Free Offer of the Gospel
This article is the contents of an address first given in February 2020 at the Westminster Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Newcastle, UK.
* * *
It is one of the glories of the gospel that it is universal in scope. There is nothing narrow or limited about the good news of salvation. It is, Matt. 28:19, for ‘all the nations’. This truth has inspired the great missionary movements of the church, it has led to the world being turned upside down on many occasions (Acts 17:6), and it is still changing lives throughout the world today. Because of the universality of the gospel offer the day is coming when, Rev. 7:9, a ‘great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues’ will stand ‘before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes’. It is my privilege to open up to you now this world changing free, unrestricted, offer of the gospel to all.
And I hope to cover the free offer of the gospel the morning by asking a series of questions–up to six maybe, but we will see how time goes.
1. What is ‘the gospel’?
If we are going to speak about the offer of ‘the gospel’, we need to know what the gospel itself is. And, as we heard yesterday, the ultimate answer to this question is Jesus Christ himself. Jesus Christ in all the glory of his person and work is the gospel. He alone is the good news that the gospel proclaims. The gospel that Paul preached is none other than ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures . . . He was buried, and . . . rose again the third day according to the Scriptures’ (1 Cor. 15:3). Jesus is the sum and substance of the Gospel. His person, his life, death and resurrection constitute the ‘good news’ of salvation. And so, when we speak of the free offer of the gospel, we are really speaking of the offering of Jesus Christ to the world. John Murray is exactly right to say, ‘It is Christ in all the glory of his person and in all the perfection of his finished work whom God offers in the gospel.1
2. What do we mean by ‘offer’? Or what is it to offer Jesus Christ to sinners?
To understand this, let’s look at some of the images the bible uses to explain the gospel offer. One of the most common is an invitation. This is the image we are given in the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22:1-14 (and in Luke 14:15-24). Here Jesus says the good news of the gospel is like ‘a king who gave a wedding feast for his son’ (Matt. 22:2, ESV). Now before any wedding feast, invitations are given out. And so here, the King ‘sent out his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding’ (Matt. 22:3).
But as we will know, those invited ‘were not willing to come’ (Matt. 22:3). However, in this parable, the King, far from immediately rejecting those who turned down his invitation, invites them again, and increases the weight of the invitation by describing the glory of the wedding feast: ‘Tell those who are invited, See, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and fatted cattle are killed, and all things are ready. Come to the wedding.’ (Matt. 22:4). Despite this plea, those invited continue to spurn the invitation (Matt. 22:5). And so far, the parable is a picture of Israel rejecting the gospel invitations given to them.
However, there was still a royal wedding, and there needed to be guests. So the invitation to the feast and news that ‘all things are ready’ now went out more widely: ‘Therefore go into the highways, and as many as you find, invite to the wedding’ (Matt. 22:9). And the invitation went out until ‘the wedding hall was filled with guests’ (Matt. 22:10). It’s a picture of the gospel invitation going throughout all the world until all God’s people are saved, and ready for ‘the marriage supper of the Lamb’ (Rev. 19:9).
This parable, and many other places in scripture, show us the gospel offer is an invitation to the gospel feast.
But it is more than that. It is an invitation accompanied with pleading, and entreaty. We see this clearly in 2 Corinthians 5:20, where the apostle Paul says, ‘Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.’ Paul is here presenting the gospel to the Corinthian church. Churches are full of sinners who need the gospel. And the terms he uses are staggering. The gospel is a ‘pleading’ and it is an ‘imploring’. The invitations of the gospel are not dispassionate things, they are soaked with every ounce of emotional energy. A father pleading with his son not to ruin his life. A mother imploring her daughter to turn from a destructive path. This is the nature of the gospel offer–passionate pleading. Just as we read last night in Rom. 10:21: ‘All day long I have stretched out My hands to a disobedient and contrary people.’ The gospel is an entreaty, it is to be shared with beseeching, with tears, with open arms.
