The Reason(s) for Preaching the Gospel to All

This post is a response to Dr. R. Scott Clark’s recent essay entitled The Gospel is not Common. This is a provocative title since Clark is devoted to the doctrines of common grace and the well-meant offer of the gospel. Clark knows and explains in the article that the Christian Reformed Church affirmed the well-meant offer of the gospel in connection with the first of the three points of common grace adopted and declared by the CRC Synod of 1924. Clark believes and ardently defends the notion that in the preaching of the gospel God bestows common grace on every listener (elect and reprobate). But the gospel, he writes, is “not common.”

Clark explains the uncommonness of the gospel this way:

However many things that believers have in common with unbelievers the gospel is not one of them. The gospel declares that God loves sinners so much that he gave his only and eternally begotten Son (John 3:16) but the way to God is narrow. “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt 7:13–14; ESV). Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The gospel is that there is a Savior, that he has come, that he has accomplished redemption for his people and that he is efficaciously applying that salvation to every one of his people. The gospel, however, is particular. Believers and unbelievers do not have the gospel in common. It separates us. It distinguishes between belief and unbelief. In that way the gospel is not like the falling rain or the shining sun. Those are general blessings and mercies. The gospel is not a general blessing. The gospel does not say, “I have done my part, now you do yours.” The law says: “you do.” The gospel says, “Christ has done. It is finished.”

Although Clark’s identification of “the falling rain” and “the shining sun” as “general blessings or mercies” is wrong, he seems to be on the right track in this paragraph in one respect. Clark seems to recognize that, if there is a common grace in distinction from saving grace, the gospel falls into the category of saving grace. Clark’s language could be sharper but is clear nonetheless. He does not speak of the gospel as grace to the elect as opposed to the reprobate, but this is his meaning when he writes that the gospel is “particular” and declares that Jesus came to redeem and apply salvation to “his people.”

This ought to lead Clark to conclude that the 1924 CRC Synod of Kalamazoo erred when it spoke of a “general offer of the gospel” as proof of a non-saving, common grace of God in the 1st point of common grace. After the paragraph above one could reasonably expect Clark to criticize this act of the CRC Synod proclaiming—‘the gospel is particular, saving grace for the elect! Therefore, the saving grace of the gospel is not proof of a common grace of God.’

However, Clark does not continue with such clarity of thought. Instead he continues by writing,

Because the gospel is not general, because it is not common, it must be proclaimed to all universally, seriously, and freely. The first of Synod Kalamazoo’s Three Points was the free or well-meant offer of the gospel. God reveals himself as willing that none should perish. So, despite the protestations of a noisy minority, the Reformed have widely taught the doctrine of the free or well-meant offer of the good news. We offer Christ and his grace to all because we do not presume to know whom God, from all eternity, in Christ, has elected. Just as we who believe are the unworthy recipients of favor earned for us by Christ, we offer that grace to all.

In his explanation of why the gospel should be preached promiscuously Clark combines an uncommon gospel of saving grace with the common (non-saving) grace of the well-meant offer of the gospel. It would be logical to conclude, having established that the gospel is not common, that the grace of God in both the gospel itself and the preaching of the gospel is particular. But Clark’s position is that God’s grace in the gospel is not common while it is common in the preaching of the gospel.  In fact he seems to argue that a gospel of uncommon grace necessitates the bestowal of a common grace of God in the preaching of the gospel.

I have to admit that I am not exactly sure what Clark means when he says that the gospel must be preached to all because it is not common. My best guess is that he means that the gospel must be preached because there are unsaved people in the world, and the gospel is the means by which they can be saved, so the gospel must be preached to them. If this is what Clark means here, his thinking is not wrong but incomplete. The presence of unsaved people in the world does not necessarily mean that God wants the gospel to be preached to them. God could have commanded the church to keep the gospel to itself. So to say that the gospel must be preached to all just because not all are saved is insufficient.

But this may be why Clark brings up the well-meant offer as a reason why the gospel must be preached to all. The well-meant offer supposes that God loves and desires the salvation of all men. Thus the thinking is that because God desires all men to be saved the church must preach the gospel to all who are unsaved as she has opportunity. Seems logical.

However, things are not as simple as they may seem on the surface. Clark’s argument is based on a premise that is both unstated and unproven. That premise is that the only reason God would want the church to preach the gospel to unsaved people is that he desires the salvation of all people. Clark has not stated that this is his belief in so many words in anything I have read of him. But he has written in another place that the doctrine of the well-meant offer that he learned from John Murray and Bob Strimple “provided a clear biblical, exegetical, and theological rationale for the proclamation of the gospel[1].” Clark’s position is that the well-meant gospel offer provides the “rationale” for preaching the gospel to all. If God does not desire to save all in the preaching of the gospel, what rationale would there be for preaching to the lost? Clark’s answer seems to be that there would be none. Thus it is not a misrepresentation of Clark’s position to state that he believes the only reason for preaching the gospel to everyone is that God loves everyone (presumably with a common, non-saving love).

But the premise that the only rationale for preaching the gospel to lost sinners is that God desires the salvation of all who hear the preaching is false. God does not have to love every lost sinner to desire that the gospel be preached universally, seriously, and freely. It is enough that God loves His elect who are lost. Surely the church has ample reason to preach the gospel to everyone she can because she knows God has determined to use the preaching as the means to gather his eternally beloved elect from among the unconverted in the world.

Clark gives a good reason for why the church does not limit the preaching only to the elect when he writes, “we do not presume to know whom God, from all eternity, in Christ, has elected.” Hopefully Clark understands that this is the position of those who reject the well-meant offer. We do not presume to know who the elect are because we don’t know who they are! The logic of our position is very clear and consistent. The elect have not all been converted and brought to the knowledge of salvation. God desires their salvation. The means that God has instituted to convert the elect is the preaching of the gospel by the church. God has not revealed to the church who among the unconverted are elect. Therefore, for the sake of the salvation of the elect, who are known to God but unknown to the church, the church must preach the gospel to all. This is both logical and more importantly in complete harmony with scripture and the Reformed creeds.

And yes, the members of the church do know they are unworthy recipients of God’s sovereign particular grace. Humble gratitude for the amazing grace of God impels the church to preach the gospel to lost sinners wherever she has opportunity—confident that this amazing grace will shine to the glory of God in the salvation of all his elect.

 

[1] This is from Clark’s essay entitled Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel, and Westminster Theology found in The Pattern of Sound Doctrine. Edited by David VanDrunen (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004), 149. 

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