In this article on election and the free offer of the gospel, the author looks at election in an evangelism and mission context. Things like the call of the gospel, the well-meant offer of the gospel in the preaching, the general (universal) calling and effectual calling, and unconditional election is discussed. Q&A 67 & 68 of the Westminster Larger Catechism is also mentioned, as well as God's relation to the ungodly and the death of the unbeliever. Scripture passages like Romans 9:1-5 and 2 Peter 3:9 are discussed, as well as the recipients or parties of the covenant with God. The end of the article is about the relation of election and preaching, as well as the goodness of God to all mankind. Canons of Dort 2:3,5 and Canons of Dort 3/4:8 is also mentioned here. The question about salvation and the will and purpose of God - his hidden will as well as his revealed will - is also addressed at the end of this article, as well as evangelism and the compassion for lost sinners.

Source: The Outlook, 2002. 17 pages.

Election and the free offer of the gospel

In the history of discussion of the biblical teaching of election, one of the more controversial issues is that of the so-called “free offer” of the gospel. At the time of the dispute between the Armenians and the Calvinists in the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century, the Armenians complained that the Calvinist doctrine of election nullified the genuineness of the gospel offer of salvation. The Armenians argued that, if God has unconditionally elected to save a certain number of persons, then the gospel-call could not seriously or genuinely summon to faith all persons to whom it is addressed. Since some of these persons are not elect and since God has no intention of bringing them to salvation, the call of the gospel, when extended to the non-elect, is disingenuous. The call of the gospel does not genuinely express, either on God’s part or on the part of the Christian believer, any good will or desire that all sinners should be saved. Indeed, the call of the gospel, when it concerns the non-elect, is but a camouflaged expression of ill will on God’s part. Though God calls all sinners through the gospel to believe and repent, He actually only desires this for the elect.

The importance of this discussion to the subject of the Reformed faith and evangelism is readily evident. Critics of the Reformed faith, especially those who fault it for a lack of evangelistic fervor, often allege that its teaching regarding election serves as a hindrance to evangelism. Not only are Reformed believers reluctant to evangelize for fear of falling prey to an unbiblical activism, as if the salvation of sinners ultimately depended upon their efforts, Reformed believers are also stymied by their conviction that the gospel, with its promises and obligations, is only addressed, in the strictest sense, to the elect. Because God has no saving purpose or intention with respect to the non-elect, the church has no authority to extend indiscriminately the promise of the gospel to all sinners. Furthermore, because God’s disposition toward the non-elect is unfavorable, no presentation of the gospel is permissible that would suggest otherwise. Indeed, the preaching of the gospel, when it concerns the non-elect, serves by design only to advance God’s purpose not to save them.

Accordingly, whenever the gospel is preached to sinners, it must have a very different meaning for the elect and the non-elect. For the elect believer, the gospel comes as good news, promising life and salvation through Jesus Christ. For the non-elect, the gospel comes as bad news, declaring only God’s intention and desire that they not be saved. The only thing that softens the gospel’s preaching, so far as the non-elect are concerned, is the fact that the church in her preaching of the gospel does not know whom God has chosen or not chosen to save.

In order to complete our consideration of the doctrine of election and evangelism, therefore, we need to address this subject of the gospel offer or call. Does the doctrine of election undermine the genuineness and sincerity of this call? And does this perhaps account in part for the reserve of Reformed believers when it comes to the work of evangelism or preaching the gospel to sinners?

Some preliminary definitions

When it comes to the subject of the gospel offer, the saying, “he that distinguishes well, thinks well,” is especially pertinent. One of the problems that often plagues discussions of this subject is the lack of clarity on the part of those who either favor or oppose the teaching of a well-meant offer. Proponents of differing views often use the same language or terms, but with widely different meanings. Before looking at several biblical passages that apparently teach a free and sincere offer of the gospel to all sinners, therefore, we need to begin with some preliminary definitions.

Universal and effectual calling

In the Reformed tradition’s reflection upon the presentation of the gospel, a common distinction is drawn between the general or universal call of the gospel, which is to be presented to all lost sinners without exception, and the effectual call of the gospel, which effectively draws elect sinners into living fellowship with the Triune God. This distinction, which goes back at least as far as the writings of Augustine, acknowledges that the call of the gospel, though indiscriminately and universally presented to lost sinners, only draws into fellowship with God those whom He purposes to save and to whom He grants faith and repentance.

The call extended to sinners through the Word of the gospel, unless it is accompanied by a sovereign working of the Holy Spirit, does not inwardly renew and enliven those who are dead in their trespasses and sins. Only in the case of the elect does the Holy Spirit so work through the ministry of the Word as to grant saving faith and repentance. For our purpose, the following definitions from the Westminster Larger Catechism will serve well as a point of reference:

67. What is effectual calling?

  1. 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 there-unto) he doth, in his accepted time, invite and draw them to Jesus Christ, by his Word and Spirit; savingly enlightening their minds, renewing 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 there-in.

68. Are the elect only effectually called?

  1. 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.

The point of this distinction is not hard to discern. It helps to answer the question, how do we account for the fact that not all sinners respond to the gospel in faith and repentance? Does God call all sinners in the same way, enabling all to respond but not actually affecting the response of any? If we were to say that the gospel-call only invites sinners to believe, leaving the decision to believe or not to believe within the power of those to whom it is addressed, then we would have to conclude that the salvation of sinners finally depends upon their choice either to believe or not to believe. In this understanding of the call of the gospel, God’s grace is merely an enabling grace; it enables otherwise depraved sinners to be able to respond appropriately to the gospel-call. Moreover, this grace of God, which is considered common to all recipients of the gospel-call, leaves to these recipients the choice either to embrace or reject what the gospel of Christ offers to them.

Upon this understanding of the gospel-call, God’s election of some sinners would ultimately rest upon the condition of foreseen faith. When God foresees that some will believingly respond to the gospel-call, while others remain unbelieving, He chooses to save those who believe and to condemn those who will not believe. However, this teaching contradicts the biblical teaching of unconditional election. For in the biblical view of election, God not only chooses to save His people in Christ but He also, in order to effect this choice, effectively calls them into communion with Himself (Romans 8:29). In distinction from the general call of the gospel, which is presented to all sinners without exception, there is an effectual call whereby God moves otherwise incompetent but elect sinners to respond appropriately to the gospel summons.

Though there is a general consensus among Reformed believers regarding this distinction between a universal and an effectual calling, differences quickly emerge when it comes to a definition of what is involved in this universal calling. Louis Berkhof provides a rather typical definition of the general call of the gospel, when he says that it is

“the presentation and offering of salvation in Christ to sinners, together with an earnest exhortation to accept Christ by faith, in order to obtain the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.”

