unto Him by true repentance. And because their iniquities were so many, and offences so great, that justly they might have despaired of remission, mercy and grace, therefore doth the Prophet, for the better assurance of those that should repent, affirm: God delights not, nor wills the death of the wicked.
In this polemic against the Anabaptists (who denied double predestination espousing an universalistic interpretation of these passages, differing only in degree from that which Rev. Stebbins is seeking to champion), Knox says:
You are not ignorant I suppose, what difference there is between an universal negative, and an indefinite, or particular? . . . The prophet says not, “I will the death of no creature,” neither yet “I will the death of no sinner,” but simply says, “I will not the death of a sinner” . . . And I fear not . . . to affirm that God hath willed, doth will, and shall will the death of some men. The holy Ghost speaking of the sons of Eli the High Priest, saith: “But they did not hear the voice of their father, because the Lord would kill them …”
Knox recognises also that God’s delight is in all his will, while He detests sin, and has no delight in death except as it is the revelation of His glorious justice.
Iniquity and sin are so odious before God, that in it can his goodness never delight, neither yet can he have pleasure in the destruction of any creature, having respect to the punishment only. But seeing that God’s glory must needs shine in all His creatures, yea, even in the perpetual damnation of Satan, and torment of the reprobate, why shall not he will, and take pleasure, that so it come to pass.
This Reformed father does not shrink from asking: “But of which wicked” does the prophet speak?
Of him, no doubt, that truly should repent, in his death did not, nor never shall God delight. But He delights to be known as a God that shows mercy, grace, and favour to such as unfeignedly call for the same, how grievous so ever their former offences have been. But such as continue obstinate in their impiety, have no portion of these promises. For them God will kill, them will He destroy, and them will he thrust, by the power of His Word, into the fire which never shall be quenched.
Knox’s answer to the question: “What sinners they are whose death God will not, but rather that they convert and live?” is quite different to that of Rev. Stebbins. For Knox concludes that: “There are two sorts of sinners …” The one he describes as the sinner who mourns for his sins, confesses them and embraces Christ’s justice and mediation. “The death of such sinners did God never will; neither yet can He will.” He goes on to explain why this is so.
For from all eternity they were his Elect children, whom he gave to his dear Son to be his inheritance; whom the Son received into his protection and safeguard; to whom He hath manifested, and to the end shall manifest Himself, and the loving kindness of his heavenly Father; in whose hearts He writes the law of God, and makes them to walk in his commandments, ever thirsting to a further and more perfect justice than they find within themselves by reason of their corruption. The death, I say, of those sinners God will not, but He will that they repent and live.
With Knox we heartily concur.
Chapter Four. Does God Love all Men?
There can be no question that God loves and is gracious to the elect in Christ. The question is this: Does God love the non-elect?
Rev. Stebbins, as we saw, answers this question in the affirmative. Yes, he says, God loves all, and God is gracious to all men including the reprobate. He teaches that God’s love and grace for the reprobate, however, is of a non-saving variety that lasts only until they are thrust away into damnation for their sins.
Rev. Stebbins then shows how God graciously pursues the well-being and salvation of all by means “intrinsically useful.” By intrinsically useful, he means that the good things God bestows as grace upon the reprobate are in themselves designed both to preserve life and ultimately to lead sinners to salvation in Christ. Rev. Stebbins calls the offer of the gospel “common grace” because it, like the rain and sunshine comes to all men without distinction. “Common grace” is in all God’s good gifts to men but comes to its highest expression in the preaching of the gospel whereby he pursues the reprobate’s ultimate spiritual blessedness in Christ.
It must be clearly noted that Rev. Stebbins’ “common grace” has God aiming at the salvation in Christ of the reprobate. Rev. Stebbins’ “Common grace” is not concerned only with temporal gifts, as it would be if it were a species of non-saving grace distinct from saving grace. The great Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper championed a view of what he called, common, non-saving grace; but he so vigorously repudiated any idea that this species of grace was concerned with man’s salvation that he gave it a completely different name. He called it gemeene gratie, and saving grace he called genade. His reason for making such a clear distinction was that he insisted the two must never be confused. Rev. Stebbins on the other hand, willingly, even wilfully confuses the two in order to produce a basis for his well-meant offer.
Rev. Stebbins’ “common” grace sets God actively pursuing the reprobate with salvation through the gospel. In reality, Rev. Stebbins’ “common” grace is saving grace with its power and purpose removed so as to be resistible and non-efficacious. Rev. Stebbins, quite distinct from Kuyper and many of the better Puritans, is not maintaining a “common” grace of God as Creator in His providence over all His creatures; rather he has embraced and teaches the “general grace” of the Arminians. Admittedly, he has put general grace through what could be called a “Calvinizing” process. The problem is, however, that even though the corrupt metal now has the appearance of the genuine article; when you scratch the surface, you find that its nature remains unchanged.
Rev. Stebbins defines grace in this way: “Grace is a principle of God’s attribute of goodness whereby He delights to deal with man with a favour he does not deserve.” Further, grace is “the undeserved favour of God … referring to God’s nature and the gift that proceeds from that nature.” “The nature of the act is to be reckoned from the attitude of the doer.” This means, for Rev. Stebbins, that because God has a “necessarily” gracious attitude toward all men, everything God does, gives or brings to men is grace. Therefore, grace is necessarily common to the reprobate and the elect alike.
There are serious problems with Rev. Stebbins’ definition of grace.
Firstly, Rev. Stebbins has written a book with the stated purpose of proving that Christ is (in our words) “well-meaningly” offered to all men by God and is defining God’s grace in the context of the preaching of the gospel and salvation, yet he does so apart from any mention of either the fountain of grace in God’s eternal decree of election, or the saving purpose of God in Christ. He again works out of his erroneous “necessary principle of God’s nature.” Rev. Stebbins has dual wills of God in operation in regard to grace.
Secondly, though it is true that, as Rev. Stebbins says, God’s grace is “undeserved favour” it does not follow that because God makes His grace known to sinners through the preaching of the gospel, God is gracious, or has a gracious purpose in that preaching to the reprobate.
A biblical conception of grace must reckon with sin, the curse, and God’s saving purpose toward the elect in Christ. Biblical grace comes from God the Father, through Christ, by the Holy Spirit as that irresistible power of God unto the salvation of totally depraved, undeserving sinners. Nothing less than God’s irresistible saving grace is revealed by, and proclaimed in, the preaching of the gospel.
Thirdly, any biblical definition of grace must be grounded in Jesus Christ Himself as the beginning and end of God’s grace. This is the reason our Larger Catechism is careful not to say, as Rev. Stebbins does, that the covenant was made with the elect, but rather: “The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in Him with all the elect as His seed.” Christ was from all eternity God’s gift of grace for the elect. There is no grace for sinners outside of Christ; nor does God show favour to guilty sinners except it be through the person and work of Christ the Mediator of the Covenant of Grace. This point, in our judgement, is crucial. Christ’s love, life, obedience, prayers, shed blood, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, glorification, mediatorial rule, continual intercession, sending the Spirit, effectual calling, and all the benefits of the Covenant of Grace are the gift of grace to those that the Father has given to Christ before the foundation of the world. God’s grace is for none but the elect body of Christ.
Time should be taken carefully to read the first two chapters of Ephesians. In these chapters the nature of biblical grace is described. The apostle Paul, magnifying the glory of God’s grace in Christ, says: we are “chosen in Him,” (1: 4). We are predestinated to the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will” (v.5). Here is the fountain of grace revealed. Why does God predestinate some to adoption in Christ? It is “to the praise of the glory of His grace,” (v:6). Grace “makes us accepted in the beloved,” (v:6). It is “according to the riches of grace” that sinners have “redemption through Christ’s blood and forgiveness of sins,” (v:7). God by revealing the mystery of His will in Christ causes the riches of His grace to abound toward the elect, (v:8). Grace brings God’s love and mercy in Christ to quicken dead sinners, (2:5). Grace saves! (2:5). Grace is pure undeserved favour, but irresistable power: “For by grace are ye saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, (2:8). Grace raises the elect up, through faith, and makes them to sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus, (2:6).
