The Sincere Free Offer of the Gospel in the Westminster Standards and Divines

Travis Fentiman



Order of Contents

1.  Introduction
2.  The Westminster Standards
3.  The Westminster Divines  (21)

Gillespie, Rutherford, Arrowsmith, Burgess, Burroughs, Caryl, Case, Featly, Gataker, Greenhill, Gouge, Harris, Leigh, Ley, Newcomen, Reynolds, Sedgwick, Simpson, Taylor, Valentine, Vines.  




1.  Introduction


Sometimes it is held that “offer” in the Confession and Catechisms does not imply that God has a gracious purpose to give what He offers, or that He does not desire the recipients to take the offer.  This, however, is shown not to be the case on two counts:

1.  Light on the interpretation and intention of the Confession and Catechisms is found in the Assembly’s Directory of Public Worship which says that these offers: are “invitations,” express “God’s goodness, forbearance and longsuffering,” and are proffered by “motions of his own Holy Spirit”:

Westminster Directory of Public Worship, ‘Of Publick Prayer before the Sermon.’

“…which sins of ours receive many fearful aggravations, we having broken all the commandments of the holy, just, and good law of God, doing that which is forbidden, and leaving undone what is enjoined; and that not only out of ignorance and infirmity, but also more presumptuously, against the light of our minds, checks of our consciences, and motions of his own Holy Spirit to the contrary, so that we have no cloak for our sins; yea, not only despising the riches of God’s goodness, forbearance, and long-suffering, but standing out against many invitations and offers of grace in the gospel; not endeavoring, as we ought, to receive Christ into our hearts by faith, or to walk worthy of him in our lives.” 

According to the Directory, some people presumptuously act contrary to the motions of the Holy Spirit.  That is, the Holy Spirit acts upon them in one direction, and they successfully resist such motions in going the contrary direction.  Then, notice that the Directory quotes the language of Rom. 2:4 (interpreting it in a Sincere Free Offer sense), which says,

Or despisest thou the riches of His goodness and forebearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?

These motions (according to Rom. 2:4 which the Directory quotes) are for the purpose of leading these people to repentance, which people (according to the Directory) yet stand out against the invitations and offers of the gospel.  See also the Westminster Confession of Faith, 10:4 on the common operations of the Spirit in the call of the Gospel with Larger Catechism #68 on the same and #105 on resisting and grieving the Spirit.

The Westminster Divine, Edward Reynolds, in his The Life of Christ, (bound in his Three Treatises) reflects the common thought of, and usage of, the phrase, “common operations of the Spirit”, at the time in 1631 before the Assembly (in 1643-8), which phrase designated the ineffectual and resisted drawings of the reprobate to Christ:

“It is one of God’s extremest judgments to give men over to themselves, and leave them to follow their own rules.  When He has first woo’d men by his Spirit, and that is resisted; enticed them by his mercies, and they are abused; threatened them with his judgments, and they are mis-attributed to second causes; cried unto them by his prophets, and they are reviled; sent his own Son to persuade them, and He is trampled on and despised: when He offers to teach them, and they stop their ears; to lead them, and they pull away their shoulder; to convert them, and they hardened their heart; when they set up mounds against the Gospel, as it were to non-plus and pose the mercies of God, that there may be no remedy left; then after all these indignities to the Spirit of Grace, this is the judgement with which God uses to revenge the quarrel of his Grace and Covenant, to leave them to the hardness and impenitency of their own hearts, to be a rule and way unto themselves.  My people would not hearken to my voice, and Israel would none of me.”

For documentation of three more Assembly members and 35+ theologians from the 1500’s and 1600’s understanding the ‘common operations’ of the Spirit in the same way (showing the general understanding of the phrase during the Reformation and puritan era), see The Common Operations of the Spirit in Puritanism.


2.  Further light is shed on the Assembly’s meaning behind the terms ‘offer’ and “invite” when the writings of the Westminster divines are compared with the Standards.  The writings of 18 of the Divines are extensively quoted below on this webpage under Section 3 where the same language of “offer” clearly conveys desire that the recipients should receive what God lovingly and mercifully offers them.  “Invite” was a more specific and stronger term than a simple moral command (such as the Ten Commandments).

The reformed went out of their way to defend that the “offer” was sincere and reflected God’s will that the people that heard it should embrace it and be saved, as the Arminians (and those who deny the sincere free offer today) accused them that such an offer could not be sincere in light of God’s predestination.  Thus Samuel Rutherford (a commissioner to the Assembly) says in his Christ Dying and Drawing Sinners to Himself, p.  440:

“It [Isa. 55:1-3] expresses two things:

1. A vehemency and a serious and unfeigned ardency of desire that we do what is our duty, and the concatenation of these two, extremely desired of God, our coming to Christ and our salvation.  This moral connection between faith and salvation is desired of God with his will of approbation, complacency, and moral liking, without all dissimulation, most unfeignedly; and whereas Arminians say, we make counterfeit, feigned, and hypocritical desires in God, they calumniate and cavil egregiously, as their custom is.”

