The Free Offer of the Gospel
Reflecting on the Marrow Controversy
One privilege I had six years ago was being able to attend a pastoral internship in Dubai with a faithful evangelical church located there. I was challenged in my thinking, grew in appreciation for the gospel and church structure (membership/elders), and was blessed with godly fellowship with the body. One such challenge came when the pastor read with me JI Packer’s introduction to Owen’s Death of Death. Suddenly I needed to clarify and grow in my understanding of the Atonement. Over the next couple of weeks (and maybe months) I was reading (more like consumed in my spare moments!) reading through the ins and outs of the Marrow controversy in Scotland and the later controversy in England over Hervey’s Dialogues1. I was introduced to many writers2 all of which were greatly influenced by Fisher’s ‘Marrow of Modern Divinity’ and Marshal’s ‘Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.’ At the end of it my thinking was clarified and my faith in Christ strengthened.
There were two things which piqued my interest in both of these controversies. The first was a phrase found in the Marrow that ‘Christ is dead for you’. I agreed with the phrase but wondered why it was worded in this way; why not simply say ‘Christ died for you’? The other was a comparison John Brown compiled showing the difference between James Hervey and John Wesley. I have posted it below.
I found myself agreeing much more with Hervey than with Wesley as I read through this. If this was true I wondered how it was that Wesley who preached universal atonement seemed to preach a gospel of conditions while Hervey who preached definite atonement seemed to preach a gospel of free grace. In other words, Wesley’s peaching seemed to make me think much about my response while Hervey’s seemed to make me think much about Christ.
It was with my interest piqued that I entered into both of these controversies. In the end I was able to understand both of these controversies through two simple illustrations. One would be that of ‘a priority seat on a bus’ and the other would be that of ‘receiving the cure to cancer.’
When you ride a bus or a train there are often seats reserved for people in physical need, disabled, pregnant …etc. The sign is written generally but yet allows a personal application. Any pregnant woman is able to make use of the seat for her own benefit. She may sit in it and find rest. If the woman began looking for some sign with her name on it she would never find one. If that stopped her from sitting in the chair it would be a mistake. The seat was prepared for one such as her and therefore she may sit in it without needing to do anything more.
In terms of the Marrow this illustration is helpful for understanding the thinking behind the language of ‘a deed of gift’ which is the basis of the free offer of the Gospel. God has given Christ crucified for sinners in the Gospel. It is a general proclamation which allows a personal application. Any sinner may rest in Him, that is, trust in Him for their own salvation. In this sense to say ‘Christ died for sinners’ is not restrictive or mean-spirited anymore than to say ‘this seat is for disabled people’. Rather it emphasizes the freedom of the gift to those who are in need of it.
Let’s move now to the second illustration. Let’s imagine we have the cure to cancer. One which cures us simply by drinking it. Let’s even say that the governments of the world have decided to bear the cost of this cure to make it freely available to all. No doubt it would be heralded throughout the entire world, ‘here is the medicine which we have been looking for.’ People would speak of the strength of this medicine to cure the bleakest condition. Perhaps there would be even documentaries exploring the design and plan of this medicine from its creator’s initial thought leading up to its completion and world saving efficacy. Now just replace the ‘cure to cancer’ with the ‘atonement of Christ’ and you have the gospel which Hervey, Whitefield and the Marrow men preached. A completed and finished work which is able to save all who receive it to the uttermost. A finished work made freely available to all by the One who bore the whole cost. The means of receiving it is simply faith in the one who completed it. To return to the priority seating illustration; the seat is open, for sinners it says, sit in it and find rest for your soul.
How is this different from Wesley’s gospel as presented in the chart above? By making the atonement universal the efficacy of the atonement has been lowered. It is no longer simply able to save by receiving it for it has been applied to all already in some sense. Something more must be added to it. Now it must be made effective in one’s life through continual repentance and faith. It is subtle but the nature of faith is no longer trust here. Repentance also is no longer flowing from trust but is becoming the basis of trust. Wesley’s universal atonement doesn’t give anything to rely upon. Nor does it really give anything at all. It is a partial cure that must be added to in order to be effective. How is this different? Definite atonement saves all to whom it is applied (The elect/All believers). Universal atonement extends the application to all generally and thus saves no one. Each man’s sins are already atoned/forgiven in a sense but not atoned/forgiven in a saving sense. Faith is no longer a reliance/reception of the completed cure, but an adding to the cure in order to make it effective. Splitting hairs? Perhaps but what is your hope of salvation built upon? Christ’s atonement, or, your use of Christ’s atonement? Splitting hairs perhaps but one is a firm foundation to build upon while the other is clearly not.
The trouble seems to be that for some universal atonement is the only way to make the offer of the gospel sincere. The question goes something like ‘how can I offer the atonement of Christ to people if Christ has not paid for their sins?’ This question misses the point because we offer the atonement to people so that their sins may be paid for by Christ. If their sins have already been paid for then why do we need to offer them anything? The Gospel then would only be a call to repentance but not a gift to the weary. There is mystery here to be sure. The elect are saved by the atonement (Christ saves believers). Viewed from eternity this number is fixed and completed yet Christ must be received in time for any person to be saved. There is no salvation before belief, ‘Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already’ (John 3:18). Christ’s atonement is also received by faith, ‘God presented Him as a propitiation (or ‘means of forgiveness’ - Louw Nida) through faith in His blood…’ (Rom 3:25). Christ’s atonement also stands available to all in the present, ‘He Himself is (present tense) the propitiation (or ‘means of forgiveness’ - Louw Nida) for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world.’ (1 John 2:2). Therefore no man has any excuse. Christ is offered in the present to all as the means of forgiveness to be received by faith. His atonement is fully effective to the uttermost saving all to whom it is applied. To put this in the words of the Marrow of Modern Divinity ‘Christ is dead for you’. What is left to do?
1 “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. 3 Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David… 6 Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; 7 let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” (Isaiah 55:1-3, 6-7)
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
This controversy is lesser know. After James Hervey published his ‘Dialogues’ in the 1750s a man named Robert Sandeman (Sandemanism) published a book against them. William Cudworth wrote a defence and began a lengthy letter exchange with Sandeman. John Wesley also entered the controversy writing against Sandeman, Cudworth, and his friend Hervey. While Sandeman’s objection was in regard to the nature of faith, Wesley’s objection was in regard to imputed righteousness. Hervey began writing a response to his friend Wesley and died before publication. Cudworth wrote another defence in reference to Wesley and later Hervey’s brother published Hervey’s own defence. This further pulled Wesley into controversy with the Calvinists in England and Scotland.
Thomas Boston, the brothers Ebenezer and Ralph Erskines, James Hervey, William Cudworth, John Anderson and three generations of men named John Brown!