The gospel offer is also described in the Bible as a selling. The classic passage which does this is Isaiah 55, and particularly verses 1-3. There the gospel is compared to a great food market where all that is on offer is available at no cost. Isa. 55:1, ‘Ho! Everyone who thirsts, Come to the waters; And you who have no money, Come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk Without money and without price.’ In the gospel offer Jesus Christ, to speak with reverence, is put up for sale, with no price needed. As the great seventeenth century Scottish theologian James Durham titled one of his sermons, ‘the best wares at the lowest rates.’ The gospel offer is free.
Now, what is obvious in any selling process is that you want to close the sale, you want the goods or service to be purchased. Isaiah shows that is true with the gospel sale as he goes on to plead, Isa. 55:2, ‘Why do you spend money for what is not bread, And your wages for what does not satisfy?’ Consider, he says, the competing alternatives to Jesus. . . they are worthless, leaving you empty! Isaiah’s gospel sale calls them to realise this, and then he continues, Isa. 55:2, ‘Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, And let your soul delight itself in abundance’. Use your reason, discern the difference between the worthless things that consume your life’s energies and the good news of the gospel. See the abundance of spiritual fare that is available for free in Jesus Christ, next to the vanity of the world’s pleasures.
Isaiah goes on to emphasise the earnestness of the desired sale by repeating the invitation, Isa. 55:3, ‘Incline your ear, and come to me’. And he presses on to induce acceptance by promising great blessings to those who do accept the invitation. Isa. 55:3, ‘Hear, and your soul shall live; I will make an everlasting covenant with you — The sure mercies of David’ (Isa. 55:3).
The gospel offer is an earnest sales process where the pearl of great price is offered to all for free.
The gospel offer is many more things. It is a command. Acts 17:30, ‘Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has appointed a day on which he will judge the world.’ It is a warning, Luke 13:3, ‘except you repent you will likewise perish.’ Every warning is an implied offer of mercy. Doubt that, and go and consider Jonah’s message to Nineveh. The gospel offer is also a conditional promise, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household’ (Acts 16:31).
All these things encompass the multifaceted gospel offer.
3. Who offers the gospel?
It is obvious that the gospel offer is given through human agency. Preachers audibly proclaim the gospel in their sermons. In evangelism it is the man or woman doing the evangelising who offers Christ to those they are engaging with. But behind this is a glorious truth: the real offeror of the gospel is God. Fundamentally, it is God who invites, who pleads, who sells, who commands, who warns, and who promises.
We can see that the Old Testament gospel invitations of the prophets were really God’s personal invitations. Consider 2 Chronicles 36:14-16: ‘the Lord God of their fathers sent warnings to them by his messengers, rising up early and sending them, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. But they mocked the messengers of God, despised his words, and scoffed at his prophets.’ When the prophets spoke to Israel they did so as God’s messengers, and if they were rejected it was the very word of God that the people ‘despised.’ Every call to repentance, to receive mercy, to have sins forgiven in the Old Testament was a call from the living God. That is why we have the complaint of God in Psalm 81:13, ‘Oh, that my people would listen to me, That Israel would walk in my ways!’ It was God who was calling them.
And it is the same in the New Testament. The great verse New Testament which shows us that the gospel invitation is God’s invitation is 2 Corinthians 5:20. We have seen this verse already but let’s listen to it again: ‘Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God’ (2 Cor. 5:20). Here is imploring, pleading, begging for the gospel to be embraced. But this imploring is not just from the preacher. The preacher is an ‘ambassador for Christ’ and so it is ‘as though God were pleading through us.’ The preacher’s pleading is God’s pleading. And that is because the preacher, like the Old Testament prophet, has no words of his own. They are ambassadors, they are to have no message except the one their King gives them. And so, gospel invitations, gospel pleadings in preaching do not belong to the preacher only, they are God’s word to lost sinners.
To return to an earlier quote from John Murray, ‘it is Christ in all the glory of his person and in all the perfection of his finished work whom God offers in the gospel.2
4. Who is the gospel offered to?
In one sense this might seem a question that doesn’t need to be asked. It is prima facie evident that as God ‘commands all men everywhere to repent’ (Acts 17:30) the gospel is for all. It is hard to conceive of a statement more universal than ‘all. . . everywhere’.
