24 April, 2008

Free Offer of the Gospel

In today's concern for relevant churches people seek out pulpits teaching on practical concerns, ethical demands, cultural issues or family friendly messages. However, what is more relevant than a church that proclaims the free offer of the gospel?

This is not to say that there is no need for such things mentioned above. Scripture certainly handles practical concerns, makes ethical demands and portrays congregations that welcome the entire family. Moreover, as a Presbyterian, the 40 plus questions in the Shorter Catechism opening the meaning of the Ten Commandments ensure that we not neglect such practical concerns. However, there seems to be a growing tendency among Reformed churches to focus exclusively on these issues. Many times in the excitement of being "culturally aware" we neglect that the church first and foremost is to proclaim the gospel to all creatures.

The most unfortunate issue, in my experience, is that it seems many pulpits have forgotten what the proclamation of the gospel sounds like, or even is. It simply is not proclaimed. Many will mention the need to come to the Lord by faith, exhort hearers unto repentance, but fall short of actually offering the good news of Christ Jesus to sinners. It is as if we hesitate at the threshold.

For instance, take the words of Professor John Murray: "It is to lost sinners that Christ is offered, and the demand of that overture is simply and solely that we commit ourselves to him in order that we may be saved. In the gospel overture Christ is brought into the lap of lost sinners and placed there in all the glory of his person and the perfection of his ministry. Here is the grandeur of the ambassador's vocation. There should be no reserve or restraint. Christ cannot be brought too near to men in the free overtures of his grace." ("Faith", in Collected Writings of John Murray, 2:259)

Why are so many Reformed pulpits relatively silent on the matter? It is almost as if we blush to hear these words - "Christ is brought into the lap of lost sinners...there should be no reserve or restraint. Christ cannot be brought too near to men in the free overtures of his grace." But, oh! the beauty of such a thing! As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5, "Now then are we ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God." The apostle held out this offer with great affection. There was no hesitance, no worry, no shame in it. This is the glory of the gospel. It comes freely to all who hear. It sets our Savior "into the lap of lost sinners" and says "here is salvation!"

Furthermore, recovering the truth of the free offer affects the hearts of all Christians. John Howe in his "Redeemer's Tears Wept Over Lost Souls" wrote: "And now, shall our Redeemer be left to weep alone over these perishing souls? Have we no tears to spend upon this doleful subject? O that our heads were waters, and our eyes fountains! Is it nothing to us, that multitudes are sinking, going down into perdition, under the name of Christian, under the seal of baptism, from under the means of life and salvation! perishing! and can we can do nothing to prevent it?"

Certainly it is true 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." (WCF III:3). This decree cannot be undone by anything man does or leaves undone. However, what we sometimes forget to our own and others' hurt is that "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." (WCF III:6).

This is why the authors of the Sum and Saving Knowledge wrote, "In the word of God preached by sent messengers, the Lord makes offer of grace to all sinners..." And, "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 in the covenant of redemption, and maketh a change in their persons."

Thus, it is only insofar as the proclamation of the gospel is sent forth that the elect are called in. It is not that we forsake God's sovereignty in such a publication of the gospel. Rather we set before sinners the only means of salvation. Moreover, it is only because God is sovereign that we take any hope at all that the gospel will go forth victoriously. The reprobate are left inexcusable - we should shudder at the thought - but, and this is glorious!, "the elect are drawn unto Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit!

It is as Paul wrote in Romans chapter 10: "How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe on him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?" This is the rationale behind such an offer. The elect must hear of the good news. Without hearing there is no believing. Without believing, there is no salvation.
May our God strengthen the understanding and resolve of his servants, so that once again a full and free gospel would be proclaimed throughout all the world!

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