Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

The Free Offer of the Gospel Viewed in the Light of the Marrow Controversy

Written by Rev. Ian Murray
The following editorial is by Rev. Iain Murray and first appeared in the June 1958 issue of the Banner of Truth magazine published by the Banner of Truth Trust. We have permission to reprint articles and we do so in the hope that it will help us in coming to a better understanding of the very important issue with which it deals. Whether or not our preaching should include a free offer of the Gospel continues to be a controversial question in churches of the Reformed persuasion and not all who write on the subject do so with clarity and precision. The author of the following article, however, does present the issue clearly and in such a balanced way that we believe the readers of The Messenger will greatly benefit from it. Although it was written almost three decades ago it has lost nothing of its significance and relevance for today.
The use of the term "offer" in the presentation of the Gospel was introduced occasionally by the Reformers and taken up by the Puritans to describe the manner in which God holds out salvation to all hearers of the Gospel call. "God invites all indiscriminately by outward preaching," says Calvin, and in this invitation "is the grace of God offered to us" (Calvin's Tracts, vol. III, p.253-4, C.T.S. edit.). "The mercy of God is offered equally to those who believe and to those who believe not" (The Eternal Predestination of God, p.79, Cole's edit.). The Reformed Confessions all endorsed this position. The great international Synod of Dort (1618), consisting of delegates from all the Reformed Churches, affirmed: "Moreover, the promise of the Gospel is, that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified, shall not perish, but have everlasting life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of his good pleasure sends the gospel" (Ch.2, art.5). Likewise the Westminster Confession (1646): "He freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved" (Ch.7, art.3).

But it is perhaps true to say that, in Britain at any rate, it was not until the early eighteenth century that the lawfulness of this term "offer" was first fully discussed. This came about in Scotland through the famous "Marrow" controversy--a controversy in which, among other issues, the universal Gospel offer was called into question. The dispute was occasioned by the re-publication of a Puritan work, "The Marrow of Modern Divinity," in 1718. The book was condemned by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and those who approved its teaching--"the Marrow-men" as they were nicknamed--were called upon to defend and elucidate the free offer of the Gospel. Three great preachers, Thomas Boston (1676-l732), Ebenezer Erskine (l680-l7554) and Ralph Erskine (1685-1752) contributed most to this defence and left a permanent mark on Scottish evangelical preaching.

The question at issue was whether or not there is a universal call to all sinners to receive Christ with a promise (or offer) of mercy to all who do so. The opponents of the Marrow-men denied this universal call and offer, and maintained rather that only the conscious sinner, the convinced and the contrite, have a warrant to come to Christ. Christ is only to be held forth, they said, to prepared and penitent sinners; none are to be called to believe on the Saviour but those possessing these inward marks.

The Marrow-men replied that such a restricted presentation of the Gospel was Scripturally defective and practically harmful. Defective in that it made the sinner's warrant to believe turn on his inward qualifications instead of solely on the divine command and promise. Harmful in that it leads to bondage. The hearer is directed to his own heart rather than to Christ and becomes involved in questionings whether he is so truly humbled for sin as to have access to the Saviour. The convicted, doubting soul, feeling nothing but his hardness and impenitence, may thus be led to regard any approach to Christ as presumption--for he believes he has not been called and that Christ has promised him no welcome.

It was against this background that the Marrow-men sought to defend a universal Gospel offer which all sinners as such have a warrant and obligation to believe. They taught that it was

(1) A Free Offer. "Christ invites all without distinction, even the worst of sinners, to this spiritual feast: Isaiah 55:1, 'Ho, every one that thirsteth ...Õ; Revelation 22:17, 'And whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely.' These are gospel-invitations, clogged with no conditions, comprehending all who are willing to receive Christ, whatever their case is or has been" (Boston's Works, edited by McMillan, vol.X,p.95,1854 edit.). To the objection that Isaiah 55: 1 refers only to conscious sinners who are thirsting after Christ, Boston replies that the context shows that the thirsting ones invited are such as are spending money for that which is not bread and their labour for that which satisfieth not. They are not thirsting after Christ but after satisfaction in an empty creation--a thirst after happiness which is natural to all mankind. Similarly on the text "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden" (Matt.11:28), Boston says: "The words, labouring and heavy laden, do not restrict the invitation to such as are sensible of their sins, but they denote the restlessness of the sinful souls of men--their hearts being full of unsatisfied desires" (Gospel Truth Accurately Stated And Illustrated from the writings of the Marrow-men by John Brown of Whitburn, p. 289,1831 edit.). He supports his statement with these reasons:

