Chapter 20, Of the Gospel and of the Extent of the Grace Therein

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  1. The Covenant of Works being broken by Sin, and made unprofitable unto Life; God was pleased to give forth the promise of Christ, the Seed of the Woman, as the means of calling the Elect, and begetting in them Faith and Repentance; in this Promise, the Gospel, as to the substance of it, was revealed, and therein Effectual for the Conversion and Salvation of Sinners. (Genesis 3:15; Revelation 13:8)

This chapter of the Confession does not exist in the Westminster Confession. It is taken from the Puritan Congregationalists’ Savoy Declaration.  What do we know regarding the reason this chapter was added? The Congregationalists stated in their Preface to the Savoy Declaration of 1658 the following: “After the 19th c[h]ap[ter] of the Law, we have added a c[h]ap[ter] of the Gospel, it being a Title that may not well be omitted in a Confession of Faith: In which Chapter, what is dispersed, and by intimation in the Assemblies’ Confession, with some little addition, is here brought together, and more fully, under one head.”[1] The Congregationalists, then, added this chapter based on things intimated (already stated and implied) from the Westminster, and with a few additions of their own, they created this chapter, “Of the Gospel and the Extent of the Grace therein.”  The 1689 Confession follows the Savoy Declaration nearly exact.  Since much of the 1689 Confession follows the Savoy Declaration and the Westminster Confession, much of this chapter touches on doctrine already explained in it.  And so we will not go into as much detail for those items, but will point back to the section where it was previously expounded.

The chapter opens with these words: The covenant of works being broken by sin. This follows well on the heels of the last chapter, which spoke of the universal law and the particular precept. God required prefect obedience to both upon pain of death. As we know, Adam violated the particular precept, and thereby broke the covenant of works.  Adam lost his original righteousness, and by it the ability to fulfill the terms of the covenant of works.  As such, the covenant of works was made unprofitable unto life. In other words, they could no longer fulfill the covenant of works, being made by their corruption “utterly indisposed, disabled and made opposite to all good and wholly inclined to all evil” (6:4).  Implied in this is that they no longer we able to receive the reward of life through the covenant of works.  As a result, God was pleased to give forth the promise of Christ, the seed of the woman. We saw in chapter 7, Of God’s Covenant, paragraph 2a that man brought himself under the curse, but it was by God’s good pleasure to promise a future Savor, Christ, who would proceed from Eve’s seed.  We have already seen the promise of the seed mentioned in chapter 7:3 based on Genesis 3:15.  God the Father would use Christ, the seed of the woman, as the means of calling the elect, and begetting in them faith and repentance. This is of course, speaking of effectual calling (see 10:1-4).

In this Promise, the Gospel, as to the substance of it, was revealed, and therein Effectual for the Conversion and Salvation of Sinners. This promise of the gospel found in Genesis 3:15 was but a dim light, but the substance it brought about the effective conversion and salvation of sinners. The promise of it, if believed, was effective even prior to the completion of Christ’s work of redemption, because of the substance of the gospel.  Samuel Waldron helpful points out: “The Confession replies that in substance the promise concerning the seed of the woman given immediately after the Fall in the Garden of Eden was the gospel.”[2] Again Waldron states: “The unity of the message of salvation in all ages is confirmed.   Men have always been saved in the same way and by the same gospel.  In the Old Testament and in the New Testament that gospel was revealed.  Every man ever saved was saved by its means.  This corrects the indecisive Christian who wants to say that men were always saved by Christ, yet has also been taught that somehow it was different in the Old Testament.  For such we have this assurance, men have always been saved in the same way—full stop!”[3]

Essentially this first paragraph presents the gospel by showing the fall, then, the means God brought about to redeem mankind from that fall—the promise of Christ, the seed of the woman. By the gospel of Christ, elect men and women are effectually called, working faith and repentance in them.  The substance of the gospel saves men and women, even the promise of the gospel in Christ through the promise of the seed of the woman.

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  1. This Promise of Christ, and Salvation by him, is revealed only by the Word of God; neither do the Works of Creation, or Providence, with the light of Nature, make discovery of Christ, or of Grace by him; so much as in a general, or obscure way; much less that men destitute of the Revelation of him by the Promise, or Gospel; should be enabled thereby, to attain saving Faith or Repentance. (Romans 1:17; Romans 10:14,15,17; Proverbs 29:18; Isaiah 25:7; Isaiah 60:2, 3)

 

