The law and gospel are the sum of revelation and the necessary “means by which man receives the covenant.”1 After confessing the nature of the law of God in the previous chapter, chapter 20 of the confession (2 LCF 1677/89) rightly declares the glorious gospel of God and its extent in the world. The law was written upon the heart of mankind in creation as a covenant of works, which having been broken in Adam is insufficient to bring life to sinners. It now reveals our sin and justly condemns us before God. However, the Lord was pleased to reveal and “give forth” the promise of life apart from our obedience to the law in the covenant of grace. The law of God as a covenant of works is to be preached to sinners to convince them of their sin and misery and to cause them to look outside themselves by faith to Christ as he is offered in the gospel. As the confession beautifully states, the gospel is the “only outward means of revealing Christ and saving grace,” and “effectual means for the conversions and salvation of sinners.”
This chapter is the only one in the confession not contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith but was adapted from the Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order (1658). The independents stated that a chapter on the gospel was necessary to explicitly state the doctrine already contained in the confession and refute various errors.2 We are thankful our particular Baptist forefathers followed suit, for the same errors which plagued the 17th century have continued to plague us today. Sam Waldron believes they were refuting “the intellectual tendency that would later produce deism, with the emphasis on the sufficiency of human reason and natural revelation and its opposition to supernatural revelation.”3 Man tends to elevate himself and his own reason and therefore denies the necessity for supernatural grace and special revelation for his own salvation. This rationalism was already spreading by Arminian and Socinian teaching. They taught that the universal grace of God was sufficient for all men to use the light of nature to respond to and cooperate with God’s grace unto salvation. John Owen refuted such errors writing on the Insufficiency of Natural Theology and the Necessity of Revealed Theology. Owen emphatically states,
“that every human speculation about God, apart from special revelation is but a tiny particle of the knowledge enjoyed by the newly created man in his first state of innocence, but the revelation of God’s mercy in the promise could only be given after the fall, and as all saving knowledge can only come through the preaching of Christ, then it follows with certainty that salvation cannot come from natural theology.”4
This chapter, therefore, sets before us both the inadequacies of natural theology and the necessity and sufficiency of the Word of God for the salvation of sinners. Salvation comes only through the special revelation of the gospel promise in the Word of God, which is externally spread abroad by the sovereign will of God and internally applied by the “insuperable” work of the Holy Spirit. The gospel and its extent are taught in four succinct paragraphs.
The first paragraph speaks of the revelation of the gospel for the salvation of sinners. God condescended to mankind by making a Covenant of Works with Adam in the garden promising life for him and all his posterity upon perfect and perpetual obedience, with the threat of death upon disobedience. (2LCF 6.1, 19.1) The Covenant of Works declared “do this and live,” holding out the reward of eschatological life for perfect righteousness, displayed by the sacramental tree of life. However, this covenant was made void as a way of life because of sin,5 as chapter 20 begins, “the covenant of works being broken by sin and made unprofitable unto life.” Mankind can no longer merit life by obedience according to the terms of the Covenant made in Adam. Thus, if men are to obtain eternal life, it now must come by grace through faith in the promise of Christ. This paragraph reiterates the covenant theology of 7.3, as the gospel was first revealed in the promise of the Covenant of Grace to Adam and afterwards by farther steps until it was fully discovered and established by the blood of Christ in the New Covenant. Nehemiah Coxe, one of the co-editors of our confession, used similar language saying,
“from the first dawning of the blessed light of God’s grace to poor sinners faintly displayed in the promise intimated in Genesis 3:15, the redeemed of the Lord were brought into a new relationship to God, in and by Christ the seed, through faith in him as revealed in that promise.”6
Since the fall of Adam, there has only ever been one way of salvation and one people of God, united to the one mediator of the covenant of grace. Jesus Christ is the substance of promise revealed in the Old Covenant. Jesus is the promised seed of the woman and the last Adam who has procured the redemption of the elect through his perfect righteousness and atoning death. As Paul declared to Timothy, “Jesus Christ has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” (2 Tim. 1:10)
The confession of faith declares the gospel’s exclusivity against the relativistic rationalism of our own day, which seeks tolerance and inclusivity apart from truth. Apart from Christ in the promise of the gospel, there is no salvation. (Acts 4:12) The promise of the gospel is the only “effectual means for conversion and salvation of sinners”. The law demands “do this and live” but gives no power to fulfil it, but the gospel declares, “believe and you will be saved,” for the work is already accomplished by Christ.7 The law commands, but the gospel promises and grants to the elect the meritorious work of Christ, even begetting in them both faith and repentance by his grace alone. As Peter states, “we have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” (1 Pt 1:23)
The second paragraph declares the necessity of special revelation for salvation. Christianity is a supernatural religion, dependent upon the special revelation of God by and in his Word. The confession states, “This promise of Christ, and salvation by him, is revealed only by the Word of God”. The Word of God, as it was first declared, and later inscripturated, is absolutely necessary for the “revelation of Christ and his saving grace”. “About this redemption”, John Owen said, “there remains a profound silence, except in the Word”. The opening words of our confession declare the exclusive authority and necessity of the Word of God. It is “the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith and obedience”. Apart from the Word of God, men are left in the darkness of their own ignorance and cannot perceive or receive divine truths. The god of this world has blinded sinful minds so that they can do no better than grope in the dark after that which is not God. While God has revealed himself in nature, the Word of God is exclusively the only means of the revelation of “Christ, or of grace by him”. The works of creation, providence and the light of nature in man reveal the existence and nature of God as the omnipotent, just creator and wise, benevolent sustainer of all things who alone is to be worshipped and glorified. Nevertheless, this natural knowledge can do no more than stop every mouth and leave men without an excuse before the judgment seat of God. The gospel, however, is not known by nature and “not even known in a general or obscure way.” Supernatural religion requires special revelation that is granted by his Word, and his Word alone.