But what about passages which restrict the gospel is restricted to the ‘thirsty’. For example, a passage we have already looked at, Isa. 55:1, reads, ‘Ho! Everyone who thirsts, Come to the waters; And you who have no money, Come, buy and eat.’ It seems only the ‘thirsty’ are invited. But who does Isaiah mean by the thirsty? Well, in Isaiah, a lack of water or being in thirst, indicates the judgement of God against sin. Just one example: ‘For you shall be like an oak whose leaf withers, and like a garden without water’ (Isa. 1:30, ESV).
So, when Isaiah says ‘come everyone who thirsts’ he is not restricting the invitation, but rather saying ‘Come sinners, come sinners under the judgment of God.’ And that is every individual.
We see further that Isaiah is not restricting his invitation because he invites those with ‘no money’ (Isa. 55:1). No-one earns access to this invitation by ‘thirsting’ after something as some qualifying mark. That would be to bring ‘money’. No, the invitation is free to all. . . without money and without price.
Now it is very true that only those who are convicted of sin will value a Saviour. It is not the self righteous but sinners who will embrace Jesus Christ as Saviour. But while that truth may explain who will embrace the gospel offer, it places no restriction on who the gospel offer is to. The gospel offer is to all.
5) Perhaps the big question: What is God’s attitude in the gospel offer? Can we say that God want all hearers of the gospel offer to accept Christ?
This is an important question and Professor John Murray states ‘It would appear that the real point in dispute in connection with the free offer of the gospel is whether it can properly be said that God desires the salvation of all men.3
Let’s begin exploring this with a general point. When God commands something, it is a legitimate deduction that what he commands is pleasing to him, so when God calls us to love him and to love our neighbour (Mark 12:30-31), it is clear that these are things that God wants us to do. To do these things is, Heb. 13:2, to ‘do his will’ which ‘is well pleasing in his sight’. Conversely to fail to do what God asks is to displease him, Ps. 5:4, ‘You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness’.
So, because the gospel is a command to all everywhere, by definition we must say that God wants all people everywhere to embrace the gospel offer. This is pleasing to him and the rejection of the gospel offer is displeasing, contrary to his delights.
We see this clearly in the classic passages in Ezekiel dealing with God’s attitude towards the wicked, Ezek. 18 and Ezek. 33. Ezekiel 18 teaches that God never takes pleasure in the death of any wicked person: ‘Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? says the Lord God, and not that he should turn from his ways and live?’ (Ezek. 18:23). This truth, that God does not desire the death of the wicked, is the very basis for the gospel offer. Ezek. 18:31-32 says ‘I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies, says the Lord God. Therefore turn and live!’ It is because of the character of God, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies’ that there is the appeal ‘therefore turn and live’. If we do not understand God’s pleasure in all sinners turning to him, we undercut the very basis for the gospel appeal, ‘turn and live’.
Ezekiel returns to this same theme in chapter 33. Israel were complaining that their sins would not be forgiven, Ezek. 33:10, ‘If our transgressions and our sins lie upon us, and we pine away in them, how can we then live?’ And God comes to them and strengthens what he has previously said with an oath, Ezek. 33:11, ‘As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?’ We cannot deny God’s pleasure in any and all sinners turning to him without denying the very being of our God. Seeing as he could swear by no greater that this is true, God swore by himself, by his own eternal superabundant life. He has set his own life as the seal that he desires all sinners to repent and find life, ‘As I live’. Because of this, the compassionate loving call comes, ‘Turn, turn from your evil ways.’
We also see God’s heart for all to embrace the gospel clearly in the life and ministry of Jesus. And we should expect this as Jesus is the one who is ‘the exact representation of his being’ (Heb. 1:3, NIV). And nowhere do we see Jesus display the Father more clearly than in his laments and tears over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-2, Matt. 23:37 and Luke 13:34-35).
In Luke 19 Jesus draws near to Jerusalem for the last time, and as he sees the city he is profoundly impacted. He sees the city on which God has placed his own name: ‘I have chosen Jerusalem, that my name may be there’ (2 Chron. 6:6), a city God’s prophets had ministered to for centuries, faithfully calling its inhabitants to love God and serve him. This is the city where the temple and the sacrifices were, and as Jesus sees this city spread out before him, ‘he wept over it’ (Luke 19:41). Knowing that this city will gladly and wilfully put him to death. Knowing this is the city which killed the prophets and stoned the messengers sent to her, even over her, Jesus sheds tears.