This promise of Christ, and salvation by him, is revealed only by the Word of God.  In this paragraph, the emphasis is on the exclusivity of the special revelation of the gospel.  This is not exactly a new point; as we look back we see this mentioned in Chapter 1:1, 7:3, 10:1 and 14:1. But it is stated more explicitly here.  Chapter 1:1 indicates, the light of nature, the works of creation and providence are insufficient to convey the gospel.  Thus the gospel is only revealed by the Word of God.  Therefore, neither do the works of creation or providence, with the light of nature, make discovery of Christ, or of grace by him, so much as in a general or obscure way. I would refer the reader to chapter 1:1 for that portion of the commentary where a fuller explanation is given for these phrases.  The point is that general revelation does not contain the gospel.  Paul made this plain: “But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Rom. 10:14-17 ESV).  Faith comes only through the gospel and does not come from general revelation—not so much as in a general or obscure way. As if to make the point crystal clear, Confession adds that the gospel is not present in general revelation in any degree.  Therefore, much less that men destitute of the revelation of Him by the promise or gospel, should be enabled thereby to attain saving faith or repentance. If general revelation does not in any degree reveal the gospel, then it is not possible that any person who is destitute (lacking) the revelation of Christ can be effectually called, and thus attain to faith and repentance.  This reinforces chapter 1:1 regarding the sufficiency of Scripture alone for saving faith.  As well, it reinforces chapter 10:1-2 regarding the need effectual calling by the outward ministry of the gospel. We have passages such these which show the need for the gospel and effectual calling to enable the sinner to savingly believe. “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law” (Prov. 29:18 ESV).  The prophetic vision alludes ultimately to the gospel. “And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations” (Is. 25:7 ESV). God will by the gospel and effectual calling the covering of blindness, or that veil spread over the nation. “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Is. 60:2-3 ESV). God will cause the elect from among the nations to come to Christ. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14 ESV).  These passages all affirm the necessity of the gospel in effectual calling.

This paragraph, then, has affirmed the necessity for gospel preaching since the gospel is declared only in special revelation (the Word of God) not in general revelation—not even in the slightest degree. This is an important point which many people overlook.  Some people back read into creation the gospel, and say that the unreached people can indeed be saved by evidence of the gospel in creation if they live up to that light.  This paragraph states that there is no light of the gospel in creation at all.  This gospel light only began to dawn when God declared the promise of the seed of the woman to come, and the light continued to grow until the full day of Christ’s personal appearance—recorded in the New Testament.

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  1. The Revelation of the Gospel unto Sinners, made in divers times, and by sundry parts; with the addition of Promises, and Precepts for the Obedience required therein, as to the Nations, and Persons, to whom it is granted, is merely of the Sovereign Will and good Pleasure of God; not being annexed by virtue of any Promise, to the due improvement of men’s natural abilities, by virtue of Common light received, without it; which none ever did make, or can so do: And therefore in all Ages the preaching of the Gospel hath been granted unto persons and Nations, as to the extent, or straitening of it, in great variety, according to the Counsel of the Will of God. (Psalms 147:20; Acts 16:7; Romans 1:18-32)

The revelation of the gospel unto sinners, made in divers times and by sundry parts, with the addition of promises and precepts for the obedience required therein, as to the nations and persons to whom it is granted, is merely of the sovereign will and good pleasure of God. It seems the framers of this portion sought to emphasize that the gospel is essential for salvation, but also that the addition of promises and precepts for the obedience of believers is also critical. This wording corresponds to the Great Commission:  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20 ESV). The point here is that the revealing of the gospel—along with all that Christ commanded—comes to both nations and to individuals solely by the sovereign will and good pleasure of God. The gospel does not come to every nation and to every single person before their death and judgment.  This is a hard truth to many modern believers who focus on fairness rather than God’s sovereignty.  It is indeed a duty that the church preach the gospel to the whole world, but this is only done by God’s enablement.  At the end of the day, it is in the hands of our sovereign God which nation and person receives gospel preaching.  We can see the hand of God sovereignly directing Paul’s in his missionary work: “And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” (Acts 16:7 ESV).  This serves to remind us that while man plans, ultimately God enables and directs.

God grants by his sovereign will which nation or individual the gospel is revealed to, and not being annexed by virtue of any promise to the due improvement of men’s natural abilities, by virtue of common light received without it, which none ever did make, or can do so. In other words, God does not annex (i.e. add onto) to his sovereign will the actions of men as the reason he chooses one nation over another, or choses one person over another to receive the gospel. Man can do nothing to warrant or cause God to bring the gospel revelation to them or their nation. Man cannot on the basis of a promise to improve natural abilities, an improvement particularly from mere general revelation, influence God to bring the gospel to a land or people.  Europe or England did not attract God’s attention by any improvement they made to their lands or themselves that warranted the gospel coming to them by the Reformation.  What does Scripture say about Israel? “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples” (Deut. 7:7 ESV). Or of the NT believers: “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Corinthians 1:26 ESV). Thus we can by implication see that the gospel never comes to a nation, people group, or person because of something good in the nation, people, or person; if that were the basis, the gospel would never come to anyone.  It comes because it was God’s sovereign good pleasure and for that reason alone. God’s eternal decree is the first cause of all things, including the gospel coming to a land, a people, or a person.  Paul’s words which follow are contextually  speaking of God sovereignty in election, but it is not straining the text to also apply them to God’s sovereign will regarding the choice of God in who will hear the good news: “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”” (Rom. 9:14-15 ESV).