(a) The words agree to all out of Christ and none have any right to restrict them. All who are out of Christ labour, seeking their satisfaction in the creatures--"All things are full of labour... " (Ecclesiastes 1:8). They all carry a burden of sin and wrath. The word properly signifies a ship's lading which, though insensible of it, may sink under the weight.

(b) The words in other Scriptures are without controversy applied to the most insensible sinners, Isaiah 55:2. "Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity!" Were they sensible? Far from it, for, "Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider" (Isa.1:3-4).

(c) All without exception that hear the Gospel are called to come to Christ, Revelation 3:20. And if anyone be not called, they have no warrant to come; and if so, unbelief is not their sin, as in the case of the heathen; which is


(2) A Particular Offer. "The general call and offer of the Gospel reaches every individual person (who hears it), and God speaks to every sinner as particularly as though he named them by his name and surname. Remission of sins is preached to you, we beseech you to be reconciled, the promise is unto you; and for my part I do not know what sort of a Gospel men make, who do not admit this" (E. Erskine in Gospel Truth) p. 355).

(3) A Real and Sincere Offer. God is not offering something which He is unwilling to bestow. "God offers Christ cordially and affectionately in the gospel; his very heart goes out after sinners in the call and offer thereof. It is not possible to conceive anything more affectionate than the words in which he addresses sinners, Isaiah 55:1-3; Ezekiel 33:11; Hoseah 11:8. God's whole heart and soul is in the offer and promise of the Gospel" (E. Erskine, Gospel Truth, p. 65).

Many do not consider, nor believe that Christ is knocking at the door of their hearts for admission, and therefore they do not bestir themselves to receive him. But believe it, it is no fancy, but the most certain reality, and therefore I say to you and to each of you: 'To you is the word of this salvation sent.Õ ... Christ is willing to come into every heart. Why does he demand open doors, but because he is willing to enter? Though the house be not worthy of his presence, though he has received many indignities from it and in it, yet he is willing to grace it with his royal presence... See the glory of his willingness to save! His whole word is full of demonstrations of this" (Boston's Works, III,pp.102-106).

(4) A Commanding Offer. "Sinners must come in. 'Compel them to come in' (Luke 14:23). Sirs, you not only may come, but you must come, even the worst of you. You are not only desired to come in, but you must not stay outside. Consider, 'This is his commandment, that ye believe'(1 John 3:23). You are absolutely commanded to come in. Therefore I charge you in his Name to come in, and not disobey his absolute command. Those who were first bidden to this supper would not come, but they sent their excuses: but were their excuses sustained? No! God passes an absolute sentence against them (Lk.14:24), 'None of those men which were bidden, shall taste of my supper.' We dare admit no excuses in this matter, bring them from whence you will, whether from God's greatness, your own vileness, or the world's impediments. Whatever your case may be, you are commanded by God to come; and his commands are not to be disputed, but obeyed... This is the duty God has commanded you: (Jn.6:29) 'This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.' This is the great comprehensive duty: If ye do this, ye do all; if ye do not this, ye do nothing... ÔHe that believeth not shall be damned (Mk.16:16). (Boston's Works VI,pp.288-9).

(5) An Urgent and Solemn Offer. "It is in this world only that the call takes place (Matt.28:18-19). As for those who are gone into the other world, the call can reach them no more; they are prisoners without hope... This Gospel is the Lord's farewell sermon to the world. It is God's last grace to the world (Heb.1). No other dispensation of grace shall the world ever see again. Now, Sirs, the last ship for Immanuel's land is making ready to go; therefore it is now or never! (Heb.10:2-27).. The more frequent, and the more solemn offers that are made to sinners, the greater is their contempt which they pour upon the Son of God. And every sermon will add to their account; so that I have no doubt but that many of us, if they hold on as they are doing in slighting Christ and his ordinances, the day will come, in which they will wish from their hearts they had never lived where sermons were to be heard. And reflections on these will cut them to the heart for ever more! Of all vengeance that which follows a despised Gospel is the most dreadful. 'But I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for theeÕ... O children of the house of hell, close with the offer of adoption into God's family! I beseech you to accept it, nay, I charge you to come out from among them this day, and enter into God's family through Jesus Christ, under the pain of God's eternal displeasure" (Boston's Works V, p.358;II,p.453; III,p.99; I,p.651).