The third paragraph declares the sovereignty of God’s grace and its extent in the world. We confess that the promise and the spread of the gospel are of the “sovereign will and good pleasure of God”. God is not obligated in any way to save sinners as if he were indebted to us. Instead, salvation and all of its glorious benefits flow from the good pleasure and will of God. The gospel is of God, whom the confession states in chapter 2, is “most absolute and most free,” so that “he has absolute sovereignty and dominion over his creatures,” and is free “to do by them, for them, or upon them, whatsoever himself pleaseth”. Man’s freedom is dependent upon the freedom of God, “who works out all things according to the counsel of his will.” Thus, the gospel spreads according to the eternal and immutable decree of God and is an expression of his perfect, wise and good intention in the world. Where, when and how the gospel is extended in the world and to individuals depends on God alone. Why does the gospel come to one nation and not another? Why does the gospel come to one man and not another? The answers is found in the good pleasure of God and no further. God doesn’t come to various nations because of the goodness of men, much less because of the “improvement of men’s natural abilities”. The spread of the gospel is not a reward for living according to the light of nature but is a gracious gift of God. What a gracious and wonderful privilege we have that the gospel has come to us and enabled us to partner with its spread in the world.
The fourth and final paragraph declares the necessity of the Holy Spirit working with the Word for salvation. The gospel is the “outward means of revealing Christ” and is abundantly sufficient to accomplish this purpose. However, since sinful man is depraved in the whole man, he requires the “effectual insuperable work of the Holy Spirit upon the whole soul” for new spiritual life. The Spirit ordinarily works through the Word, not apart from it or contrary to it. The Spirit takes the sufficient Word of God and pierces the heart of men to effectually and insuperably grant life. The Word of God externally reveals Christ to whom it is proclaimed. However, it is only received by those whom the Holy Spirit inwardly applies the benefits of Christ. The Spirit regenerates our hearts, dispels the blindness and darkness of our minds to give us new spiritual life and does so insuperably. In other words, it is impossible to reject or overcome, for the Spirit irresistibly grants life, so that all the elect would freely accept Christ as he is promised in the gospel. These glorious truths ought to cause us to place our hope and confidence in both the Word and Spirit. The preaching of the gospel is abundantly sufficient for salvation of the elect so that we ought not to look for other means to reach our fallen world and fall into the pragmatism of our day seeking innovations to win souls. Rather, we ought to boldly proclaim the gospel to all, praying that the Spirit would graciously and powerfully attend to that Word to extend it to whom he desires. As John Owen notes,
“The way principally insisted on by the apostles was, by preaching the Word itself unto them in the evidence and demonstration of the Spirit”.8
The gospel and its extent are placed before our eyes so that we would confess our inadequacy to save ourselves and place our complete confidence in the gospel alone for our salvation. The Lord has ordained the preaching of the gospel to be the sufficient and abundant means by which he sovereignly and graciously grants salvation to sinners. Therefore, ministers of the gospel ought to proclaim it freely and indiscriminately to all men, everywhere and in every age. Our churches ought to head the exhortation of our brothers in Scotland by proclaiming the glorious gospel with all boldness (parēssia), knowing that its effectiveness and extent is due to God’s sovereign grace and the insuperable power of the Spirit. Rather than the sovereign grace of God and the sufficiency of the gospel making us slothful in our duties, it ought to drive us all to prayer and compel the church to diligently proclaim the abundantly sufficient gospel of Christ. The gospel is now the only and sufficient means to grant a saving knowledge of God in the Covenant of Grace and the only hope of sinners. May we receive, confess and proclaim it as such.
Saturday 4th September 2021
1 Renihan, James. A Toolkit for Confessions. (Palmdale, Ca: RBAP, 2017), 76. Jim Renihan gives a helpful outline of the confession of faith. Chapter 20 marks the end of the section on God’s Covenant and the subsection, on the “means of receiving the covenant.”
2 Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order. Introduction.
3 Waldron, Sam. Exposition of the 1689. (Evangelical Press: Darlington, UK, 2013), 302.
4 Owen, John. Biblical Theology. (Pittsburg, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1994), 45.
5 Owen, John. Biblical Theology. 45.
6 Coxe, Nehemiah. Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ, ed. James M. Renihan (Palmdale, CA: RBAP, 2005), 59.
7 Colquhoun, John. A Treatise on Law and Gospel. (Grand Rapids, MI: Soli Deo Gloria, 2009), 148.
8 John Owen, The Work of The Spirit, ed. William H. Goold (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust: 1967), 103. 8 Ibid.