Woe unto me if I preach not the gospel.
Updated: Nov 15
In our text, the apostle is under a constraint to preach the gospel. From our reading (Galatians 1), it is clear that it is the gospel of Christ and no other gospel which he is constrained to preach.
Professor John Murray’s relationship with the congregations which would later make up the Presbyterian Reformed Church was that of one who was constrained to preach the gospel and it was the gospel of Christ which he desired to make known. Murray came to the United States as a divinity student of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland to study at Princeton. At that time, there was a Free Presbyterian (FP) congregation in southwestern Ontario, with the Rev William Matheson as its minister, and several FP families were associated with the Bloor Street Congregation in Toronto. During his vacations, Murray got to know these people.
Murray’s friendship with Matheson was what led to his separation from the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. But that is a story for another day.
On February the 19th 1952, John Murray addressed the alumni of Westminster Theological Seminary at the annual homecoming on the subject of some necessary emphases in preaching. It is recorded for us in volume one of his collected writings. At the outset of his message, he disclaims any expertise in the subject of preaching. Yet, we have ample evidence to disagree with him. We know the content of his sermons from those in his collected writings and the volume recently published by Westminster Seminary. We can hear his voice and delivery from recordings: high and with a strong east Sutherland accent. We have an idea of his posture from anecdote. He was inclined to move about the pulpit as he preached and to bend his knees in rhythm with his voice as he drove home a point. The man could preach.
In that address, Murray identifies four emphases: the ministry of judgment, the free offer of the gospel, self-examination, and the high demands of Christian calling. Although he speaks of these emphases in the context of his hearers at Westminster that day in 1952, they were not on the cutting edge of new academic breakthroughs. These were the staples of the preaching and Christian conversation which he had known all his life. Hearing them in is own dialect of the Language of Zion is what took him to Chesley-Lochalsh, and Toronto.
For the sake of time, we shall focus on his second emphasis: the free offer of the gospel. For Murray, the free offer of the gospel can be muted by a fear of giving sanction to Arminian language and methodology. It can also be blunted by failing to understand the response which the message demands.
Unfortunately, some of Murray’s own work has added to that fear, whether it be the committee report itself or the pamphlet which came from it. And some of the response to that work has certainly muted the gospel offer. While little attention is paid to Murray’s latter article on “The Atonement and the Free Offer of the Gospel” found in volume one of his Collected Writings where he reworks many of the passages cited in the report. Into this situation come the words of our text: “Woe unto me if I preach not the gospel.”
The question has been asked where the PRC stands on this issue. On the one hand there is the connection with Murray and on the other there is Dr William Young who was for years our most senior minister.
Regarding Young, he had a long relationship with Murray starting in the 1940s. Through Murray, he was introduced to Matheson in Chesley-Lochalsh and to Roderick Campbell, a ruling elder in Bloor Street. Campbell wrote “Israel and the New Covenant”, recently reprinted by P&R. He is the maternal grandfather of Sandy Finlayson of WTS. From this group, Young entered into an environment where the four emphases mentioned by Murray marked out the preached piety of the people. These emphases are found in Young’s preaching and writing. However, the gospel which Young was constrained to preach was these emphases in their interconnectedness. He presented God, sovereign in his justice and grace. His was an expository ministry with his applicatory work done in the manner of David Dickson and Samuel Rutherford. And if one emphasis did stand out, it was the need for self-examination.
Indeed, Young often told the story of one of the first times he preached at a Communion Season in Toronto. He took up the theme of “let a man examine himself and so let him eat”. Roddy Campbell took him aside afterward and said that his message was good in so far as it went, but that he should have gotten them to examine themselves as to whether they were in the faith or not: to make their calling and election sure. William Young was still heeding that advice over 60 years later and encouraging younger preachers to heed it too.
A reviewer of “Reformed Thought”, a compilation of Young’s writings, made two rather tongue-in-cheek comments. Having known “Bill”, as he called him, for decades, he noted, first, that a number of the papers in the collection had begun as family conference addresses. This caused him to marvel at the intellectual prodigies the PRC had for children. Second, he pointed out that there was not much room for spontaneity in Young’s theory and practice of gospel preaching.
That lack of spontaneity has fed into the speculation regarding Young’s views on the subject of the free offer of the gospel. This is strange because he set them out quite clearly in his minority report at the time. He was committed to the scriptural and confessional doctrine of the free offer of the gospel. He had no problem with the use of anthropomorphic language. He did have a problem with whether the term “desire” is employed after the manner of man or whether it is to be understood literally as implying an emotion in God. He had a question regarding whether God desires the repentance and salvation of the reprobate sinner qua reprobate or whether God’s desire refers to the connection between the repentance and the salvation of sinners, qua sinners. And it troubled him greatly that God’s desires might be viewed as standing unreconciled with his decrees.
He did not have a problem with the doctrine itself but with what might be said to be behind the doctrine. In this William Young was not unlike William Cunningham. In Cunningham’s day, the question was the relation of the atonement to the free offer of the gospel.
