Reformed Evangelism “Election and the ‘Free Offer’ of the Gospel” Part One

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 Arminians and the Calvinists in the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century, the Arminians complained that the Calvinist doctrine of election nullified the genuineness of the gospel offer of salvation. The Arminians 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:

Q. 67. What is effectual calling?

A. 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 thereunto) he doth, in his accepted time, invite and draw them to Jesus Christ, by his Word and Spirit; savingly enlightening their minds, renewing and 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 therein.

Q. 68. Are the elect only effectully called?

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 wilful 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 effecting 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 (Rom. 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 “[t]he 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 Arminian 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 preceptive 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 thirdview 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 Deut. 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 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.

Conclusion

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, which we will take up in a subsequent article or two.

Since the most important question has to do with the testimony of Scripture, we will address the subject of the biblical basis for the well-meant offer in our next article.

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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