The Free Offer of the Gospel and the Extent of the Atonement

Our interest in these studies is focused in the free offer of the gospel to all men without distinction. We found that the unrestricted overture of grace is grounded in the atonement and that the whole doctrine of the atonement bears upon the missionary task of the church. If the atonement is limited in its extent and if God did not design that all to whom the gospel comes should be partakers of the reconciliation and redemption that the atonement secured, it might seem that some kind of limitation or restriction must attach itself to that which is indiscriminately offered in the free overture of grace. It might also appear that the differentiating love of God of which the atonement is specifically the expression and provision requires some reserve in the proclamation of the gospel offer.

It is a fact that many, persuaded as they rightly are of the particularism of the plan of salvation and of its various corollaries, have found it difficult to proclaim the full, free, and unrestricted overture of gospel grace. They have labored under the inhibitions arising from fear that in doing so they would impinge upon the sovereignty of God in his saving purposes and operations. The result is that, though formally assenting to the free offer, they lack freedom in the presentation of its appeal and demand.

It must be said without reserve that there is no limitation or qualification to the overture of grace in the gospel proclamation. As there is no restriction to the command that “all everywhere” should repent (Acts 17:30), so is there none to what is correlative with it. The doctrines of particular election, differentiating love, limited atonement do not erect any fence around the offer in the gospel. No text is more eloquent of the pure sovereignty of both the Father and the Son in the revelation of gospel mystery than the words of our Lord in Matthew 11:25·30: “Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight.” Here is the sovereign will and differentiation of the Father. “He to whomsoever the Son willeth to reveal him.” This is the witness to Jesus’ own sovereignty in revealing the Father to men. But the immediate sequel is: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and arc heavy laden.” The lesson is that it is not merely conjunction of differentiating and sovereign will with free overture but that the free overture comes out from the differentiating sovereignty of both Father and Son. It is on the crest of the wave of divine sovereignly that the unrestricted summons comes to the laboring and heavy laden. This is Jesus’ own witness, and it provides the direction in which our thinking on the question at issue must proceed. Any inhibition or reserve in presenting the overtures of grace should no more characterize our proclamation than it characterized the Lord’s witness.

What is freely offered in the gospel? The word of Jesus already quoted (Matt. 11:28) gives the answer. It is Christ who is offered more strictly, he offers himself. The whole gamut of redemptive grace is included. Salvation in all of its aspects and in the furthest reaches of glory consummated is the overture. For Christ is the embodiment of all. Those who are his are complete in him and he is made unto them wisdom from God, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption. When Christ invites us to himself it is to the possession of himself and therefore of all that defines his identity as Lord and Saviour.



The riches of this overture are not sufficiently expressed, however, unless we also keep in view the implications of union with Christ. Jesus said: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30); “Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me” (John 14:11). Union with Christ means also union with the Father (cf. John 17:20–23), a union of inhabitation that is complemented by the embrace of his love (cf. John 14:23). And, likewise, union with Christ means the inhabitation and abiding presence of the Holy Spirit (cf. John 14:16, 17 ). It is thus union with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the particularity that each person sustains to men and in the distinguishing grace that each bestows in the economy of salvation. To nothing less are sinners invited in Christ’s overture of himself. If we are insensitive to its surpassing grandeur it is because our minds are blinded by the god of this world (cf. II Cor. 4:3, 4).

The corollaries of the foregoing implications of the gospel overture should be apparent.

First, if Christ—and therefore salvation in its fulness

Secondly, it is not the general love of God to all mankind, the love manifested in the gifts of general providence, that is offered to men in the gospel. As we found earlier in these studies, this general love is not to be discounted. It is to be proclaimed and its significance made known to men. The character of God is disclosed therein and all that God is and does is to be declared to his glory. But this love is not the love specifically overtured to men in the gospel. The love presented in the gospel is as specific as is the gospel itself. Since Christ invited men to himself, he invites them to union and communion with himself and with the Father and the Holy Spirit in all the particularity of grace that each person bestows in the economy of salvation. When Christ invites us to himself he invites us to the embrace of his love on the highest level of its exercise and therefore to the love wherewith he loved the church and gave himself for it; the love that passeth knowledge. He invites us to the love of the Father in the intensity manifested on Calvary when he spared not his own Son but delivered him up, and also to the love of complacency of which Jesus spoke: “If a man love me he will keep my words: and my Father will love him” (John 14:23). He invites likewise to the love of the Spirit and to the manifold operations of grace that the Spirit’s love insures. We thus see how impoverished would be our conception of the free overture of Christ in the gospel if the appeal were simply to the undifferentiating and general love of God. It is the love of which the accursed tree is the supreme exhibition that invests the free offer of Christ in the gospel with constraining appeal.

