The Gospel and Its Extent
Chapter twenty of the Second London Baptist Confession is about the gospel. This is a chapter where we cannot use commentaries written for the Westminster Confession since it is taken from the Puritan Congregationalists’ Savoy Declaration (1658). The Westminster Confession does not have a chapter committed exclusively to the gospel, so one was added, even though the material contained in chapter twenty can be found throughout the confession. On the surface such a chapter on the gospel may seem relatively mundane or obvious, especially in light of our own Reformed culture’s resurgence of gospel-centered preaching and evangelism. But when looking further into the language of this chapter, it stands out as one of the most exciting and unique in the entire confession because of what it claims about the extent and, by default, the limits of the gospel, as well as its prophetic insight into our own culture’s tendency to use pragmatism instead of biblical means when dealing with the lost. Such a chapter only gives more aptitude to the richest Reformed confession in existence.
How Far Does the Gospel Reach?
Whenever one speaks of the extent of something, it is a tacit acknowledgement to the limits or boundaries of that thing. Such is the case here with regards to the gospel. Although paragraph one points to the gospel as something “revealed and made effectual for the conversion and salvation of sinners,” paragraph three recognizes that this gospel will not be preached to, much less believed in by, every person. It is true that “the gospel has been revealed to sinners in various times and in different places,” but it is also true the gospel has not been revealed to everyone. Hordes of people have come into the world and died without ever hearing about Christ. So, while on the one hand the confession acknowledges that the gospel will be rejected by numerous people to whom it is preached,1 on the other hand it makes clear that many won’t even have such a chance. This is what makes the gospel itself so precious. This is what makes hearing the gospel such a privilege. Such limitation of the gospel will be seen as offensive to many modern Christians. Even more offensive, however, will be the reason why so many people are overlooked with the gospel: “The particular nations and individuals who are granted this revelation are chosen solely according to the sovereign will and good pleasure of God.”
Such a sentence is as remarkable as it is biblical. God called a man living in Harran to be the father of the faith (Gen 12:1) rather than, say, an Egyptian. Paul was kept from going to Asia and Bithynia with the gospel by the Holy Spirit in favor of Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10). Reformed believers are accustomed to talk about God saving some and not others according to His sovereign will alone. But how many of us are accustomed to think in the categories here brought out by the confession? Even the nations and neighborhoods to which the gospel goes is done so “according to the counsel of the will of God” alone. And, similar to God’s election of some unto everlasting life without any recourse to foreseen merit in them, so it is here regarding where the gospel goes: “The choice does not depend on any promise to those who demonstrate good stewardship of their natural abilities based on common light received apart from the gospel.” The confession even goes a step further, pointing out that “no one has ever done this nor can anyone do so,” referring us to Romans 1:18-32 as a proof text of the sinking degradation of humanity.
It is important to note that the content of this chapter was written in part to address the heresy of Deism, which stresses the sufficiency of human reason and natural revelation in contrast to the biblical teaching of total depravity and the need for special revelation. For our purposes here, the confession is pointing out that the gospel does not go to cities or houses that are more pious than others, or that evidence more natural ability for godliness than others. The confession admits that such “natural ability” is impossible: “No one has ever done this nor can anyone do so.” This is why God has every right to leave some countries destitute of the gospel while deciding to shower other places with it. He has every right to keep back missionaries from one city or village while opening up floodgates into another. The West once saw outbursts of spiritual blessing while the Orient languished in perversion. Today it seems the Orient is seeing genuine revival while the West atrophies under naturalism, materialism, and a growing surge of witchcraft and the occult.2
If we consider America specifically, rural America is being overlooked by many church planters and mission organizations in favor of faster, more appealing urban areas.3 Geographically, it goes without saying that America’s coasts are typically seen as “less Christian” than areas more inland. What can account for this? Where are we to turn for an explanation? The confession gives us the answer: “In every age the preaching of the gospel to individuals and nations has been granted in widely varying degrees of expansion and contraction, according to the counsel of the will of God.” During the Reformation and Puritan-era, there was an expansion of gospel preaching in the West. Today, in general, there is a contraction.