However, though this definition seems simple and unobjectionable upon first reading, it leaves somewhat ambiguous what is meant by “an earnest exhortation to accept Christ by faith.” Does this language mean that, in the general call of the gospel, sinners are simply summoned or commanded to believe? Or does the gospel address sinners in the form of a “well-meant offer” of salvation in Christ, suggesting that the Author of the gospel-call genuinely entreats its recipients to respond in order that they might be saved? Or again, in perhaps the most acute form of the question, does the call of the gospel express any sincere or well-meant desire that sinners respond in faith in order to be saved? Is there any sense in which God Himself, in whose name the church presents the gospel, may desire or be pleased that sinners come to salvation through faith in Christ?

Three views of the gospel-call

To clarify what is at stake in the debate among Reformed believers regarding the so-called “well-meant offer” of the gospel, it may be helpful to distinguish three different views of the gospel-call.

  • The first of these views I would term a strong form of what is often called hyper-Calvinism. Though there are not many advocates of this view, it teaches that the call of the gospel addresses, strictly speaking, only the elect. Since gospel ministers are unable to discern infallibly who are and who are not elect, they should honor this restriction so far as possible by calling to faith and repentance only those who give outward evidence that they are being spiritually enlivened or illumined. This strong form of hyper-Calvinism actually denies the legitimacy of a general call of the gospel to all sinners without distinction, since the call properly invites only the elect to faith and repentance. Not only is the gospel-call not intended for the non-elect, but it is also misleading to address sinners indiscriminately with the call to faith in Christ and repentance. Such an indiscriminate call invariably leads sinners to conclude that they have the ability to do what the call demands. In a not-so-subtle manner, an indiscriminate preaching of the gospel to sinners leads them to the improper inference that they have it within their capacity to believe and repent as the gospel-call demands.
  • The second of these views I would term a mild form of hyper-Calvinism. In this view, the general call of the gospel is affirmed, though it is not regarded as a “well-meant offer.” When the gospel-call is preached, it must be preached indiscriminately to all sinners, summoning elect and non-elect alike to believe and repent. No limitation is placed upon the preaching of the gospel to all sinners without distinction. However, this general call of the gospel may not be presented in a conditional form. To say to sinners, “if you believe and repent, then you will be saved,” is to imply that the gospel promise is conditional. Whenever the gospel is presented as an “offer,” inviting sinners to do something in order to be saved, rather than as an “unconditional promise of salvation” to the elect alone, an Armenian doctrine of conditional election is either wittingly or unwittingly assumed. In the strictest sense, the promise of the gospel is unconditionally addressed to the elect alone. Great care, therefore, must be exercised in preaching not to suggest that the recipient is obligated to do something, with the promise of salvation hanging upon his performance of this obligation.

Furthermore, in this milder form of hyper-Calvinism, the idea that God expresses any favorable disposition or desire that all sinners believe and repent is strongly resisted. The call of the gospel declares objectively that all sinners must believe and repent. But it does not spring from any good will or benevolent attitude on God’s part, or on the part of His human ambassador, toward all sinners. It does not express any desire for the salvation of its recipients, when those recipients are non-elect sinners. The call of the gospel is “good news” for the elect alone.

  • The third view of the general call of the gospel, which I regard as the more classic or historic view of the Reformed churches, does not merely insist that the gospel-call be indiscriminately extended to all sinners. It also insists that the call expresses something of God’s good will or desire with respect to lost sinners. In the call of the gospel, God declares what is, according to His benevolence and good will, genuinely pleasing to Him, namely that sinners believe in Christ and turn from their wicked way. John Murray, in his essay, “The Free Offer of the Gospel,” clearly summarizes this view of the gospel-call:
The question then is: what is implicit in, or lies back of, the full and free offer of the gospel to all without distinction? The word ‘desire’ has come to be used in the debate, not because it is necessarily the most accurate or felicitous word but because it serves to set forth quite sharply a certain implication of the full and free offer of the gospel to all. This implication is that in the free offer there is expressed not simply the bare perceptive will of God but the disposition of loving-kindness on the part of God pointing to the salvation to be gained through compliance with the overtures of gospel grace. In other words, the gospel is not simply an offer or invitation, but also implies that God delights that those to whom the offer comes would enjoy what is offered in all its fullness.

According to this view, the gospel-call is born from and expresses a compassionate disposition on God’s part toward sinners. It sincerely summons all sinners to embrace Christ for salvation, promising all those who believe and repent that God stands ready to show them mercy. In this view, those who minister the gospel should do so out of a heartfelt desire for the good of all sinners, seeking to secure their salvation by an urgent and compassionate ministry of the Word of God.

Two distinctions regarding God’s will

Though I will have occasion in what follows to return to this subject, it should be noted here, as Murray’s statement of this third view suggests, that this understanding of the gospel-call acknowledges the distinction between God’s will of decree and His will of precept. Proponents of the well-meant offer view do not claim that God’s goodwill or favorable disposition toward sinners, which is expressed through the call of the gospel, represents his will of decree or sovereign intention to save all sinners without exception. Rather, they claim that, in addition to the general sense in which God is pleased whenever a creature obeys His precepts or commands (will of precept), the gospel-call expresses a special compassion toward lost sinners. This compassion in the call of the gospel is usually expressed in terms of God’s good will or desire that sinners embrace Christ for salvation. Because God exhibits such good will toward all sinners in the gospel-call, it is incumbent upon His servants to show a like good will toward them in the overtures of the gospel. This good will, however, ought not to be treated as though it were identical with God’s will so far as His sovereign counsel is concerned.

A related, though different, distinction is also important to a proper evaluation of the general call of the gospel. In addition to the distinction between God’s will of decree and His will of precept, another distinction is often made between God’s secret will and His revealed will (compare Deuteronomy. 29:29). Even though God has revealed His sovereign intention to save only the elect, He has not revealed the particular identity of the number of the elect. No minister of the gospel has an infallible or divinely revealed ad insight into the secret things of God. The gospel is always preached or administered according to God’s revealed will. Thus, when the gospel is preached, it is addressed to an audience of lost sinners whose only hope for salvation lies in coming to Christ in faith and repentance. The call of the gospel is not preached as a distinct Word for elect and non-elect persons, but as a revelation of God’s grace in Christ calling lost sinners to salvation. The same Word addresses all sinners in the same way, that is, in accordance with what God has revealed regarding the way of salvation through faith in Christ.

No doubt these preliminary definitions leave a number of questions unanswered. In the history of the discussion of the well-meant offer, advocates of one or another of these views have offered a variety of formulations of the gospel-call. Some of these are more sophisticated, some of them are less so, than the ones I have offered. However, the definitions I have offered are adequate to set the stage for a consideration of the more important questions relating to the call of the gospel.

Though all sinners are called to faith in Christ through the gospel, only those who are effectually drawn by the Spirit respond appropriately to this call. Through the Spirit working by means of the Word of the gospel, God unfailingly brings all His elect to salvation through faith in Christ.

Despite the general consensus of Reformed believers on this distinction between the universal and effectual call of the gospel, considerable differences exist regarding the character of the universal gospel-call. Three distinct views of the gospel-call have emerged within the Reformed tradition.