Thirdly, it is only in Christ that this love and the riches—of grace involved can be known and experienced. To this love Christ invites when he invites sinners to himself. But only those who respond are partakers. It is not therefore a love that may be declared to be the possession of aU indiscriminately Or, more pointedly stated, to be love in which all are embraced. There are various ways in which this distinction may be stated. Sinners to whom the claims of the gospel come are not asked to believe that God or Christ loves them with this differentiating love. The faith the gospel demands is not belief of the proposition that Christ loves them with this love. The gospel demands that they come to Christ and commit themselves to him. In coming to him they will know his embrace and with him they will know his love on the highest plane of its exercise. This way of stating the case is parallel to what is true of election. Sinners do not come to Christ because they first believe that they have been elected. They come to Christ and only then may they believe that they were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world. The same is true in the matter of the atonement It cannot be declared to men indiscriminately that, in the proper sense of the term, Christ died for them. The belief of this proposition is not the primary act of faith. Only in commitment to Christ as freely offered may we come to know that he died for our sins unto our redemption. It should be seen that not only are the doctrines of the love of God and of the atonement involved but also a proper conception of the gospel offer and of the faith that responds to it. Christ is offered and faith is first of all commitment to him. It is receiving and resting upon him alone for salvation.

Implicit in what has been said is the doctrine of the warrant of faith. The question is: by what authority does a sinner commit himself to Christ for salvation? For a person awakened to the gravity of sin and its ill-desert this is not an academic question. It is the burning question. And what needs to be borne home to this person and to be proclaimed with insistence is that the warrant a sinner has and must have is that which is undiscriminating, the invitation, command, demand, overture, and promise of the gospel. The warrant is not any assurance that Christ has saved him. This would contradict his rightfulIy entertained conviction. The gospel comes to him as an unsaved sinner and its demand is that he commit himself to Christ in order that he may be saved. What intrudes to justify this entrustment is the all-sufficiency and suitability of the Saviour and the Saviour’s own word in the free overture of his grace. And, when we think of the Saviour’s surpassing glory and the greatness of the salvation so fully offered, there are not only the invitation and overture to constrain faith but also the claims that make it extreme insult to reject. Faith is not only warranted; rejection is perversity.

It is the word of the reconciliation that is committed to the church, the proclamation of the reconciliation once for all accomplished when “God was reconciling the world unto himself in Christ” (II Cor. 5:19). This is the gospel message. The corresponding exhortation addressed to men is “be ye reconciled to God” (II Cor. 5:20). And the import of this plea on Christ’s behalf is that men should enter into the relation constituted by “the reconciliation” and appropriate the grace that it establishes and conveys. No office possesses greater dignity and glory than the proclamation of the message and of the plea. For it is as ambassadors on behalf of Christ and as of God beseeching through them that the preachers of the evangel pray men to be reconciled to God (cf. II Cor. 5:20). All that the atonement means and secures is that of which sinners dead in trespasses and sins are invited to become partakers. And the demand of Christ’s commission to his ambassadors is that he, in the integrity of his saviourhood and lordship as prophet, priest, and king, be presented to lost men for their faith, love, and obedience. In this presentation there is no restraint. He cannot be brought too close to men’s responsibility and opportunity. Wherever there is faith as slender as one strand of the spider’s web, there the fullness of redeeming grace is active. “Him that cometh unto me,” said Jesus, “I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37).

In the concluding article in his series on the full and free offer of the gospel, Prof. John Murray of Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA, demonstrates from Scripture that the only doctrine of the atonement that will ground and warrant such an overture is that of salvation wrought and redemption accomplished. This, and this alone, makes Christian preaching both glorious and urgent. No appeal to the undifferentiating and general love of God would be a proclamation of the rich Christ for the poor lost sinner!