Just because God determines where the gospel goes, it does not mean we should not do everything in our power to reach overlooked places. Missionaries and preachers are often burdened about certain locations. This can be a good sign that God is desiring to see the gospel go forth into those areas. Even when there is hardship or roadblocks regarding such enterprises, it does not always mean it is God shutting the door. William Carey saw little support from others as he was preparing to go to India.4 Once there, at one point he said, “I am very fruitless and almost useless but the Word and the attributes of God are my hope, and my confidence, and my joy, and I trust that his glorious designs will undoubtedly be answered.”5 His wife went insane. A decade went by before anyone was saved. But eventually the gospel brought a harvest. Although God does keep the gospel from penetrating certain areas, difficulties or trials do not always indicate that God is shutting the door. Each missionary or preacher will have to determine whether God is the one burdening their heart for a certain area, but once convinced, it is the duty of the missionary or preacher to stay the course and preach the gospel.
The Necessity of Gospel Proclamation
In an astounding way, the confession manages in four short paragraphs to bring out the relationship between God’s sovereignty and the importance of gospel proclamation to the lost. Perhaps most importantly, though subtly, it gives us the motive for evangelizing. In the first paragraph, the confession alludes to God as the first to proclaim the gospel: “God was pleased to proclaim the promise of Christ, the seed of the woman, as the means of calling the elect and producing in them faith and repentance.” It is therefore fitting that we follow in His steps. God Himself was the first evangelist to the human race. He “was pleased” to herald the gospel to people who had recently broken the covenant of works. That God did not blot out the human race but instead proclaimed to them the promise of a Savior is the great mystery that Peter speaks of as something even angels long to look into (1 Pet 1:12). It indicates that God, motivated by love, had already determined to send “Christ, the seed of the woman, as the means of calling the elect.” This promise was the same for both Old Testament and New Testament believers. Samuel Waldron is right to point out that
The unity of the message of salvation in all ages is confirmed. Men have always been saved in the same way and by the same gospel. In the Old Testament and in the New Testament that gospel was revealed. Every man ever saved was saved by its means. This corrects the indecisive Christian who wants to say that men were always saved by Christ, yet has also been taught that somehow it was different in the Old Testament. For such we have this assurance, men have always been saved in the same way—full stop!6
Chapter twenty also gives us the reason for why gospel outreach is so necessary, and why “the gospel is the only outward means of revealing Christ and saving grace.” Natural revelation alone is never enough for an unbeliever “to attain saving faith or repentance.” This again is meant to combat the claims of Deism, but it is just as relevant in our own culture. Naturalism, relativism, existentialism, and even the occult all attempt to elevate the authority of man to the place where specific, divine revelation is not needed for salvation. Though everyone knows God exists (Rom 1:18-32), neither creation nor the conscience can reveal “Christ or grace through Him, even in a general or obscure way.” For a helpful commentary on this point, consider chapter ten, paragraph four of the confession: “Much less can any be saved who do not receive the Christian religion, no matter how diligently they live their lives according to the light of nature and the teachings of the religion they profess.” This establishes the importance of actual gospel proclamation. The unbeliever must “hear” about Christ (Rom 10:14) in order to believe in Him, but in order to hear about Christ, someone must go and preach the gospel. Paul summarizes this when writing to the Romans: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). Looking at the stars won’t reveal Christ. Spending hours in contemplative chanting won’t do it either. It requires a human being going to another human being and declaring the gospel.
This theme of hearing the gospel is persistent throughout all of Paul’s letters. When writing to the Thessalonians he says, “For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe” (1 Thess 2:13). And again, when writing to the Galatians, Paul says, “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith” (Gal 3:2)? And again, to the Ephesians, he says, “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation” (Eph 1:13). This is where biblical evangelism comes in: “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?” (Rom 10:14). John Owen agrees, noting, “The way principally insisted on by the apostles was, by preaching the word itself unto them in the evidence and demonstration of the Spirit.”7 Even when derided or imprisoned by unbelievers, “Yet they desisted not from pursuing their work in the same way; whereunto God gave success.”8 This is what makes this chapter so imperative for our own day, since it verifies that human reason is insufficient for salvation.
The Sufficiency of the Gospel
The last paragraph of chapter twenty tells us that “the gospel is abundantly sufficient” and is “the only outward means of revealing Christ and saving grace.” This is important for us to remember in a culture that relies so heavily on pragmatism in missions and evangelism.9 Many Christians claim to believe what the Bible says about the power of the gospel to save, but when it comes to evangelism you rarely see them living this out. This includes some Reformed Christians. Many will pray for people to be saved without ever sharing the gospel with the people they pray for. They will fly thousands of miles to build someone a house, trying to “share” the gospel by their deeds. They will spend months trying to establish a “relationship” with someone before sharing the demands of Christ. But that is not what we find in the Scriptures.
