Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Reformed Preaching and its Need Today
by A. D. McIntosh
Fathers and Brethren, the subject to which I wish to draw your attention this evening is: Reformed Preaching and Its Need To-day. The content of Reformed Preaching is Calvinistic teaching, and Calvinistic teaching is Covenant teaching, and Covenant teaching systematically sets forth Scripture truth. It is tragically true that the inseparable doctrines of grace, set out so plainly and so pointedly in our ‘Confession of Faith,’ are fast becoming unknown to the vast majority of professing Christians of our day. It is evident that, in this land, among zealous professing Christians a very large majority are disciples of Arminianism, and that their beliefs are dictated by a flood of Arminian teaching from pulpit and press. That influence is expanding and penetrating further and further. It is possible that this influence has reached further than we like to admit.
The method of its introduction has been very subtle and very successful. It has come in under the outward garb of piety and charity. Under the cover of piety, unwitting disciples of Arminianism are still demanding ‘not a creed but Christ,’ ‘not theology but living, practical Christianity.’ This all sounds very pious and commendable. But, on examination, what has it done? This is what has happened. Systematic doctrines have become unpopular, and have largely ceased to be preached. The ‘Confession’ and its contents have become largely forgotten – forgotten long enough for Arminianism, sounding so like neglected Calvinism, to secure its foothold on vacated ground. Then, in the garb of charity – alas, false charity – it has claimed immunity from attack while establishing itself wherever it has penetrated. Under cover of this false notion of brotherly love, it has so lauded and misapplied its favourite slogan, ‘All one in Christ Jesus,’ that, so long as anyone professes to ‘love the Lord,’ what doctrine he teaches must remain beyond criticism. But we are called upon to bear witness to the truth, and, in so doing, we are to defend it against error. And if, in so doing, offence is given, it need hardly be said that the faithful minister finds no pleasure in offending. But if it is the truth that offends, then we cannot proclaim and defend the truth without offending someone.
Fathers and Brethren, Arianism, Socinianism and Erastianism are not assaulting the Church to-day as at times they have done, but Arminianism is, and its pressure will increase. Next year we shall be called upon to support Dr. Billy Graham in his Australian campaign. But, though he may claim to be no theologian, he is theologian enough to present a thorough-going Arminian scheme of salvation, e.g., set out in his book, ‘Peace With God.’ Characteristic of this and all Arminian teaching is its man-centred, rather than God-centred, emphasis. Writing of this trend in Modern Evangelism, Prof. R. A. Finlayson, editor of the Free Church ‘Monthly Record,’ said: ‘Man’s need of God is the keynote of the present day evangelistic message, and the invitation to ‘Take God into the heart’ would seek to sum up the whole duty of man. This, we think, is not the New Testament emphasis. Here the primary in all that concerns man’s salvation rests with God: God’s purpose, God’s mercy, God’s calling, based upon the sovereign pleasure of His will, is the keynote of the message. And man is commanded to approach a throne of grace where a sovereign God dispenses mercy as how He will. This approach, so humbling to man’s pride, was never acceptable to the natural heart of man, and we read that, when our Lord declared to the Jews, and illustrated from their history, the sovereignty of God, ‘from that hour, many of His disciples went back, and walked no more with Him.’ Yet that is undoubtedly man’s true position, both as a creature and a sinner, in his relation to the Most High. To make man the centre of the message, man’s need, man’s prayer, man’s faith, man’s duty, is surely to miss the vision of the Throne that is ‘high and lifted up,’ and to belittle the glory and grace of redemption.’ (‘Monthly Record,’ August, 1952.)
The Reformed Preacher clearly has a message to deliver, differing very widely in its content from the current, popular presentation of this old but rejuvenated heresy. And, since the same battle, on the same ground, with the same enemy, has been victoriously fought more than once before, we must revert to the efficient use of the same weapon by which that was achieved. In so doing, it may well be that the robust Scriptural godliness which adorned the Christian Church in some of its finest hours – in Apostolic, in Reformation, in Puritan, Covenanter and Disruption days – may well adorn it again. It is our present intention to focus attention on some of those points of Reformed preaching essential to building up believers in the faith and to pulling down the strongholds of falsehood.