  • One view, which I termed “strong hyper-Calvinism,” amounts to a denial of the legitimacy of a gospel-call that extends to all sinners alike. In the strictest sense, this view claims that the call of the gospel addresses only the elect. Since God does not intend to save the non-elect, and since they have no capacity to answer the gospel call, it is inappropriate to summon them to faith and repentance.
  • Another view, which I termed a “mild hyper-Calvinism,” affirms the legitimacy of the gospel-call to all sinners, elect and non-elect alike, but rejects the idea that it promises equally to all its recipients salvation upon the condition of faith in Christ. This view maintains that the call of the gospel merely commands all sinners to believe and to repent, but does not express any goodwill or desire on God’s part that all sinners be saved. Language like the “free-offer of the gospel” or the “well-meant gospel offer” must be strictly avoided, since it suggests that the gospel-call manifests a favorable disposition on God’s part toward all sinners.1
  • In addition to these two views, a third view, which I termed the “classic” or “historic” view of the Reformed tradition, claims that the gospel not only summons all sinners to faith in Christ but also expresses a genuine desire or good-will on God’s part toward them. This view of the gospel call maintains that, though God has not decreed to save all lost sinners, He nonetheless sincerely calls all sinners to salvation through the gospel. The gospel addresses all sinners with the same gospel summons and in the same manner. Now that we have considered these different views of the gospel call in a general way, the time has come to take up the most important questions relating the call of the gospel.

The first and most important of these questions, of course, has to do with the Scriptures’ teaching. Does the Bible teach that the gospel should be preached indiscriminately to all and that in the call of the gospel there is expressed a disposition of loving-kindness or goodwill on God’s part toward sinners? Only after we have attempted to answer this question will we be in a position to take up such subordinate questions as:

  • Which of the three views distinguished has the predominant support of the Reformed tradition?
  • Is the teaching of a “well-meant offer” of the gospel not contradictory and inconsistent with the teaching of particular and sovereign election?
  • And lastly, so far as our particular interest goes, what significance does this subject have for the work of evangelism and missions?

The Biblical basis

Without attempting to be in any way exhaustive, there are several kinds of biblical passages that support the teaching of a well-meant gospel offer.2

Passages expressing God’s desire to save the wicked

A number of biblical passages depict God wishing or desiring that His people, Israel, would fear Him and keep His commandments. What makes these passages significant is that they portray God desiring salvation for all the children of Israel, even though some among them may persistently choose otherwise. That is to say, they allow us to see how God desires the salvation of those whom He may not have sovereignty determined to save in His electing counsel.

In Deuteronomy 5:29, we read:

“Oh, that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever!”

This passage, which expresses a general desire on God’s part for His covenant people (including their children), does not tell us that it is God’s sovereign intention to bring to pass what He desires. In the context of the history of God’s dealings with His people, Israel, it is readily apparent that many did not fear Him or keep His commandments. And yet, God expresses quite emphatically His earnest wish that it were otherwise, that the children of Israel would be pleased to walk in covenant faithfulness before Him. Though it would not be impossible to argue that this desire only refers to God’s will for His elect children, such a reading is most unlikely and tends to insert issues into the text that are not being addressed.

In a similar passage, Deuteronomy 32:29, language is used that expresses in the strongest terms God’s desire that His people would be wise and considerate of their final end:

“Would that they [His people, Israel] were wise, that they understood this, that they would discern their future.”

The Hebrew conjunction used in this verse, lu, often introduces the expression of a strong desire or wish.3 In this passage, then, we have an example of God desiring something beneficial for all of His people, though nothing is told us that would indicate that it is His sovereign intention to effect what He desires.

Other examples of these kinds of passages are Psalm 81:13 and Isaiah 48:18. Psalm 81:13 portrays God as One who wishes that His people would listen to Him and walk in His ways:

“Oh, that My people would listen to Me, that Israel would walk in My ways!”

Isaiah 48:18 records the Lord’s wistful lament that His people have not paid attention to His commandments and, as a result, are suffering the adverse consequences of their failure to do so:

“If only you had paid attention to My commandments! Then your wellbeing would have been like a river. And your righteousness like the waves of the sea.”

These passages, like those cited from the book of Deuteronomy, undoubtedly reveal God’s genuine desire and wish for all of His people, even though the context indicates that what He wishes for them He has not determined to effect. John Murray, commenting on these passages, correctly observes that:

“the Lord represents himself in some of these passages as earnestly desiring the fulfillment of something which he had not in the exercise of his sovereign will actually decreed to come to pass.”4

God takes no delight in the death of the wicked

Just as there are biblical passages that express God’s desire for the salvation of those who do not fear Him and keep His commandments, so there are biblical passages that reveal God’s displeasure at the death of the wicked. Because God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, these passages also portray Him earnestly calling the disobedient to turn from their wicked way and be saved. Three passages of this sort are found in the prophecy of Ezekiel.

In Ezekiel 18:23 the Lord declares in vigorous terms that He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked:

“‘Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,’ declares the Lord God, ‘rather than that he should turn from his ways and live?’”

The grammatical construction of this verse (literally it reads, “taking pleasure in, do I take pleasure in the death of the wicked”) suggests that the answer to the Lord’s rhetorical question their way and find life. Later in the same chapter of Ezekiel, verse 32, a related but must be, “of course not!” The Lord takes no pleasure or delight in the death of the wicked. Much rather – and emphatically so – He would rather that the wicked turn from somewhat different point is expressed:

“‘For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,’ declares the Lord God. ‘Therefore, repent and live.’”

This verse states quite directly that the Lord has no delight or pleasure in the death of anyone. For this reason – because He has no delight in their death – He summons the wicked to repent and live.

A most significant instance of this kind of passage, however, is found in Ezekiel 33:11:

“Say to them, ‘As I live!’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?’”

This passage begins with an oath-formula underscoring the truth and weight of the words spoken. Once again the Lord declares that He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. To the contrary, what pleases Him is that the wicked should turn from their way and live. The call to repentance, therefore, which the Lord expresses at the end of this passage, is a heartfelt expression of what He desires for the wicked.

The remarkable feature of these passages is that they resist any attempt to restrict their application to elect sinners. One could argue, for example, that in these passages the Lord is only speaking of and addressing the wicked who belong to His people, Israel, and who are numbered among the elect. On this reading of these passages, all of the wicked are presumably elect sinners, whom God has sovereignly purposed to save and to bring into communion with Himself. Not one person addressed in these passages is an elect sinner. Now, why would anyone attempt this kind of reading or construction of these passages? The likeliest answer is that they would do so in order to avoid the implication that in the call of the gospel God not only summons sinners to repentance and life but He also desires that they do so. The restriction of these passages in their application to God’s dealings with the elect alone is likely born out of a dogmatic prejudice that God could not desire the salvation of sinners whom He has not sovereignly purposed to save. But this is precisely what these passages apparently teach.