Also in A Survey of that Survey of that Sum of Church Discipline, Book 1, Chapter 16, Rutherford, in the immediate context of the sincerity of the free offer of the gospel, says:

“Whereas he [Thomas Hooker, wrongfully] says, The distinction of voluntas beneplaciti [will of good-pleasure, God’s decrees and election], and voluntas approbans [will of approval, God’s commands including the sincere offer of the gospel], contains apparent contradictions.  It seems he never heard of this distinction allowed by the Reformed Churches; and that he joins with the Arminians [and those who deny the sincere free offer of the gospel], who teach, That this distinction places in God two contrary wills; and that He wills and decrees one thing from eternity, and commands and approves the contrary to his creatures: Hence there must be guile and dissimulation, and no serious dealing in the Lords commands, says Arminius…”





2.  The Westminster Standards



The Directory for Public Worship

Of Publick Prayer before the Sermon.

“which sins of ours receive many fearful aggravations, we having broken all the commandments of the holy, just, and good law of God, doing that which is forbidden, and leaving undone what is enjoined; and that not only out of ignorance and infirmity, but also more presumptuously, against the light of our minds, checks of our consciences, and motions of his own Holy Spirit to the contrary, so that we have no cloak for our sins; yea, not only despising the riches of God’s goodness, forbearance, and long-suffering, but standing out against many invitations and offers of grace in the gospel; not endeavouring, as we ought, to receive Christ into our hearts by faith, or to walk worthy of him in our lives.” 



The Westminster Confession of Faith

Ch. 2.1

“There is but one only living and true God, who ismost loving, gracious, merciful, long suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.” 

[William Shedd comments (Calvinism: Pure and Mixed, 1893, pp. 24-5):

Of whom speaks the Confession this?  Of the God of the elect only?  Or of the God of every man?  Is He the God of the elect only?  Is He not also of the non-elect?  Is this description of the gracious nature and attributes of God intended to be restricted to a part of mankind?  Is not God as thus delineated the Creator and Father of every man without exception?  Can it be supposed that the authors of this statement meant to be understood to say that God is not such a being for all men, but only for some?  If this section does not teach the unlimited love and compassion of God towards all men as men, as his creatures, it teaches nothing.”

Shedd argues on pp. 25-9 for the conclusion:

“With what show of reason can it be said that a symbol [creed] containing such declarations as these respecting the nature and attributes of God, his requirement that every man confess sin to Him, repent of it, pray for its forgiveness and trust in his mercy, contains no announcement of his infinite love and compassion [to all men]?”]

Ch. 7.3  of God’s Covenant with Man

Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.


Ch. 10.2 of Effectual Calling

This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.


Ch. 10.4

Others, not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved…

[Note that the common operations of the Spirit are connected to the call of the ministry of the Word, and thus refer to the non-salvific, non-effectual, but sincere drawings, motions, and suasions of the Holy Spirit on the reprobate that he should embrace and believe on Christ in the Gospel.  One of the proof-texts in the WCF is Heb. 6:4,5.  Compare Larger Catechism #105, which speaks of resisting and grieving the Holy Spirit.  “Resisting” means actively opposing a force that would draw one to a given end.  “Grieving” conveys going against the sincere good pleasure and will of someone.  Compare the Directory of Public Worship above.]


Ch. 28.6 of Baptism

The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongs unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in His appointed time.


The Shorter Catechism

24. How doth Christ execute the office of a prophet?

Christ executeth the office of a prophet, in revealing to us, by his word and Spirit, the will of God for our salvation.

[Note that the Revealed Will of God is a true revelation of God’s will.  See also LC #93.  Thus God’s will is not limited to the secret decrees of God as described elsewhere in the Standards]


31. What is effectual calling?

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.


86. What is faith in Jesus Christ?

Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.


The Larger Catechism

32. How is the grace of God manifested in the second covenant?

The grace of God is manifested in the second covenant, in that he freely provideth and offereth to sinners a mediator, and life and salvation by him; and requiring faith as the condition to interest them in him, promiseth and giveth his Holy Spirit to all his elect, to work in them that faith, with all other saving graces; and to enable them unto all holy obedience, as the evidence of the truth of their faith and thankfulness to God, and as the way which he hath appointed them to salvation.


63. What are the special privileges of the visible church?

The visible church hath the privilege of being under God’s special care and government; of being protected and preserved in all ages, notwithstanding the opposition of all enemies; and of enjoying the communion of saints, the ordinary means of salvation, and offers of grace by Christ to all the members of it in the ministry of the gospel, testifying, that whosoever believes in him shall be saved, and excluding none that will come unto him.


67. What is effectual calling?

Effectual calling is the work of God’s almighty power and grace, whereby (out of his free and special love to his elect, and from nothing in them moving him thereunto) he doth, in his accepted time, invite and draw them to Jesus Christ, by his word and Spirit; savingly enlightening their minds, renewing and powerfully determining their wills, so as they (although in themselves dead in sin) are hereby made willing and able freely to answer his call, and to accept and embrace the grace offered and conveyed therein.