We wish to emphasise, first of all, the importance in Reformed preaching of proclaiming the plan of Divine redemption in the Scriptural form of the Covenant of Grace. The substance of this covenant, sometimes called the Covenant of Grace and sometimes the Covenant of Redemption, we have not seen better summed up than in that part of our ‘Standards’ called the ‘Sum of Saving Knowledge,’ which, incidentally, was so blessed to the godly McCheyne. Let me quote front it this relevant paragraph: ‘The sum of the covenant of redemption is this: God, having freely chosen unto life a certain number of lost mankind, for the glory of His rich grace, did give them before the world began unto God, the Sent appointed Redeemer, that, upon condition He would humble Himself so far as to assume the human nature of a soul and a body, unto personal union with His divine nature, and submit Himself to the law, as surety for them, and satisfy justice for them by giving obedience in their name, even unto the suffering of the cursed death on the cross, He shall ransom and redeem them all from sin and death, and purchase unto them righteousness and eternal life, with all saving graces leading thereunto, to be effectually, by means of His own appointment applied in due time to every one of them…. For the accomplishment of this covenant of redemption and making the elect partakers of the benefits thereof in the covenant of grace, Christ Jesus was clad with the three-fold office of a Prophet, Priest and King; made a Prophet to reveal all saving knowledge to His people, and to persuade them to believe and obey the same; made a Priest to offer up Himself a sacrifice once for them all, and to intercede continually with the Father, for making their persons and services acceptable to Him; and made a King to subdue them to Himself, to feed and rule them by His own appointed ordinances and to defend them from their enemies.’
There is the divine plan of redemption set forth in its Scriptural unity from beginning to end. Reformed preaching, with this covenant preaching is the one effective corrective to current Arminian error. But once allow the doctrines of grace to become isolated from their place in the Covenant, and very soon the whole way of salvation will be turned upside down. That is exactly what is being done to-day in modern Arminian evangelism: Instead of our Covenant God, in His sovereign pleasure, having chosen His own people, He chose believers because He foresaw that they would choose Him. Instead of man, totally depraved and incapable of willing any good accompanying salvation, man is represented as depraved, sinful and dead, but capable of choosing or refusing life – a corpse with the power to do what it wills! In the place of the Covenant Redeemer procuring and applying complete and certain salvation for God’s elect, His work say they make salvation possible for anyone. In the place of the Holy Spirit certainly applying covenant redemption to everyone ordained to life, anyone may reject God’s offered grace. Instead of the elect necessarily persuaded and enabled by the Spirit to believe, we are told that any man is able to believe if he wills. And so we may go on through every doctrine of the covenant, and we find that, at every point of contact, a point of disagreement with this prevalent error.
Fathers and Brethren, our generation needs to hear more of Reformed preaching of Covenant and Federal theology. It was the message of the Reformers, the Covenanters, and more recently the Disruption worthies. Hugh Martin, himself one of the outstanding worthies of the later nineteenth century, wrote, ‘The preaching of the Disruption ministers was largely leavened, or rather characterised, by the large place assigned in it to the Covenants – those great schemes of Divine dispensations with mankind. And the consequence was that the intelligent hearers acquired large views of Divine truth; could perceive the relations subsisting between different departments thereof; could refer a topic to its proper place in the system, and could accordingly realise themselves to be conscious of growing in knowledge of acquiring real power to make attainments and advancements in spiritual things. But if Federal theology should fall into neglect, there is reason to fear that the materials of pulpit instruction will be destitute of that compactness of connection, apart from which conscious advancement in knowledge on the part of the people is impossible, the topics handled will be disjointed and isolated. Progressive instruction will cease to be realised, and perhaps cease to be aimed at. The next step will be that it will cease to be desired. The production of evanescent sentimental impression will be the object mainly in view on the preacher’s part and mainly desired by the people.’ (‘Atonement,’ page 27.) Where to-day have we any semblance of Federal or Covenant teaching in popular preaching or writing? It is conspicuously absent. Not only has Covenant theology practically disappeared, not only has disjointed and fragmentary presentation of Scriptural doctrine been introduced, but a whole system of anti-Calvinistic, anti-Scriptural Arminianism is flourishing apace. As this erroneous system is examined, the great need for historic Federal and Covenant preaching becomes self-evident.
