THE GOSPEL AND ITS GRACIOUS EXTENT
(As a matter of historical interest, this is the only chapter in this confession that is added in its entirety to the Westminster Confession. It was added in the Savoy Declaration, on which this confession leans heavily, to correct certain errors that had arisen by “summarizing, concentrating and supplementing teaching already found in the Westminster Confession” (Waldron, 245). On the basis of what we know about the doctrinal errors of that day it has been suggested that the problem was an incipient sort of Deism which emphasized naturalism over supernaturalism.)
1 As the covenant of works was broken by sin and was unable to confer life, God was pleased to promise Christ, the seed of the woman, as the means of calling the elect and bringing to life within them faith and repentance. In this promise the substance of the Gospel was revealed as the effectual means for the conversion and salvation of sinners.1
When Adam sinned and made salvation by keeping the law impossible, God promised him an offspring through Eve who would crush the Tempter and bring victory over evil (Gen 3:15). This promise was fleshed out in much greater detail throughout Scripture until fulfilled in Jesus, and was the means by which the elect were called. It was their response to this promise of a seed that brought them into a right relationship with God. Though their understanding of what this promise entailed was not nearly so great as what ours is since the coming of Christ, the basics were clear enough. The message of deliverance came in the form of a promise, not a command. They also knew that the victory over the serpent would come at the hands of Another, and not by their own work. Faith, not obedience, was the only proper response to this promise. Since the Fall salvation has always been by grace through faith in the promise of God. There was not an alternate plan in effect until God spoke through Abraham or Moses or Jesus.
2 This promise of Christ and of salvation by him, is revealed in the Word of God alone.2 Neither the works of creation and providence, nor the light of nature, reveal Christ or grace through him, not even in a general or obscure way.3 How much less, therefore, can people who are devoid of the revelation of Christ by the promise or the Gospel, be enabled [by the light of nature] to attain to saving faith or repentance.4
It seems there have always been those who thought that the necessity of special revelation for salvation was excessively narrow-minded because it left all those who never heard it in a hopeless condition. This has led them to suggest that man could discover enough about God on his own to serve as a foundation for saving faith. They taught that glory and power of God revealed in nature or in our own soul could be a sufficient basis for faith. God’s being, wisdom, holiness, justice, law, wrath and goodness are clearly revealed in creation, but his is not enough. God’s grace which is summarized in the promise of the Seed of woman cannot even be faintly seen in the light of natural revelation. Special revelation is absolutely essential for saving faith so that those who lack this revelation cannot have this faith.
3 The revelation of the Gospel to sinners has been given at various times and in a variety of places, together with the promises and precepts concerning the obedience required by it. As to the nations and persons to whom it is granted, this is solely according to the sovereign will and good pleasure of God.5 It has never been granted to them by virtue of their promising to improve their natural abilities on the grounds of common light received without the Gospel—no one has ever made such a promise, nor can anyone do so. Therefore, in all ages, the preaching of the Gospel has been granted to persons and nations, whether to a great extent or limited extent, in greatly varying measures, according to the counsel of the will of God.
The ability to hear this revelation of the gospel promise is granted to individuals and nations according to God’s sovereign choice. The reason our country has been blessed with free access to this good news and other countries have not can be attributed to nothing other than God’s good pleasure. Some believe that if a man makes good use of the light of nature he somehow earns the privilege of hearing the gospel. They picture some ignorant uncivilized person in the interior of a pagan nation who wants to know God but has no access to the light of Scripture who is deemed worthy of a missionary because of his honest searching. The problem with such a picture is that ignorant savages are no more inclined to seek God than are enlightened skeptics in the West, at least apart from the drawing of the Holy Spirit. Scripture tells us very plainly that nobody ever moved toward righteousness on the basis of the light of nature (Rom 3:10-12).
It is sometimes said that teaching the doctrines of sovereign grace is dangerous to missionary zeal and efforts. The old line spoken to William Carey that if God wants to save the people of those lands he can do it without us is repeated so often one would think that it sums up all Calvinistic thinking on the subject. The truth is, it is only a Calvinistic understanding of man’s condition that keeps the missionary endeavor from slackening and fading away. As soon as we begin to think that men are basically good or that they are trying to find God and can do so through something other than the hearing of the Word, then we have lost much of the impetus for missionary work.
4 The Gospel is the only external means of revealing Christ and saving grace, and as such is totally sufficient for this purpose.6
The gospel revealed in Scripture is the only external force necessary to bring men to a saving knowledge of Christ. There is no need for miracles, for prophecies or any other extraordinary supernatural events to convict men of their sin and need for Jesus. We sometimes seem to think that a great miracle that reveals the power and grace of God would surely bring a man to faith. If this were the case, then there should have been tens of thousands of converts under the ministry of Jesus. We have been given one means of bringing men to a saving knowledge of Christ, and that means is the preaching of the Word.
Yet if people who are dead in trespasses are to be born again, brought to life or regenerated, an effectual, irresistible work of the Holy Spirit upon every part of the soul is necessary to produce in them a new spiritual life. Without this no other means will bring about their conversion to God.7
The greatest power we can bring to bear on a man to bring him to salvation is to give him the gospel, but there must still be an inner work if he is ever to find spiritual life. Men who are dead in their sins need life before they can respond even to the blinding light of Scripture and there is therefore need for the internal work of the Spirit. We can present the truths of Scripture as coherently, logically and persuasively as possible, but until this regenerating work of the Spirit takes place its truth will not be accepted. We must never leave his work out of our witnessing efforts if we expect to have any success in winning the lost for Christ.