SAMUEL DAVIES AND THE FREE OFFER OF THE GOSPEL

There are those within the broader Reformed community who deny what is commonly called ‘the free offer of the gospel.’ They contend, mistakenly I believe, that the gospel is offered to the elect only with whom alone the call of God is efficacious. That is an error similar to the error of those who rationalize that prayer is not necessary since God is sovereign in all things. If prayer is not necessary, then neither is evangelism. If evangelism is not necessary, then there can be no free offer of the gospel to sinners. But those ideas are wrong and contrary to Scripture. Prayer is necessary. Evangelism is necessary.

Samuel Davies (1723-1761), the great 18th century Presbyterian minister in Virginia, preached during the latter part of the Great Awakening when the free offer of the gospel was denied in a somewhat different manner than it is today. There were notorious sinners who were saved out of lives of wretchedness during that revival and the opponents of the revival criticized the revivalists for bringing such dregs of society into their churches. Christianity was a formality for the upper crust of polite society and many church members had itching ears to hear sermons on morality which carefully avoided castigating their particular sins. Professional ministers were all too willing to oblige them. For the most part, it was these formal, spiritually dead ministers who became the most vocal critics of the Great Awakening. They strenuously objected to converts from profligacy who claimed to have received the assurance of their salvation. While generally objecting to any assurance of salvation, those opponents of the 18th century revival were quite certain that such formerly wicked sinners could not have received it. Thus, they followed their argument to its logical conclusion by objecting to the free offer of the gospel to notorious sinners until their lives were reformed. That teaching put the cart before the horse by insisting on the moral transformation of a sinner as a necessary requirement before he could be offered the gospel.

The greatest opponent of Davies in Virginia was the Anglican rector of the St. Paul’s Parish in Hanover, Virginia, Rev. Patrick Henry, Sr., the uncle of the famous American orator and statesman. Henry had lost several officers and church members to the rise of the Presbyterians in his county and he chafed under that trial. Apparently, Henry neither understood nor preached the gospel as his former church members and his own writings jointly testify. Thus, he became an incessant complainer to the governing officials in Williamsburg concerning Davies. He falsely accused Davies of teaching his people to be idle and of gathering immoral people around him. In other words, Henry did not believe there was a sincere offer of the gospel that was to be made to such low-class sinners. Whether the offer of the gospel is restricted to the elect alone or to polite society alone it is still restricted. The danger is the same. Thus, the true preaching of the gospel demands that it be offered promiscuously to every sinner who hears it. Any denial of such a promiscuous offer of the gospel is also a denial of the necessity of evangelism.

Samuel Davies was clearly on the side of the free offer of the gospel as several quotes from his sermons will reveal. His zeal for evangelism can be studied in my new biography, Samuel Davies: Apostle to Virginia but this article will deal with some details that I did not cover in his biography. Davies agreed with the great majority of reformed pastors and theologians since the Reformation who have earnestly contended that the gospel is freely offered to all.

Davies believed that God commands, woos, entreats, and invites all types of people throughout the world—every tongue, every race, every nationality, everyone who hears the gospel preached. Thus, every sinner is responsible for his own doom if he heeds not that gospel call. There is abundant evidence in his sermons that Davies invited all sinners to repent and come to Christ. For instance, in a sermon from Isaiah 45:22, “The Nature of Looking to Christ Opened and Enforced”, Davies proclaimed:

Redemption must not only be purchased, but applied; and though it was purchased without our concurrence, yet all mankind, in all ages, are concerned in the application of it. There was no need of the gospel and its ordinances to procure it; but all these are necessary, and therefore appointed for our obtaining an actual interest in it. Hence Christ, as an almighty savior, is exhibited, and the blessings of this purchase are offered in the gospel; and all that hear the gracious proposal are invited to entertain this savior with suitable dispositions, and to consent to the terms on which these blessings are offered, upon penalty of eternal damnation.[1] 

In that quote, Davies states that the gospel, and its blessings, are freely offered to everyone who hears the message—not just to the elect. They have a particular invitation to believe, as he further elaborates in a second sermon from Isaiah 45:22, “Arguments to Enforce Looking to Christ”:

And, lastly, look to him, for you are particularly invited, being especially meant by those in the ends of the earth. A promiscuous call may not be regarded so much as a particular invitation directed to us, as it were, by name, We dwell in a continent that may be called the ends of the earth. . . But methinks there is a particular beauty and propriety in it, taken literally; “Look unto me, and be ye saved, ye that dwell in the remotest part of the earth; look unto me, ye Americans, ye Virginians.” [2]

In Davies’ days, America was truly considered the ends of the earth. It was a nation that was vastly under-populated by developed society. Yet, Davies believed that every American, every Virginian, had this invitation of the gospel freely extended to him. That invitation did not come on embossed paper written in calligraphy, but it had the same purpose. It was a general invitation to all who heard the gospel to repent and believe.

