The Warrant for Faith
Confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian Christians believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for purpose of saving His “sheep” (i.e, the elect; John 10), and His sheep alone. He did not die for the purpose of merely making salvation possible for everyone, provided they meet certain conditions (the errant doctrine of universal atonement); but rather He died for the purpose of actually securing salvation (and everything needed for salvation – including the gift of saving faith) for His elect, and His elect alone. But, it is objected, if Christ died only for the elect, how can the church evangelize unbelievers? If we cannot say to an unbeliever, “Christ died for you” (which we cannot if we are to be consistent in our confession of particular atonement, since we cannot know whether or not the unbeliever we are sharing the gospel with is one of the elect), then what is the unbeliever’s warrant for exercising faith in Christ? After all, the unbeliever cannot know that he is one of God’s elect (one of Christ’s “sheep”), and thus that Christ died in particular for him, unless and until he repents of his unbelief and trusts in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. Must he wait for some “move of the Spirit” upon his soul before he seeks to exercise faith? (After all, if he is unregenerate he is in bondage to sin, morally unable and unwilling to believe the gospel, until he is born again by the Holy Spirit – Jn. 3:3.) Must he look within himself or at his behavior to see if he bears some internal or external “fruits” of election (for example, conviction of sin, a longing for and love for Christ as He is presented in the gospel, a desire for holiness) before he can seek to exercise faith?(1) In short, what is the warrant for faith in Christ? The great Reformed Theologian Dr. John Murray addresses this issue in a helpful way in his classic book, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1955):
“Faith…is a whole-souled movement of self-commitment to Christ for salvation from sin and its consequences. It is not unnecessary to ask the question: what warrant does a lost sinner have to commit himself to Christ? How may he know that he will be accepted? How does he know that Christ is able to save him? How does he know that this confidence is not misplaced? How does he know that Christ is willing to save him? These are urgent questions, perhaps not urgent for the person who has no true conception of the issues at stake or of the gravity of his lost condition, but exceedingly urgent and pertinent for the person convicted of sin and in whose heart burns the reality and realization of the wrath of God against sin…” (p. 107)
Murray lists the universal offer of the gospel as the first warrant for faith: “This offer may be regarded from several viewpoints. It may be regarded as invitation, as demand, as promise, and as overture. But from whatever angle we may view it, it is full, free, and unrestricted.” (p. 107)
He next lists the all-sufficiency and suitability of the Savior presented as another warrant for faith: “When Christ is presented to lost men in the proclamation of the gospel, it is as Savior he is presented, as one who ever continues to be the embodiment of the salvation he has once for all accomplished. It is not the possibility of salvation that is offered to lost men but the Savior himself and therefore salvation full and perfect. There is no imperfection in the salvation offered and there is no restriction to its overture – it is full, free, and unrestricted. And this is the warrant of faith…And it is of paramount concern to know that Christ is presented to all without distinction to the end that they may entrust themselves to him for salvation. The gospel offer is not restricted to the elect or even to those for whom Christ died. And the warrant of faith is not the conviction that we are elect or that we are among those for whom, strictly speaking, Christ died but the fact that Christ, in the glory of his person, in the perfection of his finished work, and in the efficacy of his exalted activity as King and Savior, is presented to us in the full, free, and unrestricted overture of the gospel. It is not as persons convinced of our election nor as persons convinced that we are the special objects of God’s love that we commit ourselves to him but as lost sinners. We entrust ourselves to him not because we believe we have been saved but as lost sinners in order that we may be saved. It is to us in our lost condition that the warrant of faith is given and the warrant is not restricted or circumscribed in any way. In the warrant of faith the rich mercy of God is proffered to the lost and the promise of grace is certified by the veracity and faithfulness of God. This is the ground upon which a lost sinner may commit himself to Christ in full confidence that he will be saved. And no sinner to whom the gospel comes is excluded from the divine warrant for such confidence.” (pp. 109-110, emphasis added)(2)
The universal offer of the gospel, and the all-sufficiency and suitability of Christ our Savior, provide a firm, biblical warrant for coming to faith in Christ. Dear reader, in the gospel God offers Christ and His salvation to you. What will you do with Christ? How will you respond to God’s offer of grace to you in the Lord Jesus Christ?
