The Warrant of Faith is the Free Offer of the Gospel in the Westminster Standards

by David Silversides

(b) The warrant of faith is the free offer of the Gospel addressed to sinners as such

“....wherein He freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ” (WCF VII/III). The term ‘offer’ or ‘free offer’ also appears in the Catechisms (Larger An. 32, 63 and 68, Shorter An. 31 and 86). The usage in An. 68 of the Larger is of special interest in that it puts beyond all doubt that the offer is addressed to non-elect sinners; “...who, for their willful neglect and contempt of the grace offered to them, being justly left in their unbelief, do never truly come to Christ.” The term ‘offer’ also appears in the Three Forms of Unity.20

(c) The Meaning of ‘offer’

Professor Hanko maintains that the term ‘offer’ can mean no more than ‘to exhibit’ or ‘to present’. He suggests that this was the intended meaning not only in the Three Forms of Unity but also in the Westminster Standards.21 It is more customary to regard the term as implying a gracious overture of mercy, an invitation to sinners in general which reflects God’s favour and kindness to all who hear the Gospel, a favour and kindness which is one part of what became known later as ‘common grace’. Hoeksema’s and Hanko’s denial of the doctrine of common grace in general and the concept of a gracious overture in particular raises serious questions.

(i) The Person of Christ

If the anti-common grace position were correct, then Christ as God in no sense loved the reprobate even while they were in this world. As a man ‘made under the law’ the command, “thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself” applied to Christ. Only two options are open. The first is an heretical division of the person of Christ, by maintaining that Christ loved only the elect in His divine nature but loved all men in His human nature. Clearly this must be rejected. The alternative is to say that Christ, in both natures, loved the elect only and that our obligation to love all men is due to our ignorance of who the elect are. This means that we are required to love those whom God does not. Moreover, Scripture bases our obligation to love all men not on our ignorance of God’s mind, but the knowledge of it that we should have our duty to be patterned after Him (Matt. 5:43–48).

(ii) The Preaching of the Gospel

Are we to have compassion on all those to whom we preach reflecting our concern for their spiritual welfare (Rom. 9:1–3 and 10:1)? If so, do we express this compassion as ministers of Christ, acting “in Christ’s stead” (2 Cor. 5:20), or do we cease to act in that capacity at this point?

We submit that the tears of Christ over Jerusalem were the human tears of a Divine person and reflected divine compassion and that the Scriptures warrant the preaching of a gracious overture of mercy to all who hear the Gospel. We also submit that this was the overall position of the Westminster Divines. In support of this we offer the following five lines of evidence.

Firstly, the Minutes of the Assembly.

“Resolved upon the Q., These two questions and answers, Q. Do all men equally partake of the benefits of Christ? A. Although from Christ some common favours redound to all mankind, and some special privileges to the visible church, yet none partake of the principal benefits of His mediation but only such as are members of the Church invisible. Q. What common favours redound from Christ to all mankind? A. Besides much forebearance and many supplies for this life, which all mankind receive from Christ as Lord of all, they by Him are made capable of having salvation tendered to them by the Gospel, and are under such dispensations of providence and operations of the Spirit as lead to repentance.”22

“Ordered—Q. Are all they saved by Christ who live within the Visible Church and hear the Gospel? A. Although the Visible Church (which is a society made up of such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the true religion, and of their children) do enjoy many special favours and privileges whereby it is distinguished from other societies in the world and the Gospel where it cometh doth tender salvation by Christ to all, testifying that whosoever believes in Him shall be saved, and excludeth none that come unto Him; yet none do or can truly come unto Christ, or are saved by Him, but only the members of the Invisible Church, which is the whole number of the elect that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one unto Christ their head.”23

“Resolved upon the Q. ‘Q. What is it to believe in Christ? A. To believe in Christ is to receive Christ according to God’s offer, resting on Him alone for pardon and all grace and salvation.’ Resolved upon the Q. ‘Q. What ground or warrant have you, being a sinner, to believe in Christ? A. The ground of my believing in Christ is God’s offer of Him in His word to me as well as to any other man, and His commanding me to believe in Him, as well as to believe or obey any other thing in His word.”24

Secondly, the Directory for Public Worship.

In the prayer before sermon in this Directory which the Westminster Assembly produced, we read, “Yea, not only despising the riches of God’s goodness, forbearance and longsuffering, but standing out against many invitations and offers of grace in the Gospel...”