Davies closed a message from Luke 14:16-24, “The Gospel Invitation, with these words:

I would compel you to come in, by considerations so weighty and affecting, that they must prevail, unless reason, gratitude, and every generous principle be entirely lost with you. . . I exhort you, I entreat you, I charge you, I adjure you, I would compel you to come in. Come in that these rich provisions may not be lost for want of partakers, and that God’s house may be completely furnished with guests. As yet there is room; as yet the guests are invited; as yet the door is not shut. The number of those who shall enjoy this great salvation is not yet made up. But, ere long, the ministry of the gospel will be withdrawn, the servants be recalled, and no longer be sent to search for you. The door of heaven will be shut against all workers of iniquity. Therefore, now is the time to come in.[3]

As a Calvinist, Davies could have falsely reasoned that the number of the elect is determined by God in eternity and, therefore, entreaties to the lost make no difference either way. That is an unscriptural position because God himself makes such general entreaties to the lost in the Scripture. There is always a danger in trying to make Scriptural doctrines fit into a scholastic mold which can be understood by our finite minds. Davies never thought that the sovereignty of God in election conflicted with the free offer of the gospel. In another part of his sermon on Luke 14:16-24, he made it clear that only God could change their hearts and give them supernatural regeneration. Far from discouraging them concerning their salvation, he entreated them earnestly to seek God in prayer and to do whatever they could to prepare themselves for the reception of His grace. He exhorted them to persevere in grace while hoping and praying for the redemption of Christ.

In a sermon from Acts 17:30, “The Nature and Necessity of Repentance,” Davies proclaimed the universal necessity of repentance which proves the free offer of the gospel to everyone. If there is no free offer of the gospel, then men cannot be exhorted to repent because repentance is part of that response that sinners make to the good news. Repentance and faith are universal responsibilities, but they cannot be incumbent on the non-elect if there is no free offer of the gospel. Yet, Acts 17:30 says, “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent.” This call to repentance is not restricted to the elect alone as Davies observes:

Repentance is not a local duty, but it extends as far as human nature, as far as the utmost boundaries of this guilty world. Wherever there are sinners under a dispensation of grace, there this command reaches. . . If you are men, if you dwell anywhere upon this guilty globe, you are included; for let me tell you once more, God commandeth all men, everywhere to repent.

Why should not repentance be as universal as sin? And, since we are all sinners, oh why should we not all be humble penitents? Repent, you must either in time or eternity, upon earth, or in hell. You cannot possibly avoid it. The question is not, Shall I repent? for that is beyond a doubt. But the question is, “Shall I repent now when it may reform and save me; or shall I put it off to the eternal world, when my repentance will be my punishment, and can answer no end but to torment me?” And is this a hard question? Does not common sense determine it in favour of the present time? Therefore, let the duty be as extensively observed as it is commanded: Let all men everywhere repent.[4]

In a sermon from 1 Corinthians 6:19, 20, “Dedication to God Argued from redeeming Mercy,” Davies eloquently extended the gospel to rebellious sinners:

But if any of you refuse to comply with the proposal, or, which is much the same, are careless, and indifferent about giving yourselves up to God, not forming any express determination one way or the other, heaven and earth will bear witness against you, that your refusal is not owing to your not knowing God’s claim upon you. . . I denounce unto you, that you shall surely perish, shall perish by the hand of divine justice, as willful rebels against the highest authority, and as insolently and ungratefully denying the Lord that bought them. . . Suppose one should ask you upon your return home, “What were you doing today?” You must answer, “I was engaged in a treaty with the Proprietor of the universe, and the Redeemer that bought me with his blood, about becoming his servant, and acknowledging his right to me.” “Well, what was the issue? Certainly you did not refuse. Certainly you are now the willing servant of God.”—“No, I refused, and so the treaty broke up.” O thou monster! Could you bear the dreadful narrative? Would not everyone that heard it gaze and stare at you with horror, and ask in consternation, “Were you not afraid? Had you no regard for your own welfare? Alas! What will you do with yourself now? What rock or mountain can you find to hide your devoted head? How will you answer for your refusal in the great and terrible day of the Lord?”[5]