Now let us look into some of these points. And, first of all, the doctrine of Total Depravity. God’s method of redeeming man is carefully planned to suit the condition of man to be redeemed. A scriptural knowledge of man’s total depravity leads inevitably to the scriptural covenant method of His redemption, e.g., Eph. 2: 4, 5. ‘But God, who is rich in mercy, for His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ.’ Spiritual death means spiritual death. It means that man, through his federal head, Adam, has fallen from original righteousness and communion with God, and is born dead in sin and wholly defiled in all faculties and parts of soul and body, as the ‘Confession’ says. Reformed preaching acknowledging that fact faithfully proclaims the absolute necessity of the Divine provision in both procuring and applying salvation.
But that is not the doctrine of man’s depravity that we hear proclaimed so much in open air, on radio, in evangelistic campaigns, and that we read in so much current literature. There, man is declared to be a very great sinner, a polluted sinner, a depraved sinner, even a dead sinner. But, along with all of these, man is said to possess the one quality which qualifies all the rest – the power to choose! – the power to believe! So he is not entirely dead after all! He is not totally depraved! Whether by nature or special gift, it matters not – every depraved man, say they, who hears the Gospel has the power to claim its offer. This doctrine is one of the main planks in the Arminian’s evangelistic platform. This is assumption on which most present-day evangelism works. This doctrine of man was high-lighted at Harringay, and heralded the world over. And Australia is soon to receive its liberal share of what the Rev. K. A. Macrae called in another connection, ‘a copious injection of Arminianism.’ Let us make no mistake, this is one of the errors that will be propagated then. Here are the published words from Dr. Billy Graham’s own pen: ‘We do not know Christ through the five physical senses, but we know Him through the sixth sense that God has given every man – which is the ability to believe.’ (‘Peace with God,’ page 134.) Is that total depravity? Certainly not. Once concede the claim of this error here, and it will be difficult to arrest it anywhere. But overthrow it on this point, and there will be less difficulty to deal with it elsewhere. Arminianism cannot afford to acknowledge man’s total depravity. If it did it, unlimited atonement, making salvation possible for all, would be impossible for any; if it did, its gospel, requiring man’s acceptance by his own free will, would be impossible, too. Deny Arminianism man’s ability of free choice, and its stock phrases are gone – ‘It all depends on you’; ‘It is up to you’; ‘You must do your part, then God will do His.’ But the Scriptures everywhere give abundant declaration that man is totally depraved and wholly incapable of willing any good accompanying salvation, as the ‘Confession’ states with abundant Scripture proof. Now the logical question arises: If all men are hopelessly lost, why is it that some are saved?
Our answer lies in the doctrine of the Divine predestination of our Covenant God. ‘God, having out of His mere good pleasure from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace, to deliver them out of a state of sin and misery, and to bring them into a state of salvation by a redeemer.’ That is the twentieth question of the ‘Shorter Catechism.’ We wish to underline this point, that God, according to His own eternal purpose, chose to salvation some of fallen mankind. One studying the Scriptures for only a short time, recently remarked, ‘If one believes that God is sovereign, as the Bible says, there ought to be no difficulty in believing that He does what He will.’ That is the essence of divine predestination. It is the argument of the ninth chapter of Romans, e.g., verse 21. ‘Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour and another unto dishonour?’ And Eph. 1: 4: ‘According as he hath chosen us in Him (Christ) before the foundation of the world.’ Instead of proving an objectionable dogma as so many regard it, this doctrine ought to be a most comforting truth to all God’s people, for it shows then the eternal, almighty source of their salvation. It sends the Gospel messenger forth with the certainty of the success of his message, for it assures him that such as are ordained to life are also ordained to receive the means of life. It fills the genuine, anxious enquirer with good hope of a gracious outcome of his experience, for the workmanship is none other than that of God Himself.