Grace originates in eternal predestination to the adoption of children in Christ. In time grace quickens, effectually calls and unites the elect regenerated sinner to Christ in the spiritual bond of faith. Grace applies redemption and bestows forgiveness. Grace raises the elect to heavenly glory as the adopted sons and daughters of God. Grace saves to the uttermost. Why? “That in ages to come he might show forth the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus,” (2:7). Grace, therefore, is the favour of God – through the mediation of Christ to elect sinners – contrary to all deserving – as that irresistible power through which God realises His purpose to glorify His name in the full and free salvation of the whole body of the elect.
Further Issues Concerning Grace.
Rev. Stebbins’ argument requires that we consider two further questions regarding grace. First, does God have a non-saving attitude of favour (common grace) toward the reprobate as Rev. Stebbins defines it? Second, is there “grace” in things? That is, are things – as things – grace? We have before concluded that in the context of the gospel of salvation God’s grace is in Christ and is saving grace. Nevertheless, these two questions ought to be considered in more detail.
God’s Attitude Toward The Non-elect.
Is God favourably disposed (gracious) to all men in the preaching of the gospel? Oh yes! says Rev. Stebbins otherwise God couldn’t be sincere in offering Christ and salvation in Him to all men! No, we reply, such a conclusion does not follow at all.
There can be no doubt that God is gracious toward His elect in the offer of the gospel. The question, however, for this discussion is: What is God’s attitude toward the reprobate in the preaching of the gospel? Is His attitude one of love and favour, or is it one of disfavour?
The Reformed believer does well to remember that God’s decree has something to do with God’s attitude toward the one who hears the preaching of the gospel. Indeed, God’s eternal decree of double predestination is absolutely determinative as to whether God is pleased to bestow or withhold His grace from any particular sinner.
The Westminster Confession has something to say on this vital point:
Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen in Christ unto everlasting glory, out of mere grace and love . . . and all to the praise of his glorious grace,” (W.C.F. IIl, 5).
In predestining the elect unto life God made the elect the particular objects of His love and grace. Through and in the elect, God’s grace will be glorified.
Where does the offer of the gospel fit into the Confessional conception of grace for the elect chosen in Christ? “As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto.” (W.C.F. III, 6).
The elect, according to the Confession, are predestined unto life, but this life is to become theirs through the means God has foreordained. As far as life and salvation are concerned, all the means of grace, especially the preaching of the gospel as the chief means, are for the sake of the elect in Christ. To the elect these means are God’s grace and mercy, in and through Christ, for their salvation. God desires their salvation. God pursues their salvation through the means of grace. God achieves this salvation, without fail, through the means He provides as these are effectually applied by the Spirit.
What then of God’s attitude toward the reprobate? The Westminster Confession in the same chapter declares:
The rest of mankind, God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of his own will, whereby he extendeth or withholdeth mercy as he pleaseth, for the glory of his sovereign power over his creatures, to pass by, and to ordain them to dishonour and wrath for their sin, to the praise of his glorious justice, (W.C.F. III, 7).
From the non-elect, or reprobate (all who are not chosen to life in Christ) God, our Confession teaches, withheld mercy and passed by with His mercy and grace in Christ. The righteous and sovereign God withheld mercy, grace and love in Christ from “the rest.” He has passed many by with the benefits of the Covenant of Grace which are found only in Christ.
Rev. Stebbins, however, twists and, in principle, denies the truth of Scripture declared in the W.C.F., when he says: “This preterition (reprobation) says nothing about God’s attitude towards those passed over, (except that they are not going to be loved with God’s electing love), nor about their destiny.” This statement shows that Rev. Stebbins has diluted the Reformed teaching concerning reprobation until it has become nothing more than God’s reaction to man’s sin. Almighty God, however, is not a reacting God; God acts. Rev. Stebbins seems to have lost sight of the fact that God is God!
Resistance to the mighty truth of God’s absolute sovereignty over the destiny of men is not new. The apostle Paul anticipated this very objection; and his response must be heeded:
Nay, but O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?
Rev. Stebbins argues this way because he must first deny the decisive nature of reprobation before he can teach a well-meant offer of God to the reprobate. Nevertheless, God, says the Confession, “withholdeth mercy.” The proof text for this Confessional statement is Romans 9:18, “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.” Reprobation is active, “whom He will He hardeneth.” Furthermore, the Confession declares that God hardens the reprobate by “withholding grace”, (W.C.F. V, 6). Reprobation means also, that God hardens the non-elect even through the good things showered upon them so liberally in this life, and through the hearing of the gospel. This too is an important confessional truth overlooked by Rev. Stebbins.
As for the wicked and ungodly men whom God as a righteous judge, for former sins, (that is, the reprobate viewed from the moral ethical view point, CJC) doth blind and harden, from them he not only with-holdeth his grace, whereby they might have been enlightened …. whereby it comes to pass that they harden themselves, even under those means which God useth for the softening of others. (W.C.F. V, 6).
If we ask: Why? God replies: “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” Whatever else the proponents of the well-meant offer might say of this verse it certainly is not teaching that God is graciously disposed toward the reprobate. It certainly is not teaching that God “loves some less.” Rev. Stebbins, however, argues that God’s goodness manifest toward the reprobate is a form of love, grace and mercy. With John Knox we can but say: “You make the love of God common to all men, and that we constantly do deny.”
Is Rev. Stebbins’ “common” grace Biblical? If it is indeed the case that there is a “common grace” that pursues all men’s salvation, as he so insists, where, we ask, is the proof from Holy Scripture?
The “proof” texts Rev. Stebbins presents for “common grace” which is grace to all men in the giver and in the gift militate against his own position and support our contention that God’s grace is always particular in Christ to the elect. He cites Galatians 1:15: “But when it pleased God and separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace. “Ephesians 2:8, ” For by grace are ye saved.” Titus 3:4, “But after the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared.” All these texts manifestly refer to God’s sovereign, particular love and saving grace to His elect. This grace saves! Full and free salvation is the certain result of God “pursuing” the sinner with this grace. These passages say nothing of a love of God toward the reprobate. Rev. Stebbins is required by these texts to say, either, that in “common grace” God has elected all conditionally and given Christ as Saviour for all, or he must acknowledge that he has given absolutely no Biblical support for his definition of grace.
Is there another lesser species of nonsaving grace and mercy apart from that which God decreed to bestow and withhold according to His sovereign good pleasure in Christ? To this question we must now turn.
God’s Goodness and Grace.
The several passages Rev. Stebbins points to in support of a “common non-saving” grace refer specifically to God’s goodness, not to God’s grace. Rev. Stebbins makes a fundamental mistake when he confuses good “things” with grace. He fails to distinguish between God’s general goodness in all His works of providence as Creator and Sustainer (from which nothing can be determined as to the attitude or purpose of the giver, other than that God is good), and God’s grace to the elect as Saviour (which has to do with the favourable attitude of God in giving those good things and His purpose to bless His elect in Christ through them).
We understand God’s goodness in Scripture to denote the infinite perfection of the being and attributes of God. God is essential goodness in Himself, and in every attribute of His nature He is pure goodness in the fullest sense of the term. God is the only Good, (Mark 10:18). As pure goodness God does only good: “Thou art good, and doest good,” (Psalm 119:68). The nature of God, then, is the fountain head of pure goodness from whom flow streams of most pure goodness. God is essential goodness in all His holy will that proceeds from His nature, and all the actions which proceed from that holy will toward the creature.
Holy Scripture clearly teaches us that God’s decree of double predestination is also pure goodness. Jehovah declares:
I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee, and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy, (Exodus 33:19).