Christ’s disposition toward Jerusalem

One of the themes running through the New Testament Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry is that of the unbelief and impenitence on the part of many of the children of Israel. Even though Christ went preaching the kingdom of God first to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel,” their response to His preaching was often one of hostility and rejection. Despite their abundant privileges and opportunities, they spurned the call to repentance and Christ’s invitations to receive the kingdom offered to them.

A remarkable instance of this pattern of unbelief and impenitence is recorded in Luke 13:37 (par. Matthew 23:37). After Jesus answers the question, “are there just a few who are being saved?” (verse 23), by commanding his hearers to “strive to enter by the narrow door,” He goes on to note how many fail to do so. Remarkably, many of those who will not gain entrance into the kingdom of God are people who knew the master of the house and even, by their own testimony, “ate and drank” with him. However, because they refused to enter when the opportunity was granted to them, they will find themselves outside the kingdom of God where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (verse 28). Despite the fact that many will enter the kingdom, including some from “east and west and north and south,” there are some who are “first who will be last” (verses 29-30). In the context, it is clear that Christ is warning many among the covenant people of God that, despite their many privileges and ample opportunity, they will not be saved.

What is important to our question is that Luke concludes this section of his Gospel by recording Christ’s lament over Jerusalem:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (verse 34)

Within the context of Luke’s account, these words can only mean that Christ is lamenting the unbelief and impenitence of many of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. What Christ expresses as His desire and wish for them, the text declares not to be their desire or wish. The language used to describe Christ’s lament, moreover, emphasizes the deep anguish and distress that He felt in the face of the unwillingness of many of Jerusalem’s inhabitants to be gathered under His wings. This language of being “gathered under His wings,” when interpreted in the light of the preceding discourse on the way of salvation or entrance into the kingdom of God, indicates that Jesus is speaking of their salvation.

It is difficult to see how this text could be taken in any other way than as an expression of Jesus’ heartfelt desire that the inhabitants of Jerusalem find salvation. 5

Chosen But Free (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press, 2000), pages 6-9. White treats the parallel to this text in Matthew 23:37, and tries to argue that in the context Jesus is not speaking about the salvation of all the inhabitants of Jerusalem but only of the leaders of the Jews. On his reading, the text does not express any desire for the salvation of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, some of whom may be non-elect. Though White’s reading of Matthew 23:37 is rather unlikely, he neglects to note that the context in Luke 13:37 has to do with the issue of salvation or non-salvation, and that it speaks generally of many among the inhabitants of Jerusalem who forfeit their opportunity to enter into the kingdom while the door was open to them.

It seems clearly to express a desire that could only arise from a compassionate and earnest interest in their salvation. If someone were to argue, for example, that this is merely an expression of Jesus’ human will as the God-man, two insuperable difficulties would arise.

  • First, it would be inconsistent with an orthodox doctrine of Christ’s Person to suggest that any feature or expression of His humanity is not also to be ascribed to His Person. Even were we to grant for the sake of discussion that this lament arises out of a human compassion on Christ’s part for his countrymen, such compassion would necessarily belong to His Person.6
  • And second, the perfect harmony of the will of Christ with that of His Father militates against any suggestion that the desire expressed in this lament is somehow contrary to or different than that of the Father (compare John 12:49,50; 14:10,24; 17:8). The best reading of this passage is one that takes it for a simple declaration of Christ’s desire for the salvation of many who refused to believe and repent at the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom.

The apostle Paul’s concern for his countrymen

One biblical argument that relates to the question of the well-meant offer of the gospel is often neglected or overlooked: the apostle Paul’s testimony at two key points in the argument of Romans (9:1-5; 10:1) that his heart’s desire and prayer to God was for the salvation of his brethren, his “kinsmen according to the flesh” (9:3). In the face of the unbelief of many of his contemporaries from among the children of Israel, the apostle declares in the strongest possible terms his own personal desire that they should come to faith in Christ and be saved.

The context for the apostle’s expression of this concern for his countrymen is clear. Due to the unbelief of many of the children of Israel, they (though not all) have been cut off from the number of God’s people. Though God’s Word and “purpose of election” have not failed, only a “remnant chosen by grace” remains among those who were descended from the children of Israel (11:5; 9:6-13). In no respect, however, does this represent a failure of God’s gracious purpose, since the hardening of many among the children of Israel has been the occasion within God’s purpose to bring salvation to the Gentiles. Moreover, the salvation of the “fullness” of the Gentiles will provoke Israel to jealousy (11:11). Within the electing purpose of God, this will lead ultimately to the salvation of “all Israel” (11:26).7

Within the context of his treatment of the problem of the apparent failure of God’s Word with respect to the children of Israel, the apostle Paul’s anguish of heart and prayer to God for the salvation of his countrymen strongly express a desire that they should be saved. To echo the language of the passages from Ezekiel that we have considered, as a servant of the Lord, Paul takes no delight in the death of his unbelieving countrymen. He wants them to believe, to call upon the name of the Lord in faith, and so be saved. He does not use language that would restrict the scope of this desire to the elect among the children of Israel. Nor does he speak in any other capacity than as an apostle, commissioned by Christ and empowered by His Spirit to speak in His name. In conformity to Christ and as His apostle, Paul expresses a sincere desire for the salvation of the children of Israel.

2 Peter 3:9

The last passage we will consider in this brief survey is 2 Peter 3:9:

“The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”

Does this passage teach that the Lord’s patience, which is manifest in this period of history prior to His coming in judgment at the end of age, expresses His goodwill toward sinners whom He wishes to come to repentance and so be saved? More particularly, does the Lord’s patience express His goodwill even toward sinners whom He may not have elected to save? Though this might appear to be the obvious force of the passage, some who reject the idea of a well-meant offer argue that there are reasons to restrict this text’s application to the elect.

Two reasons are offered why this text does not teach that the Lord desires the repentance and salvation of lost sinners, some of whom may not be elect.

  • First, the context of the passage refers to the problem of the “delay” of the Lord’s coming and judgment. In the verses preceding and following verse 9 of 2 Peter 3, the apostle Peter is addressing those “mockers” who conclude from the fact that the Lord’s coming has not occurred that His promise cannot be trusted. The real interest of this passage, therefore, is not the salvation or non-salvation of sinners so much as it is the question of the delay of the Lord’s coming in judgment.
  • Second, the language of this text, particularly when it is read in the context of the whole epistle, clearly restricts its reference to the elect, to the believing community or company of those whom the Lord has determined to save.8 This passage does not speak of a general patience that the Lord exhibits toward all lost sinners, but a specific, saving patience that He exhibits toward His chosen people. This is evident from the language of the text itself, which speaks of God’s patience “toward you.”9

The first of these reasons can be dismissed rather quickly. Though it is true that the passage is especially interested in the question of the delay of God’s judgment, the whole point of 2 Peter 3:9 is that God, far from being “slow about His promise,” in His patience is providing an occasion for sinners to repent, “not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” This sounds very much like a concern that opportunity be given for some to repent and believe, and so be saved (not perish). Indeed, in verse 15 the apostle Peter calls the patience of the Lord “salvation” because it provides the occasion for some to turn to the Lord while it is still time.

