THE WESTMINSTER STANDARDS AND THE UNIVERSAL OFFER OF MERCY.1
The Westminster Standards are now meeting an attack from some who have adopted them as their religions creed. Formerly the onset came from the enemy on the outside, now it comes from within the Church. When so many presbyterians are objecting to the Confession as containing " offensive articles that wound the consciences of tens of thousands of loyal and orthodox presbyterians," it is proper for an ordinary presbyterian to say a good word for the time-honored symbol which has been subscribed by the present generation of ministers and elders, and was dear to all the former generations. May it not be that these "offensive articles" are not in the Standards, and that the advocates of revision, in order to find a sufficient reason for their project, are inventing and fighting men of straw? Let us look at one of these alleged offences.
It is strenuously contended that the Standards contain no declaration of the love of God towards all men, but limit it to the elect; that they make no universal offer of salvation, but confine it to a part of mankind.
The following declaration is found in Confession ii. 1. "There is but one only living and true God, who is most loving, gracious, merciful, long suffering, abundant in
1 New York Observer, November 14, 1889.
goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, the rewarder of them that diligently seek him." Of whom speaketh the Confession this? of the God of the elect only? or of the God of every man? Is he the God of the elect only? Is he not also of the non-elect? Is this description of the gracious nature and attributes of God intended to be restricted to a part of mankind? Is not God as thus delineated the Creator and Father of every man without exception? Can it be supposed that the authors of this statement meant to be understood to say that God is not such a being for all men, but only for some? If this section does not teach the unlimited love and compassion of God towards all men as men, as his creatures, it teaches nothing.
The following declaration is found in Confession xv. 1, Larger Catechism, 159. "Hepentanco unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached in season and out of season by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ." This certainly teaches that faith and repentance are the duty of all men, not of some only. No one contends that the Confession teaches that God has given a limited command to repent. "God commandeth all men everywhere to repent." But how could he give such a universal command to all sinners if he is not willing to pardon all sinners? if his benevolent love is confined to some sinners in particular? How could our Lord command his ministers to preach the doctrine of faith and repentance to " every creature," if he does not desire that every one of them would believe and repent? And how can he desire this if he does not feel infinite love for the souls of all? When the Confession teaches the duty of universal faith and repentance, it teaches by necessary inference the doctrine of God's universal compassion and readiness to forgive. And it also teaches in the same inferential way, that the sacrifice of Christ for sin is ample for the forgiveness of every man. To preach the duty of immediate belief on the Lord Jesns Christ as obligatory upon every man, in connection with the doctrine imputed to the Confession by the reviser, that God feels compassion for only the elect, and that Christ's sacrifice is not sufficient for all, would be selfcontradictory. The two things cannot be put together. The reviser misunderstands the Standards, and reads into them a false doctrine that is not there.
Confession xv. 5, 6, declares that "it is every man's duty to endeavor to repent of his particular sins particularly. Every man is bound to make private confession of his sins to God, praying for the pardon thereof, upon which, and the forsaking of them, he shall find mercy." How shall every such man find mercy, if the reviser's understanding of the Confession is correct? if it teaches that God's love for sinners is limited to the elect, and that Christ's sacrifice is not sufficient for the sins of all? According to the revised version, the meaning of the Westminster divines in this section is, that some men who "pray for pardon and forsake sin" shall "find mercy," and some shall not.
Larger Catechism, 160, declares that " it is required of those that hear the word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation and prayer; receive the truth in faith, love, meekness and readiness of mind, as the word of God; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives." 'Would God require all this from every hearer of the word, if he were not kindly disposed towards him? if he did not love and pity his immortal soul, and desire its salvation? Does not this declaration mean that God will encourage, assist, and bless every hearer of the word without exception who does the things mentioned? What shadow of reason is there for alleging that it means that God will help and bless some of these hearers, and some he will not? But in order to make out that the section does not teach the universal offer of mercy, this must be the allegation.
Larger Catechism, 95, declares that "the moral law is of use to all men, to inform them of the holy nature and will of God; to convince them of their disability to keep it, and of the sinful pollution of their nature; to humble them in the sense of sin and misery, and thereby help them to a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and of the perfection of his obedience." But what is the use of showing every man his need of Christ, if Christ's sacrifice is not sufficient for every man? What reason is there for convincing every man of the pollution of his nature, and humbling him for it, unless God is for every man "most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin?" The doctrine taught in this section, that all men are to be convicted of sin, like the doctrine that all men are to repent and to pray, supposes that God sustains a common benevolent and merciful relation to them all.
Confession xxi. 3, declares that "prayer with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship, is required by God of all men." How could God require prayer from every man, if he were not disposed to hear the prayer of every man? And does not this imply that he loves the soul of eveiy man? The duty of prayer supposes a corresponding kind and gracious feeling in God that prompts him to answer it; that " he is the hearer of prayer, and that unto him all flesh should come." In order to make out his "offensive doctrine," the reviser must explain this section by appending to it: "Though God requires prayer from all men, he is the hearer of prayer for only the elect."
Confession vii. 3, declares that "man bv his fall having made himself incapable of life by that (legal) covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace: wherein he freely offered to sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe." Two distinct and different things are mentioned here: (a) an offer of salvation • (b) a promise of the Holy Spirit to make the unwilling sinner willing to accept it. The number of those to whom the offer of salvation is made is unlimited; of those to whom the promise of the Spirit to "make them willing" is made, is limited by "ordination to life" or election. It is clear that God may desire that to be done by man under the influence of his common grace in the common call, which he may not decide and purpose to make him do by the operation of his special grace in the effectual call. His desire that sinners would hear his universal call to repentance may be, and is unlimited; but his purpose to overcome their unwillingness and incline them to repentance may be, and is limited. God offers Christ's sacrifice to every man, without exception, and assures him that if he will trust in it he shall be saved, and gives him common grace to help and encourage him to believe. This is a proof that God loves his soul and desires its salvation. But God does not, in addition to this universal offer of mercy, promise to overcome every man's aversion to believe and repent and his resistance of common grace. Election and pretention have no reference to the offer of salvation or to common grace. They relate only to special grace and the effectual application of Christ's sacrifice. The universal offer of mercy taught in this section evinces the universality of God's compassion towards sinners.
Larger Catechism, 63, declares that " the ministry of the gospel testifies that whosoever believes in Christ shall be saved, and excludes none that will come unto him." The reference here is not to the members of the visible Church, as one reviser contends who denies that the universal offer is in this section, because the persons spoken of are those who have not yet believed in Christ, and have not yet come to him. The motive is held out to such persons, that if they will believe and come, they shall be saved by the infinite and universal mercy of God which "excludes none that will come unto him."
With what show of reason can it be said that a symbol containing such declarations as these respecting the nature and attributes of God, his requirement that every man confess sin to him, repent of it, pray for its forgiveness and trust in his mercy, contains no announcement of his infinite love and compassion? This great and blessed truth is worked and woven all through the Standards, as the doctrines of the Divine existence and the immortality of the soul are through the Bible. The Bible is nonsense without these latter, and the Confession is nonsense without the former.
The Westminster creed is being wounded in the house , of its friends. To a spectator it appears amazing that so many who have "received and accepted" it as teaching "the system of doctrine contained in the Scriptures" should charge so many and so great errors upon it. If the Confession and Catechisms really are what they have been alleged to be, during the last six months, by some advocates of revision, they ought not to be revised at all, but to be repudiated.