The first question which Cunningham addresses is whether an unlimited atonement is necessary in order to offer to men, without exception, pardon and acceptance, and to invite them to come to Christ. He answers this by pointing out that at no time does Scripture, either by precept or example, present the gospel in terms of a universal atonement, yet by precept and example we are commanded to preach the gospel to every creature, unless, says Cunningham, we should venture to act upon the principle of refusing to obey God’s commands until we understand all the reasons and grounds for them.
Our first caveat: “Woe unto me if I preach not the gospel.” For if I hesitate, I disobey the clear commission of Christ.
The second question which Cunningham addresses is that of the conduct of God in having salvation offered indiscriminately to all without having made provision for the salvation of all, either actually or hypothetically. He says: “The position of our opponents is, in substance, this, that it was not possible for God, because not consistent with integrity and uprightness, to address such offers and invitations to men indiscriminately unless an atonement, which is indispensable to salvation, had been presented and accepted on behalf of all men, of each individual of the human race. Now, this position bears very manifestly the character of unwarranted presumption, and assumes our capacity of fully comprehending and estimating the eternal purposes of the divine mind, the inmost grounds and reasons of the divine procedure. It cannot be proved, because there is really not any clear and certain medium of probation, that God, by offering to men indiscriminately, without distinction or exception, through Christ, pardon and acceptance, contradicts the doctrine which He has revealed to us in His own word, as to a limitation, not in the intrinsic sufficiency, but in the intended destination of the atonement. And unless this can be clearly and conclusively proved, we are bound to believe that they are consistent with each other, though we may not be able to perceive and develop this consistency, and, of course, to reject the argument of our opponents as untenable. When we carefully analyze all that is really implied in what God says and does, or authorizes and requires us to say and do in this matter, we can find much that is fitted to show positively that God does not, in offering pardon to men indiscriminately, act inconsistently or deceptively, though it is not true that the atonement was universal. And it is easy to prove that He does no injustice to anyone; since all who believe what He has revealed to them, and who do what He has given them sufficient motives or reasons for doing, will certainly obtain salvation.”
To illustrate this point, Roger Nicole takes up the idea of a newspaper advertisement. Say an advert appears in a newspaper stating that for a specified period, a certain department store will sell the model of washing machine described in both photograph and text for 70% off the manufacturer’s recommended retail price.
First, if there are 300,000 copies of the newspaper printed, how many washing machines must the store have in its warehouse for this to be a sincere offer?
Second, is the offer insincere if some readers do not have the money to buy the washing machine even at the reduced price, or will not be in town during the specified period?
Surely, for the offer to be sincere, all that is required is that anyone who comes to the store during the specified period with the correct payment and asks for that model of washing machine receives one in exchange for the payment.
Our second caveat: Whether it be Arminian, Amyraldian, Calvinistic, or Hyper-Calvinistic, woe unto anyone who obscures Christ behind a display of their own supposed orthodoxy.
Alexander Stewart of Cromarty enters a third caveat: “Beware of confounding promises and invitations, — two very distinct things, and addressed to different classes. The invitations are to sinners; the promises to saints only.”
He is, of course, referring to the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith where it defines the covenant of grace in these terms: “Man by his fall having made himself incapable of life by that covenant [i.e. the covenant of works], the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offereth unto 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.” (WCF 7:3)
Alexander Henderson put it this way in 1638: The promises of the gospel, the new covenant, are twofold. There are conditional promises: “If we believe and repent, we shall have salvation.” “There are also absolute promises (and it is only that makes the evangelical promises to be so far beyond the legal), that he shall infuse these conditions of faith and repentance in us.”
Gospel offers or invitations take the form of a conditional promise which is a general call. Gospel promises are absolute, unconditional, promises which are kept in effectual calling. So, we return to our text: Woe unto me if I preach not the gospel. That is a simple, unconfounded, gospel. To sinners, we present the conditional promise. To professing believers, we ask do you have those things absolutely promised to God’s own?
So, we return to Murray’s four emphases. First, the preaching of judgment with a clear statement of the glory of God. Second, the free offer of the Gospel. Third, self-examination, the call to which is found in the epistles of Peter, Paul, and John. Fourth, there are the high demands of Christian vocation. Here Murray takes up two points. The first is that we follow the “thou shalt nots” of God, not those of men. He writes more on the subject of liberty of conscience in his commentary on Romans and in volume four of his Collected Writings. The second is that there is more to the Christian life than “thou shalt not”. He speaks of an expulsive power which replaces the negated behaviour with positive virtue. Crossway has recently put out an edition of Thomas Chalmers’s “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection” which expands upon that theme.
Our fourth caveat: Woe unto me if I preach less than this life-transforming gospel.
Finally, Murray speaks of the faith which is the required response to this preaching. He says: “What is the primary act of faith? It is not the acceptance of certain propositions, although it cannot exist apart from the belief of the propositions of the gospel. Faith is essentially an entrustment to Christ as Lord and Saviour. It is self-commitment to him. It is not the belief that we have been saved, not even the belief that Christ died for us, but the commitment of ourselves to Christ as unsaved, lost, helpless, and undone in order that we might be saved.”
“For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?”
Woe unto me if I preach not the gospel!
This address was to have been given by me at the 2023 meeting of NAPARC, hosted by the PRC in Rhode Island. I was unable to attend. My thanks to the Rev. Michael Ives for reading it in my place.