The second of these reasons, however, is more substantial. It is true that Peter’s epistle addresses a particular group of people. In the opening salutation of the letter, Peter addresses

“those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” (1:1)

Moreover, in 2 Peter 3:9, the patience of the Lord is directed “toward you,” that is, the same persons whom the epistle as a whole addresses. This passage, then, may only be speaking of a patience that is directed toward the salvation of true believers, the elect who alone are the objects of God’s desire that they should not perish but come to repentance.

Though this is a possible reading of the text, there are two considerations that lead me to reject it. In the first place, even were this language reserved to the Lord’s patience toward the believing community to which Peter’s epistle is address, this does not warrant the conclusion that all those professing believers to whom Peter is speaking are elect. Among those to whom 2 Peter was first written – and, no doubt, among those churches composed of believers and their children to whom this letter continues to speak – there were (and are) some who need to repent lest they perish and come under judgment when the Lord returns (cf. 1 Peter 4:17). There is nothing in this text or its context that warrants the claim that all those addressed are, head for head, elect persons. This claim is not born out of the language of the text but out of theological considerations, namely, the assumption that it is impossible that the Lord should desire the salvation of lost sinners whom He has not purposed to save. There is no reason to believe that Peter’s audience, professing believers, did not include any reprobate persons who would not seize the opportunity given in the Lord’s patience to repent. Furthermore, the language of the text is sufficiently indefinite and general to suggest that its reach extends beyond the company of professing believers. The Lord’s patience reveals that He is “not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” Speaking of this language, John Murray remarks that it

“most naturally refers to mankind as a whole as men are faced with the issues of death or life before the day of judgment comes.”10

In the light of these kinds of biblical passages, the Reformed tradition has generally maintained that the call of the gospel expresses, both on the part of God and on the part of His ambassadors, a genuine desire that lost sinners be saved. The good news proclaimed in the preaching of the gospel includes a sincere summons to faith and repentance that is extended to all.

Now that we have considered the kinds of biblical evidence that support this view of the gospel call, we are in a position to take up the questions mentioned earlier:

  • What evidence is there that this is the predominant view of the Reformed tradition?
  • Is the teaching of a well-meant gospel offer consistent with the teaching of unconditional election?
  • And what implications precisely does this have with regard to the work of evangelism and missions?

In the history of the Reformed churches, the distinction between a universal and an effectual call of the gospel is a commonplace. Even though there are a few advocates of a strong form of hyper-Calvinism, which denies that the gospel call should be preached to all sinners, the elect and non-elect alike, the mainstream of the Reformed tradition has always affirmed the legitimacy of an indiscriminate preaching of the gospel to all sinners without exception.

However, in the debate regarding the nature of this gospel-call, some have advocated what I have called a “soft” hyper-Calvinism. In this view of the gospel-call, we should not present the gospel promise to all sinners in the same manner. Since some of those to whom the gospel-call is addressed are non-elect, we should not regard the call, so far as it is addressed to them, as expressing any good will or favor on the part of God or those who speak in His name. The gospel-call, when it comes to those whom God has not determined to save, does not express any desire, whether on God’s or His ambassadors’ part, that they should believe in Jesus Christ, turn from their sin and so be saved.

Earlier I sought to show from the Scriptures that this reserve regarding the gospel-call is not fully biblical. Rather, there is biblical evidence for the teaching that in some sense God desires the salvation of all lost sinners, and that those who represent Him in the gospel ministry ought likewise to seek earnestly the salvation of all to whom they have opportunity to bring the message of salvation. The gospel comes to lost sinners as good news:

“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household.” Acts 17:31

It does not summon people to believe that they are elect or non-elect, but to put their trust in Christ alone for salvation. The biblical teaching regarding particular election, however clear and compelling it may be, does not negate the biblical teaching regarding the propriety of extending the gospel’s summons and promise to all lost sinners.

However, there are a few questions that I have not addressed until this point, which I would like to consider. These questions are:

  • first, is the gospel-call, as I have interpreted it, the teaching of historic or classic Calvinism?
  • second, is the idea of a well-meant offer of the gospel consistent with the biblical teaching of God’s sovereign and unconditional election of some sinners, but not others?
  • and third, what implications does a proper view of the gospel-call have for the subject of Reformed evangelism?

Classic Calvinism?

Though the Reformed tradition is known for its affirmation of God’s unconditional election of His people in Christ, there is some dispute whether it also affirms the teaching of a free offer of the gospel. Is there evidence that the historic position of the Reformed churches favors the idea that the gospel-call expresses some kind of good will on the part of God toward all lost sinners?

Though it is not possible to canvass the whole of the Reformed tradition to ascertain its position on the gospel-call, we will accomplish our purpose by briefly considering two representative sources: Calvin, who is generally acknowledged to be the leading theologian of the tradition; and the Reformed confessions, which express the churchly consensus of the tradition. Admittedly, this is a limited basis for drawing any general conclusions about the Reformed tradition. But it is sufficient to illustrate what is the historic position of the Reformed churches, especially as it comes to expression in one of its representative theologians and confessional symbols.

Calvin

Calvin’s teaching on the subject of unconditional election is well known. God has from eternity purposed to save His elect people, not upon the basis of foreseen faith or works but upon the basis of His sovereign grace and good-pleasure. However, his position on the subject of the well-meant offer of the gospel is not as well known, nor is it as uniformly interpreted. Rather than attempt to sort out all of the varying interpretations of Calvin’s view, I will only cite a few examples from his writings to show that he affirmed some kind of free offer of the gospel. Several of these examples also show how Calvin interpreted the texts we considered in the above mentioned.

In his commentary on Romans 5:18, Calvin writes:

“Paul makes grace common to all men, not because it in fact extends to all, but because it is offered to all. Although Christ suffered for the sins of the world, and is offered by the goodness of God without distinction to all men, yet not all receive Him” (emphasis mine)11.

What is remarkable about this comment is that Calvin speaks of “the goodness of God,” which is exhibited to all men in the preaching of the gospel. He even acknowledges a kind of “common grace” that extends to all those to whom the gospel is offered. Though many do not “receive” Christ as He is offered in the gospel, this does not remove the fact that He is truly offered to all to whom the gospel is addressed. While Calvin elsewhere in his commentary on Romans declares that “God does not work effectually in all men,”12 in his comments on Romans 5:18 he affirms God’s favor or goodness toward all to whom the gospel-call is extended. He also uses a variety of terms in this commentary to describe the nature of the gospel-call: the gospel “exhibits” or “offers” Christ, and thereby “invites” sinners to “receive” Him.13 These terms are stronger in meaning than a view of the gospel-call as a mere “exhibition” or “presentation” of Christ would allow. They suggest that God through the gospel genuinely and graciously invites all sinners to believe.

Equally remarkable are Calvin’s comments on Matthew 23:37

(par. Luke 17:34) “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem … How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling.”