This passage demonstrates that the revelation of those particular perfections of God’s goodness called grace and mercy are inextricably united to predestination. The revelation of God’s goodness as grace and mercy is not, as Rev. Stebbins teaches, a necessary act of God’s nature toward all men. It is according to God’s sovereign will. The pure goodness of God revealed as grace and mercy is particular, for those whom “I will.” This truth is taken up and further explained and applied in Romans 9:18-24.
Rev. Stebbins, however, is content to define goodness as that “attribute of God by which He delights to deal bountifully and kindly with all His creatures.” Rev. Stebbins again draws his whole argument (that God doing good to men means He is gracious) out of his faulty premise of the “necessary principle of God’s nature” showing favour and mercy apart from His will.
Rev. Stebbins’ mistaken view, as we have already seen, can not stand before the truth that all God’s works ad extra (outside the being of God toward the creature) are free acts of God’s will. No revelation of God’s goodness to the creature is a necessary act. Rev. Stebbins has his answer ready: “God is free,” he declares, “to manifest His goodness however and whenever He will.” But what nonsense is this? Of course God is free. God is God! But, we must ask, in what does God’s freedom consist? His freedom consists in His perfect freedom and ability to do all His holy will. Rev. Stebbins’ “principle of active delight”, however, denies that God is free to bestow, or withhold grace and mercy as He pleases.
There are several considerations that when taken together show Rev. Stebbins’ teaching regarding God’s goodness (common grace and mercy) to be erroneous.
In the first place, God is free only to act in the expression of His goodness according to His good pleasure – His decree, never in flat contradiction to it. Rev. Stebbins, however, has God’s nature actively being gracious and merciful apart from, and in flat contradiction to, His own will of good pleasure established in the decree. Action apart from will is not freedom; it is chaos.
In the second place Rev. Stebbins’ teaching actually refuses to allow God to act freely. He insists that God acts from a “necessary principle” of His nature. This is to say, that God when He reveals His goodness must be gracious to sinners. This we deny. In this context we do well to reminded ourselves again that John Owen, arguing against the universalists, demolished Rev. Stebbins’ argument, when he declared:
That God hath any natural or necessary inclination, by His goodness, or any other property, to do good to us, or any of His creatures, we do deny. Everything that concerns us is an act of His free will and good pleasure, and not a natural, necessary act of His Deity.
Owen has drawn the lines here according to biblical truth and Reformed orthodoxy. Nothing that God does outside of His own being and essence is “necessary” to Him, not even love and grace. Grace and mercy are the active expressions of God’s essential goodness outside Himself, not necessarily or universally, but freely as willed to be made known through Jesus Christ to the miserable creature fallen in sin. Grace and mercy as free acts of God ad-extra proceed from His will as established immutably in the decree. God’s immutable will of decree is to bestow grace and mercy on the elect alone, and by withholding grace and mercy to pass by the rest of mankind. This is the only will of God that Scripture knows. Therefore, there is no attitude or active outgoing of grace and mercy from God’s essential goodness toward the reprobate.
In the third place, God’s essential goodness determines that all He wills to do outside Himself is necessarily good. However, whilst grace and mercy are themselves the free manifestations of goodness toward the elect, it does not follow that God’s goodness is also grace and mercy to the reprobate. Grace and mercy have to do with the attitude and purpose of God, neither of which are favourable to the reprobate. God’s essential goodness is also manifest in holiness, righteousness, justice, judgement and damnation. These manifestations of goodness over against sinners from whom God freely chooses to withhold mercy belong to the reprobate and reveal God’s attitude.
In the fourth place, we ask, does not Rev. Stebbins teach that God must (according to this “necessary principle” of nature) love the reprobate for a time and then change to hating him eternally? He answers, it is not inconsistent for God to love the reprobate and hate the elect. In other words God loves and hates all men at one time or other, indeed God hates and loves every sinner at some time or other! The “well meant offer” necessitates this confusion and changeability. God must love and desire to save the reprobate or the well-meant offer has no basis. But, we ask, are not love and hate opposite, mutually exclusive motions of the affections of the will of the one immutable God? Equally startling, is the assertion that God “hates” one whom He loved with an eternal love in Christ. Unbelievably, God, for a time prior to conversion, hates the one whom He so loved from all eternity that He sent His only begotten Son to die on the cross and shed His precious blood for his sins! What could be more contrary to the Scripture. God has “loved with an everlasting love” so wondrous that even “while we were yet in our sins, Christ died for us.” Away with such confusion.
The error of Rev. Stebbins’ teaching that God loves and hates the same man, at the same time, for a time is, firstly, that he confuses “judicial wrath” with “sovereign hatred.” Because Rev. Stebbins refuses to acknowledge that a real difference exists between God’s attitude toward the elect and the reprobate from all eternity and not only after conversion, he confuses liability to condemnation with condemnation itself. He fails to distinguish between what the elect sinner is and deserves in Himself and God’s attitude toward that sinner as elect in Christ. Secondly, God never “hates” the elect and God never “loves” the reprobate. Romans 9:13 is decisive: “As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated,” and this while “being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of Him that calleth,” (Romans 9:11). This passage speaks of the sovereign, eternal and unchanging attitude of God toward the elect and the reprobate. As Francis Turretin rightly says:
Love necessarily includes the purpose of having mercy upon and saving Jacob; the hatred denies it and marks the purpose of reprobation by which he was freely passed over and excluded from salvation.”
God’s eternal and unchanging love for His elect in Christ is revealed in that:
God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect; and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins, and rise again for their justification: nevertheless they are not justified, until the Holy Spirit doth in due time actually apply Christ unto them.
The application of Christ unto the elect sinner in time is itself the manifestation of God’s eternal love. Justifying faith is not a condition which man must first fulfil before God can love, but a gift of God’s love in Christ to guilty, damn-worthy sinners. “We love Him because He first loved us,” (I John 4: 19). According to Rev. Stebbins, the elect sinner is the object of hatred prior to conversion. This is impossible, for then none would ever be converted.
It is in this light that God’s forbearance and long-suffering are to be considered. Both are aspects of God’s perfection of patience. God’s attribute of patience is, as it were, the life of providence whereby God stretches out time and unfolds His will in the history of creation. But God’s goodness as manifest in patience and unfolded in providence is directed toward the realising of two great ends, according to double predestination (election and reprobation). Long-suffering is the positive aspect of God’s providence. It is His power to hold back the immediate and ultimate blessing of His elect in Christ. Forbearance on the other hand is God’s perfection of patience whereby He holds back or forebears immediately to punish the ungodly reprobate for their sins.
God is long-suffering toward His elect because he earnestly desires their repentance and salvation, “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” He therefore leads them by His Word outwardly and by His Spirit inwardly and irresistibly to repentance.
When God forebears to punish the reprobate wicked He delays their final judgement and certain destruction, for the sake of His elect. In this stretching out of providence, as God sees fit, many are confronted by Christ and salvation through the gospel and called to faith and repentance. But this confrontation with the truth, except God’s saving grace intervene, is itself the cause of further rebellion and hatred of the God who exposes their sin. This is God’s will and serves His purpose to the praise of His glorious justice. Though the reprobate lives in the sphere of God’s goodness, and may have an outward acquaintance with God’s grace, this can not be construed to mean that God has an attitude of favour toward them.
Good Things: Not Necessarily Grace
Two misunderstandings must be cleared out of the way before we proceed. Firstly, the fact that God’s love, grace and mercy are for the elect alone is in perfect harmony with the truth that God’s goodness is over all His works and creatures. God’s overflowing goodness in all His works receives great emphasis in Holy Scripture right along with sovereign particular grace. Both must, therefore, receive proper emphasis in the proclamation of the truth by the church. Second, an emphatic denial of “common” grace is in no wise a minimising of the infinite goodness of Jehovah God. Rather, it is the error of “common” grace that degrades the glory of Divine goodness by presenting God’s amazing grace as “common” and so making it something less than what it is – sovereign – irresistible – saving – grace in Jesus Christ.
