The Synod of Dordt condemned heresy and upheld the truth of the gospel. The heresy that it condemned was not only an error that concerned the content of the gospel. But it was also a heresy that concerned the preaching of the gospel. In a unique way the error of Arminianism concerned not only the message of the gospel, but also the way in which the gospel was proclaimed. It concerned both what was preached and how it was preached. For the Synod of Dordt condemned the Arminian perversion of the gospel as an offer of faith and salvation.
Sadly, this is the generally accepted view of the preaching of the gospel in the church today, also in Reformed and Presbyterian churches. The well-meant offer of the gospel is widely defended in churches whose very confession condemns such a view of the gospel.
The “offer” of the gospel
More than once, the Canons speak of the “offer of the gospel.” The article that is often quoted is Canons III/ IV, 9: “It is not the fault of the gospel, nor of Christ offered therein, nor of God, who calls men by the gospel and confers upon them various gifts, that those who are called by the ministry of the Word refuse to come and be converted.” The article refers to the preaching of the gospel. This is evident from the reference to the fact that God “calls men by the gospel” and the mention of the “ministry of the Word.” In such preaching of the gospel, so says the article, Christ is “offered” to those to whom the preaching comes.
There is also reference to the offer of the gospel in Canons II, B, 6. Here the fathers of Dordt are repudiating a certain error of the Arminians. The error is that “while some obtain the pardon of sin and eternal life and others do not, this difference depends on their own free will, which joins itself to the grace that is offered without exception….” This article refers to the Arminian conception of the preaching of the gospel. According to the Arminians, in the preaching of the gospel grace is offered to all who hear the gospel.
Yet another reference to the offer of the gospel is found in Canons III/IV, 14. Once again, the Canons are describing the Arminian view of the preaching as an offer. Article 14 begins: “Faith is therefore to be considered as the gift of God, not on account of its being offered by God to man, to be accepted or rejected at his pleasure….” This is emphatically the Arminian conception of the preaching. In the preaching, God offers faith to men. This faith may be accepted or rejected by them.
In two instances, therefore, the Canons of Dordt refer to the Arminian view of the offer of the gospel. In one instance, Canons III/IV, 9, the Canons is referring to the true preaching of the gospel, in which preaching Christ is “offered” to those who hear.
There are those who explain “offered” in Canons III/ IV, 9 by referring to the literal meaning of the Latin word offero. Most Latin dictionaries define offero as “present, bring before, exhibit.” That Christ is “offered” in the preaching of the gospel, therefore, simply means that He is presented, exhibited, and set before the people in all the glory of His person and work.1
Whether or not there is agreement on the exact meaning of offero in Canons III, IV, 9, one thing ought to be abundantly clear. That is that the Reformed understanding of the offer of the gospel is radically different from that of the Arminians. The Reformed reject and condemn the Arminian conception of the offer. Dordt’s rejection of Arminianism includes the rejection of the Arminian view of the preaching of the gospel.
Basically, it is the Arminian view of the offer of the gospel that has been resurrected in Reformed and Pres=byterian churches today. There is no essential difference between the view of the well-meant gospel offer widely accepted today, and the Arminian view of the gospel offer condemned by Dordt. It is an offer based upon a love of God—in some sense—for all men and a desire of God to save all men. It is an offer grounded in a death of Jesus Christ that is of benefit for all men—wider in its scope than only the elect. The only difference is that the contemporary proponents of the well-meant gospel offer—some, at least—will not openly appeal to free will as that which makes the offer effectual for those who “accept” the offer.
The Canons’ conception of the preaching of the gospel
Consistently, the Canons refer to the preaching of the gospel in a way that cannot be squared with the idea of an offer. Canons III/IV, 9 speaks of the gospel in a way that opposes the well-meant offer, which reduces the preaching to a weak, ineffectual invitation. Three times the article refers to the authoritative call of God in the preaching: “of God, who calls men by the gospel;” “those who are called by the ministry of the Word;” and “some of whom when called…reject the Word of life.” The preaching of the gospel issues God’s call to all who hear.
Not only in this article, but throughout the Canons, the preaching of the gospel is consistently referred to as the “call of the gospel.” The preaching of the gospel is the authoritative call of God to repentance and faith. As the call of God, it comes with divine authority and dignity. They to whom the call comes are summoned to obey the call. The call comes to them as the command to repent and to believe.
Canons III/IV, 8 says that “[a]s many as are called by the gospel are unfeignedly called.” Obviously, they are “unfeignedly called” by God. The article goes on to point out that it is the will of God “that those who are called should come to Him.” Article 10 of the same head of doctrine says: “But that others who are called by the gospel, obey the call....” Take note of that. Those who come under the preaching of the gospel are called by the gospel in such a way that those who respond positively to the call “obey the gospel.” The preaching of the gospel comes as a call to men to obey. That is quite different from a powerless, unauthoritative offer. The implication, of course, is that those who do not respond positively to the gospel, disobey the gospel and God who calls men through the gospel. This is the very worst disobedience!