Predestination is a scriptural term, and, as such, it has a definite scriptural meaning, which we have already mentioned. Being a scriptural term, Arminians must use it. But what do they mean by it? We must find that out for ourselves, for Arminians dislike definitions – they profess no creeds. On their meaning of this term, we take the liberty of quoting the Rev. K. A. MacRae’s words: ‘The Arminian, because he cannot contest the mention of predestination in the Scriptures, in faithfulness to his own peculiar theories, must needs invest it with a meaning which the word was never meant to bear, and thus predestination in Scripture is regarded as meaning God’s foreseeing what will come to pass through the exercise of the free-will of the creature, in virtue of which He confirms and thus ordains what He foresees. But this is not predestination. It is simply a confirming of that which is foreseen by the exercise of a certain power, which is known among men as the gift of prophecy. In fact, it is playing with words. If God foresees that certain things will come to pass, what need is there for Him to ordain them? If they are to come to pass, they will come to pass, ordination or no ordination. And if God sees certain things in the future as bound to come to pass, what makes them bound to come to pass but His own will? And if He has willed them before they come to pass, wherein lies the difference between this and scriptural predestination?’ (‘Resurgence of Arminianism,’ page 4.) This is in full agreement with what Principal Cunningham has said in his ‘Historical Theology.’
God’s infinite patience in awaiting man’s pleasure is about as close as the Arminian gets to God’s predestination allotting man’s portion. Nothing could be further removed from scriptural predestination than this sample of what, alas, we are hearing so much. Again we quote from ‘Peace With God,’ and we have selected this, rather than a score of other Arminian volumes, because of the notoriety which Dr. Billy Graham has currently acquired. After referring to man’s failure to build a lasting world according to his own desires, he says, ‘God, meanwhile, in His infinite understanding and mercy, has looked on, waiting with a patience and compassion that passes all understanding, for man to turn to Him of his own free will. The same two paths that God set before Adam still lie before us. We are still free to choose. We are living in a period of grace while God withholds the punishment we so justly deserve.’ (Page 38.) And, again, ‘Never question God’s great love, for it is as immutable a part of God as is His holiness. No matter how terrible your sins, God loves you. As you stand before the very gates of hell, God’s love is waiting, waiting for you to claim it through His Son, Jesus Christ, and be saved.’ (Page 30.) This is the Arminian way of salvation! This is the Arminian God of salvation! God’s predestination to life is in that view nothing more than a rubber stamp certifying that certain individuals have chosen to believe. Take one sentence from a Puritan’s pen on this denial, ‘Suffering the name to remain, they have abolished the thing itself and substituted another so unlike it in the room thereof, that anyone may see they have gotten a blear-eyed Leah instead of a Rachael, and hug a cloud instead of a Deity.’ So wrote John Owen, ‘Works,’ vol. 10, page 53.
