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The Gospel Call To Believe ... What?
by Chris Connors

What does the Gospel call men to believe concerning Christ and his atonement?

More specifically, to what act of faith does the gospel first call the sinner? Does God call all men to believe that Christ died for every individual sinner - me included? Must men begin as universalists and then come to the knowledge of God's particular love and Christ's particular redemption? Or, does God call all men to exercise faith which is in perfect harmony with the God's eternal purpose of election, and the limited and particular atonement of Christ? The latter, by all means!

A united response comes from modern evangelicalism: The Gospel must call all men to believe that Christ died for each man, and for me in particular. That is the good news, the gospel message to all men, or so it is thought. The first exercise of justifying faith is to believe that "Christ died for me." In a modified form, this response is also heard in Reformed circles from those who have been influenced by the modified Calvinism of the Marrow men. "Go," taught Edward Fisher in his infamous (but much celebrated) book The Marrow of Modern Divinity, "tell every man without exception, that here is good news for him; Christ is dead for him, and if he will take him, and accept of his righteousness, he shall have him." According to this scheme, every individual who hears the gospel, without exception, is to believe that Christ provided salvation for him, personally. To believe the declaration that "Christ died for you personally" is the initial act of faith in the gospel of universalism.

Now, one hears this siren song so often that he almost hesitates to come forward with a criticism or rejection of it. But criticise and reject it the Reformed believer must. For it is false - root, branch, and fruit. It is rooted in falsehood at its deepest principle of conditional election. It branches out into the falsehood of a universal but non-effectual atonement. Then, it declares this falsehood as "gospel" calling all men to believe it as God's way of salvation.

The gospel call, in sharpest contrast, declares what is true concerning God's will and Christ's atonement; and it calls men to believe what is true. The seeming tension between a universal call and a limited atonement is removed when one understands that the faith commanded in the gospel has several different acts and degrees. There is a first act that must precede all others, and there are subsequent acts of faith that must follow after. The biblical call of the gospel does not confuse or reverse the order of these acts of faith. Rather, it leads us to them as so many rungs in a ladder.

John Owen explains this very clearly in his book The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, p.202 - 203. Consider what he says in defending the truth against the lie of universalism. Some archaic language and punctuation has been modernised to help the reader:

"Our adversaries pretend that if Christ didn't die for all, then it is vain to exhort all to believe; there being no proper object for the faith of all, because Christ died not for them. They imagine the gospel holds out this doctrine in the very entrance of all, that Christ died for every one, elect and reprobate; or that the first thing which any one living under the means of grace is exhorted to believe is, that Christ died for him in particular; both of which are notoriously false. For the present I shall only intimate something ... concerning the order of exercising the several acts of faith. By this it will appear that no one in the world is commanded or invited to believe, unless he has a sufficient object to fix the act of faith on. There must be, of truth, enough for its foundation, and latitude enough for its utmost exercise, which is required of him.

First, The first thing which the gospel requires of sinners, and which it persuades and commands them to believe, is, that salvation is not to be had in themselves, because all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Nor is it to be had by works of the law, by which no flesh can be justified. Here is a saving gospel truth for sinners to believe. The apostle dwells wholly upon this truth in Romans 1,2,3, to prepare a way for justification by Christ. Now, what numberless numbers there are to whom the gospel is preached who never come so far as to believe as much as this! Among this number you may reckon almost the whole nation of Jews, as is apparent from Romans 9,10. Now, to go one step further with any proposal of the gospel in a contempt of this object of faith is the sin of infidelity.

Secondly, The gospel requires us to believe that there is salvation to be had in the promised seed - in Him who was before ordained to be a Captain of salvation to them that do believe. And here also at this trial some millions of the great army of men, outwardly called, drop off. They never believe with true divine faith that God has provided a way of saving sinners.

Thirdly, The gospel requires us to believe that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified by the Jews, was this promised Saviour. Further, it requires belief that there is no name under heaven given whereby they may be saved besides his. And this was the main point upon which the Jews broke off, refusing to accept of Christ as the Saviour of men, but rather prosecuted him as an enemy of God. Because of this they were often charged with infidelity and damnable unbelief. The question, between Christ and them, was not whether he died for them all or not? The question was whether he was that promised Messiah? They denied this and perished in their unbelief.

