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.
In my previous articles, 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 in this and a subsequent article. 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?
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’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 our previous articles.
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)1. 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,”2 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.3 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.4 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 tender-heartedness 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.”5
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.”6 This is the general tenor of the whole gospel when it is presented to lost sinners—“all are promiscuously called to salvation.”7 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.”8 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.”J 9 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.10 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.
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.11
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 more clear, 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.
1. 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 mycolleague, Rev. J. Mark Beach, for calling these passages to my attention.
2. CNTC, vol. 8, p. 27.
3. CNTC, vol. 8, p. 27.
4. CNTC, vol. 3, p. 68.
5. CNTC, vol. 3, p. 68
6. Calvin’s Commentaries (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1843-55), vol. 12, p. 266. Hereafter cited as COTC.
7. COTC, vol. 12, p. 266.
8. COTC, vol. 12, p. 247.
9. COTC, vol. 12, p. 267.
10. CNTC, vol. 12, p. 364.
11. 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).
Dr. Cornelis P. Venema serves as president of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana where he also teaches doctrinal studies.