The next logical question to arise is this:- Since God predestinated some of fallen mankind to everlasting life, what provision did He make to fulfill His purpose? Or, to put it another way. For whom did Christ die? Here we shall confine ourselves to one particular aspect of Christ’s mediatorial work – His limited Atonement. In considering the Atonement, Reformed teaching has ever insisted that it be considered within the scope of the Covenant of Grace. To sever it from its place in the covenant is to dislocate the whole scriptural plan. If to do so is purposely to give the Atonement the appearance of more graciousness and unlimited application, then it is either ignorance or culpable perversion of covenant teaching. View the Atonement in the covenant, and it is inevitably particular and limited in its purpose. Christ died to redeem the elect. The Confession says: ‘It pleased God, in His eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, His only begotten Son, to be the Mediator between God and man … unto whom (Christ) He did from all eternity give a people to be His seed, and to be by Him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified and glorified.’ Chapter 8, sec. 1.) And on the application of predestination it is said, ‘Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified and saved, but the elect only.’ (Chap. 3, sec. 6.) Now, what is emphasised is that Christ procured the certain complete salvation of the elect, and not that He made salvation possible for all. He redeemed all those given to Him, and no others.
But what is anti-Calvinism preaching to-day? What is pouring into our ears from every hand on this doctrine? Once again let Dr. Billy Graham lead the chorus, ‘God’s own Son was the only personality in the universe who had the capacity to bear in His own body the sins of the world. Certainly Gabriel might possibly have come and died for one person, but only God’s Son was infinite, and thus able to die for all.’ (‘Peace With God,’ page 77.) This unlimited atonement, supposedly making salvation possible for all, is of no conceivable significance unless both total depravity and divine predestination be denied, e.g., Suppose that Christ died for all men. If all men are totally depraved and incapable of willing any good, man is still left as hopelessly and helplessly lost as ever. Had the preaching of the Atonement in the scriptural scheme of the covenant of grace been all along maintained and insisted on, such distortions of Biblical truth might have been easier dealt with, or indeed not have appeared at all. For the terms of the covenant determine its application. And, since it is a covenant between the Father and the Son, that the Son should purchase and apply eternal life to the elect, including all its conditions, must we not accept Christ’s own disclosure regarding His purpose in fulfilling it, ‘I come to do Thy will, O God.’ So it follows, as Hugh Martin emphasised, ‘What He did, He designed to do; and whatever He designed to do, He designed because He was designated to do it.’
Further, Arminians falsely assume that to address the Gospel Call to every creature, it must be provided that Christ died for every creature. But the universal call of the Gospel is not based on an unlimited atonement at all, but on the command of God to preach the Gospel to every creature. Moreover, it is a call to God-glorifying eternal life as the goal, through God-given faith in Jesus Christ as the condition. It is a call to sinners outside the covenant of grace and all its benefits to come within. Preachers of the Gospel are sent to give the call ministerially, merely as ambassadors, to every creature. But it is Christ who really and effectually calls, and He calls in terms of the covenant, by His Spirit. That Is, He calls only those chosen and given to Him, and whom He redeemed.
Fathers and Brethren, Arminians rob Christ of these two precious fruits of His redemptive work – the purchase and bestowal of the saving grace of faith. That is the Christ-dishonouring doctrine of Arminianism, robbing Christ of much of His Mediatorial glory, yet so liberally proclaimed and acclaimed throughout our land to-day.
The bestowal of saving faith naturally leads us to the subject of how it is bestowed – the subject of Effectual Calling. This subject issuing in the conversion of the Lord’s people attracts much more attention among many than do the other less evident aspects of divine redemption. And yet the true work of grace is just as much misunderstood at this point as it is on all those already emphasised. The understanding of this work of grace influencing the whole attitude of the ambassadors of Christ in the work of the ministry as much, perhaps more, than many truths, in the light of which his calling is exercised. For this doctrine bears directly on the nature and the method of the commission with which he is charged. Characteristic of Reformed teaching on this subject is the scriptural fullness and completeness of the Spirit’s work in the soul, necessary to the saving change effected. For the sake of brevity, we shall confine ourselves to that excellent statement of the Shorter Catechism:- Q. 31: ‘Effectual Calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, He doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ freely offered to us in the Gospel.’ Everything stated there is emphasised as necessary to and included in the Spirit’s persuading and enabling the whole man to embrace Christ freely offered in the Gospel. But what saith the Arminian, all these benefits come in consequence of exercising faith in Christ. That inverts the order from the very outset.
