by James I. Packer
The old gospel of Owen, first of all, contains no less full and free an offer of salvation than its modern counterpart. It presents ample grounds of faith (the sufficiency of Christ, and the promise of God), and cogent motives to faith (the sinner’s need, and the Creator’s command, which is also the Redeemer’s invitation). The new gospel gains nothing here by asserting universal redemption. The old gospel, certainly, has no room for the cheap sentimentalising which turns God's free mercy to sinners into a constitutional softheartedness on His part which we can take for granted; nor will it countenance the degrading presentation of Christ as the baffled Saviour, balked in what he hoped to do by human unbelief; nor will it indulge in maudlin appeals to the unconverted to let Christ save them out of pity for His disappointment. The pitiable Saviour and the pathetic God of modern pulpits are unknown to the old gospel. The old gospel tells men that they need God, but not that God needs them (a modern falsehood); it does not exhort them to pity Christ, but announces that Christ has pitied them, though pity was the last thing they deserved. It never loses sight of the Divine majesty and sovereign power of the Christ whom it proclaims, but rejects flatly all representations of Him which would obscure His free omnipotence.
Does this mean, however, that the preacher of the old gospel is inhibited or confined in offering Christ to men and inviting them to receive Him? Not at all. In actual fact, just because he recognises that Divine mercy is sovereign and free, he is in a position to make far more of the offer of Christ in his preaching than is the expositor of the new gospel; for this offer is itself a far more wonderful thing on his principles than it can ever be in the eyes of those who regard love to all sinners as a necessity of God’s nature, and therefore a matter of course. To think that the holy Creator, who never needed man for His happiness and might justly have banished our fallen race for ever without mercy, should actually have chosen to redeem some of them! and that His own Son was willing to undergo death and descend into hell to save them! and that now from His throne He should speak to ungodly men as He does in the words of the gospel, urging upon them the command to repent and believe in the form of a compassionate invitation to pity themselves and choose life! These thoughts are the focal points round which the preaching of the old gospel revolves. It is all wonderful, just because none of it can be taken for granted. But perhaps the most wonderful thing of all — the holiest spot in all the holy ground of gospel truth — is the free invitation which “the Lord Christ” (as Owen loves to call Him) issues repeatedly to guilty sinners to come to Him and find rest for their souls. It is the glory of these invitations that it is an omnipotent King who gives them, just as it is a chief part of the glory of the enthroned Christ that He condescends still to utter them. And it is the glory of the gospel ministry that the preacher goes to men as Christ’s ambassador, charged to deliver the King’s invitation personally to every sinner present and to summon them all to turn and live. Owen himself enlarges on this in a passage addressed to the unconverted.
These invitations are universal; Christ addresses them to sinners, as such, and every man, as he believes God to be true, is bound to treat them as God’s words to him personally and to accept the universal assurance which accompanies them, that all who come to Christ will be received. Again, these invitations are real; Christ genuinely offers Himself to all who hear the gospel, and is in truth a perfect Saviour to all who trust Him. The question of the extent of the atonement does not arise in evangelistic preaching; the message to be delivered is simply this — that Christ Jesus, the sovereign Lord, who died for sinners, now invites sinners freely to Himself. God commands all to repent and believe; Christ promises life and peace to all who do so.
Furthermore, these invitations are marvellously gracious; men despise and reject them, and are never in any case worthy of them, and yet Christ still issues them. He need not, but He does. “Come unto me . . . and I will give you rest” remains His word to the world, never cancelled, always to be preached. He whose death has ensured the salvation of all His people is to be proclaimed everywhere as a perfect Saviour, and all men invited and urged to believe on Him, whoever they are, whatever they have been. Upon these three insights the evangelism of the old gospel is based.
