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Whosoever Will May Come. But What About Whosoever Won’t? by Richard Bacon

Whosoever Will May Come. But What About Whosoever Won’t?
The “Free Offer” and Larger Catechism Thirty-Two and Sixty-Eight.
By Richard Bacon, Ph.D.
Copyright 2000 © First Presbyterian Church of Rowlett

[From the introduction to v.9 #10-12: Westminster Larger Catechism answers thirty-two and sixty-eight have been set forth by some as teaching a conditional covenant, i.e. conditioned upon the faith of men. Larger thirty-two speaks of faith as “the condition to interest them [i.e. sinners – RB] in him.” Does this statement imply a covenant conditioned upon human faith? Second, Larger sixty-eight speaks of some who are “outwardly called by the ministry of the word, and have some common operations of the Spirit.” Should we understand here the Westminster divines to be speaking of an abstract work of the Spirit by which he absolutely, but not concretely, desires sinners to come to Christ?]

Many today are of the opinion that the teaching of the Westminster Standards that God freely offers Christ in the gospel must mean that God longs for the salvation of the reprobate. Not only is it doctrinally and biblically incorrect to posit the idea that God longs for something that he has not decreed, it is also incorrect to maintain that the Westminster documents support such an hypothesis.

The two places in the Westminster Larger Catechism that some adduce to support this idea are answers thirty-two and sixty-eight. Hopefully the following paragraphs will contribute somewhat to our understanding of Larger Catechism thirty-two. Following our consideration of Larger Catechism thirty-two, we shall then turn our attention to Larger Catechism sixty-eight.
Larger Catechism Thirty-Two

Larger 32: How is the grace of God manifested in the second covenant?

The grace of God is manifested in the second covenant, in that he freely provides and offers to sinners a Mediator, and life and salvation by him; and requiring faith as the condition to interest them in him, promises and gives his Holy Spirit to all his elect, to work in them that faith, with all other saving graces; and to enable them unto all holy obedience, as the evidence of the truth of their faith and thankfulness to God, and as the way which he has appointed them to salvation.

The question this article will consider from Larger Catechism thirty-two is this: “in what sense does God ‘require faith as the condition to interest’ and in what sense may such terminology be allowed or excepted?”

1. A person’s “having interest in Christ” implies his right to claim Him as surety and to claim the spiritual blessings of the covenant. It is one thing to say that Christ is Savior; another to say he is my Savior. The former is revealed truth; the latter indicates a personal interest in that revealed truth.

2. The expression of conditional interest must be qualified and explained without asserting anything derogatory to the glory of God or the free grace of the covenant. The term of “conditions” as we consider a human covenant is not applicable to the covenant of grace in the same way. Thus when we use such a term as “condition” we must do so without going beyond the bounds of Scripture and it must be in such a sense as is agreeable to the divine perfections such as immutability.

3. Human covenants may have stipulations such that certain things are contingent upon performance of certain conditions as a quid pro quo.[1] The non-performance of the stipulation renders the covenant null and void, or may do so. It certainly disqualifies the offending party from receiving the promised benefits of the covenant. By way of application to Larger Catechism thirty-two, we must consider whether faith, when it is considered as a condition to interest, is in any way in our power to perform. If it is in the power of men to perform, then it could conceivably be considered as such a stipulation.

4. By way of example, the young man’s question at Matthew 19:16 bears directly on the performance of one or more conditions to “have eternal life.” Significantly enough, Christ answered the young man in specifically conditional terms: “If thou wilt enter into life, [then thou must] keep the commandments.” At first glance it may seem that Christ was there offering life to the young man suspended upon the stipulation of commandment keeping. However, the actual teaching of the passage is precisely the opposite. Christ placed the preceptive will of God before the young man, in part to demonstrate to him the utter futility of trying to enter into covenant with God by meeting conditions (see verse 22). This point was not lost on Christ’s disciples who then cried out “Who then can be saved?” (verse 25). Nor should Christ’s answer be lost on us: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

5. Further, when terms are made conditional in a human covenant it is recognized that the person enforcing the condition has placed himself under no obligation (no gracious promise) either to assist or to enable the fulfilling of the condition(s). So there is no actual difference between a creditor simply discharging a debt and his gift of a sum sufficient to repay the debt, which is then immediately credited to the debtor’s account. There are some who acknowledge that it is God alone who has promised to work faith in the elect and yet continue to speak of it as a “condition” of the covenant. But this very admission is an acknowledgement that such a promise as God has made to the elect renders the covenant absolute, unilateral, unchangeable, and unconditional in the very way that we propose. The unilateral promise of Jeremiah 31:31-34 is not to make regeneration conditional upon faith, but to regenerate those who actually are in need of regeneration in order to believe.