Consider for example the Acts of the Apostles. Far from believing humans were capable of receiving the truth of Christ from “the works of creation and providence, when assisted only by the light of nature,” they were adamant about doing everything in their power to communicate the gospel to everyone with whom they came into contact. The following are verbs used in the Acts of the Apostles to describe the work of evangelism: to testify (Acts 2:40), to proclaim (Acts 4:2), to preach the gospel (Acts 5:42), to herald (Acts 8:5), to teach (Acts 4:2), to argue (Acts 17:2), to dispute (Acts 9:29), to confound (Acts 9:22), to prove (Acts 17:3), to confute powerfully (Acts 18:28), to persuade (Acts 17:4). This is why the proclamation of the gospel must be our aim, since “the gospel is the power of God to salvation” (Rom 1:16) and “is the only outward means of revealing Christ and saving grace.”
John Stott, writing in his early days, recognized that “nothing hinders evangelism today more than the widespread loss of confidence in the truth, relevance and power of the gospel.”10 Walter Chantry points out, “Our evangelism must be based upon a dependence on the Lord. Our hope of results must be in Him, not in man’s will or in any other faculty of our hearer. But it pleases God to raise dead sinners through the foolishness of Gospel preaching.”11 Biblical evangelism is getting the gospel to people. People must be exposed to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Any other “method” can be contributed to a lack of faith in the gospel and a disbelief in the sufficiency of the Bible, which alone should be our guide for how to “do” evangelism.
This paragraph also gives us the reason why the gospel is abundantly sufficient for its purpose of “revealing Christ and saving grace.” It is because God alone can save sinners, and He does so through the “effectual, irresistible work of the Holy Spirit in every part of their souls to produce in them a new spiritual life.” Modern Christianity often uses pragmatic techniques in evangelism because they have unbiblical views of man and conversion. Arminian and semi-Pelagian views of the will, sin, and human nature neglect the Scriptural teaching on these points.12 The minds of the unregenerate are set on the flesh (Rom 8:6). Their wills are enslaved to sin (John 8:34). The unregenerate are woefully incapable of saving themselves based on a decision or any kind of performance. In chapter nine, paragraph three, the confession states it this way: “Humanity, by falling to a state of sin, has completely lost all ability to choose any spiritual good that accompanies salvation. Thus, people in their natural state are absolutely opposed to spiritual good and dead in sin, so that they cannot convert themselves by their own strength or prepare themselves for conversion.”
It is no secret that Western Christianity has been pulverized by weak, watered-down approaches to evangelism, resulting in far more false converts than anything genuine. Such approaches either hide the true gospel under a bushel or they make it easy as possible to “make a decision.” Carnality is now rampant in the churches in an attempt to please such counterfeits. The blame must be cast upon a disbelief in the view that the confession takes, that “to be born again, brought to life or regenerated, those who are dead in trespasses also must have an effectual irresistible work of the Holy Spirit in every part of their souls to produce in them a new spiritual life.” This is why the importance of the Holy Spirit working through the gospel cannot be underestimated, which is what the last two sentences of the chapter alludes to.
