Chapter 20: Of the Gospel, and of the Extent of the Grace Thereof
This chapter concerns itself with the emphasis and necessity of special revelation for salvation. This chapter is absent in the Westminster Confession, but it was taken from the Savoy Declaration of the Puritan Congregationalists. Concerning the historical background, Dr. Sam Waldron writes:
The contents of the chapter indicate that the error in view depreciated the necessity of the special revelation contained in the Scriptures for salvation. A general knowledge of the period permits the educated guess that the Puritan authors had already sensed the intellectual tendency which would later produce Deism, with its emphasis on the sufficiency of human reason and natural revelation and its opposition to supernatural revelation and the distinctive tenets of Christianity. Such men wanted to establish a completely rational basis for the existence of God and morality. They disliked the idea that a special revelation given only to some men was necessary to worship and serve God acceptably.
Against such men, the Confession asserts the necessity of special revelation about God through the Gospel and Scripture for salvation. The Confession acknowledges the strength of natural revelation, but natural revelation is not enough for salvation, yet it is enough for condemnation. The Gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit are necessary for salvation. This chapter concerns itself less with “what” the Gospel is than to confess the necessity of special revelation over against those who would reject special revelation and claim that they can come to salvation merely through natural revelation.
§1 God was pleased to give forth the promise of Christ
- The covenant of works being broken by sin, and made unprofitable unto life, God was pleased to give forth the promise of Christ, the seed of the woman, as the means of calling the elect, and begetting in them faith and repentance; in this promise the gospel, as to the substance of it, was revealed, and [is] therein effectual for the conversion and salvation of sinners. 1
- Gen. 3:15 with Eph. 2:12; Gal. 4:4; Heb. 11:13; Luke 2:25, 38; 23:51; Rom. 4:13-16; Gal. 3:15-22; Rev 13:8
Salvation was always through Christ, whether people were consciously aware of that or not. They were also saved by faith alone and by not works. By reading the Old Testament and seeing the absence of the cross, we may have thought that salvation was by works and not grace under the Old Testament, but now, in the New Testament era, it is by grace. This is completely false and a grave mistake. Salvation has always been by grace. The reason that this is so is because the Adamic Covenant (see here), which could have provided eternal life if Adam obeyed, was broken. When that covenant was broken, the promise of eternal life by obedience was likewise broken and became unprofitable for Adam's fallen and sin-cursed descendant. The Covenant of Works made with Adam in Eden lost the ability to give the promise of eternal life because now it was broken. That covenant did not contain provisions for atonement and now it could only administer the curse of that covenant—death. We see in Genesis 3 that just after God, the covenant Lord, confronts Adam and Eve with their sin, He likewise gives the promise of the Savior:
Gen. 3:15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
This is indisputably a promise of the Savior, the first one and that is why it is called the Proto-Evangelium, meaning, the first gospel. God promises a Seed, an Offspring who would conquer the serpent, who is the Devil. At this point of time it seems pretty vague, but as time goes by we come to know more about this Offspring and Seed. For example, Abraham is promised that in his “offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). So now we know not only He will be the child of Eve, but will also be a descendent of Abraham. From Genesis 49:10 we learn that the Offspring and the Messiah will come from the loins of Judah. As we progress in biblical revelation, we come to learn more about the identity of the Messiah. Later it will be revealed that He will be a son of David (2Sam. 7) and so forth. It is not that the original Covenant of Works made with Adam has been completely done away with, but that it can no longer give life. The only thing it administers is its curse—death—under which all outside of Christ lie. Death is the wage of sin (Rom. 3:23), that was what Adam was threatened with by God (Gen. 2:17) and because of Adam all are made sinners (Rom. 5:12).
The substance of the Covenant of Grace was revealed to all the saints before Christ. The Covenant of Grace, prior to the inauguration of the New Covenant by the blood of Christ, existed not as an established covenant, but as a promise. This is how 1689 Federalism understands Covenant Theology. For more see chapter 7. Believing in the coming promise of the Redeemer and believing God was enough for salvation. The saints prior to Christ looked forward to Christ, but now that He has come, we look back to Christ. This is how Abraham was saved, the father of the faithful: "And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Justification has always been by grace, never was it by works! See here for our relevant discussions concerning the salvation of the elect under the Old Testament in chapter 11 of the Confession on justification.
§2 This promise of Christ, and salvation by him, is revealed only by the Word of God
- This promise of Christ, and salvation by him, is revealed only by the Word of God; 1 neither do the works of creation or providence, with the light of nature, make discovery of Christ, or of grace by him, so much as in a general or obscure way; 2 much less that men destitute of the revelation of Him by the promise or gospel, should be enabled thereby to attain saving faith or repentance. 3
- Acts 4:12; Rom. 10:13-15
- Ps. 19; Rom. 1:18-23
- Rom. 2:12a; Matt. 28:18-20; Luke 24:46-47 with Acts 17:29-30; Rom. 3:9-20; Prov 29:18; Isa 25:7; 60:2, 3
The Gospel, unlike the existence of God, is a special revelation, meaning it is only revealed in the Bible. You cannot look at creation and conclude that God gave His only Son to die in our place! Scripture in no place gives any hint that people can be saved outside of Christ or without the work of Christ. Therefore, for those who are neither infants nor people with mental problems (see chapter 10, par. 3), their end is doom. Not because they rejected the Gospel, but because they lived in sin. Romans 1 clearly teaches that all people know God and they suppress the truth about that one God and seek others ways. Paul writes:
Rom. 1:18-20 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
The reasons that they are ἀναπολογήτους (anapologetous, G379) is because of the fact that God Himself is the One who has revealed Himself to all people. The things about God and His power are “plain to them” and the reason why they're plain is “because God has shown it to them.” When we doubt the validity of general revelation, we doubt the power and word of God. They know God for certain, but by sin they suppress that truth. Because of God's self-revelation in Creation, they are without a defense—they are without an apologetic. This general revelation will shut the mouths of people on the Day of Judgment who never heard of the Gospel. There is here not a word about people having an excuse because they never heard the Gospel. In fact, at the time when Paul was writing the majority of the living humans then had not yet received the message of the Gospel. Nonetheless, Paul still declares all people to be “without excuse.” They're without excuse not because they do not know, but because they do know God from the created world and they have rejected Him. They will not be judged they've rejected the Gospel, but because they've rejected the God who has clearly revealed Himself in creation. John Calvin comments on Romans 1:20—
So that they are inexcusable. It hence clearly appears what the consequence is of having this evidence — that men cannot allege any thing before God’s tribunal for the purpose of showing that they are not justly condemned. Yet let this difference be remembered, that the manifestation of God, by which he makes his glory known in his creation, is, with regard to the light itself...