6. Normally when anything is required for the fulfillment of a promise it is regarded that such a “condition” is uncertain (i.e. contingent) as to whether it shall come to pass. All human covenants are such because they are all contingent in that they all depend upon the quid pro quo of a condition being met. But Larger Catechism thirty-two leaves no room whatever for such a construction. God rather “promises and gives His Holy Spirit to all His elect to work in them that faith, with all other saving graces, and to enable them unto all holy obedience, as the evidence of the truth of their faith and thankfulness to God, and as the way which He has appointed to salvation.” There is no real difference between saying that the covenant is unconditional and saying that it is suspended upon something that God has himself by an oath promised unconditionally to do.

7. The unconditional promise made to all the elect must be made logically prior to their meeting the so-called “condition” of faith. Clearly God does not promise and give His Holy Spirit to the reprobate, as can be inferred from Larger Catechism thirty-two. This is also demonstrated by a consideration of the locus classicus of Jeremiah 31:31-34. The promise of the covenant of grace is made to the elect considered as unable to fulfill any conditions. First, the covenant is regarded as unchangeable in that it cannot be broken. “Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them out of the land of Egypt, which my covenant they brake.” The former covenant was characterized by being both breakable and broken. But God specifically asserted that it was in this very particular that the new covenant would differ from the former covenant. This is the point of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews at 8:7-11, where he stated “if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second.”

8. Moreover Jeremiah continued to characterize the nature of the covenant of grace as consisting in God doing for the elect individual what that individual could not and would not have done in order to “meet a condition.” The prophet proclaimed, “after those days, saith Jehovah, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.” God thus unconditionally promised to do for all the elect, prior to the elect meeting any conditions, the very thing that would work faith in them. God did not promise to give a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26) to those who already have a new heart. That idea is an absurdity. He promised to give a new heart to those who previously had stony hearts. But it is also clear that those who have stony hearts are altogether incapable of meeting any conditions that require having a heart that seeks after God. The promise must be unconditional or else it does us no good. But when the promise is fulfilled in the elect, the faith thus worked by the operation of free grace assures the believer that he has an interest in Christ as his Savior. Here is the importance of recalling the difference between revelation (Christ is Savior) and faith (Christ is my Savior).

9. Thus in Larger Catechism thirty-two, we speak of faith as a condition in the sense of a state of being. But we do not and cannot properly speak of the covenant of grace as though it were suspended upon that condition without retreating from the gospel of full and free grace. Anything that suspends the covenant upon our act makes the fulfillment of God’s promise dependent upon our acts. Both Westminster Calvinists and Three Forms of Unity Calvinists must repudiate such a view of a conditional covenant.

10. We conclude, then, that faith is a condition, an inner qualification or state of being, without which no one has a warrant to conclude his interest in or in any way lay claim to the blessings of the covenant of grace. We should understand Larger Catechism thirty-two, as it uses the term “condition,” to refer to that which evidences to us, or gives us reason to conclude that we are amongst the redeemed and shall enjoy the fulness of God’s salvation. But those who have no faith in Christ have absolutely no warrant whatsoever to think that they are amongst the redeemed of God’s unconditional promise to be the God of His chosen people, and them alone.
Larger Catechism Sixty-Eight

[Larger 68: Are the elect only effectually called?

All the elect, and they only, are effectually called; although others may be, and often are, outwardly called by the ministry of the Word, and have some common operations of the Spirit; who, for their willful neglect and contempt of the grace offered to them, being justly left in their unbelief, do never truly come to Jesus Christ.]

Moving along to the other place in the Westminster Standards, how does Larger Catechism number sixty-eight define “common operations of the Spirit” and is such a definition possible? The answer is “yes” to both of those questions. We can see that the Larger Catechism defines such “common operations” in terms of the Scripture passages it adduces to prove the point. When all is said and done, the Scriptures form the only “standard” by which God will judge our theology.

Here are the Scripture passages adduced by the Westminster Assembly to explain what they understood to be the Bible’s teaching on the subject of “common operations of the Spirit:”

Matthew 7:22: Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?