There is no disagreement that God’s good gifts are given to the elect as blessings and grace. The question that must be addressed is this: Are God’s good gifts grace to the reprobate? Rev. Stebbins affirms this. We deny it.
We point out in the first place, that by making God’s grace common, Rev. Stebbins has confused God’s goodness with God’s grace. As was pointed out previously, God’s grace as an attribute, or infinite perfection of God’s nature flows from His goodness, but it does not follow that God must, therefore, be gracious to all to whom His goodness is shown. God’s goodness is also holiness, righteousness, wrath, hatred and just judgement upon sin. God is good and does good even while He inflicts the most grievous torments upon the sinner in the fires of hell. Obviously, therefore, God can be perfectly good without maintaining any attitude of favour to the creature to whom He is good.
In the second place, Rev. Stebbins is guilty of confusing God’s good providence toward the non-elect with participation in the blessings of the Covenant of Grace.
All that is contained in the administration and dispensation of the Covenant of Grace is a purchase of the death of Christ, and God’s providence within that Covenant is both temporal, concerning all men, and spiritual in respect to the separation of the elect from the reprobate. We acknowledge that God in His providence, in which He governs all His creatures and all their actions, bestows temporal blessings (good gifts CJC) on all men, restrains evil in the world and promotes good.
This statement highlights the important Biblical distinction between God’s rule of providence and power as Creator on the one hand, and God’s rule of grace as Saviour on the other. This distinction gives the framework within which we must sharply distinguish universal goodness from particular grace. The rule of God as Creator, on the one hand, reveals His goodness in all things temporal; the rule of God as Saviour, on the other hand, reveals His love and grace toward
the elect by ordering and disposing all things to their ultimate and eternal blessedness. As sovereign Creator, God’s rule of power knows no limits and embraces all created reality, good and evil, as one organic whole from the lowest form of life, to the highest, men, and angels. As Saviour, on the other hand, God’s rule of grace encompasses all that, and only that, which is redeemed in the blood of Christ. These two may be distinguished but not separated, for both are the act of God and are governed by God’s one decree and purpose in Christ. Thus, “God hath put all things under His feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all.” The Westminster Confession makes this distinction, when it says: “As the providence of God doth, in general, reach to all creatures; so after a most special manner, it taketh care of His own church, and disposeth all things to the good thereof.” God takes the all things in which the reprobate share and disposes them to the good of His elect – the church. Goodness is shown to all, but grace through that goodness belongs to the elect alone.
God’s grace must be viewed covenantally. God’s providence as Creator and Judge is administered according to the covenant of works. Under this first covenant there is and can be no grace for the sinful creature, only the curse of the law: “There is none righteous, no not one” … “The wages of sin is death,” (Romans 3:10, 6:23a). God’s reign of grace as Saviour however, is administered under the terms of the Covenant of Grace. This covenant, made with Christ and His elect in Him, declares: “…but the gift of God is eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord,” (Romans 6:23b). Under the terms of this covenant there is nothing but free, sovereign and saving grace for the elect in the blood of Christ. Christ, you see, has fulfilled all righteousness that His people might not perish but have everlasting life.
This means that the non-elect can and do know of the rule of God as Saviour in His grace, as God sends the gospel throughout this world in His providence, but they never know it in its transforming power. As Paul describes in Hebrews 6:4-5, they can know of it outwardly as they come into contact with God’s goodness in the means of grace, experiencing even a form of enlightenment as they taste of the good Word of God and the powers of the world to come. Furthermore they see and understand God’s grace at work through His Word and Spirit in effectually calling and transforming the elect into the image of Christ. However, they never know that rule of grace inwardly and savingly in the heart.
The fact that God determines to withhold love, grace and mercy from the reprobate in no way minimises the reality of God’s goodness to all creatures. God as Creator, in His rule of providence, loves and is good to His own creation as the good work of His own hands. Adam’s sin and the subsequent curse did not alter God’s one purpose with His own creation. Rather, sin serves God’s purpose, for it is through the way of sin and redemption that God wills to raise His earthly creation to heavenly splendour. The creation, be it ever so marred by sin, is to be renewed and ushered in as the new heavens and the new earth. It is this creation upon which God showers His goodness. It is with this creation that all men, elect and reprobate are federally and organically connected. As Creator, God deals in pure goodness with each creature according to its form, action and quality. God’s goodness is, therefore, revealed variously toward men as rational, moral creatures, the animal world and the inanimate creation. In every case God works in the way best suited to display His goodness and glorify His great name by bestowing those gifts that, as coming from God the fountain of all good, and being good in themselves give existence, and preserve life. God’s goodness over-arches and warms His creation as the sun at noon day.
God’s grace as Saviour in and through these good things is another matter. It is when the good things God bestows in His providence as Creator and Sustainer are taken up and applied by Him as Saviour that they become grace and bear the favour of God in their wings. The good thing was not in itself grace, nor was it a spiritual blessing. That blessing has to do with God’s purpose as Saviour with that thing. As Saviour, God’s goodness goes forth powerfully and efficaciously in love, grace and mercy to His elect who are scattered throughout the earth and organically connected to creation and mankind. The same things (that are good in themselves yet stumble the reprobate) are sent as true blessings upon the elect. The rain and the sunshine, the seed time and harvest, civil government and all creation support their physical existence, so that God’s saving purpose might be realised. In short, the providential dealings of God in His power so govern all things that His church is born, sustained in life and brought to glory.
This distinction between goodness and grace under-girds such passages as Matthew 5: 44-48 and Luke 6:35-36. In these passages God’s redeemed and regenerated elect are commanded to “do good” and show mercy and kindness to all men in order that we may be perfect as is God our Father. The verses direct attention to God’s ultimate perfection, His overflowing goodness. The point is, that God according to His perfection of goodness always does good, never evil; so must we. The striking nature of God’s goodness is that God is good to all without exception and regardless of their nature or attitude toward Himself. This is the pattern for our love. This universal goodness of God showered upon all men is the pattern for our conduct toward our fellow man. We must love our enemies, bless them that curse us, do good to them that hate us etc., (Matthew 5:44). Only in this way do we, as children, reflect the image of our Father in heaven. God loved us as His elect even while we hated Him. How could we then do any less toward our fellow man, any one of whom could be God’s elect? Thus, the command is, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
We may not assume, however, that the rule for God’s goodness and the rule for man’s love are identical. God as the sovereign Lord of all, necessarily does good to all, but always in harmony with His own perfection, and freely according to His own good pleasure. We however, as creatures redeemed into the service of Christ, are given God’s law (the preceptive will) as the rule for our perfection. This law requires that we love our fellow man. God’s revealed will must govern all our actions toward our fellow man. Obedience to the second table of the law, as summarised in loving our neighbour as ourselves, is the God-ordained way believers must fulfil their calling as children of God. This calling is universal, is to be shown in a love that is without respect of persons and has God’s universal goodness as its pattern.
We remind ourselves, however, that the fact that God commands us to love all men, does not mean, nor may we legitimately conclude that God must love all men. As we have seen, we may not argue back from man’s duty revealed in the precept to God’s purpose and attitude of grace. What we can conclude from these verses, however, is that God’s perfection of goodness according to which He does nothing but good, even to the unthankful sinner, must be the pattern for all our dealings with our neighbour, if we are to reflect the perfection of our heavenly Father.
The Testimony Of History.
The particularity of God’s goodness as manifest in grace and mercy is the teaching of historic Presbyterianism. John Owen writes:
Now, this kindness and mercy of God is generally and loosely called mercy; but, in fact, quite wrongly so when it is coupled with an assumed intention behind the act which is good in itself. Goodness is a quality of God, but to be “merciful” indicates a specific purpose of mercy in a specific situation. It is therefore, incorrect to translate, as in Psalm 145:9, 15-16, that God is “merciful” not only to men but to His whole creation; yea, to sheep and oxen and beasts of the field. These all feel the benefits of God’s general goodness in His providential upholding of His creation, but it is quite incorrect to argue from the fact of God’s kindness, manifesting and displaying itself in a vast number of earthly and temporal blessings, that the recipients of these benefits might improve them to arrive as a real and true, and saving repentance. . . Considering that true mercy – published and revealed from the bosom of the Father by Christ – is the fount of all saving faith and repentance, we can distinguish this from all loose and mistaken concepts of “mercy” displayed by the general work of God in providence; and, having done so, we gladly let the point drop, since we here have nothing to prove but the one great truth of mercy only in and through Christ.