According to Calvin, Christ’s language in this lament expresses a “maternal kindness.” In a manner of speaking, God “bares His breast to us” in the overtures of the gospel.14 Through the gospel God manifests His “great goodness,” which is similar to a maternal tenderness and kindness expressed toward wayward children who prove unwilling to respond in kind. Indeed, it is precisely the tenderheartedness of God’s lament in the Person of His Son that renders human unbelief in response to the gospel such a “monstrous” thing. For this reason – the sinner’s stubborn refusal to respond appropriately to God’s kind overtures – a “dreadful vengeance awaits us as often as the teaching of His Gospel is put before us, unless we quietly hide ourselves under His wings, in which He is ready to take us up and shelter us.”15

In his lectures on Ezekiel, Calvin expressly states that God announces through the prophet (especially in Ezekiel 18:23,32) “His wish that all should be saved.”16 This is the general tenor of the whole gospel when it is presented to lost sinners – “all are promiscuously called to salvation.”17 Though we are not to confuse this gospel-call with God’s “secret counsel” whereby He has determined to save the elect, we may not deny that “God calls all equally to repentance, and promises Himself prepared to receive them if they only seriously repent.”18 When it comes to the presentation of the gospel to lost sinners, therefore, we should not curiously inquire into God’s hidden purposes but rather look to the Word in which the divine will “is made plain to us and to our children.”19 While Calvin readily acknowledges that this may suggest to us a kind of duplicity in God (He decrees one thing, but expresses Himself in another way through the gospel), he nonetheless insists that God’s purposes are harmonious and consistent, however difficult, even impossible, it may be for us to see clearly how this is so.

The last example of Calvin’s affirmation of the well-meant offer of the gospel comes from his treatment of 2 Peter 3:9:

“The Lord … is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”

This passage, like others in the Scriptures, presents us with a difficulty that is not easy to resolve. How can God desire to save sinners whom He has not purposed (in some cases) to save? Calvin admits that this might suggest some kind of disparity between God’s secret and revealed will: though God has secretly determined to save the elect alone, He declares in the gospel that He desires the salvation of all. The only solution open to us is to acknowledge that in His revealed will “God stretches out His hand to all alike,” even though secretly He has determined to save one and not another.20 Nonetheless, there is no ultimate disharmony between God’s purpose of election and the universal call of the gospel, however difficult this harmony may be for us to comprehend. Indeed, if we attempt to discover in what sense God desires or wills the salvation of all, we will be seeking to know something God has not chosen to reveal to us.

Confessions

The most important evidence for the historic position of the Reformed churches on the gospel-call is, of course, the testimony of the confessions. These have official standing as a summary of the church’s understanding of the Word of God. Even though it may be too much to insist that the Reformed confessions require a strong affirmation of the well-meant offer, this view seems to comport best with the language used in the confessions.

The most direct and clear statement of the nature of the gospel-call as it is addressed to all lost sinners is found in the Canons of Dort. The Canons of Dort were formulated as a Reformed or Calvinist answer to the five “opinions” of the Arminian or Remonstrant party in the Dutch Reformed church of the early seventeenth century. In their “opinions,” the Arminians claimed that the teaching of unconditional election undermined the universal and indiscriminate preaching of the gospel to all sinners. In particular, the teaching of unconditional election deprived the gospel invitation or offer of its seriousness and sincerity.21

In their response to the Arminians, the Canons of Dort address the subject of the well-meant offer in two places. In the Second Main Point of Doctrine, which deals with Christ’s death and human redemption, the Canons affirm that the death of Christ “is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the world” (Art. 3). Though Christ’s death was designed to provide redemption for the elect alone, the gospel must be preached to all lost sinners. According to the Canons,

“it is the promise of the gospel that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel.” (Art. 5)

However, it is in the Third and Fourth Main Points of Doctrine that the Canons most expressly speak of the gospel offer. In Article 8, we read that

“all who are called through the gospel are called seriously. For seriously and most genuinely God makes known in His Word what is pleasing to Him (gratum est): that those who are called should come to Him. Seriously He also promises rest for their souls and eternal life to all who come to Him and believe.” (emphasis mine)

The language of this Article, which is closely but not exactly patterned after the language of the Arminians’ “opinion” on the gospel-call, clearly expresses the idea that God declares through the gospel what He finds desirable and pleasing, namely, that lost sinners come to Him in faith. Without in any way compromising their affirmation of the electing purpose of God, the Canons simultaneously affirm the genuineness and sincerity of the gospel-call.

Though the Westminster Standards are not as explicit or direct in their affirmation of the well-meant offer of the gospel, they do use language that implies this teaching. Chapter Ten of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which summarizes the Scriptural teaching of “effectual calling,” speaks of those who are effectually called being “enabled to answer this call and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it” (WCF X.II). Now it might be argued that this language only describes what is offered to the elect, who alone are effectually called through the gospel. In this view, grace is only offered through the gospel to the elect. But it is more plausible that this language describes the nature of the gospel call itself, which becomes effectual unto salvation when the Holy Spirit grants faith and repentance to the elect. The faith granted to the elect is, in other words, a believing response to a gracious summons and offer. The matter is clearer, however, in the language of the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. The Westminster Larger Catechism, for example, speaks of the non-elect as those

“who, for their wilful neglect and contempt of the grace offered to them, being justly left in their unbelief, do never truly come to Jesus Christ.” (Q & A 68)

Likewise, the Westminster Shorter Catechism affirms that Jesus Christ is “freely offered to us in the gospel” (Q & A 31).

The likeliest reading of these confessional statements is one that affirms the teaching of a well-meant gospel offer. The gospel-call, which is extended indiscriminately to all lost sinners, freely offers Christ and invites its recipients to believe in Him for salvation. The gospel summons sincerely reveals what God finds pleasing and desirable. Failure to respond in faith and repentance, accordingly, aggravates the guilt of those who refuse what God invites them to receive. Following Calvin’s lead, the Reformed confessions insist upon a free and indiscriminate preaching of the gospel to all lost sinners. Furthermore, through this preaching God Himself graciously offers and invites sinners to respond in faith and repentance.

A contradiction in terms?

One of the common objections among some Reformed believers to the free offer of the gospel is that it violates the norms of consistency and coherence. To affirm simultaneously the teachings of unconditional, particular election and of the well-meant gospel offer flies in the face of logic. How can God sovereignly decree not to save a lost sinner, and yet desire his salvation? This is tantamount to saying that God has two contrary wills or impulses: to save and not to save, to love and to hate. This introduces, so far as God’s will with respect to the salvation of sinners is concerned, a kind of duality or schizophrenia into God’s purposes. Such a position is hopelessly illogical and contradictory. To say that God expresses good will toward all lost sinners in the preaching and call of the gospel is tantamount to saying that “God is frustrated in His desire to save certain persons.”22

This is undoubtedly a difficult question. In our earlier treatment of Calvin’s view, we noted that he acknowledged the difficulty while admitting that he had no easy solution to it. Because Calvin was convinced that the Scriptures taught unconditional election and the well-meant offer of the gospel, he affirmed both of these teachings.