68. Are the elect only effectually called?

All the elect, and they only, are effectually called; although others may be, and often are, outwardly called by the ministry of the word, and have some common operations of the Spirit; who, for their willful neglect and contempt of the grace offered to them, being justly left in their unbelief, do never truly come to Jesus Christ.

[See the note on WCF 10.4 and the Directory of Public Worship above.]


93. What is the moral law?

The moral law is the declaration of the will of God to mankind, directing and binding every one to personal, perfect, and perpetual conformity and obedience thereunto, in the frame and disposition of the whole man, soul and body, and in performance of all those duties of holiness and righteousness which he oweth to God and man promising life upon the fulfilling, and threatening death upon the breach of it.

[Note that the will of God is not limited to His secret decrees, but is also expressed and revealed by His moral commands.  Thus, His commands to mankind to repent and believe the Gospel are His will that all mankind, elect and reprobate, should repent and believe the Gospel.  As this aspect of God’s moral will is resisted and broken by sinners, so is the Sincere Free Offer of the Gospel, though it be no less God’s will.]


105. What are the sins forbidden in the first commandment?

The sins forbidden in the first commandment, are… slighting and despising God and his commands; resisting and grieving of his Spirit



The Westminster Assembly 

The Minutes of the Session of the Westminster Assembly of Di­vines, edited by Alexander F. Mitchell and John Struthers, Edin­burgh 1874.

Resolution by session 873 of the Westminster Assem­bly, on July 2, 1647:

“Q. Are all they saved by Christ who live within the visible church and hear the gospel? 

A. Although the visible church (which is a society made up of such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the true religion, and of their children) do enjoy many special favours and privileges whereby it is distinguished from other societies in the world, and the gospel where it cometh doth tender salvation by Christ to all, testifying that whosoever believes in him shall be saved, and excludeth none that come unto him; yet none do or can truly come unto Christ, or are saved by him, but only the members of the invisible church, which is the whole number of the elect that have been, are, or shall be, gathered into one under Christ their head” (p. 393).  Cf. p. 369.

Resolution by session 752, on December 3, 1646: 

“Q. What is it to believe in Christ? 

A. To believe in Christ is to receive Christ according to God’s offer, resting on him alone for pardon and all grace and salvation. 


Q. What ground or warrant have you, being a sinner, to believe in Christ? 

A. The ground of my be­lieving in Christ is God’s offer of Him in His word to me as well as to any other man, and His commanding me to believe in Him, as well as to believe or obey any other thing in His word” (p. 309).



3.  Westminster Divines on the Sincere Free Offer of the Gospel


Works on the Free Offer of the Gospel

Sermons and Books of the Westminster Divines on the Free Offer of the Gospel

Burroughs, Greenhill, Sedgwick, Simpson, Valentine, Vines



Scottish Commissioners 

George Gillespie  1613-1648

Samuel Rutherford  1600-1661


Westminster Assembly Members  (alphabetical by last name)

John Arrowsmith  1602-1659

Anthony Burgess  †1664

Jeremiah Burroughs  †1646

Joseph Caryl  1602-1673  

Thomas Case  †1682

Daniel Featly  1582-1645

Thomas Gataker  1574-1654

William Greenhill  1591-1671

William Gouge  1575-1653

Robert Harris  1580-1658

Edward Leigh  1602-1671

John Ley  1584-1662

Matthew Newcomen  1610-1669

Edward Reynolds  1599-1676

Obadiah Sedgwick  1600-1658

Francis Taylor  1655  

Anthony Tuckney  1599-1670 




Related Persons

Thomas Manton  1620-1677  

Manton was not a member of the Westminster Assembly, but he wrote the dedicatory letter to the Westminster Confession shortly after it was published, which is printed in many of the editions of the Standards. 


Books Recommended by Assembly Members

The Dutch Annotations  1637

These Annotations were recommended in 1646 by 35 members of the Westminster Assembly, including: Twisse (the moderator), Rutherford, Gillespie, Ballie, Henderson, Burgess, Goodwin, Byfield, Greenhill, etc.

The Marrow of Modern Divinity  1645

The original 1645 printing of the Marrow had recommendations by Joseph Caryl and Jeremiah Burroughs, who were members of the Westminster Assembly.



Related Document

The Sum of Saving Knowledge  1650

While ‘The Sum’ was not produced by the Assembly, ever since 1651 it has often been printed alongside the Assembly documents, so much so that it often is confused as being one of the Westminster Documents.  ‘The Sum’ was probably written by James Durham and David Dickson.





Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under the very sharing-friendly Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, 2014





Related Pages

The Sincere Free Offer of the Gospel

The Sincere Free Offer of the Gospel in the Sum of Saving Knowledge

The Common Operations of the Spirit

The Westminster Standards and Divines on Common Grace