28 March, 2016

The Biblical Offer of the Gospel:
Analysis and answer to Rev. K. W. Stebbins' book “Christ Freely Offered” in Light of Scripture and the Confessions.

Rev. Christopher J. Connors


Chapter Five – Does God “Well-Meaningly” Offer Christ To All in the Gospel?


                                                                                                                                                   
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. Where is Rev. Stebbins leading us? Who cannot see that this is the 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 men154 and of modern-modified Calvinism of Murray and Stonehouse.

There is, in our judgment, 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, C.J.C) will of God to repentance and salvation, is universalized 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.”155

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" cannot 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.156 Let it be clearly understood that in Rev. Stebbins' theology delight and pursuit are related as willing and acting.157 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."158

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 cannot 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 cannot 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.159 Rev. Stebbins insists, however, that God pursues the salvation of the reprobate.160 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" cannot 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 cannot be attributed to Jehovah God.161 Second, it could be a pursuit flowing from a conditional decree whereby God wills to pursue the salvation of all and save those who fulfill certain conditions. But in that case it is an Arminian error in flat contradiction of the Reformed creeds.162 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 is a fourth possibility that was overlooked by Rev. Stebbins. That is, that God through the means of grace actually pursues and realizes His saving purpose toward His elect,163 and through the same means He pursues and realizes 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 for the preaching of the gospel is revealed clearly enough in Scripture. Think of 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 lie 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,164 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.”165

We confess on the basis of Scripture that God realizes 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 difference is, however, that Rev. Stebbins knows that God's decree is decisive, the saving grace the perishing sinner needs is not common but particular, and that same word will ultimately be for the greater damnation of the wicked who go on in their sins.



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."166 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 a 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.”167

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.168

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."169 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!170



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 centers 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."171 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?



A Well-Meant but Insincere Offer:

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 both provided for, and available to, 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? What does he see as the warrant for God to make this kind of an offer? 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."172 Rev. Stebbins then, in order to avoid close scrutiny, declares that to require a non-contradictory basis for the offer is the height of impiety.173 Then, he asserts that though his offer is shrouded by the mysterious paradox, "there are no evidences of insincerity."174 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."175 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 those who hear and obey. Then there is no insincerity and the promise 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 CANNOT provide a satisfactory answer to what he recognizes 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 cannot be hidden behind some "mysterious paradox." The necessary contradiction is there. It MUST be faced.



Christ: God's Basis for a Sincere Biblical Offer:

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 cannot 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."176 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 the well-meant offer.

In our judgment, 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.”177

Murray and Stonehouse, though mistaken in their theology, were undoubtedly correct on this score. The only ground that can be argued for a well-meant offer is a conditional will in God to the salvation of the reprobate. The fact that this contradicts the will of decree however, 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."178 This "offer" is a general conditional promise of Christ for all upon fulfillment 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. Surely, if one has eyes to see, this is exactly what is happening today in many Reformed churches.

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 was merited, is promised and bestowed by Christ through His Spirit upon "those whom God hath predestinated unto life and those only."179 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 . . .180

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 pre-requisite 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."181 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.

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FOOTNOTES

154. The "Marrow men" were a number of Presbyterian Divines in the early 1700s who embraced the views of one Thomas Fisher as set forth in the book The Marrow of Modern Divinity (Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, 1991) Fisher, and the Marrow men after him, taught that the preacher was to tell the sinner that "the Father hath made a deed of gift and grant unto all mankind" (p 126), "Christ has taken upon Him the sins of all men" (p.102), "Whatsoever Christ did for the redemption of mankind, He did for you" (p. 118), "Go and tell every man without exception that here is good news for him, Christ is dead for him" (p.127). In this way Christ's atonement was made broad enough to support a conditional offer to all men. The Scottish church in 1720-1722 condemned the doctrine of the Book of the Marrow on the grounds that it was a compromise and denial of the truth of Christ's limited atonement and therefore "contrary to Scripture and the Confession of Faith."

155. Murray and Stonehouse, Op. cit. p. 27.

156. Stebbins, Op. cit. p. 67.

157. Here we begin to see the implications of Rev. Stebbins' treatment of the nature of God and the preceptive will. The structure of hypothetical universalism is erected on that faulty basis. God is delighting in and pursuing a universal salvation? Is this Reformed theology?

158. Stebbins, Op. cit. p. 67. Again we emphasize that this is a distinction without a difference. Both "seek" and "pursue" are actions having volitional quality and presupposing a purpose to be achieved by that action. That purpose could be an absolute or conditional purpose to save. Neither can be applied to God's dealings with the reprobate. God has no absolute purpose to save all - that is a total denial of reprobation. God has no conditional purpose to save all - that requires an eternally conditional decree and is blatant Arminianism. So what does Stebbins believe God pursues here?

159. Ibid. p. 67.

160. Ibid. p. 67.

161. Isaiah 46:10 .

162. See the argument of the Remonstrants regarding the first article dealing with predestination, 5, 6, together with their arguments concerning "The grace of God and conversion of man" 8-10, for a clear statement of the Arminian position. De Jong, Crisis in the Reformed Churches. (Grand Rapids: Reformed Fellowship, 1968.) p. 223.

163. Ephesians 1:3-12, Romans 8:28-39, Deut.7:6-8 .

164. John 3: 19-20 "And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved." The way such hatred for Christ presented in the offer is overcome is by the irresistible grace of God.

165. W.C.F. V. vi.

166. Romans 9: 17-18

167. John Calvin, Calvin's Calvinism, (Grand Rapids: R.F.P.A.), p. 173.

168. Ephesians 2: 1-10 .

169. W.C.F., V: vi.

170. John 6: 37-40 .

171. Stebbins, Op. cit. p. 6.

172. Stebbins, Op. cit. p. 97.

173. We do not believe it is a sign of piety to cry "mystery!" when contradictions are evident in one's theology, especially when the contradiction is of one's own making.

174. Ibid. p. 95.

175. Ibid. p. 95.

176. Ibid. p. 97.

177. Murray and Stonehouse, Op. cit.

178. Stebbins, Op. cit. p. 95.

179. W.C.F. X. i.

180. Rejection of Errors, Head I:iii

181. W.C.F., VII, iii.




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