And this shows us the heart of Jesus towards all. As Jesus weeps tears over unbelieving Jerusalem, as Jesus weeps over sinners worse than those in Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt. 11:23-24). As Jesus sheds tears he is telling us, I am not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
And remember, Jesus’ tears of compassion are not the tears of a mere man. The tears of Jesus are human tears, but they reveal God’s attitude of compassion. We cannot, and must not, imagine that here in these tears the will of the human nature is at variance with the will of the divine nature of the Son. Or worse that the person of the Son is at variance with the will of the Father and the Spirit. The tears are properly the tears of a man, but they express the heart of the Son, and because they do, they reveal the heart of our Triune God.
Now Jesus, with tears on his cheeks, explicitly tells us the reason for his weeping. He cries out, Luke 19:42 (ESV), ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!’ Jesus is weeping because Jerusalem rejected salvation in him. He had invited Jerusalem, ‘Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest’ (Matt. 11:28), and here he laments over their refusal, showing the reality of his call to Jerusalem to turn to him and live. When Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35) those who saw this were brought to say, ‘See how he loved him!’ (John 11:36), and no less do Jesus’ tears over Jerusalem show his gospel love for the unbelieving city.
To sum up this point, again a quote from Professor John Murray, ‘the gospel is not simply an offer or invitation, but also implies that God delights that those to whom the offer comes would enjoy what is offered in all its fullness.’4
6. So how does the gospel offer relate to common grace?
God shows common grace to all in many ways. Psalm 33:5 tells us that ‘The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord’ or ‘full of his unfailing love’ (NIV). God positively fills the world, despite its sin and brokenness, with his kindness, mercy, love and common grace. Ps. 145:8-9: ‘The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, Slow to anger and great in mercy. The Lord is good to all, And his tender mercies are over all his works.’ It is this unchanging and unchangeable character of God as gracious, compassionate and longsuffering that causes him to be good to his fallen world and show it mercy.
And why does God show his goodness to all? Because he loves all his creatures. This is the simple and beautiful teaching of Matthew 5:44-48 (and Luke 6:27-36). Matthew records Jesus exhorting his disciples, Matt. 5:44, ‘love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you”. Now why are they to do this? So that, Matt. 5:45, ‘you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust’. The disciples are called to love their enemies that they might share in the family resemblance of the Father. He is the archetype of one who loves his enemies. He is the one who shows his love by doing good to those who hate him. As we have in Luke, ‘But love your enemies. . . and you will be sons of the Most High. For he is kind to the unthankful and evil’ (Luke 6:35-36).
Now, in one sense it is obvious that if gifts like sun, rain, food and so on show God’s common grace and love, then the wonderful gospel invitation must as well. It is a greater spiritual blessing to have the bread of life offered to an individual than for them to have daily bread. To have the good news preached to an individual is a great kindness, and it must, as such, flow from the mercy and love of God.
We see this in the reflection on the history of Israel’s rebellion that we have in Nehemiah 9. Israel are described as those who ‘acted presumptuously’ who ‘stiffened their neck’ and who ‘did not obey your commandments’ (Neh. 9:16-17, ESV). Yet to this reprobate people, God showed himself to be ‘“a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love’ (Neh. 9:17, ESV). Common grace and love, poured out on an unsaved and ungrateful people to such an extent that even when they worshiped the golden calf, ‘you in your great mercies did not forsake them in the wilderness’ (Neh. 9:19, ESV). And this pattern of love and grace shown to an unthankful people was repeated through Israel’s history, Neh. 9:27-30:
According to your great mercies you gave them saviours who saved them from the hand of their enemies. . . many times you delivered them according to your mercies. And you warned them in order to turn them back to your law. Yet they acted presumptuously and did not obey your commandments. . . Many years you bore with them and warned them by your Spirit through your prophets. Yet they would not give ear.