Two main questions will probably occur to many after reading all these quotations.

Firstly, does this evangelism differ from Arminianism? Is there any real difference? We answer that it does differ and differ profoundly in these leading respects:

(a) Arminians deduce from the offers and invitations of the Gospel that man has the ability to respond; for, they say, the sinner cannot be called upon to do what is out of the compass of his power. The Marrow-men, in contrast, asserted the true distinction between what a man may and ought to do, in point of warrant, and what he can or will do. They affirmed God's right to call and command, but also man's sinful inability to repent and believe. None taught human depravity more clearly than Boston and the Erskines.

(b) Consequently the Marrow-men held that only God's internal regenerating work can make the external Gospel call efficacious. This internal work is confined to the elect. "Many are called [by an outward call], but few are chosen" (Matt. 22:14, cf.Acts 13:48). E. Erskine classes among "damnable and soul-ruining errors" the Arminian opinion that sufficient grace is given to every man that hears the Gospel to repent if he chooses (Gospel Truth, p.349).

(c) Arminians generally hold that the universal offer of salvation includes a declaration that Christ made atonement for every man and that God intends to save each one if men will let Him. The Marrow-men did not teach this. They affirmed that while the Gospel offer expresses God's revealed purpose to save all who believe on His Son, it does not express God's hidden and sovereign will as it relates to election and the extent of the atonement. Although God's secret will regulates all His dispensations towards His creatures, it forms no part of the rule either of our faith or of our duty. The unconverted are not called upon to believe that they are elected or that Christ died for them in particular.

The Marrow-men denied universal redemption. According to Boston, Christ did not die "to render sin remissible in all persons and them savable," rather He made "full satisfaction in behalf of the elect" (Works VII,p.241). "Let Arminians maintain at their peril their universal redemption," says Ralph Erskine, "but we must maintain at our peril the universal offer" (Gospel Truth, p.385).

(d) Arminians hold that God loves all men equally and alike; the Marrow-men affirmed that the universal expression of God's benevolence and compassion contained in the Gospel offer was not the same as His electing love.

Secondly, If Christ's death was only for the elect, how can the non-elect be offered a pardon, when, as far they are concerned, no atonement has been made? In reply to this difficulty, we can only say that we believe that, while the Scriptures do teach the general invitations of the Gospel and the particular and special work of Christ, they do not choose to reveal clearly how both truths are consistent with each other. Nor is it necessary that they should do so, for our conduct is not to be governed by our understanding of all the grounds and reasons of God's procedure but by His commands. A minister should preach a full, unfettered Gospel because God has commanded it to be preached to every creature. He has forbidden his ministers to exclude any man from the offer (Mk.16:15). "The sole ground or warrant for men's act, in offering pardon and salvation to their fellow-men, is the authority and command of God in His word. We have no other warrant than this; we need no other; and we should seek or desire none; but on this ground alone should consider ourselves not only warranted, but bound, to proclaim to our fellow-men the good news of the kingdom, and to call upon them to come to Christ that they may be saved" (W. Cunningham's Historical Theology, vol.11,pp.347-8).

But if we grant our inability to harmonize a limited atonement with unlimited offers of Gospel mercy that is no proof of any real inconsistency between the two. We are bound to believe that they are consistent with each other though we may not be able to perceive and develop this consistency. This is a point at which the scriptural believer recognizes that his faith is not a human system but that it contains depths and reasons fully known only to the mind of God. At the same time we can go as far as saying this: The Gospel offer contains nothing that is not absolutely truthful. All who comply with its directions shall certainly be saved. If some will not comply, the cause lies in themselves. The decree of reprobation leaves men to do as they like and it is only their sin that hinders them from trusting in Christ.