It is a very ill-informed supposition that evangelistic preaching which proceeds on these principles must be anaemic and half-hearted by comparison with what Arminians can do. Those who study the printed sermons of worthy expositors of the old gospel, such as Bunyan (whose preaching Owen himself much admired), or Whitefield, or Spurgeon, will find that in fact they hold forth the Saviour and summon sinners to Him with a fulness, warmth, intensity and moving force unmatched in Protestant pulpit literature. And it will be found on analysis that the very thing which gave their preaching its unique power to overwhelm their audiences with broken-hearted joy at the riches of God’s grace — and still gives it that power, let it be said, even with hard-boiled modem readers — was their insistence on the fact that grace is free. They knew that the dimensions of Divine love are not half understood till one realises that God need not have chosen to save nor given his Son to die; nor need Christ have taken upon him vicarious damnation to redeem men, nor need He invite sinners indiscriminately to Himself as He does; but that all God’s gracious dealings spring entirely from His own free purpose.
Knowing this, they stressed it, and it is this stress that sets their evangelistic preaching in a class by itself. Other Evangelicals, possessed of a more superficial and less adequate theology of grace, have laid the main emphasis in their gospel preaching on the sinner’s need of forgiveness, or peace, or power, and of the way to get them by “deciding for Christ.” It is not to be denied that their preaching has done good (for God will use His truth, even when imperfectly held and mixed with error), although this type of evangelism is always open to the criticism of being too man-centred and pietistic; but it has been left (necessarily) to Calvinists and those who, like the Wesleys, fall into Calvinistic ways of thought as soon as they begin a sermon to the unconverted, to preach the gospel in a way which highlights above — everything else the free love, willing condescension, patient long-suffering and infinite kindness of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Without doubt, this is the most Scriptural and edifying way to preach it; for gospel invitations to sinners never honour God and exalt Christ more, nor are more powerful to awaken and confirm faith, than when full weight is laid on the free omnipotence of the mercy from which they flow. It looks, indeed, as if the preachers of the old gospel are the only people whose position allows them to do justice to the revelation of Divine goodness in the free offer of Christ to sinners.
Then, in the second place, the old gospel safeguards values which the new gospel loses. We saw before that the new gospel, by asserting universal redemption and a universal Divine saving purpose, compels itself to cheapen grace and the Cross by denying that the Father and the Son are sovereign in salvation; for it assures us that, after God and Christ have done all that they can, or will, it depends finally on each man’s own choice whether God’s purpose to save him is realised or not. This position has two unhappy results.
The first is that it compels us to misunderstand the significance of the gracious invitations of Christ in the gospel of which we have been speaking; for we now have to read them, not as expressions of the tender patience of a mighty sovereign, but as the pathetic pleadings of impotent desire; and so the enthroned Lord is suddenly metamorphosed into a weak, futile figure tapping forlornly at the door of the human heart, which He is powerless to open. This is a shameful dishonour to the Christ of the New Testament.
The second implication is equally serious: for this view in effect denies our dependence on God when it comes to vital decisions, takes us out of His hand, tells us that we are, after all, what sin taught us to think we were masters of our fate, captain of our souls — and so undermines the very foundation of man’s religious relationship with his Maker. It can hardly be wondered at that the converts of the new gospel are so often both irreverent and irreligious, for such is the natural tendency of this teaching. The old gospel, however, speaks very differently and has a very different tendency. On the one hand, in expounding man’s need of Christ, it stresses something which the new gospel effectively ignores — that sinners cannot obey the gospel, any more than the law, without renewal of heart. On the other hand, in declaring Christ’s power to save, it proclaims Him as the author and chief agent of conversion, coming by His Spirit as the gospel goes forth to renew men’s hearts and draw them to Himself.
Accordingly, in applying the message, the old gospel, while stressing that faith is man’s duty, stresses also that faith is not in man’s power, but that God must give what He commands. It announces, not merely that men must come to Christ for salvation, but also that they cannot come unless Christ Himself draws them. Thus it labours to overthrow self-confidence, to convince sinners that their salvation is altogether out of their hands, and to shut them up to a self-despairing dependence on the glorious grace of a sovereign Saviour, not only for their righteousness but for their faith too.
