Reformed Evangelism Cornel Venema “Election and the ‘Free Offer’ of the Gospel” Part Two

In my previous article, which introduced the subject of the so-called “free offer” of the gospel, I noted that Reformed believers have often distinguished between the universal call of the gospel to all sinners and the effectual 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 to 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 lovingkindness or goodwill on God’s part toward sinners? This question will be the focus of our attention in this article. Only after we have attempted to answer this question will we be in a position to take up in a subsequent article 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 sovereignly 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 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 their way and find life. Later in the same chapter of Ezekiel, verse 32, a related but 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. Matt. 23:37). After Jesus answers the question, “are there just a few who are being saved?” (v. 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” (v. 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” (vv. 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!” (v. 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 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.

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,” p. 118.

4.Murray, “The Free Offer of the Gospel,” p. 119.

5.Cf. James R. White, The Potter’s Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal of Norman Geisler’s Chosen But Free (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press, 2000), pp.136-9. 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.

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.”

Dr. Cornel Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary where he also teaches Doctrinal Studies. Dr. Venema is a contributing editor to The Outlook.

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