Finally, we can observe that the sincerity of God's offer even to the non-elect is in accordance with the truth that God does desire, delight and approve of things which, for other reasons, He has not determined to carry into effect. This distinction can be illustrated from God's commandments. His commandments express what He desires should be done. When the Israelites disobeyed them He cries: "O that my people had hearkened unto me." "0 that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments! then had thy peace been as a river...Ó(Ps. 81:13; Isa. 48:18, Deut.5:29). Unmistakably such verses express what was God's desire. Yet we must say that though their actions were, in their own nature, displeasing to God, He had nevertheless willed and permitted such conduct for wise and holy ends. Similarly with the Gospel offer, God desires that everyone should believe it; He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek.33:11) but delights in their conversion --thus Christ yearned for the salvation of the people of Jerusalem (Matt.23:37). Yet this desire, in the case of the non-elect, is for the fulfillment of something which in His inscrutable counsel and sovereign purpose He has not actually decreed to come to pass. This distinction between God's desire and His will, or more correctly stated, between the will of God's benevolence and His decretive will, underlies the free offer of the Gospel. His benevolence and compassion, expressed in the universal call to repentance, extend to every creature, even to those whom He has not decreed to save. At this mysterious evidence of the unsearchable character of God's ways the humble believer stops and says with Calvin "we go no farther than the Lord leads us by his Word."

1. In thus stressing the freeness of the Gospel the Marrow-men were not ignoring the necessity of a preparatory work of conviction in the sinner, but they were denying that conviction provides the warrant to believe. "It is a truth till men be convinced of their sin, they will not prize the Saviour, but Jesus is offered to all without exception. In the preaching of the Gospel he is presented to the careless and impenitent, as much as to the most contrite and convinced. Indeed, if Christ were not offered to sinners as such, penitent persons would absolutely despair, for who is more hardened in their own reckoning than themselves?" (Gospel Truth, p.486). They quoted with approval Samuel Rutherford's dictum-"reprobates have as fair a warrant to believe as the elect have." (Boston's Works, VII, p.487).
2. The sense in which Boston uses this expression is discussed on page 14. To show that Boston was not alone in believing such language to be in accord with the strictest orthodoxy we add the following striking quotation: "God does not here (Hosea 13:14) simply promise salvation, but shows that he is indeed ready to save, but that the wickedness of the people was an impediment in the way. 'I will redeem them,' as far as this depends on me. What then, does stand in the way? Even the hardness of the people; for they would have preferred to perish a hundred times rather than to turn to the Lord... We may learn from this passage, that when men perish, God still continues like himself, and that neither his power, by which he is mighty to save the world, is extinguished, nor his purpose changed, so as not to be always ready to help; but that the obstinacy of men rejects the grace which has been provided, and which God willingly and bountifully offers." (John Calvin on Hosea (1559). Calvin Trans. Soc. Edit.pp.476-7.
3. "God delights in the conversion and eternal life, of the sinner, as a thing pleasing in itself, and congruous with his infinitely compassionate nature, and therefore demands from man as a duty due from him to turn if he would live." (Francis Turretin (1623-1687), Professor of Theology at Geneva. Quoted in W.G.T. Shedd's Dogmatic Theology, vol.II, p.483, 1889 edit.)
4. This distinction may be a new one to many readers but it is far from novel. Calvin, in expounding 2 Pet.3:9 (God is "not willing that any should perish"), distinguishes between God's wish or revealed will and His determinate (hidden) purpose in the following words : "But it may be asked, If God wishes none to perish, why is it that so many perish? To this my answer is, that no mention is here made of the hidden purpose of God, according to which the reprobate are doomed to their own ruin, but only of his will as made known to us in the Gospel. For God there stretches out his hand without a difference to all, but lays hold only of those, to lead unto himself, whom he has chosen before the foundation of the world."(Commentaries on The Catholic Epistles, p.419)

A helpful exposition of the texts relating to the above distinction will be found in the booklet entitled "The Free Offer of The Gospel" by Professors Murray and Stonehouse of Westminster Theological Seminary.

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