It is not likely, therefore, that a preacher of the old gospel will be happy to express the application of it in the form of a demand to “decide for Christ,” as the current phrase is. For, on the one hand, this phrase carries the wrong associations. It suggests voting a person into office — an act in which the candidate plays no part beyond offering himself for election, and everything then being settled by the voter’s independent choice. But we do not vote God’s Son into office as our Saviour, nor does He remain passive while preachers campaign on His behalf, whipping up support for His cause. We ought not to think of evangelism as a kind of electioneering. And then, on the other hand, this phrase obscures the very thing that is essential in repentance and faith — the denying of self in a personal approach to Christ. It is not at all obvious that deciding for Christ is the same as coming to Him and resting on Him and turning from sin and self-effort; it sounds like something much less, and is accordingly calculated to instil defective notions of what the gospel really requires of sinners. It is not a very apt phrase from any point of view.
To the question: what must I do to be saved? the old gospel replies: believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. To the further question: what does it mean to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ? its reply is: it means knowing oneself to be a sinner, and Christ to have died for sinners; abandoning all self-righteousness and self-confidence, and casting oneself wholly upon Him for pardon and peace; and exchanging one’s natural enmity and rebellion against God for a spirit of grateful submission to the will of Christ through the renewing of one’s heart by the Holy Ghost.
And to the further question still: how am I to go about believing on Christ and repenting, if I have no natural ability to do these things? it answers: look to Christ, speak to Christ, cry to Christ, just as you are; confess your sin, your impenitence, your unbelief, and cast yourself on His mercy; ask Him to give you a new heart, working in you true repentance and firm faith; ask Him to take away your evil heart of unbelief and to write His law within you, that you may never henceforth stray from Him. Turn to Him and trust Him as best you can, and pray for grace to turn and trust more thoroughly; use the means of grace expectantly, looking to Christ to draw near to you as you seek to draw near to Him; watch, pray, read and hear God’s Word, worship and commune with God’s people, and so continue till you know in yourself beyond doubt that you are indeed a changed being, a penitent believer, and the new heart which you desired has been put within you. The emphasis in this advice is on the need to call upon Christ directly, as the very first step.
So do not postpone action till you think you are better, but honestly confess your badness and give yourself up here and now to the Christ who alone can make you better; and wait on Him till His light rises in your soul, as Scripture promises that it shall do. Anything less than this direct dealing with Christ is disobedience of the gospel. Such is the exercise of spirit to which the old evangel summons its hearers. “I believe — help thou mine unbelief”: this must become their cry.
And the old gospel is proclaimed in the sure confidence that the Christ of whom it testifies, the Christ who is the real speaker when the Scriptural invitations to trust Him are expounded and applied, is not passively waiting for man’s decision as the word goes forth, but is omnipotently active, working with and through the word to bring His people to faith in Himself. The preaching of the new gospel is often described as the task of “bringing men to Christ ” — as if only men move, while Christ stands still. But the task of preaching the old gospel could more properly be described as bringing Christ to men, for those who preach it know that as they do their work of setting Christ before men’s eyes, the mighty Saviour whom they proclaim is busy doing His work through their words, visiting sinners with salvation, awakening them to faith, drawing them in mercy to Himself.
It is this older gospel which Owen will teach us to preach: the gospel of the sovereign grace of God in Christ as the author and finisher of faith and salvation. It is the only gospel which can be preached on Owen’s principles, but those who have tasted its sweetness will not in any case be found looking for another. In the matter of believing and preaching the gospel, as in other things, Jeremiah’s words still have their application:
“Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.” To find ourselves debarred, as Owen would debar us, from taking up with the fashionable modern substitute gospel may not, after all, be a bad thing, either for us, or for the Church. More might be said, but to go farther would be to exceed the limits of an introductory essay. The foregoing remarks are made simply to show how important it is at the present time that we should attend most carefully to Owen’s analysis of what the Bible says about the saving work of Christ.
J. I. Packer has had a long-standing passion for the Puritans. Their understanding of God and His ways with man has largely formed his own spirituality and theological outlook.
Educated at Oxford University, Dr. James I. Packer has served as assistant minister at St. John’s Church of England, Harborne, Birmingham and Senior Tutor and Principal at Tyndale Hall (an Anglican seminary in Bristol). He preaches and lectures widely in Great Britain and America and contributes frequently to theological periodicals. His writings include Fundamentalism and the Word of God, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, and Knowing God. Dr. Packer also served as Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia.
This article is taken from one of Dr. Packer’s most loved works, “An Introductory Essay to the ‘Death of Death in the Death of Christ’”.
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