Furthermore, the Arminian says, the benefits of Christ’s atonement only become effective if and when man chooses to believe in Christ. That is to say, the benefits procured by Christ only become effective if man fulfills the condition. Whether the whole operation of the provision of redemption in the electing love of God, the Father, the redeeming love of God, the Son and the regenerating love of God, the Holy Ghost, becomes effective or not, hangs entirely on the so-called free-will of depraved man! He must first repent and believe in Christ, which ability all men are said to possess, before the benefits of redemption can be his! Says Dr. Billy Graham again, ‘All through the Old Testament, God gave man the promise of salvation, if by faith he would believe in the coming Redeemer.’ And again, ‘Jesus secured for you a way back to God, but you do not have to accept it. God will not force Himself on any man against his will.’ Then, quoting John 3: 16, he continues, ‘God, in His infinite love and mercy, did that, but it is up to you as an individual to believe, to accept, and to be saved by the love of God.’ (‘Peace With God, page 30.) What distortion of truth is here! Half of salvation they will attribute to Christ – i.e., the work done for us, the other half to man, i.e., the work done in us (repentance and faith). Here it is, stated in even bolder relief than just quoted, ‘Salvation, forgiveness and justification are based entirely upon the atoning work of Christ. However, if the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is to be made effectual for any individual of any age, that individual must repent of sin and believe the Gospel of Christ.’ (‘Peace With God,’ page 104.) Concerning this very point, John Owen, the Puritan divine, wrote, ‘Oh, that Christians should patiently endure such a diminution of their Saviour’s honour, as with one dash of an Arminian pen to have the chief effects of His death and passion quite obliterated.’ (Vol. 10, page 101.)
Passing strange, is it not, how this Arminian monster returns time and again, to be employed, unrecognised, by so many undiscerning, though earnest souls! Yet that whole erroneous system is the mixture on which this campaign-hungry age satisfies its appetite for decisions for Christ. If it was a fatal error for Israel to rely upon a presumed righteousness they never had, it is an equally fatal error for depraved man to rely upon a presumed faith he never possessed. Yet what a tragic disillusionment may well await many, upon the uncovering of this false faith. But what awful responsibility of falsifying truth and misdirecting mankind must the Arminian assume.
We cannot close our eyes to the prevalence of this error, nor can we afford to treat its expansion with indifference. And this is no private opinion, not insular alarm, that we express. Among others, Prof. John Murray, of Westminster, wrote: ‘A very cursory survey of present-day conditions in the church will disclose that fact’ (that Arminianism is not a dead issue) ‘for there are multitudes in the Protestant Church who hold and avow the tenets given vogue by James Arminius. This is true, whether we are aware of it or not, or whether they have ever heard of Arminius or not. So, while our interest in Arminius himself may be largely an historical one, we have to be interested in that which Arminianism represents. We have to be, because we are either living it or we are living next door to it. We cannot but be interested in the view we ourselves hold, or the view held by our next-seat neighbour in the church. We cannot get away from it if we are to think and live in a way worthy of even mediocre Christian intelligence.’ This error can only be met by the doctrine of the Word, Scriptural, set forth, not in a disjointed patchwork, but in its scriptural unity, so that it cannot be broken, much less fall to pieces in our hands.
Fathers and Brethren, we have been endeavouring to emphasise the need for Reformed preaching to-day. It has ever been the power of God unto salvation. This is the doctrine of the whole Word of God. Those mightily used of God in proclaiming these truths were men much given to the study of the Scriptures. Their lives in the biography of the church stand out like a mountain range. If they were eminent in general, they excelled in this particular – the Word of God dwelt in them richly. They discerned the truth by walking in its light. They became expert with this weapon because it was always in their hands. Our day calls for the same things again – Reformed preaching of covenant theology by men of God, mighty in the Scriptures.