Now, before these three acts of faith are performed, it is vain to exhort the soul to climb the uppermost steps, and miss all the bottom foundational ones.

Fourthly, The gospel requires a resting upon this Christ, so discovered and believed on to be the promised Redeemer, as an all sufficient Saviour with whom is plenteous redemption, who is able to save to the uttermost them that come to God by him, and to bear the burden of all weary labouring souls that come by faith to him. In this proposal there is a certain infallible truth. It is grounded upon the superabundant sufficiency of the oblation of Christ in itself, for whomsoever (fewer or more) it is intended. Now, much self knowledge, much conviction, much sense of sin, God's justice, and free grace, is required to the exercise of this act of faith. Good Lord! how many thousands of poor souls within the Church can never be brought unto it! The truth is, without the help of God's Spirit none of those three steps before, much less this last, can be performed; and the Spirit works freely, when, how, and in whom he pleases.

Fifthly, These acts of faith being firmly seated in the soul (and not before), we are, every one of us, called in particular to believe the efficacy of the redemption that is in the blood of Jesus towards our own souls in particular. Every one in whom the free grace of God has worked the former acts of faith, and works this act also, may assuredly believe this without either doubt or fear or want of a right object to believe if they should so do. For certainly Christ died for every one in whose heart the Lord, by his almighty power, works effectually faith to lay hold on him and assent unto him, according to that orderly proposal that is held forth in the gospel."

Further, in another place (p.296) Owen speaks of this order in regard to justifying faith:

"There is an order, natural in itself, and established by God's appointment in the things that are to be believed; so that until some of them are believed the rest are not required. A man is not commanded, nor can be reasonably required to get to the top of a ladder by skipping all the lower rungs. The order is: (1) Repent, and believe the gospel to be the word of God containing his will, and that Jesus Christ therein revealed is the wisdom and power of God unto salvation. (2) That there is an inseparable connection, by God's appointment, between faith and salvation, gospel faith carrying a sinner quite out of himself and away from his own righteousness. (3) That there be a particular conviction, worked in the heart by the Spirit, of the necessity of a Redeemer to their souls in particular; whereby they become weary, heavy laden, and burdened. (4) A serious recumbency and rolling off of the soul upon Christ in the promise of the gospel, as an all-sufficient Saviour, able to deliver and save to the uttermost all them that come to God by him; ready able and willing, through the preciousness of his blood and sufficiency of his ransom, to save every soul that shall give up themselves unto him for that end, amongst whom he is resolved to be. And in doing of all this, there is none called on by the gospel once to inquire after the purpose and intention of God concerning the particular object of the death of Christ, every one being fully assured that his death shall be profitable to them that believe in him and obey him.

After all this, and not before, it lies upon a believer to assure his soul, according as he finds the fruit of the death of Christ in him and towards him, of the good will and eternal love of God to him in sending his Son to die for him in particular. What a preposterous course, and how opposite to the rule of the gospel, were it, to call upon a man to believe that it was the intention and purpose of God that Christ should die for him in particular, and desire him to assure his soul of this, before he is convinced either, 1. Of the truth of the gospel in general; or, 2. That faith is the only way of salvation; or, 3. That himself standeth in need of a Saviour; or, 4. That there is enough in Christ to save and recover him if he give up himself unto him in his own way! Now, it is most apparent that it is only such as these that are bound to believe that Christ died for them."

Thus, we learn that the gospel of God's sovereign particular grace to the elect, and the limited atonement may be preached to all men, and all men called to believe in Christ for salvation without so much as a hint of universalism. It is true that justifying, saving faith that receives and rests upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and glorification believes that the Saviour of sinners died for me - praise God! But it is not true that all sinners are commanded to jump to this conclusion in one leap. Saving faith comes to this blessed comfort and rest of soul in the orderly manner, in the way proscribed by God and worked in the heart by the Spirit under the faithful preaching of both the law and the gospel.

The gospel does not command us to believe that Christ died for all men; nor does it call us to believe, as the first act of faith, that "Christ died for me personally". In this form, the call, extended to every hearer of the gospel would proclaim the "gospel of universalism".

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