William Symington, explaining how Christ rules universally in power but is in no way gracious to all, rightly says:
It is not irrelevant to advert to the distinction betwixt things viewed simply in themselves, and viewed as blessed by God. The things themselves may be enjoyed when the blessing of heaven is withheld.
Symington applying the distinction between God’s goodness in the rule of power and His blessing known only in His rule of grace has a Reformed eye on the one purpose of God in Christ. He goes on to explain:
The things viewed in themselves, flow, we admit, from the natural goodness of God, and so may be participated in by more than the saints; yet, viewed as blessed by God, that is, as real blessings, they are to be regarded as flowing from the blood of Christ, by which they are secured, redeemed, and sanctified for the use of His own people.
Symington makes no uncertain sound here. There is no blurring of the lines between providence and grace. David Dixon agrees with Symington and says:
God giveth the wicked and violent persecutor to have seeming prosperity, while the godly are in trouble, yet that is no act of love to them: for the wicked and him that loveth violence, His soul hateth. All the seeming advantages which the wicked have in their own prosperity, are but means of hardening them in their ill course, and holding them fast in the bonds of their own iniquities, till God execute judgement on them.
Dixon is not confusing the “wicked” and the reprobate here. He is simply stating the clear teaching of Scripture. He sees clearly that not all the wicked are reprobate but all reprobate are wicked, therefore, he describes them according to their character. He is dealing with God’s attitude and purpose in the giving of “good” gifts. God has no gracious purpose in good gifts to the wicked reprobate. Again he says:
Whence learn, to the wicked – God for His own holy ends useth to give health of body, long life, little sickness, and a quiet death, . . . yet God doth not love them, nor approve any whit more of them for this.
These statements echo the clear and unequivocal teaching of Scripture. God’s love and gracious attitude are not manifest toward the reprobate in the giving of good things.
James Durham, Dixon’s co-author of The Sum of Saving Knowledge, was in full agreement and excluded the idea that “common grace” was purchased by Christ by arguing that “it can not be said that Christ intended any of the things purchased by His death as advantageous to the reprobate.”
Samuel Rutherford, the great Scottish divine and commissioner to the Westminster Assembly, also denied an attitude of grace and love of God toward the reprobate. He was not ashamed to speak of “God’s hatred of the reprobate and love and peace on the elect,” and referred to God’s love as “simple not contradictory,” God, in Rutherford’s opinion cannot love and hate the one person and does not have an attitude of love and grace toward the reprobate. These men represent Presbyterian and Calvinistic truth prior to compromising principles.
With the judgement of these eminent divines we are in full agreement. There is no grace in things apart from the blessing of God in Christ. And the reprobate are strangers to that blessing. Things, be they ever so good and “intrinsically useful” as indeed they must be as flowing from the God of all goodness, are not indicative of any favourable attitude or grace of God.
This leads to the next step in Rev. Stebbins’ argument. Namely, that God is actively pursuing the salvation of the reprobate through the means of common grace and the well meant offer of the gospel.
Chapter Five. Does God “Well-meaningly” Offer Christ To All Men?
Again it must be pointed out that we do not question God’s gracious intent in the preaching of the gospel. God certainly intends it to be the means unto the salvation of sinners. The question is, however: “What is God’s intent in the well-meant offer to the reprobate?
According to Rev. Stebbins, God offers Christ to all because He is pursuing their salvation. Rev. Stebbins joins God’s “delight that all should be saved” to a “pursuing with salvation” by the “common” grace of the gospel. God delights to save the reprobate, God pursues him with grace by offering him Christ and salvation. This is the well worn road of universal grace that leads right into the error of Arminianism.
God Pursuing the Non-elect With Grace.
We should notice the tradition in which Rev. Stebbins’ position stands. He stands in the line of the Marrow men and of modern-modified Calvinism of Murray and Stonehouse.
There is, in our judgement, no actual difference between the views of Rev. Stebbins and those of Professors Murray and Stonehouse. Rev. Stebbins does, however, attempt to distance himself from the obvious weakness of their view by substituting the word “delight” in place of “desire.” In so doing he wants to escape the charge of positing two contradictory wills within God’s nature. He fails to extricate himself from the Professors’ error by this sleight of hand. The words might differ but the meaning is the same.
Professors Murray and Stonehouse, were well aware of the words “desire” and “delight” but they saw no difference in meaning when applied to the concept of the well-meant offer. They understood God’s delight to have volitional force and quality and therefore wrote:
. . . this (preceptive) will of God to repentance and salvation, is universalised and reveals to us, therefore, that there is in God a benevolent loving-kindness towards the repentance and salvation of even those whom he has not decreed to save.
Notice that the Professors, like Rev. Stebbins are concerned with God’s attitude and will toward the reprobate. Thus far they have outlined Rev. Stebbins’ exact position. But the professors continue: “This pleasure, will, desire is expressed in the universal call to repentance.” Here they indicate that they believe that the concepts “pleasure” and “desire” express the one thought. They are correct; a conditional will to the salvation of the reprobate is the basis of a well-meant offer.
An Active Pursuit.
Try as he may, by weakening the force of the verb “to will,” Rev. Stebbins’ own system of theology determines that “pleasure or delight” can not be separated from “desire or will.” What is so clearly implied is made explicit when Rev. Stebbins actually links God’s “delight that all be saved” to God pursuing the communication of His nature with them and pursuing their salvation. Let it be clearly understood that in Rev. Stebbins’ theology delight and pursuit are related as willing and acting. God delights to save the reprobate, therefore He pursues him with salvation in the well-meant offer.
What exactly does it mean for God to “pursue man’s salvation?” Rev. Stebbins uses “the term pursue in preference to seek because the latter,” he thinks, “implies a determination to see an end accomplished … God pursues by providing… means that are intrinsically useful for accomplishing that end.”
There are at least two things that are involved in this pursuit as described by Rev. Stebbins. First, there is an active will of God whereby He determines to pursue the salvation of all. Volition can not be removed from pursuit which is an action directed toward the creature ad extra. This means that God’s pursuit has to do with the living will of God, not the precept. The precept is merely the intrinsically useful means used by God as He pursues. Obviously God can not pursue through means unless it is His living will to do so.
Second, unavoidably, the purpose of God in this “pursuit” must be reckoned with.
The End Pursued.
If God pursues but does not seek, what then is “the end” which God pursues? Rev. Stebbins, remember, is describing a pursuit which evidently is designed not to succeed, for he does not wish to imply that God’s pursuing has a saving end in view. Rev. Stebbins insists, however, that God pursues the salvation of the reprobate. Yet, he also insists that God does not will this end to be realised. What we are really talking about here, is an hypothetical pursuit. It is as if God is pursuing salvation, but when you look closely, it turns out to have been an illusion.