However, he also insisted upon their ultimate harmony within the will and purpose of God. Though Calvin readily admitted that he was unable to show fully and clearly how this was so, he insisted that God’s will is ultimately harmonious. Since the Scriptures distinguish between God’s revealed will and His will of decree, we must employ this kind of distinction as well in dealing with the gospel-call. But at no point, according to Calvin, may we admit that God’s will (however complex in relation to us) is contradictory.

Calvin’s unwillingness to attempt a full resolution of this apparent conflict between the teaching of unconditional, particular election and the free offer of the gospel is exemplary. Though it is always tempting to embrace the simple solution, which seems to accord most obviously with the dictates of logic, sometimes we have to follow the Scriptures wherever they lead, even when we are left with perplexing and even intractable problems. No doubt, the simplest position would be one that either affirms unconditional election at the expense of the free offer of the gospel, or affirms the free offer of the gospel at the expense of unconditional election. One or the other, so this approach would argue, must be true: either God elects to save some sinners and therefore expresses no goodwill or favor toward them in the preaching of the gospel; or, God expresses His goodwill or favor toward all sinners in the gospel-call and therefore He has not purposed in love to save some and not others. Either of these views has the attraction of being simple and apparently consistent. The problem is that neither view accurately reflects the whole teaching of Scripture, however difficult it may be to see the consistency of all that Scripture teaches on this subject.

The best and wisest course at this point is to admit that, though the tension or inconsistency here is apparent, it is ultimately not real. Though the mystery of the full harmony and coherence of God’s will and purpose may finally lie beyond our grasp or reach, we must be content to follow the teaching of Scripture wherever it leads. If the Scriptures teach unconditional election, we should affirm this teaching. If the Scriptures teach the well-meant gospel offer, we should affirm this teaching as well. That we are unable to see through the consistency of these things says something about the limits of our grasp and understanding. But it is conceit on our part to insist that, because we cannot fully comprehend it, it is not true. As is often the case, Calvin offers us wise counsel in this area:

“Although, therefore, God’s will is simple, yet great variety is involved in it, as far as our senses are concerned. Besides, it is not surprising that our eyes should be blinded by intense light, so that we cannot certainly judge how God wishes all to be saved, and yet has devoted all the reprobate to eternal destruction, and wishes them to perish. While we look now through a glass darkly, we should be content with the measure of our own intelligence. (1 Cor. 13:12). When we shall be like God, and see him face to face, then what is now obscure will then become plain.”23

There are, however, two additional observations that may be made regarding the consistency of the teaching of election and the free offer of the gospel.

First, contrary to the insistence of the hyper-Calvinist that it is a real contradiction to affirm both of these teachings, we must remember that the well-meant offer has to do with the revelation of God’s will or desire in the preaching of the gospel. To go back to a traditional distinction mentioned above, when we speak of the gospel-call we are in the arena of what Reformed theology calls God’s revealed will, not his decretive will.

Though this distinction may only seem to be a convenient attempt to “paper over” the apparent contradiction between the free offer of the gospel and God’s decree of election, it does remind us that the divine desire and good will expressed in the gospel do not describe God’s sovereign intentions or purposes of election. This is the reason I have consistently spoken of God desiring in some sense the salvation of all lost sinners. This desire, which is presented in the preaching of the gospel, is not to be confused with His sovereign purpose of election. Therefore, it is an unfortunate confusion when the language of God’s “will” to save the lost, when it relates to the free offer of the gospel, is regarded to have the same meaning as the language of God’s “will” to save the lost, when it relates to His decree of election.

Second, it is at least conceivable to imagine a circumstance in which God might desire something that He has not simultaneously determined to effect. Robert Lewis Dabney, who was an influential theologian in the southern Presbyterian tradition, addressed this point in his remarkable essay, “God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy, As Related to His Power, Wisdom, and Sincerity.” In this essay, which is an extraordinarily complex handling of our question, Dabney maintains that we can imagine circumstances in which a person might harbor a strong desire or “propension” to show mercy but at the same time, for reasons sometimes unknown to us, determine to effect something quite different. He mentions, for example, General Washington’s decision to sign a death-warrant during the Revolutionary War for Major André. Though Washington felt deep and genuine compassion for Major André, he resolutely fulfilled his obligation in bringing him to justice for his treason during wartime. While admitting that this and other analogies drawn from human experience are inadequate to account for the harmonious, yet complex, ways of God in dealing with lost sinners, Dabney maintained that it might help us see how God could be simultaneously and sincerely compassionate toward lost sinners while, for reasons known alone to Him, be resolute in His sovereign determination not to save them. Though God’s complex will toward lost sinners would not involve the kind of tension and disharmony that often accompanies human motives and purposes, His will with respect to lost sinners is undoubtedly an infinitely complex one, which could accommodate at the same time a propensity to show mercy to lost sinners while sovereignly determining not to save them. Only an “overweening logic,” Dabney argued, would insist that God could not simultaneously reveal a sincere desire to show mercy to lost sinners and yet harbor in His secret and sovereign designs a purpose to save some and not others.24

I mention Dabney’s treatment of this objection because it confirms the point made in the previous section. Reformed theologians, while recognizing the difficulty of harmonizing the Scriptural teachings of a sovereign decree of election and a well-meant gospel offer, have generally sought to affirm both, to insist upon their ultimate harmony, and to admit that the “ways of God” in this and other respects lie beyond our capacity fully to comprehend.

Implications for evangelism

To conclude our treatment of the gospel-call, we need to return to the question with which we began: does this have implications for evangelism and missions?25 As I have noted, it is often argued that the Reformed view of election inhibits a rigorous pursuit of evangelism and missions. Reformed believers are hesitant, even reluctant, to preach the gospel indiscriminately and vigorously to all lost sinners, since they fear any approach that would compromise the sovereign and electing grace of God. Those who argue against the Reformed view of election allege that the error of hyper-Calvinism, which denies the legitimacy and sincerity of the gospel call, is an inherent and inescapable feature of Reformed teaching.

This is not any easy argument to answer for several reasons. Since Reformed believers and churches are often delinquent in the area of evangelism and missions, it is certainly legitimate to ask whether its teaching may account for this delinquency. We may not brush aside too quickly the question whether the distinctive teaching of the Reformed churches may not account for their failures in this area. Furthermore, there are Reformed believers and churches who may hold to what I have called a “soft” hyper-Calvinism but whose interest in and energetic pursuit of the church’s evangelistic calling are commendable. It would be a cheap and inappropriate criticism to allege that all those who deny the free offer of the gospel are guilty of an unbiblical indifference toward the task of preaching the gospel to lost sinners. Likewise, proponents of the teaching of a well-meant gospel offer may easily comfort themselves that, by virtue of affirming this offer, they have absolved themselves of any responsibility to act. Remarkably, it is often the case that believers whose teaching is sound betray that teaching by their lives. Others whose teaching falls short of the biblical norm may nonetheless exhibit more faithfulness to the biblical norm in their conduct.

