This article is about the indiscriminate or free offer of the gospel to all sinners. The author looks at a few different authors' view of the free offer, and also specifically at John Calvin's view. He also discusses the free offer of the gospel and the reprobate and the inability of man to respond in faith except through the work of the Spirit.

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1995. 3 pages.

Calvin and the Free Offer

The debate as to whether Calvinists believe in a Free Offer of Christ and salvation is on us again. Professors of the Protestant Reformed Seminary in the USA and their followers in the British Reformed Fellowship deny that God makes an indiscriminate offer of Christ to sinners. Adherents of the Westminster standards take the opposite view.

Before examining the subject, let us define our terms. Warfield's distinctions surely help our discussion. He identifies three categories to which the term 'Calvinism' may rightly apply:

  1. In its narrower sense, 'it designates merely the individual teaching of John Calvin'.

  2. More broadly, it signifies the doctrinal system professed by Calvinistic churches.

  3. In its fullest sense, it embraces 'the entire body of conceptions, theologi­cal, ethical, philosophical, social, political', that has left its mark on the thought and history of mankind under the influence of Calvin's 'master mind'.

The Term 'Free Offer'🔗

The term 'Free Offer' is a convenient way of describing the manner in which God holds out salvation to all sinners who hear the gospel. This term is widely used by the Reformers, Puritans, Covenanters and their spiritual heirs. For example, Luther assures us that though 'the Law commands us to have love and hear Jesus Christ', only 'the gospel offers and imparts to us both'. The Westminster divines state that 'God freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ'.

James Fergusson (in more detail) states that 'heaven and salvation, though purchased at a dear rate by Christ (John 3:16), is notwithstanding freely offered unto all' (Revelation 22:17). A century later, Ebenezer Erskine encourages us to believe that 'God offers Christ cordially and affectionately in the gospel; his very heart goes out after sinners in the call and offer thereof'. M'Cheyne speaks of Christ as a 'Divine Saviour freely offering himself to every one of the human race'. A modern exponent of the Reformed faith, R. B. Kuiper, holds the same view: 'On the ground of the finished work of his Son, God offers everlasting life to sinners everywhere, and he does so freely. Salvation is a gift of purest grace'. Thomas Boston, the 'Marrow' Men, Andrew Gray, Richard Sibbes, John Bunyan and Robert Traill were all happy to use the term 'free offer'.

Great offence has been taken by John Gill and others to the term 'offer'. Hence it is worth saying that it is described as an 'offer' because by it God warrants sinners to take Christ without any previous preparation or qualifications in themselves. Thomas Manton explains from John 1:12: 'Receiving presupposeth offering; it is a consent to what is offered, an accept­ing of what is given'. It is termed 'free' because it springs wholly from God's free grace, and is 'clogged with no conditions' to be fulfilled by those to whom it is made. A judicious defence of its consistency with strict Calvinism is submitted by William Cunningham in his Historical Theology.

We turn to the question of whether or not Calvinists believe in a free offer of Christ and salvation. The current debate could fairly be placed within any of Warfield's three categories. If in the first, the question would be: Does John Calvin teach a free offer? If in the second, it could be: Do Calvinistic churches hold a consensus on the free offer? If in the third, it may be: Is the free offer a distinctive part of the Calvinistic world-view? Clearly, the advocacy of the free offer by many non-Calvinists eliminates the third category, leaving us free to concentrate on the first two.

In answer to the first question, we may state categorically that John Calvin certainly did teach a free offer of Christ to all kinds of sinners everywhere. The evidence is quite clear. The very scope of Calvin's terminology leaves us in no doubt. By the gospel, he claims, 'the grace of God' is 'offered to us'; 'the mercy of God in Christ' is 'offered to us'; Christ himself is 'offered' to us; 'salvation ... is offered' to us 'by the hand of God'; 'blessedness and eternal life' are offered to us. The above expressions occur in his theological writings.

So closely does Calvin follow Scripture that he does not hesitate to equate God's offer with God's gift. Aware that Christ is addressing unbelievers when he says, 'My Father giveth you the true bread from heaven' (John 6:32), he observes that 'they are without excuse' for wickedly rejecting what God 'now offers to them'. The sincere convert is one who has come to acknowledge Christ 'to be such an one as he is given by the Father'. To whom, we may ask, is Christ and salvation offered or given? To all, replies Calvin. 'God invites all indiscriminately by outward preaching'. In stronger language still, he claims, God 'calls all men to himself, without a single exception, and gives Christ to all, that we may be illumined by him'. Again, he says: 'God invites all indiscriminately to salvation through the gospel'. 'The gate of salvation', he cries, 'is set open to all men; neither is there any other thing which keepeth us back from entering in, save only our own unbelief'. 'God ... shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world', for on this basis 'he invites all men without exception to faith in Christ', and by this means 'Christ is made known and held out to the view of all ... that they may seek him by faith'. Indeed, such is God's mercy that it is 'offered for the worst of men'.