The Confession concludes, therefore in all ages, the preaching of the gospel has been granted unto persons and nations, as to the extent or straitening of it, in great variety, according to the counsel of the will of God. Thus, in all times, gospel preaching is only granted according to God’s sovereign will.  And whether the gospel comes to a large amount of people (i.e. “the extent”), or the gospel is proclaimed to a small or narrow (i.e. “straightened”) quantity of people,[4] or any large variation (i.e. great variety) between the two , it is according to the counsel of will of God.  This paragraph, following the prior one regarding the necessity of the gospel, addresses the sovereignty of God in which lands and people will receive gospel preaching and all that Christ taught his followers to obey.

 

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  1. Although the Gospel be the only outward means, of revealing Christ, and saving Grace; and is, as such, abundantly sufficient thereunto; yet that men who are dead in Trespasses, may be born again, Quickened or Regenerated; there is moreover necessary, an effectual, insuperable work of the Holy Spirit, upon the whole Soul, for the producing in them a new spiritual Life; without which no other means will effect their Conversion unto God. (Psalms 110:3; 1 Corinthians 2:14; Ephesians 1:19, 20; John 6:44; 2 Corinthians 4:4, 6)

This paragraph is a clarification that while the gospel is the only outward means to reveal Christ and his saving grace—it being more than able (abundantly sufficient) to save men by Christ’s grace—yet the inward work of the Spirit is also necessary to actually save. Since men and women are dead in sin (Eph. 1:19-20), thus unable to do any spiritual good unto salvation (see 9:3), it is necessary that the Spirit cause a person to be born again, quickened (making alive) and regenerated by the effective insuperable[5] (i.e. something “that cannot be overcome or vanquished; unconquerable, invincible” Oxford English Dictionary) work of the Holy Spirit.  It only by that “effectual grace” or “irresistible grace” made upon the whole (entire faculty) of the soul that new spiritual life will be produced in them. There is no other means or no other way to bring about this transformation and conversion. If one has read the entire commentary up to this point, it will be recognized that this is essentially a review and summary, and if there was any doubt, this is paragraph is speaking of effectual calling (see 10:1-4).

The Congregationalists said that it is important to include in a confession of faith a chapter dedicated to the gospel. Our 1689 Baptist Confession is richer for this added chapter, and even though it is an accumulation of what is already said in the Confession, it is helpful to have all the ingredients in one place that is solely focused on the gospel under a separate title. It is also important to note that given the issue of deism[6] which viewed God’s world as something which mechanically functioned without God’s direct, personal, providence, the Confession greatly clarifies that the gospel is also not be seen as a message which saves by the mere mechanical preaching of it, without the need for God’s personal, supernatural and insuperable (irresistible) power working inwardly to convert the soul unto God through Christ.

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[1] The Creeds of Christendom, edited by Philip Schaff and revised by Donald S. Schaff, 6th ed., vol. III, The Evangelical Protestant Creeds (1931; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983-2007), 715. While I have used a different source than Samuel Waldron, I credit this reference to his work in 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition (Evangelical Press, Darlington, England).

[2] Samuel E. Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition, 3rd ed. (Webster, Ny.: Evangelical Press, 1999), 246-247.

[3] Samuel E. Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition, 3rd ed. (Webster, Ny.: Evangelical Press, 1999), 248.

[4] A Faith to Confess: The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 (Carey Publications, Leeds, England: 2002), states in modern terms: “Hence in all ages the extent to which the gospel has been proclaimed, whether to wider or more confined areas, has been granted to persons and nations in greatly varying measures according to the all-wise God.” We may be familiar with the King James Version of Matthew 7:13: “Enter ye in at the strait gate,” that is, the narrow gate.  It is an older English word used to describe a narrow passage.  We may also see this usage of ‘strait’ reflected in geography: the Strait of Gibraltar, etc.

[5] The 1689 Confession uses the word ‘insuperable’ in lieu of ‘irresistible’ in the Savoy Declaration.

[6] See commentary for 5:2 for further discussion on Deism.

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