If we were to simulate an evangelistic conversation where you had forty-five seconds to explain the gospel to a person unfamiliar with the Bible, what would you say? Of course, you can’t say everything, so which components would you include, and which components would you omit? Grace? Love? Christ? The Trinity? The elements you choose to include and those you choose to omit tend to reveal what you regard to be the essential components of the gospel.
Would faith or repentance be among the elements you would choose to include? If these concepts would not be included in your presentation, perhaps it’s because faith and repentance are often categorized as responses to the gospel rather than as part of the content of the gospel. In one sense, this is an important distinction. Yet, it’s worth noting that Scripture rarely mentions the gospel apart from the appropriate response of the gospel.
Can you imagine what it would have been like for the two disciples on the road to Emmaus to learn Old Testament hermeneutics from Christ? I suspect not many of us, if given the opportunity, would miss Jesus’ lecture where He “[began] with Moses and all the Prophets, [interpreting] to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). What is it in the Old Testament that concerned Christ? Certainly, Christ and His work were foreshadowed throughout the pages of the Old Testament. Paul reminded the Corinthians “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3–4). The death of Christ was according to the Old Testament Scriptures (see Ps. 22:15; Isa. 53; Dan. 9:26; Zech. 13:7). The resurrection of Christ was also according to the Old Testament Scriptures (see Ps. 16:10; Isa. 53:10; Hos. 6:2). It was in this regard that B.B. Warfield likened the Old Testament to a beautiful, unlit mansion where the advent of the Lord Jesus Christ turns the lights on so that we can more clearly see the beauty of what was always there. For instance, the book of Leviticus takes on a new sense of beauty when read with an eye cast forward on the new-covenant sacrificial Lamb and tabernacle of God.
Beginning to see the person and work of Christ in the pages of the Old Testament is an exhilarating adventure that often accompanies, or at least eventually flows from a conversion into Reformed theology. Yet, I suspect that even those of us who see Christ in all of Scripture often neglect to see a key component of the gospel foreshadowed in the Old Testament. Consider, for instance, Jesus’ words to the eleven after the Emmaus Road incident:
“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:44–47)
Here again is Christ’s claim that the Old Testament long spoke of the atoning death and resurrection of the Messiah. What is more, Jesus also claims that the proclamation of repentance and forgiveness was likewise foretold in the Old Testament. It’s significant that repentance and forgiveness are Old Testament concepts as much as atonement and resurrection. They weren’t foreign to the Old Testament. In fact, Luke praises the Bereans not for their brilliance but for their unwillingness to accept any new teaching that did not accord with the Old Testament Scriptures (Acts 17:11). The Apostles weren’t teaching novel doctrine; rather, they were teaching things that were in step with the doctrine of God’s old covenant revelation. Thus, even the frequent call for faith and repentance was not a novel New Testament phenomenon. Rather, the object of faith just became clearer—that is, He became incarnate.
The presence of repentance for forgiveness in the Old Testament is clear, for example, in the Day of Atonement. On this one day of the calendar year, the high priest alone was allowed to enter the holiest place of the tabernacle in order to make atonement for the sins of the people. But contra classic Dispensational theology, although this offer of atonement was universal, its application was only to those in the camp who were the true seed of Abraham, those who “assembled” (Lev. 16:33) outside the tent and with faith trusted in the atonement offered by the high priest. The liturgy of the Day of Atonement taught Israel to repent of their sins and trust in the atoning sacrifice for forgiveness. Dozens of other passages could be noted, but it’s clear that the death and resurrection of the Messiah weren’t the only aspects of the gospel foretold in the Old Testament. The forgiveness of sins that is offered in His name is also foretold in the Old Testament.
It’s worth acknowledging that Calvinists have often been accused of practices that are said to be inconsistent with their doctrine. The allegation usually looks something like this: If you believe in limited (or definite) atonement, how can you truly offer the gospel to everyone? Now, we must concede that there have been hyper-Calvinists who agree with this allegation and frown on those who want to uphold the legitimacy of the free offer of the gospel. William Goold described this tendency: “To counteract the tendency of the religious mind when it proceeded in the direction of Arminianism, Calvinistic divines, naturally engrossed with the points in dispute, dwelt greatly on the workings of efficacious grace in election, regeneration, and conversion, if not to the exclusion of the free offer of the gospel, at least so as to cast somewhat into the shade the free justification offered in it.”1 Yet, only the one who believes in the sovereignty of God can have confidence of any sort that his evangelistic efforts are not in vain. Only the Calvinist can truly trust Jesus’ words that the harvest is plentiful (Luke 10:2).
Herman Witsius exclaimed:
Let it be remembered, that it is not as elect or non-elect, but as guilty and perishing, that men are invited to receive Christ and his blessings; and that the invitation is by no means restricted to those who are awakened and convinced. That the Gospel contains a free and full exhibition of Christ and his benefits to sinners of every class and of every character, is an important truth, clearly founded in the sacred oracles, intimately connected with the glory of the grace of God and with the honor of Christ. . . . The doctrine of a free and universal exhibition of Christ and his righteousness and blessings to men as sinners, is by no means a distinctive badge of any one denomination of Christians, but a tenet conscientiously maintained in common by enlightened and faithful men of various persuasions—men who are anxious to guard, with equal scrupulosity, against Arminian and Antinomian errors.2
Not only are the sovereignty of God and the free offer of the gospel compatible, but the free offer of the gospel is an integral outflow of the work of Christ. The death and resurrection are only part of the story. The other part is the call to repentance and the announcement of a free forgiveness for all: “Come. Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isa. 55:1). The free offer of the gospel is an inevitable and essential consequence of the work of Christ. Our evangelism ought to include this dual proclamation of the historical data and the call to repentance for the forgiveness of sins found in Christ. Without the call to repent and believe, we’ve delivered only half of the gospel.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on January 23, 2019.