Thirdly, the use of the term ‘goodness’ in the Shorter Catechism.
God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth (S/C Ans. 4).
That God shows goodness to all men can scarcely be denied (e.g. Rom. 2:4, Ps. 145:9). The question is whether “goodness” or “doing good” implies Divine favour or lovingkindness. Hoeksema, having acknowledged that goodness sometimes indicates mercy, grace and compassion, goes on to say, “Nevertheless, it should never be forgotten that this benevolence of God is not common, and that it may not and cannot be separated from His goodness as perfection. Only as the ethically perfect One is God the benevolent One. And because this is true, His goodness reveals itself as wrath and anger, as a consuming fire, to those that love iniquity.”25

By applying this sense of “goodness” to God’s dealings with His creatures, the way is open to evacuate all reference to God’s goodness towards men in general of the idea of benevolence, mercy, grace and kindness, except in the case of the elect who, because of their supposed justification from eternity past are at no point among “those that love iniquity” in the sight of God, even though they do love iniquity prior to their effectual call. John Murray on Romans 2:4 comments,
It needs to be noted that the apostle does not think of this restraint as exercised in abstraction from the riches of God’s goodness, the riches of his benignity and lovingkindness...It is a metallic conception of God’s forbearance and longsuffering that isolates them from the kindness of disposition and of benefaction which the goodness of God implies.26
When we turn to the Westminster Standards, we find the term ‘goodness’ in An. 4 of the Shorter Catechism replaces the terms “most loving, gracious, merciful, longsuffering, abundant in goodness...” in the Westminster Confession (II/I) and the Larger Catechism (An. 7). The Shorter Catechism has sometimes been criticized for not mentioning God’s grace or love in An. 4, but we must realize that whatever differences there may be in these various terms, the Westminster Divines saw God’s goodness as a basic umbrella term for them. This being so, since God is undoubtedly good to all, we submit that the Westminster Divines as a whole held to what became known as the doctrine of common grace in the sense that the Lord, in a variety of ways, displays His favour and lovingkindness even to the non-elect in this present life, without being pleased to regenerate them. The preaching of the Gospel and the overture of mercy which it includes is one part of that display of lovingkindness.

Fourthly, individual Assembly members.

Rutherford says, “He offereth in the Gospel, life to all...” He then calls this
God’s moral complacency of grace, revealing an obligation that all are to believe if they would be saved; and upon their own peril be it, if they refuse Chfrist...Christ cometh once with good tidings to all, elect and reprobate.27
Thomas Goodwin states, “God now in this life offers to deal with thee upon terms of friendship...”28 and speaks of “an invitation to come into the Ark, like to Christ’s inviting sinners to come unto him.”29

In 1657, a series of free offer sermons by Obadiah Sedgwick was published.30 Jeremiah Burroughs wrote a recommendation to Edward Fisher’s “Marrow of Modern Divinity” which featured so much in the defense of the free offer in Later Scottish Church history.31

If time permitted, so far as the members of the Assembly have left their views on record, we believe it could be shown that the free offer position was the norm among them.

Fifthly, the Puritan period in general.

The free offer or gracious overture position seems to have been held generally among the 17th century Puritans with little dissent. John Flavel preached a series of free offer sermons.32 John Owen has a relevant sermon on “a vision of unchangeable free mercy, in sending the means of grace to undeserving sinners.”33 Erroll Hulse in his useful booklet on the subject gives appropriate quotations from Brooks, Charnock, Sibbes, etc.34

In Scotland, William Guthrie in his “Christian’s Great Interest,” published in 1658, makes references throughout to “gracious invitations,” etc.35 David Dickson and James Durham, around 1650, wrote their “Sum of Saving Knowledge” which if often printed with the Westminster Standards in Scottish editions. It has a whole section on “warrants to believe” and includes a treatment of Isaiah 55:1–5, saying that the Lord “maketh open offer of Christ and His grace by proclamation of a free and gracious market of righteousness....He inviteth all sinners...” On 2 Corinthians 5:19–21; “The earnest request that God maketh to us to be reconciled to Him in Christ...”36 That whole section is worthy of study.

Taking all this into account, we feel justified in concluding that the Westminster divines and the Puritans went further than merely issuing the command. They besought men and did so as an expression of divine lovingkindness.

(d) John Calvin

From time to time the charge has been made that the Westminster Standards represent a significant departure from the position of Calvin. Usually, the charge is in the form that the Westminster position is more rigorously Calvinistic then Calvin. However, occasionally, the accusation is in the other direction. Were the Westminster divines at odds with Calvin in their view of the free offer of the Gospel? We suggest not. The following are samples from Calvin’s commentaries.