The reason for such an indiscriminate offer, claims Calvin, is that man in sin has nothing with which to pay God all his debts, and that grace is absolutely free. 'He kindly invites us, in order that he may freely bestow everything without any recompense'. 'God ... owes us nothing' he says elsewhere, '...salvation is not a reward or recompense, but unmixed grace', for 'the love of God' that comes to us in Christ is 'free'. Indeed, he assures us earnestly, 'there is no calm haven where our minds can rest until we come to God's free love'.

All this is so consistent with the Reformed faith as we today understand it that we need not labour the point. Whatever Christ has done and suffered for our salvation, in order that it may become ours, must in some way be made available to us, and this is in the free offer of Christ.

The Reprobate🔗

The issue of God's sincerity in freely offering salvation to the reprobate and to sinners wholly unable of themselves to respond, Calvin handles with due reverence. Who are we mortals to question the sincerity of the thrice-holy God? While we should humbly submit our minds to the truth that 'God desires nothing more earnestly than that those who are perishing and rushing to destruction should return into the way of safety', we should restrain ourselves from all prying into the 'indissoluble bond' between God's secret and revealed will. It should satisfy us that God's secret election is revealed by the outward call of the gospel, he warns. He adds indignantly that 'it would be a shocking sacrilege to carry the enquiry further; for that man offers an aggravated insult to the Holy Spirit who refuses to assent to his simple testimony'.

The furthest Calvin is prepared to go is to conclude that by the gospel-call, God intends 'to draw to himself the elect', and at the same time 'to take away all excuse from the reprobate'. Here, we believe, is the heart of the problem. Certain Calvinists, who want all the questions answered to the satisfaction of their logic-tidy minds, are simply not prepared to stop reason­ing where God is silent, and submit their restless intellects to the revealed will of God.

It needs to be said that Calvin's refusal to investigate the secret things that belong only to God in no way marks him out as a 'universalist', nor his followers as Amyraldians. His firm adherence to an atonement designed to save only the elect is never brought into doubt by his insistence on a free, universal offer of Christ. Our Lord's assertion that only those given him by the Father will come to him, he explains, means that 'faith is not a thing which depends on the will of man, so that this man and that man indiscriminately and at random believe, but that God elects those whom he hands over, as it were, to his Son'. Clearly, 'all do not come to Christ'. Again, commenting on Matthew 1:21, Calvin affirms that Christ is 'expressly called the Saviour of the Church', while in Ephesians 5:25 we are told that 'he scrupled not to die for his church', and that by his death 'he redeemed his church'. Nevertheless, he is said to take away the sin of the world, because God extends the favour of having sin remitted 'indiscriminately to the whole human race'.


Similarly, Calvin's commitment to such a free, indiscriminate offer in no way weakens his belief in the total inability of man to respond. 'Ought we not then to be silent about free will and good intentions, and fancied preparations, and merits, and satisfactions?' he asks. Yes, because 'faith ... brings a man empty to God, that he may be filled with the blessings of Christ'. Calvin speaks out strongly against 'busybodies' who understand Titus 2:11 to teach that 'God will have the whole world to be saved ... therefore it followeth that men have free will, and that there is no election nor predestination to salvation'. In context, the sending of grace to servants as well as nobles simply indicates that God 'hath spread out his mercy even to the basest'.

It is this passionate concern for the souls of men that overrides his apparent teaching of preparationism. There are times when he represents Christ as offering salvation only to the 'thirsty' or 'afflicted', or to such as are 'fit for becoming his disciples'. Yet with great pastoral sensitivity to the powerful presence of unbelief in men's hearts, he always, before concluding his exposition, throws open to all the way of salvation. 'But we must attend to the universality of the expression', he urges, 'for Christ included all without exception, who labour and are burdened, that no man may shut the gate against himself by wicked doubts'.

We conclude that Calvin himself never shrank from offering Christ and all the blessing of salvation freely to sinners. That he did so does not in the least imply a denial either of particular atonement or total depravity. Calvin was neither a 'universalist' nor a believer in free-will. Yet he consistently refused to shut the door of salvation against any man.

William S. Plumer says:

It is always right and obligatory to point men to Christ. Eternal life by the Son of God is to be pressed upon their acceptance. No man has any commission to preach the gospel except one that bids him offer mercy 'to every creature. Whosoever will is scriptural language. This method of proclaiming salvation suits all classes of men. The strong believer and the timid penitent alike draw life and hope from Christ freely offered ... God never mocks any of his creatures. And while it is true that Jesus Christ died with the intention of saving his people, and none others, as he himself says, 'I lay down my life for the sheep'; yet it is no less true that there is an infinite storehouse of merit in Jesus Christ. It is also certain that by God's authority, a full and free salvation is indiscriminately offered to sinners ... The offer of life is to be made indiscriminately because God so commands, because finite men can make it in no other way, and because the provisions of the gospel are as well suited to the wants of one man as to those of another ... The offer of salvation is sincere, for God says so. It is consistent, because God never denies himself. It is kind, because it is sent in love, and costs more than we shall ever be able to repay. This has been and is the doctrine of all pure churches.The Grace of Christ pp. 432-3

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