A defence of the free offer of the gospel to all
Recently the world has become a much darker place.
With Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine and with the resulting energy and cost of living crises, we seem to have been plunged into a new climate of fear and anxiety. The recent loss of the Queen has further added to a sense of instability.
And when we see the majority of ordinary people oppressed by worry, like sheep without a shepherd, surely our hearts go out to them and we want to invite all of them into the light of eternal life and the love of God in Christ.
But are we allowed to? Or does our theology preclude a sincere and free offer of the gospel to everyone?
Recently I had to defend (once again) evangelistic preaching which proclaims that ‘whoever’ really does mean whoever. Here are some thoughts which might be helpful to encourage you to offer Christ to all without exception and not hold back.
First, let’s look at the Bible.
- The Lord Jesus told the parable of the sower. We notice that the sower sows the seed of the word (the gospel) on all types of soil. He does not try to confine himself to what he thinks might be good ground. The path, the shallow earth, and the places where the weeds grow, all receive the seed (Mark 4:4–8; 15–20). And the same seed brings forth fruit in the good ground as was cast onto the path. The good ground does not receive some different kind of seed. There is no hint here that ‘sensible sinners’ might receive something further (an invitation) from the preacher that other patches of earth do not. The same message is broadcast to all. The only way to avoid the conclusion from Jesus’ parable that the gospel is to be preached to all is strangely to insist that the word is not the gospel but something else. I think that would be untenable special pleading.
- Further, our Saviour told a number of parables concerning the kingdom of God in terms of people being invited to a great banquet. We find this, for example, in Matthew 22:1–14. Here Jesus’ speaks of people being invited to the wedding banquet for the king’s son. Ignoring the invitation, the recipients prefer to pursue other matters. The king concludes that those he originally invited did not deserve to come, and that others must be invited. These accept the offer and come. However, it is clear that the king sends the same invitation by the same servants to those who came and those who refused (Matt. 22:9, 10). We thank God that, the Jews having by-and-large refused, the gospel is sent to the Gentiles. But that is not all that the parable conveys. We are to preach the same invitation to those who refuse to come to Christ as to those who respond positively. And if there is no general invitation to God’s salvation what can Jesus’ comment at the end of the parable possibly mean when he says that ‘many are invited, but few are chosen’ (Matt. 22:14)? No. The old answer concerning gospel preaching stands. It is only the elect who will come to Christ, but we do not know who they are – so we offer Christ to all.
- In Mark 16:15 Jesus tells his disciples to ‘preach the gospel to all creation’ – or as the Authorized Version translates it, ‘to every creature’. I am, of course, aware that the longer ending to Mark’s Gospel is disputed. But don’t dismiss this too quickly. The same wording is used by the apostle Paul in Colossians 1:23 as he speaks of the gospel being ‘proclaimed in all creation under heaven’. St. Francis of Assissi may have been pushing it a bit to preach to the birds, but surely all creation must include all people.
- In Proverbs, the woman Wisdom calls out to the fools and mockers, as well as to the wise (Prov. 1:20–22). All people everywhere are called to repent (Acts 17:30). The gospel really is addressed to ‘whoever’. Much more could be said.
How should we preach the gospel to all? The New Testament shows us that the preaching of the gospel involved far more than simply a description and an affirmation of the facts about Christ and salvation.
Of Peter on the day of Pentecost Luke tells us, ‘With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation”’ (Acts 2:40). The apostle Paul describes his own evangelistic ministry in similar terms: ‘Since we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men’, and he goes on to say, ‘We therefore are Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God’ (2 Cor. 5:11, 20).
It is interesting that we find Jesus himself, not only weeping over rebellious Jerusalem (Matt. 23:37f.; Luke 19:41f.), but also remonstrating with those who rejected his claims: ‘Even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I am in the Father’ (John 10:38).
Why am I stressing that the invitation of the gospel should come with persuasion and imploring?
God is sovereign in drawing us to Christ. His purposes cannot be thwarted. However, having said that, we must not think that the way that the Lord brings about his purposes in any way implies an impersonal action. Having created us humans the Lord never violates our humanity.
The Holy Spirit works on, in and through our normal faculties. He addresses our consciences, he enlightens our minds, he charms our affections. He does not simply ‘zap’ us in some indefinable way and so makes us Christians. He works miraculously but treats us and our humanity with integrity.