(1) Urging an unbeliever or someone under conviction of sin to look within themselves for fruits of regeneration (and hence election) before urging them to repent and believe the gospel is a spiritually disastrous procedure for dealing with such precious souls. The last thing an unbeliever (or a weak believer struggling with assurance of salvation) needs is to be thrown back on himself (his own state of soul, his own works, his own “affections,” his own “self examination,” etc.). The gospel is outside of us! It is the good news of what Jesus Christ did, outside of us, 2,000 years ago in real space-time history in order to redeem us wretched sinners from our sin by His death and resurrection! Urging unbelievers under conviction of sin to look within themselves for fruits of regeneration as a warrant for coming to Christ/faith in Christ is to direct them inward and to immerse them into a potential quagmire of agonizing introspection (for example, “Have I really believed?” “Am I truly repentant?” “Do I really desire to live a holy life?”, ad infinitum, world without end). Both unbelievers under conviction and weak believers struggling with assurance need to be pointed first and foremost to the external Word of the gospel, wherein God offers to all sinners who hear it life and salvation by Jesus Christ, based upon the infinite merit and perfection of His death and resurrection. In addition, the weak or struggling believer can also be pointed to his own baptism and to the Lord’s Supper (in the case of communicant members of the church), for the general promise of the external Word of the gospel which is proclaimed indiscriminately to all who hear it, is applied particularly and individually to the baptized and communicants, provided they believe the good news signified and sealed in their baptism and in the holy supper. (Please note: Like the Word, the sacraments are God’s gifts of grace to us, not our works or merits that we offer to God. As the empty hand of faith receives Christ as He is offered in the Word, so it also receives Christ as He is delivered to us in baptism and the holy supper.) After receiving foundational, basic assurance of salvation from the external Word as it is read and preached, and in the sacramental Word of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (all of which direct our faith to Christ crucified and risen as our only hope of salvation), the believer’s assurance is supplemented and strengthened as he observes the fruits of regeneration in his life (as we see taught in the Epistle of First John). But when dealing with souls in distress and under conviction we must never point them to themselves or throw them back upon their own resources or their own state of soul, religious affections, works, merits, or behavior. Instead, we must bring them to the cross of Jesus through the Word and sacraments. Faith comes by hearing the Word of the gospel (Rom. 10:17), not through navel-gazing or hyper-introspection or emotional affectation (and especially not through “just trying harder” – which is Law, not Gospel!).
(2) Some of a hyper-Calvinist leaning object to belief in the free offer of the gospel because they think it contradicts the biblical and reformed doctrine of unconditional election and its’ opposite, sovereign reprobation, as well as contradicting the doctrine of “limited atonement.” “But how can God in the gospel genuinely and sincerely offer Christ to those whom He has not elected to salvation? How can the benefits of Christ’s redeeming work be genuinely offered in the gospel to those for whom Christ did not die?” First, we must remember that, while Christ died for the purpose of saving only the elect, nevertheless His atonement is of infinite value; and thus its redemptive efficacy may be genuinely offered to all who hear the gospel. Secondly, we must acknowledge that there is a level of mystery here. The Bible reveals many things that may, at least on the surface, seem to be contradictory truths (though ultimately they are not real contradictions; God’s Word, properly interpreted, contains no genuine contradictions). For example, the Bible teaches that there is only one God, but this one God exists eternally in three Persons. The Bible teaches that God is absolutely sovereign; but the same Bible also teaches that man is completely morally responsible. Just as God’s oneness and threeness may seem to be contradictory (but in reality they aren’t); and just as Divine sovereignty and human responsibility may seem to be contradictory (but in reality they aren’t); in the same way the Reformed doctrine of “limited atonement” and the belief in “the free offer of the gospel” may seem to be incompatible and contradictory; but in reality they aren’t. Let us beware of the danger of bringing a rationalistic mindset into this issue. All we need to know is this: Christ died only for the elect, but at the same time in the gospel God genuinely offers Christ and His saving benefits to all who hear it. There is mystery here, to be sure, but no real contradiction.