However, the question still needs to be pressed whether a denial of the well-meant offer of the gospel has any impact upon the work of evangelism. To that question, I am convinced, the answer has to be a guarded “yes.” Where the teaching of sovereign election leads to a denial of the free offer of the gospel, the work of evangelism will generally suffer. If believers are not permitted to desire the salvation of all those to whom the gospel is presented, their gospel presentation will lack the passion for the lost that might otherwise be present. To say the least, the preaching of the gospel will lack that heartfelt compassion toward all lost sinners that should belong to biblical evangelism. When the well-meant offer is denied, the gospel can no longer be extended to sinners as a gracious offer, as an earnest and heartfelt invitation, which seeks the salvation of all those to whom it is addressed.

Even though the motives for evangelism are several – including the principal motive of advancing God’s glory and name – one of the most important is a genuine compassion for all lost sinners. As Dabney rightly grasped in his handling of this subject, the paramount issue is whether there is any heart in our preaching of the gospel. If the gospel preacher is not permitted to express his heart’s compassion toward all lost sinners, then what remains of the message of “good news?” How can it be a gospel word any longer, if the preacher must beware of extending the gospel promise in an inappropriate manner to non-elect persons?

Hyper-Calvinism’s denial of the free offer of the gospel cannot but constrict and restrain the open display of God’s mercy and compassion in Christ toward the lost. It can only present the gospel as an exhibit, but not as an invitation. It can only present the gospel as general truth, but not as a personal summons. And it must ever live in fear of presenting the message in an openly conditional form (“if you believe … then you will be saved”). But if the gospel may not be preached conditionally, as an invitation to believe and to repent and so be saved, then how can it be preached at all?

The debate about the free offer of the gospel is, accordingly, an important one for Reformed believers and churches. Failure to embrace as biblical the teaching of the free offer has inhibited and will inhibit the work of evangelism. Unless those who minister in Christ’s name can say, “my heart’s desire and prayer to God is that they may be saved,” they will not be as free and unfettered in seeking the lost as they ought to be.

Endnotes

  1. ^ It is also objected that the language of “offer” is inappropriate and unbiblical because it suggests that the sinner is free “to take or leave” what is presented to him. I will address this objection in a subsequent article, when I consider the language of the Canons of Dort on the gospel call.
  2. ^ For a more detailed treatment of some of these passages, see John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, “The Free Offer of the Gospel” (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth,1982), IV:113-32.
  3. ^ Murray, “The Free Offer of the Gospel,” page 118.
  4. ^ Murray, “The Free Offer of the Gospel,” page. 119.
  5. ^ Cf. James R. White, The Potter’s Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal of Norman Geisler’s
  6. ^ In the doctrine of Christology, this follows from what is known as the “communion of the attributes” (communicatio idiomata) in Christ’s Person. All the essential attributes of deity and humanity must be ascribed to Christ’s Person. This accounts for such expressions as “the Son of God died” or “Jesus was almighty,” etc. Affirmations are made about Christ’s Person either by virtue of His being “true God” or being “true man.”
  7. ^ For a discussion of the meaning of this language, “all Israel,” see my The Promise of the Future (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2000), pp. 127-38.
  8. ^ For a recent treatment of this text, which offers these two reasons as objections to the claim that it teaches a well-meant offer of the gospel, see James R. White, The Potter’s Freedom, pp. 145-50. White’s book is an excellent rebuttal of Geisler’s Arminian view of election, but it betrays at times (as in this instance and the previous one mentioned [cf. Note 5]) a bit of overzealousness.
  9. ^ There are two textual differences worth noting with respect to this verse. Some of the oldest manuscripts have the preposition “on account of” rather than “toward” before “you.” Many later manuscripts have the pronoun “us” rather than “you” (plural). These textual differences do not substantially affect the meaning and implication of the text.
  10. ^ John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, “The Free Offer of the Gospel” (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1982), IV:130: “The language in this part of the verse is so absolute that it is highly unnatural to envisage Peter as meaning merely that God does not wish that any believers should perish, but that he rather wishes that all believers who live laxly should repent of their sins. If they are believers, they have already come to repentance, entered upon life, and escaped destruction, even though the struggle against sin and turning from it must continue.”
  11. ^ Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, (ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963-74), vol. 8, pp. 117-18. Hereafter cited as CNTC. I am indebted to my colleague, Rev. J. Mark Beach, for calling these passages to my attention.
  12. ^ CNTC, vol. 8, p. 27.
  13. ^ CNTC, vol. 8, p. 27.
  14. ^ CNTC, vol. 3, p. 68.
  15. ^ CNTC, vol. 3, p. 68.
  16. ^ Calvin’s Commentaries (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1843-55), vol. 12, p. 266. Hereafter cited as COTC.
  17. ^ COTC, vol. 12, p. 266.
  18. ^ COTC, vol. 12, p. 247.
  19. ^ COTC, vol. 12, p. 267.
  20. ^ CNTC, vol. 12, p. 364.
  21. ^ The Arminian opinion declared the following: “Whomever God calls to salvation, he calls seriously, that is, with a sincere and completely unhypocritical intention and will to save; nor do we assent to the opinion of those who hold that God calls certain ones externally whom He does not will to call internally, that is, as truly converted, even before the grace of calling has been rejected” (as cited in Crisis in the Reformed Churches: Essays in Commemoration of the Synod of Dort (1618-’19), ed. P. Y. De Jong [Grand Rapids: Reformed Fellowship, Inc., 1968], Appendix H, pp. 226-27).
  22. ^ Cf. David J. Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel (rev. ed.; Grand Rapids: The Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1964), p. 6: “The well-meant offer teaches that God is frustrated in His desire to save certain persons.” Engelsma insists (and cites John Gerstner to the same effect) that proponents of the well-meant offer teach that God both “wills and intends” to save all sinners and “does not will and intend” to save some sinners (the non-elect). No doubt proponents of the well meant offer (myself included) have not always stated their position in a fully consistent and clear manner. But I know no Reformed proponent of the offer who would use the terms “will” and “desire” to mean the same thing with respect to the well-meant offer as he means with respect to God’s decree of election. This is a misrepresentation of the well-meant offer that serves to buttress the claim that the idea of the free offer is a real contradiction.
  23. ^ Calvin’s Commentaries (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1843-55), vol. 12, pp. 247-8.
  24. ^ Robert Lewis Dabney, Discussions of Robert Lewis Dabney (1891; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), vol. 1, pp. 282-313. Cf. John Piper, “Are There Two Wills in God? Divine Election and God’s Desire for All to Be Saved,” in The Grace of God and The Bondage of the Will, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Brace A. Ware (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), vol. 1, pp. 107-32.
  25. ^ Cf. Norman Geisler, Chosen But Free. A Balanced View of Divine Election (2nd ed.; Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1999, 2001), pp. 141-2.

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