Seeing Rev. Stebbins is unable to decide if God’s pursuit of universal salvation really aims at anything concrete, we suggest that there can be only four possibilities. First, it could be that God determines to pursue an end without attaining it, in which case it is a purposeless action performed by God in which
God aimlessly pursues … nothing! Such “pursuit” can not be attributed to the all wise and sovereign God. Nor can it be argued that God is free to act without purpose if He so pleases. God’s will is His eternal purpose. If God wills to pursue the salvation of all He does so for a purpose. Purposeless action can not be attributed to Jehovah God. Second, it could be a pursuit flowing from a conditional decree whereby God wills to pursue the salvation of all and save those who fulfil certain conditions. But in that case it is an Arminian error in flat contradiction of the Reformed creeds. Thirdly, it could be a determination to pursue and achieve the salvation of all, in which case it is a Pelagian notion condemned by the Reformed creeds. Rev. Stebbins, however, wants to be neither Pelagian nor Arminian. He prefers to meld the first two possibilities into a third thing. Rev. Stebbins has God pursuing the salvation of the reprobate conditionally, determining beforehand to stop short and never achieve that salvation. There was, however, a fourth possibility that was overlooked by Rev. Stebbins. That is, that God through the means of grace actually pursues and realises His saving purpose toward His elect, and through the same means He pursues and realises His purpose in respect to the reprobate; namely, their hardening and just condemnation. After all is said and done, what God aims at He achieves, in spite of the confusion created by Rev. Stebbins’ well-meant offer.
God’s sovereign purpose in the preaching of the gospel to the reprobate is revealed clearly enough in Scripture. Consider Isaiah’s solemn commission:
Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed …
But yet in it shall be a tenth, and it shall return … to the holy seed shall be the substance thereof, (Isaiah 6:10, 13).
Or, the words of the apostle Paul;
Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of His knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things? (II Corinthians 2:14-16).
What could be clearer than the testimony of the Spirit in II Corinthians 2: 14-16. The faithful, full and free “offer” of the gospel is designed by God Himself to be: “a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one it is the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life.” This passage is not designed to describe the reaction to the truth of the gospel by the sinful heart, but to explain how the sovereign purpose of God is realised through the means of the preaching. This text is cited as the Biblical basis for the following statement of the Westminster Confession concerning divine Providence:
As for those wicked and ungodly men, whom God as a righteous judge, for former sins, doth blind and harden, from them He not only withholdeth His grace, whereby they might have been enlightened in their understandings, and wrought upon in their hearts . . . whereby it comes to pass, that they harden themselves even under those means which God useth for the softening of others.
We confess on the basis of Scripture that God realises His sovereign purpose toward the reprobate through the means of preaching. God sovereignly hardens the reprobate through the very gospel which sets forth Christ Jesus, so leaving them without excuse to the praise of His glorious justice.
All Rev. Stebbins has succeeded in doing with this doctrine of “aimless pursuit” is inject enough universalism into the Reformed faith to allow the preacher to make a well-meant offer of Christ for all as would the Arminian.
The Well-Meant Offer As “Common” Grace.
Here the question is not whether the preaching of the gospel is intrinsically good, useful, and perfectly suited to God’s purpose of saving sinners. It is! Not only so, but it is the instrument of the Holy Spirit in the salvation of sinners. Nor is the question whether God clearly and wonderfully sets forth Christ Jesus and full and free salvation in Him in the proclamation of the gospel. He does! Not only so, but He applies that grace and that salvation irresistibly to the hearts of His elect, regenerating and effectually calling them unto Himself. The question is rather: Is the preaching grace for the reprobate? To this question Rev. Stebbins answers Yes! Scripture and the Confessions we believe require us to answer, No!
No Grace In the Offer For The Reprobate.
To call the preaching grace to the reprobate when it is the very means through which God hardens the reprobate in sin and increases their guilt and condemnation is absurd.
Nor is it possible to argue, as does Rev. Stebbins, that hardening is not an act of God, but of the sinner who hardens himself by rejecting or resisting God’s grace. God hardens sinners’ hearts even through His word. “And the LORD said unto Moses . . . I will harden his heart that he shall not let the people go,” (Exodus 4:21). “For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up that I might show my power in thee . . . Therefore He hath mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.” God’s word hardened Pharaoh’s wicked heart as it does every wicked rebellious heart except grace intervene to change the heart and set the captive free. John Calvin is worthy of an hearing on this point.
God commands the ears of His people Israel to be stricken by, and filled with, the voice of His prophet. For what end? That their hearts might be touched? Nay; but that they might be hardened! That those who hear might repent? Nay; but that, being already lost, they might doubly perish! . . . Hence, it is by no means absurd that the doctrine of the truth should, as commanded of God, be spread abroad; though He knows that, in multitudes, it will be without its saving effects.
Pharaoh, wicked Israel, and an innumerable host of sinners have resisted and denied the truth as applied to their consciences by word and common operations of the Spirit, but never, not once has God’s grace been successfully resisted. This is because God’s grace is irresistible. Irresistible grace is axiomatic to Reformed theology and does not rely for its efficacy upon the spiritually dead sinner.
The Confession delivers us from Rev. Stebbins’ quandary when, as we have seen, it declares quite clearly that whilst God sends the “means of salvation” to all, He withholds His grace from all but the elect. The purpose of God (who stands always toward the reprobate as a righteous and offended judge) through the means of grace is “to blind and harden . . . whereby it comes to pass, that they harden themselves, even under those means which God uses for the softening of others.” Therefore, the preaching of the gospel is not in itself “grace to the hearer.” Rather, it is grace only to those elect who are the objects of God’s love and for whom Christ died. All those who are “pursued by grace” are most certainly saved!
The Insincerity Of A Well-Meant Offer To All Men.
We must do what Rev. Stebbins steadfastly refuses to do, face the fact that there must be a basis provided which shows that God is sincere in His well-meant offer of Christ to the reprobate. Rev. Stebbins acknowledges that: “This debate centres around the question of whether God offers salvation to every hearer of the gospel, and if so, how such an offer can be sincere in the light of the particular atonement.” That a basis in the nature and extent of the atonement (and not Rev. Stebbins’ “necessary principle of delight”) is the real issue is evident from the fact that he wrote a book entitled: “A discussion of the general offer of salvation in light of particular atonement.” The precise question at issue is: “How can God “well-meaningly” offer (promise) to give the reprobate what is not provided for him?
For the well-meant offer to the reprobate to be sincere it must have a basis in fact, not mystery. That is, if Christ and salvation in His blood is conditionally promised to the reprobate, then the redemption purchased by Christ must be provided for the reprobate. If the redemption offered is not provided, then the well-meant offer cannot be sincere.
This being the case we must ask: What basis in fact can Rev. Stebbins show for teaching that God makes a well-meant and sincere offer of Christ to the reprobate? He fails to give one, which is hardly surprising for there is none to be found. Instead he flees to the paradox of his own making and from its shadow declares, with authority, that God’s basis for making a well-meant offer is “essentially mysterious.” Rev. Stebbins declares that to require a non-contradictory basis for his well-meant offer is the height of impiety. Then, he asserts that though his offer is shrouded by the mysterious paradox, “there are no evidences of insincerity.” On the contrary, it appears to us that there are clear evidences of insincerity in the well-meant offer. Rev. Stebbins can show no basis in either God’s decree of election – His intention to give; nor can he show any basis in Christ’s substitutionary and limited atonement – the content of God’s offer and promise. Without a basis in the blood of Christ there can be no sincerity.
Rev. Stebbins’ well-meant offer may lay no claim to the legitimate argument that “a charge of insincerity on God’s part can only be sustained if it can be shown that someone has accepted God’s offer only to find it void.” In reference to the well-meant offer this would mean that, although a general conditional promise is void, the void will never be discovered. This is cold comfort indeed. Rev. Stebbins has overlooked the fact that this argument belongs to those of us, who like John Owen, and William Cunningham maintain sovereign particular grace. This argument is legitimate only when the outward call is accompanied by a particular promise to all those who hear and obey. Then there is no insincerity, for God’s promise to all who believe will never be found to be void. However, for those who preach a general conditional promise to the reprobate, this valid argument is irrelevant.
Rev. Stebbins simply can not provide a satisfactory answer to what he recognises is the crucial point. He is hemmed in and thwarted by God’s decree on the one hand, and by a limited atonement on the other. This failure shows that his whole elaborately constructed position is without basis. This fundamental flaw can not be hidden behind some “mysterious paradox.” The necessary contradiction is there. It must be faced.