Matthew 13:20-21: But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended.

Hebrews 6:4-6: For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.

Significantly, regardless of whatever other false interpretation anyone may wish to place upon Larger Catechism sixty-eight, the people being spoken of in the Scripture passages the Westminster Divines adduced are those false ‘church members’ who have hypocritically attached themselves to the church.

There is no mention of those passages that are adduced in the Murray/Stonehouse report defending the ‘free offer.’[2] Where do we find Matthew 5:44-48 or Ezekiel 18:23, 32? They are not found because some “common grace” or “common love” of God for all mankind is not what is intended by the standards. Rather, what the Larger Catechism intended is the fact that there may be some seeming evidences in a false professor’s life that he has genuinely accepted and believed the gospel. Yet, the false professor, who has only the common operations of the Spirit, “dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended” (Matthew 13:20-21).

The people described in Hebrews 6:4-6 are those who have committed the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. Once again, these people have some of the evidences that false professors may have (including even being “made partakers of the Holy Ghost”), but they do not persevere to the end. They fall away, and in their falling away Scripture clearly asserts that it is impossible to renew them again unto repentance. An operation of the Spirit that makes it impossible for a person to be renewed should never be called gracious.

How is it that these men (and women as well, we suppose) can give such evidences of “common operations” of the Spirit and yet lack the fruit of the Spirit (Eph. 5:9; Gal. 5:22-26)? According to Matthew 7:22, it is because they are depending upon their works rather than grace to save them. “Have we not prophesied…and done many wonderful works” (Matthew 7:22).

Common operations of the Spirit, then, according to the Scripture adduced by Westminster, refers to such things as casting out devils, prophesying, and working miracles. But that is not what Calvin intended by the “divine grace” of God in the portion of his institutes that is often adduced. Calvin did not use the term “common grace” at Inst. 2:3:3 in the Beveridge translation. Significantly, the conclusion that Calvin himself drew in the place adduced is this:

“In the elect, God cures these diseases in the mode which will shortly be explained; in others, he only lays them under such restraint as may prevent them from breaking forth to a degree incompatible with the preservation of the established order of things. Hence, how much soever men may disguise their impurity, some are restrained only by shame, others by a fear of the laws, from breaking out into many kinds of wickedness. Some aspire to an honest life, as deeming it most conducive to their interest, while others are raised above the vulgar lot, that, by the dignity of their station, they may keep inferiors to their duty. Thus God, by his providence, curbs the perverseness of nature, preventing it from breaking forth into action, yet without rendering it inwardly pure.”

The grace of God spoken of by Calvin in Inst. 2:3:3, then, has to do with the preservation of the world for the elect’s sake. He regards the seemingly pious actions of the reprobate to be a “disguise for their impurity” or a “legal fear.” Some, out of self-interest, will act in an outwardly moral way, but whatever may be the personal motivations of the ungodly, God himself uses those things to curb the “perverseness of nature…without rendering it inwardly pure.”

Some people (and the report by Professors Murray and Stonehouse must be included in this number) claim that God’s causing the rain and the sun to come upon the elect and the reprobate together proves a common grace that God exercises toward all men. The problem of such a view is that it presupposes that grace can be found in things. In Joshua 10, the sun shone on both the Israelites and the Amorites. When the sun shone upon Joshua and the Israelites, it was by God’s grace that he might bless them. When the same sun shone for the same additional time on the Amorites, it was indicative of God’s hatred toward them and for the purpose of bringing his temporal curse to pass upon them. Grace is not in things: the sun shining upon the Amorite was to further God’s purposes for the elect nation and not for the good of the Amorites at all. It led to their defeat (Matthew 5:44-48). It was not common “grace” because grace is not in things.

The terminology has now been turned by some from “common grace” to “common operations of the Spirit” as though because they have the same word (“common”) that the same thing must be intended by both terms. This article demonstrated above that the Westminster Divines used the phrase “common operations of the Spirit” to refer to false (i.e. hypocritical) church members who do not persevere in faith. The divines did not apply the term to all men indiscriminately and it is a significant departure from the right understanding of Westminster to aver otherwise.


[1] A quid pro quo is an agreement or pact in which something is given in return for something else.

[2] See Matthew Winzer’s admirable critique of the Murray/Stonehouse report elsewhere in this issue of The Blue Banner.

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