This is why the New Testament insists, for example, that the truth of the gospel is addressed to the minds of those who listen. To be converted is ‘to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim. 2:4). Our affections are brought to ‘love the Lord’ (1 Cor. 16:22). Our consciences are convicted of our sin (John 16.8f.). A new principle of life is implanted in us. But this happens as, through the Spirit’s work, our consciences make our sin unbearable, as our minds see the truth as irrefutable, and our affections perceive the love of Christ as irresistible to us. Thus we come to the Lord and submit to him as Lord and Saviour.
It is because God addresses the mind and heart and conscience – those ‘image of God’ capacities which make us human – that preaching the gospel rightly includes a concern to convince and persuade our hearers to come to Christ. If the Holy Spirit is about the work of convicting the conscience, convincing the mind and captivating the affections, then the preacher needs to be working in tandem with those aims. This is preaching.
So, the preacher beckons and beguiles. He reasons and reminds. He pleads and persuades. And he does this not just for ‘sensible sinners’ but for all within earshot of his voice.
God’s love for the lost
The free offer of the gospel reflects the Biblical truth that God himself has a desire for all people to be saved. Stating that truth, our immediate question is, ‘How can that possibly be coherent with God’s sovereignty and the doctrine of election?’.
1 Timothy 2:3–4 tells us of ‘God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.’ Preaching on this verse, Spurgeon comments as follows:
It is quite certain that when we read that God will have all men to be saved it does not mean that He wills it with the force of a decree or a divine purpose, for, if He did, then all men would be saved…What then? Shall we try to put another meaning into the text than that which it fairly bears? I trow not. You must, most of you, be acquainted with the general method in which our older Calvinistic friends deal with this text. ‘All men,’ say they, – ‘that is some men’: as if the Holy Ghost could not have said ‘some men’ if He had meant some men. ‘All men’, say they; ‘that is some of all sorts of men’ as if the Lord could not have said ‘all sorts of men’ if He had meant that. The Holy Ghost by the apostle has written ‘all men’, and unquestionably he means all men. I know how to get rid of the force of the ‘alls’ according to that critical method which some time ago was very current, but I do not see how it can be applied here with due regard for the truth. I was reading just now the exposition of a very able doctor who explains the text so as to explain it away; he applies grammatical gunpowder to it, and explodes it by way of expounding it. I thought when I read the exposition that it would have been a very capital comment upon the text if it had read, ‘Who will not have all men to be saved, nor come to a knowledge of the truth.’ …but as it happens to say ‘Who will have all men to be saved,’ his observations are more than a little out of place.
My love of consistency with my doctrinal views is not great enough to allow me to knowingly alter a single text of Scripture. I have great respect for orthodoxy, but my reverence for inspiration is far greater. I would soon a hundred times over appear to be inconsistent with myself than be inconsistent with the word of God…
Does not the text mean that it is the wish of God that all men should be saved? The word ‘wish’ gives as much force to the original as it really requires, and the passage would run thus – ‘whose wish it is that all men should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.’ As it is my wish that it should be so, as it is your wish that it should be so, so it is God’s wish that all men should be saved; for, assuredly, He is not less benevolent than we are.
Then comes the question, ‘But if He wishes it to be so, why does He not make it so?’ Beloved friend, have you never heard that a fool may ask a question which a wise man cannot answer, and, if that be so, I am sure a wise person, like yourself, can ask me a great many questions which, fool that I am, I am yet not foolish enough to try to answer…He has an infinite benevolence which, nevertheless, is not in all points worked out by His infinite omnipotence; and if anybody asked me why it is not, I cannot tell…
This is one of those things that we do not need to know. Have you ever noticed that some people who are ill and are ordered to take pills are foolish enough to chew them? This is a very nauseous thing to do… The right way to take medicine is to swallow it at once. In the same way there are some things in the word of God which are undoubtedly true which must be swallowed at once by an effort of faith, and must not be chewed by perpetual questioning. You will soon have I know not what of doubt and difficulty and bitterness upon your soul if you must needs know the unknowable, and have reasons and explanations for the sublime and the mysterious. Let the difficult doctrines go down whole into your very soul, by a grand exercise of confidence in God…’
When our hearts go out to all the lost in these dark days, we are in tune with God’s heart too.