While Davies was a thorough Calvinist and held to what is called the five points of Calvinism, he did not shy away from asserting to rebellious sinners that the Savior had bought them with his blood. He did not consider such statements to be a denial of particular redemption, but an affirmation of the fullness of the gospel offer. The atonement of Christ is sufficient for all who will believe and, in that sense, it may be said to every sinner—“The Redeemer has bought you with his blood.” Davies restricted himself to the actual language of Scripture and, therefore, could say with Peter that every sinner who refuses the gospel call, whether heretical or reprobate, denies “the Master who bought them” (2 Peter 2:1).  He did not allow the design of the atonement as the means of securing the redemption of the elect to prevent him from representing that same atonement as sufficient for every rebellious sinner throughout the world.

In a second sermon on Isaiah 45:22, Davies made it clear that no sinner can turn to Christ without the saving operations of the Holy Spirit:

I would premise, that when I exhort sinners to look to Jesus, I would not intimate, that they are able to do this of themselves. No; I am very sensible, that all exhortations, persuasions, invitations, and expostulations that a feeble mortal, or even the most powerful angel in heaven, can use with them will have no effect, but vanish into air, without the efficacious operation of almighty grace. And yet such exhortations are neither useless, improper, or unscriptural; they tend to convince sinners of their inability to believe, which is necessary to their believing aright; and it is while such arguments are addressed to their understanding, that the Holy Spirit is wont to work upon their hearts. Hence they are so often commanded in Scripture to repent, to believe in Christ, to look to Him to make them a new heart, etc.[6]

In comparison to Davies, too many of us modern-day reformed pastors peddle a gospel invitation that has been shaved off. We avoid telling a rebellious sinner, “You are denying the Master that bought you with His blood.” We fear that to do so would be a contradiction of the efficiency of the atonement for the elect alone. Thus, we fail to implore, command, exhort, entreat, woo, and persuade sinners to turn from their sins and to flee to Christ for refuge the way that God does in the Scriptures. If true theology is thinking God’s thoughts after him, then true evangelism is to imitate the practice of God which is modeled for us in the Scripture. True evangelism is to mimic the examples of Christ and the apostles and the prophets. We should use their language and follow their examples. Davies was esteemed by Martyn Lloyd-Jones to be the greatest preacher ever produced in America and attained great success is evangelism precisely because he got “his thoughts, his words, his texts from God” (as Robert Murray McCheyne encouraged us to do) in the matter of evangelism. We need a return to a more Scriptural pattern of evangelistic preaching (and even personal witnessing) that is couched in the persuasive language of Scripture. There were certainly other factors involved in the success of Davies’ preaching—his commanding appearance, his winsomeness, his pathos and eloquence, and even the mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the Great Awakening—but his success as an evangelist was owing in no small part to his unfailing adherence to the Scriptural models that are abundantly afforded therein. If we return to those same Scriptural models and use that same Scriptural language and woo sinners with the same heartfelt sincerity and earnestly entreat the Lord of the harvest, then the Holy Spirit may well be poured out on our generation and we may once again see the mighty works of God displayed in the conversion of sinners.

Samuel Davies is the greatest uninspired model for evangelistic preaching that I have ever read. His sermons, now out of print, furnish us with wonderful examples of how to entreat sinners to cease their rebellion, to lay down their weapons of warfare, and to accept the peace treaty of the King of Kings. George Whitefield was certainly a greater evangelist, but Davies’ printed sermons, in my opinion, give us the best model for proclaiming the free offer of the gospel. Davies has lived in obscurity for too long. We should read his sermons and study his life to get the inspiration to be ambassadors for Christ so that God can make an appeal through us to weary sinners and so we can beg them on behalf of Christ to be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:20).

==============================================================================================

Dewey Roberts is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Cornerstone PCA in Destin, Fla.

[1] Samuel Davies, The Sermons of Rev. Samuel Davies, Three Volumes, Volume 2 (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995), 337-8.

[2] Ibid., 361-2.

[3] Ibid., 643.

[4] Ibid., 403-4.

[5] Ibid., 139-140.

[6] Ibid., 349-350.

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