All though Israel’s history, having the gospel offer showed them God’s love, and his patient merciful dealings with them in restraining his judgement showed them his mercy and grace.
Many New Testament passages also show that the gospel offer is an expression of grace and love. We have considered the wonderful gospel invitation in 2 Cor. 5:20 before: ‘We implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God’. Paul goes on from this to say to the Corinthians, 2 Cor. 6:1, ‘We then, as workers together with him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain’. Paul (together with Christ) sees the gospel invitation as an expression of grace and calls on the Corinthians not to reject and despise the grace of the gospel offer. The gospel offer is given that sinners would come to Christ. To reject it, is to make it ‘vain’. Paul also calls the gospel offer grace in Titus 2:11, where he says ‘the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people’ (NIV). The gospel is grace for all. Jesus is offered to all. All are invited and commanded to take him as their redeemer. All have this kindness and grace shown to them.
Let me now close with a few points of practical application.
First, the gospel offer is integral to our system of theology. If we get the gospel offer wrong, we get by consequence so many other areas of our theology and practice wrong. The Westminster Standards link the gospel offer to covenant theology (Westminster Confession 7:3), to the doctrine of the church (Larger Catechism Q&A 63), to the nature of effectual calling (Larger Catechism Q&A 67 and 68), and they link it to the nature of faith. Shorter Catechism Q&A 86 defines faith ‘a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.’ And this is important: to get the gospel offer wrong is to undercut the very ground of faith, for it is only as Christ is freely offered to all that he can be ‘received’ and ‘rested upon’ by any.5 As John Murray has said: ‘It is only in reference to the full and free overture of Christ in the gospel that a true conception of faith in Christ can be entertained.’6 The gospel offer impacts so much of our theology and practice.
Second, we need to ensure a warm, heartfelt gospel offer is central to our preaching. Does our preaching regularly see us inviting, pleading with, beseeching, warning, commanding sinners to receive Jesus Christ? Do our ministries and congregations have arms stretched out all the day long to disobedient and gainsaying people? Would people get the impression from our preaching that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked?
That is why is is so important to fix in our minds and hearts that God desires, delights in the salvation of all. That the gospel is an expression of common grace and love. Our hearts cannot be compassionate to all, unless we believe that reflects God’s posture and attitude in the gospel.
Third, give no room to objections against the free offer of the gospel. The doctrine of the free offer of the gospel that I have outlined has been objected to on practical and theological grounds. Objections range from those who use the gospel offer to undermine God’s sovereignty, to other theologians who use God’s sovereignty to undermine the gospel offer!
Indeed many critics of the gospel offer take a scriptural truth and draw (supposedly) logical deductions from that truth to prevent scripture so clearly saying what it does in another area. For instance we could reason, if God has chosen only some to eternal life (true), then he cannot invite all sincerely to be saved (false). Or if Christ has died only for his sheep (true), then there is no gospel to offer to all (false). But this way of doing theology is wholly wrongheaded. We are never to abstract one truth from the context of scripture and deduce from that what the rest of the Bible must teach on a topic. Rather we take the holistic teaching of scripture, and accept it, in this case that the God of sovereign electing grace who gave his Son to die for his bride the church also lovingly, graciously invites all to believe and be saved. God’s sovereignty and the gospel offer are never to be set against one another, they are both to be embraced. Indeed they are really harmonious truths, for as John Murray said, ‘it is upon the crest of the wave of divine sovereignty and of limited atonement that the full and free offer of the gospel breaks upon our shores.7
- John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray (4 vols.; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976-1982), 4:132.
- John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray (4 vols.; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976-1982), 4:132
- Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 86
- Murray, Collected Writings, 1:147.
- The Banner of Truth, 211 (April 1981), 5.
Opportunities and Opposition April 30, 2021
We can be creatures of extremes. Sometimes our reading of church history pushes us toward one or the other end of a certain spectrum. We absolutise the light or the darkness. It was never, to paraphrase Dickens, the best of times and the worst of times. To us, it was either the best or the […]
Imagine There’s No Easter April 23, 2021
The following is the second chapter of Rhett P. Dodson’s newest title, With A Mighty Triumph! * * * Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not […]