On Acts 13:46
He accuseth them (the Jews) of unthankfulness, because, whereas they were chosen by God out of all people, that Christ might offer himself unto them, they refused so great a benefit maliciously....because they do so willingly cast from them so grace a grace.37
On Heb. 2:12
Hence we conclude that the Gospel is offered to us for this end, that it may lead us to the knowledge of God by which His goodness is made known among us....This is what Paul says (2 Cor. 5:20) that he and others act as the ambassadors of Christ and exhort us in the name of Christ.38
On Heb. 3:13
The particle ‘so long as’ implies that the opportunity will not always be there if we have been slow to follow when God was calling us. God is now knocking at our door. If we do not open to Him, it will come about that in turn He will close the door of His kingdom to us. Then those who despised the grace offered today will find their groans are too late. Therefore, since we do not know whether it is God’s will to continue His call into tomorrow, let us not put off. He calls today; let us answer as soon as possible.39
On 2 Pet. 3:9, Calvin does not restrict the phrase “not willing that any should perish” to the elect. Rather he says
This is His wondrous love toward the human race, that He desires all men to be saved, and is prepared to bring even the perishing to safety. We must notice the order, that God is prepared to receive all men into repentance, so that none may perish. These words indicate the means of obtaining salvation, and whoever of us seeks salvation must learn to follow in this way. It could be asked here, if God does not want any to perish, why do so many in fact perish? My reply is that no mention is made here of the secret decree of God by which the wicked are doomed to their own ruin, but only of His lovingkindness as it is made known to us in the Gospel. There God stretches out His hand to all alike, but He only grasps those (in such a way as to lead to Himself) whom He has chosen before the foundation of the world.40
Practical points:

1. We are to treat non-Christians as recipients of divine favours, including material blessings and gifts as well as the preaching of the Gospel. It is because they are real blessings (Gen. 17:20) that their ingratitude renders them so guilty. Unthankfulness relates to blessings not curses (Rom. 1:21). The fact that, in the case of the reprobate, these blessings become the occasion of greater guilt in accordance with the decree of God, does not mean they are not in themselves expressions of the free favour and mercy of God. We can therefore point out to the unbeliever that God has been merciful to him and the danger of abusing His mercies and “treasuring up wrath against the day of wrath” (Rom. 2:5).

2. We must do more than issue the Gospel command. We must exhort men to come to Christ, not in a “take it or leave it” fashion, but conveying to them that it is a matter of intense concern to us that they heed God’s sovereign and gracious overture of mercy and embrace in faith the Saviour whom they so much need. (There should be no confusion that it is they who need Christ and not vice versa as is sometimes the case in the Arminian presentation today).
20. Canons of Dort, Heads 3 and 4, Article 9.
21. H. Hanko, Protestant Reformed Journal, op. cit. Nov. 1986, op. cit. 16–17.
22. Minutes of the Westminster Assembly (William Blackwood and Son, 1874), p. 369.
23. Op. cit. 393.
24. Op. cit. 309.
25. H. Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 92.
26. John Murray, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 59.
27. S. Rutherford, op. cit. p. 129ff.
28. Thomas Goodwin, Works, Vol. 6, Banner of Truth, 1979, p. 150.
29. Thomas Goodwin, Works, Vol. 8, James Nichol, Edinburgh, 1864, p. 166.
30. Obadiah Sedgewick, The Fountains of Life Opened (1657).
31. See Edward Fisher, The Marrow of Modern Divinity, 1722 edition, p. 14.
32. John Flavel, Works, Vol. 4, Banner of Truth, pp. 3–306.
33. John Owen, Works, Vol. 8, Banner of Truth, pp. 2–41.
34. Erroll Hulse, The Free Offer (Carey Publishing Ltd., 1973).
35. William Guthrie, The Christian’s Great Interest (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1969), pp. 122–127, etc.
36. The Practical Use of Saving Knowledge, published in the Westminster Confession of Faith etc., Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland 1967, pp. 326–329.
37. John Calvin, Commentaries, Vol. 10, A.P. + A., p. 1152.
38. John Calvin, Commentary on Hebrews and I & II Peter, Oliver & Boyd, p. 27.
39. Op. cit., p. 41.
40. Op. cit., p. 364.
David Silversides, “The Doctrine of Conversion in the Westminster Standards,” The Reformed Journal 9 (November 1993): 74–81.
In his conclusion, Silversides noted:
Herman Hoeksema was undoubtedly a great theologian, nevertheless, his distinctive views are significantly at variance with the Westminster Standards. The root of the problem seems to be a misapplication of the doctrine of the immutability of God. Hence, the elect can never be really under condemnation prior to effectual calling. Similarly, God cannot show grace or favour to the reprobate in this life since He does not in the next. (This view, though held to defend the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, actually sets limits upon that sovereignty by saying that God’s grace or favour must be unto eternity or nothing, whereas if He is free to show mercy as and when and how He pleases, He may indeed show favour to the non-elect for a time in this life and withdraw that favour in the eternal world). Finally, the concept of condition is seen as casting doubt upon the immutability of God’s decrees.

By Topic


By Scripture

Old Testament









1 Samuel

2 Samuel

1 Kings

2 Kings

1 Chronicles

2 Chronicles








Song of Solomon


















New Testament







1 Corinthians

2 Corinthians





1 Thessalonians

2 Thessalonians

1 Timothy

2 Timothy





1 Peter

2 Peter

1 John

2 John

3 John



By Author

Latest Links