The Holy Spirit and Prayer
Since no other means but the Holy Spirit working through the gospel “will bring about their conversion to God,” prayer cannot be overlooked when it comes to the gospel. Every gospel seed that is cast must be prayed over. Every field that is plowed with gospel preaching must be rained on with supplication. We must pray for souls in the prayer meetings. We must pray for souls at the supper table and in the closet. We must wrestle with God for souls as Jacob did in Genesis. Plead in the name of Christ for more souls to be saved. Plead with God to give the gift of faith to the lost. Preach and pray. Preach and pray. This is biblical evangelism. And yet, sadly, we all know how often the prayer meetings are neglected: “At a certain meeting of ministers and church officers, one after another doubted the value of prayer meetings; all confessed that they had a very small attendance, and several acknowledged without the slightest compunction that they had quite given them up.”13 How can we expect souls to be saved if we have no genuine passion to see it happen? Will Metzger agrees in Tell the Truth: “We should have a great expectancy in our prayers. God is willing and able to save a great number of people.”14 Also J.I. Packer reminds us to “pray for those whom we seek to win, that the Holy Spirit will open their hearts; and we should pray for ourselves in our own witness.”15 John Owen also notes the value of praying for the lost, saying about them, “Our duty is to pray that God would pour forth his Spirit even on them also, who will quickly cause them to ‘look on him whom they have pierced, and mourn.”16
When we actually believe, like the confession does, that the gospel is abundantly sufficient for revealing Christ to the lost and that only the Holy Spirit can make our gospel call effective, we will also realize the impotence and even blasphemy of pragmatism and man-made measures. Even if our preaching sees little fruit, we have no business tampering with the God-given means of gospel proclamation and prayer when it comes to missions and evangelism. This is because the Holy Spirit working through the gospel will always prove effectual for those who are called. Consider Jesus’ great lesson on evangelism. He goes to the disciples after they had toiled all night for fish but caught nothing. They are tired and discouraged. He tells them to cast the net on the other side of the boat. Peter even says, “But we’ve fished all night and caught nothing” (Luke 5:5). Peter is implying, of course, that having seen no success previously, there won’t be any success the next time either. But despite the mild protest, off they go, throwing the net out on the other side. Nothing was different than last time. They didn’t try a new technique or consult their colleagues about latest fishing fads. They trusted in Jesus’ words to go try it again. They did not say to Jesus, “But you’re a carpenter, not a fisherman.” They knew who the Lord of the Harvest was. They trusted His sovereignty and they obeyed His orders. They were blessed with a great catch. Who is to say it won’t be the same for us the next time we go forth to evangelize? And even if it is not, we must remember that, “the gospel is the only outward means of revealing Christ and saving grace, and it is abundantly sufficient for that purpose.” It is fitting that the chapter concludes with a reminder that the Holy Spirit working through the gospel is the only means that “will bring about their conversion to God.”
Even though it is the will of God alone that determines where the gospel goes, He uses humans to transport it. What a privilege this is, considering that God was the first to communicate the gospel to man and we are imitating Him whenever we do the same. This is also why God burdens our heart about certain ministries or locations, since in His sovereign will and good pleasure, He is still seeing that the gospel goes to the lost in “varying degrees of expansion and contraction.” The gospel we carry is the pearl of great price (Matt 13:45-46). It is the only hope man has of salvation and it must be proclaimed since “the light of nature” will never do the job. We can go forth in full assurance that God, through “the effectual, irresistible work of the Holy Spirit,” will use the gospel to call forth His sheep and that, once gathered, He will never cast them out (John 6:37). This chapter is just as relevant in our own day as it was in the seventeenth century. For this reason, we can be thankful the authors of the Second London Baptist Confession decided to include it.
1 See chapter ten, paragraph four of the Second LBC: “Those who are not elected will not and cannot truly come to Christ and therefore cannot be saved, because they are not effectually drawn by the Father.”
2 See The Christian Post article from October 10, 2018 entitled, “Witches Outnumber Presbyterians in the US; Wicca, Paganism, Growing ‘Astronomically.’
3 The SBC’s North American Mission Board is a good example of this. They have strategically chosen large cities as their “focus areas.”
4 See Michael A.G. Haykin’s The Missionary Fellowship of William Carey (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2018).
5 William Carey to Mary Carey and Ann Hobson, December 22, 1796, in The Journal and Selected Letters of William Carey, ed. Terry G. Carter (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2000), 249.
6 Samuel E. Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition, 3rd ed. (Webster, Ny.: Evangelical Press, 1999), 248.
7 John Owen, The Work of The Spirit, ed. William H. Goold (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust: 1967), 103.
9 The author would agree with John MacArthur’s definition of pragmatism: “The notion that meaning or worth is determined by practical consequences.” Ashamed of the Gospel (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 26.
10 John Stott, “The Biblical Basis of Evangelism,” Plenary Address at the First International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland, 1974. Retrieved from www.lausanne.org.
11 Walter J. Chantry, Today’s Gospel: Authentic or Synthetic? (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1970), 86.
12 For more elaboration, see Tom Ascol’s Traditional Theology & the SBC, pp. 69-78 (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2018).
13 Charles H. Spurgeon, “Another Word Concerning the Down-Grade,” The Sword and the Trowel(August 1887), 397-398.
14 Will Metzger, Tell the Truth (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2012), 207.
15 J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1961), 119-120.
16 John Owen, The Work of The Spirit, ed. William H. Goold (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust: 1967), 103.