We do not for a moment question the sincerity of God in the offer of the gospel when the “offer” is rightly understood. Rather, we insist that the well-meant offer Rev. Stebbins defends can not be sincere, because it has no basis in the blood of Christ, apart from which there is no salvation to offer.
The sincerity of a well-meant offer to the reprobate not only relies upon the atonement of Christ, but more particularly upon the extent of that atonement. A Divine warrant for the well-meant offer of Christ to all, therefore, requires that Rev. Stebbins prove from Scripture that the extent and nature of Christ’s atonement answers exactly to the extent and nature of his well-meant offer. That is, the redemption purchased by Christ, in all its efficacy, must be shown to extend at least to every sinner who hears the well-meant offer. It will not do for Rev. Stebbins to appeal to the infinite sufficiency of Christ’s atonement; the question has to do with the efficiency and intention of God in the atonement. The redemption provided in the substitutionary atonement of Christ is, after all, what Rev. Stebbins would have us believe God is sincerely offering all who hear the gospel. Full and free redemption purchased by Christ for all who hear the gospel is, therefore, the only basis that will support Rev. Stebbins well-meant offer.
Surely, then, it is no solution to say, as does Rev. Stebbins, that God’s ground for the call of the gospel is “essentially mysterious.” Rev. Stebbins is either saying that the basis of the universal well-meant offer is a contradiction that faith believes, or, he sees there is no basis but refuses to acknowledge it. Either way this response is not to be accepted or allowed to slip quietly past, hidden in a cloud of rhetoric. Rev. Stebbins must show some basis in Christ’s atonement for a well-meant offer.
In our judgement, professors Murray and Stonehouse were more consistent than Rev. Stebbins when they said:
The loving and benevolent will that is the source of that offer and that grounds its veracity and reality is the will to the possession of Christ and the enjoyment of the salvation that resides in him.
Murray and Stonehouse, though mistaken in their theology, were undoubtedly correct on this score. The only ground that can support a well-meant offer is a conditional will to the salvation of the reprobate. That this contradicts the will of decree forces Rev. Stebbins to flee to the sanctuary of the “profound mystery.”
The Insincerity Of General Conditional Promises.
Rev. Stebbins says: “The gospel is a gracious offer of salvation to man if he will perform his duty.” This “offer” is a general conditional promise of Christ for all upon fulfilment of certain conditions.
The theology of the well-meant offer forces Rev. Stebbins to present faith as a pre-requisite which the sinner must provide in order to be saved. We reject this notion. It is one of the basic premises of Arminianism.
God does not promise salvation to all men contingent upon their fulfilling certain conditions. Such a general conditional promise of salvation is inherently insincere. It can be genuine and sincere only if it is first grounded in a conditional decree within the being of God. As we have seen, there is no such conditional decree. The reader should note just how “natural” it is to slide from Rev. Stebbins’ “common” grace and well-meant offer to all, into the Arminian’s “universal” grace and conditional salvation.
Contrary to Rev. Stebbins’ usage, the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Reformed tradition uses the term condition to express the idea of the necessary means through which God works salvation. Faith as a condition or means unto salvation was merited, is promised, and is bestowed by Christ through His Spirit upon “those whom God hath predestinated unto life and those only.” The Synod of Dort dealing with the Arminian heresy of general love and grace, also repudiated the whole idea of faith as a condition in the sense that Rev. Stebbins uses it:
… the Synod rejects the errors of those … who teach that He chose out of all possible conditions … the act of faith which from its very nature is undeserving … as a condition of salvation …. the Synod rejects the errors of those … who teach that faith, the obedience of faith, holiness, godliness and perseverance are not fruits of the unchangeable election unto glory, but are conditions . . .
Faith within the Covenant of Grace is not a condition to be met by the sinner in order to be saved. It is a benefit which flows from Christ to the elect. It is not a prerequisite but a free gift bestowed upon the sinner as the divinely appointed means of union with Christ. It is in this light that faith is to be viewed in relation to the call and promise of the gospel. God seriously and sincerely calls all who hear the gospel to believe. He promises life to all who believe. He “promises to give the Spirit to all those who are ordained unto life to make them willing and able to believe.” He sovereignly and graciously bestows the promised gift, effectually drawing the elect sinner to Christ as He is presented in the gospel. There is no condition within the Covenant of Grace that is not fulfilled in and bestowed by Christ as Mediator of the grace of that covenant.
Chapter Six. A Sincere Biblical Offer.
Though Rev. Stebbins’ well-meant offer is inherently insincere, God is and can be seen to be completely sincere in every aspect of the biblical offer of the gospel.
Firstly, because He has provided a Mediator, Christ Jesus, and sets Him forth in absolute verity as the Saviour of sinners. In this God is absolutely sincere.
Secondly, because God seriously and solemnly commands all sinners as responsible, rational, moral creatures to repent and believe on Christ as the way unto life. If the sinner, who is responsible and accountable for his own actions, perishes because he will not believe, he may never blame the righteous and holy God.
The cause and guilt of this unbelief as well as of all other sins is no wise in God, but in man himself, whereas faith in Jesus Christ and salvation through Him is the free gift of God . . .
This being so it can not be argued, as does Rev. Stebbins, that God must love, be gracious toward and pursue the reprobate with salvation before he can be held accountable for his rejection of Christ. This is to deny God’s sovereign right to command the whole duty of sinners. When God commands, the sinner is obligated to obey. Nothing could be clearer, nothing could be more sincere, for when God commands repentance and faith He makes known what is most pleasing to Him. Furthermore, God is under no obligation to bestow grace upon sinners to make them willing and able to obey. That He does so flows alone from His sovereign electing love in Christ.
Thirdly, God is absolutely sincere in His promise of life to “whosoever believes”. The biblical offer is the revelation of what God really wills in regard to the salvation of perishing sinners. As Francis Turretin has pointed out:
When God’s revealed will signifies that he wills the salvation of all believers and penitents it signifies that He wills that which He really wills and nothing is more true, nothing more sincere than such a declaration.”
God actively wills the salvation of all penitent sinners. His promise is personal and particular to sinners who repent and believe. It is never made generally to all men if they will fulfil certain conditions. The particular promise is sincere because it promises what God Himself intends to do and has already provided in Christ. It is always and forever fulfilled.
In the Biblical offer, Christ promises rest to the weary and heavy laden sinner, the water and bread of life to the spiritually thirsty and hungry, and salvation to the man who sees himself as sick and perishing in sin; never is God’s promise made generally to those who are carnally secure and smugly self-righteous. This is so, because it is through the means of the outward call of the gospel Christ effectually calls His sheep by name. They recognise their spiritual name and heed the Shepherd’s call. The elect sinner hears himself described in his spiritual condition, heavy laden, weary, hungry, thirsty, poor, guilty sinner. Ah! cries the awakened sinner with wonder: He calls me! Jesus is calling me! I will flee to Him who so graciously calls me, the sinner, to rest and life. For I see Him now as the altogether lovely one, the Saviour of God’s providing who is able to save sinners like me. This call of the gospel is the expression of the tender kindness of God’s love, (Jer.31:3). It melts the heart, overcomes all resistance and draws the elect sinner to Jesus Christ in wholehearted approbation of God’s way of salvation in Him. The elect sinner sees Christ as the answer to his every need, his all sufficient and blessed Saviour. He is brought to cry: “O the manifold wisdom and unsearchable love of God, to prepare and furnish a Saviour so fully answering all the needs, all the distresses, all the fears and burdens of a poor sinner.”
Thankfully, the gospel offer is not trapped in Rev. Stebbins’ quandary. It can answer positively, and demonstrate to the needy sinner that the Biblical, Confessional offer is sincere. Christ Jesus the Mediator of the Covenant of Grace, and His particular, substitutionary atonement are the strong rock and high tower of the biblical offer.
God’s offer, the biblical offer, is without contradiction or duplicity of any sort. God promises to repentant, believing sinners what He has eternally purposed to give, namely the full and free salvation provided in the blood of Christ Jesus. The proclamation from beginning to end is a declaration of sovereign, particular, saving grace in Christ directed by God toward the gathering of the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
This offer is full and free and unfettered. The Reformed preacher will labour earnestly to impress upon every hearer through sound doctrine the perfect sufficiency, suitableness and graciousness of Jesus Christ to save to the uttermost all who flee unto Him by faith. He will call every sinner earnestly, patiently and with tears to repent and believe. He will proclaim without hesitation God’s faithful promise that there is in Christ full and free salvation for every sinner who comes. But, he will not make unfounded assertions that go far beyond his clear warrant of Scripture. He is therefore, both unfettered in his preaching, and free from the insincerity that is inherent in Rev. Stebbins’ well-meant offer.
Rejection Of A Well-Meant Offer Is Not Hyper-Calvinism.
Rev. Stebbins infers that any who dare to deny his conception of a well-meant offer are thereby manifest as “hyper-Calvinist.” He thinks that to deny the well-meant offer is to deny the confessional “free” offer. In this he is seriously mistaken. Hyper-Calvinism believes the gospel should only be offered to those who are already regenerated and convinced of sin. One hyper-Calvinist confession expresses it this way:
We deny duty faith and duty repentance–these terms signify that it is every man’s duty spiritually and savingly to repent and believe… We deny also that there is any capability in man by nature to any spiritual good whatever. So that we reject the doctrine that men in a state of nature should be exhorted to believe in or turn to God… While we believe that the gospel is to be preached in or proclaimed to all the world, as in Mark 16:14, we deny offers of grace; that is to say, that the gospel is to be offered indiscriminately to all
Hyper-Calvinism makes the mistake of assuming that because fallen man is unable he may not be commanded to repent and believe. Thus hyper-Calvinism limits those to whom the call of the gospel may be made because it will not call all men without distinction to faith and repentance promising life to all who heed this call.
This error which would choke off the good news of the gospel, the power of God unto salvation, before it can be spoken must be utterly rejected. Though fallen man is dead in trespasses and sins, he is nevertheless both responsible and accountable for all his actions, including his wicked denial of God and Jesus Christ. The biblical offer takes its stand between hyper-Calvinism on the right hand and Rev. Stebbin’s hypothetical universalism on the left. It insists that the gospel must be preached, and preached fully, freely and earnestly so as to call all men – without distinction – to faith and repentance as the God ordained way unto life through Jesus Christ.
Rev. Stebbins, therefore, throws a wide and loose loop when he seeks to portray our denial of the well-meant offer as hyper-Calvinism. He must throw his loop over the large and venerable company with whom we stand. John Knox is among our number:
True it is that Isaiah the prophet and Christ Jesus Himself with His apostles do call on all to come to repentance; but that generally is restrained by their own words; to those that thirst, that hunger, that mourn, that are laden with sin as before we have taught.
John Owen is prominent:
Multitudes of these invitations and calls are recorded in the Scripture, and they are all of them filled up with those blessed encouragements which divine wisdom knows to be suited to lost, convinced sinners, in their present state and condition.
Samuel Rutherford is also included:
It is most untrue that Christ belongeth to sinners as sinners for then Christ should belong to all unbelievers, how obstinate soever, even to those that sin against the Holy Ghost. … He belongeth only to believing sinners. Those thus and thus qualified are to believe and come to Christ. It is true all sinners are obliged to believe, but to believe after the order of free grace, that is, that they be first self-lost and sick and then be saved by the physician.
John Flavel demands to be included.
The order of the Spirit’s work in bringing men to Christ, shows us to whom the invitation and offers of grace in Christ are to be made; for none are convinced of righteousness, that is, of the complete and perfect righteousness in Christ for their justification until first they are convinced of sin; and consequently no man comes to Christ by faith till convictions of sin have wakened and distressed him, (John 16:8-10). This being the order of the Spirit’s operation, the same order must be observed in gospel offers and invitations.
The number of faithful witnesses could be multiplied.
Flavel highlights a fundamentally important truth. He is not saying that evidence of contrition of sin is a pre-requisite to freely preaching Christ crucified and calling sinners to faith and repentance as does hyper-Calvinism. Rather, he is pointing out that the promise declared in the offer belongs personally to contrite believing sinners. When this biblical order is observed there is simply no place for a well-meant offer. There is an order of operation of the Spirit in drawing sinners to Christ, which order determines that there may be no universal conditional promise, as is necessary in the well-meant offer.
The Divine Order Of The Gospel Offer.
The point Knox, Owen, Rutherford and Flavel make should not slip by unnoticed. There is a Divine order in the operation of free grace which is to be reflected in a faithful, biblical offer of the gospel.
John Flavel, as quoted above, uses the term “offer” in the way we have defined it. Flavel, speaks in the context of the Spirit working through the gospel to bring elect sinners to Christ, and in this context the way he uses the term offer makes a vitally important point. His use of the term implies that the offer of the gospel, as it applies the particular promise of God to the heart of the labouring sinner is indeed an expression of God’s sincere desire and delight in bestowing life upon repentant, believing sinners. This is certainly correct. The offer of the gospel is well-meant to the elect, regenerated sinner in the full sense of the word. It is so without the least hint of insincerity. The Reformed faith does not need to conjure up some kind of hypothetical universalism to be able to press the gospel with power and compassion upon the hearts of men.
The faithful preacher of the gospel proclaims the truth of God’s will, delight and faithful promise to receive all penitent, believing sinners who come unto Him through faith in Christ. In the offer of the gospel the love of Christ reaches out in the promise to tenderly encourage and sweetly draw the convicted sinner into His life and rest.
Through the offer Christ effecually calls, brings and gives to His sheep what He has promised. This aspect of the preaching in which God draws the convicted sinner unto Christ with bowels of love and tenderness is vital to the truth of the gospel call. The cords of God’s love are personal and particular and exceeding sweet to the burdened sinner. In the faithful preaching of Christ this must and will be evident.
In this paper we have sought to apply four truths to the offer of the gospel that show that Rev. Stebbins has erred in his presentation. These were, first, that because God is one, His will and purpose are also one, there is no “necessary principle” of God’s nature that is at variance with His decree. This means that God does not pursue the non-elect with grace and love. Second, that the particularity of the love and grace of God as Saviour flowing from eternal election determines that God pursues only the elect with grace and salvation through the gospel. It also means that God has no attitude of love and grace toward the reprobate over whom He rules in power as Creator-Judge. Third, these truths when applied to the offer of the gospel exclude any well-meant offer in which God desires, but does not achieve, the salvation of all. Fourth, we have shown that there can be no sincerity in a universally well-meant offer and promise based on a limited atonement.
We have also demonstrated that the denial of all universalism, together with its expression in the well-meant offer, is no restriction or distortion of the preaching of Christ crucified to all men. We have seen that the gospel does not require faith in contradictions, or mysterious paradox. God “offers” what He has determined to give His elect and has already provided; namely, Christ and salvation in Him to all those who believe.
Therefore, we conclude that Rev. Stebbins is in serious error regarding the offer of the gospel. The truth he attacks stands firm.
When God sends the gospel forth into all the world, presenting Christ crucified to all who hear the preaching and calling all who hear to repent of their sins and believe on that Christ, His purpose is to save the elect and the elect only. The love that sends forth the gospel, like the love that sent forth Christ in the fullness of time, is the love of God for the elect church. This love is sovereign love. As the call to repent and believe goes out, God the Holy Spirit works that repentance and faith in the hearts of the elect in the audience. He gives us what He calls for, and He gives it by the calling. “Come!” He says, and that sovereignly gracious call draws us irresistibly to Christ.
The biblical gospel offer is grace – sweet, irresistible, saving grace – for elect sinners.
Holding fast to the biblical offer of the gospel we may stand outside the “profound mystery” created by modern-modified Calvinism and declare with Paul: “We are not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek,” (Romans 1:16).