The authoritative nature of the preaching of the gospel, in distinction from an unauthoritative offer, comes out also in Canons II, 5. In this article the contents of the gospel are referred to as “the promise of the gospel.” That, too, is significant. An offer is not a promise. An offer is always contingent and conditional. For the enjoyment of that which is offered depends on the acceptance of the offer by the one to whom it is made. In the nature of the case, an offer is quite different from a promise. If the gospel is a promise, it cannot be an offer. Canons II, 5 says that the preaching of the gospel is the proclamation of the “promise of the gospel.” But more than that, the article goes on to say: “This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations….”
Canons II, 6 also refers to the “call of the gospel.” The article speaks of those “who are called by the gospel,” but who reject that call. They show disdain and contempt for the call, and refuse to give heed when they are called. They “do not repent, nor believe in Christ, but perish in unbelief.” This unbelief is not due to “any defect or insufficiency” in the sacrifice of Christ, “but is wholly to be imputed to themselves.” Guilt—great guilt—accrues to those who reject the authoritative call of God in the gospel. There is no guilt associated with declining an offer. In the nature of the case, an offer may be accepted or rejected. The gospel is not and cannot be merely an offer, inasmuch as they who reject the gospel are guilty before God.
Loathing of free will
One of the most compelling reasons for Dordt’s rejection of the Arminian teaching concerning the offer of the gospel was that it necessarily implied free will. The fathers of Dordt steadfastly maintained that to accept the teaching of the Arminians concerning the offer of the gospel also involved embrace of the teaching of the free will of the sinner.
As a matter of record, the Arminians denied the teaching of free will. In “The Remonstrance” (1610), the Arminians stated in their third point “[t]hat man does not have saving grace of himself nor by the power of his own free will….” In the “Opinions of the Remonstrants,” they stated: “The will in the fallen state, before calling, does not have the power and the freedom to will any saving good. And therefore we deny that the freedom to will saving good as well as evil is present to the will in every state.”
Despite the Arminians’ disavowal of free will, the Synod of Dordt correctly attributed the teaching of free will to the Arminians. The frequent repudiation and condemnation of the teaching of free will that is found throughout the Canons is Dordt’s rejection of free will as taught by the Arminians. A few examples from Canons III/IV will suffice. “But that others who are called by the gospel obey the call and are converted is not to be ascribed to the proper exercise of free will [as the Arminians teach], whereby one distinguishes himself above others….” (III/IV, 10). God does not “bestow the power or ability to believe, and then expects that man should by the exercise of his own free will consent to the terms of salvation and actually believe in Christ….” (III/IV, 14). And, apart from the grace of God working in us “man could have no hope of recovering from his fall by his own free will….” (III/IV, 16).
What was true of the Arminians at the time of the Synod of Dordt is true today of the proponents of the well-meant gospel offer. Although they disavow free will, they are nevertheless compelled to teach free will. That ought to be plain. If God loves all men alike, and desires equally their salvation, and if the death of Jesus Christ was in some sense for all men, the only possibility for distinction among men has to be in man himself and in the exercise of his free will. If, despite the love of God for them all and a death of Jesus Christ that is of benefit to them all, all are not saved, the explanation cannot be in God, but must be in man. The defenders of the well-meant offer of the gospel are of necessity cast upon the free will of the sinner as the explanation for the salvation of one and not the other.
And the reality is that in the churches that have embraced the teaching of the well-meant gospel offer, by- and-large the people have come to hold to the teaching of free will. The difference between men is that one accepts the offer of the gospel and another does not. That is the explanation as to why one person is saved and another is not.
Warrant for preaching the gospel
But if the preaching is not a well-meant offer to all men, at least to all who hear the preaching of the gospel, what warrant does the church have to preach the gospel to all men everywhere? May and can the church take the gospel into the whole world? Does not the church forfeit the basis for missions?—always a charge leveled against those who maintain the truths of sovereign grace.
To begin with, the Canons of Dordt affirm that the “command to repent and believe ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel” (II, 5).
First of all, the warrant for the promiscuous proclamation of the gospel is the command of Jesus Christ in the Great Commission. Christ has commanded His church: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). In obedience to the command of Christ, the church brings the gospel into the whole world, to every nation, tribe, and tongue.
Secondly, the warrant is that God has His elect in all the nations. In distinction from the Old Testament, in which God’s elect were primarily from one nation, the nation of Israel, in the New Testament God has His people throughout the world. This is “the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints,” according to Colossians 1:26. The book of Acts and the New Testament epistles bear testimony to the truth that God has His elect people in the nations of the Gentiles.
And finally, the warrant for the promiscuous preaching of the gospel is that God has determined to use the means of the preaching of the gospel in order to work faith and to gather the elect into the church. Immediately after Paul has spoken of the mystery hid from the ages, but now revealed, the apostle adds: “Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus” (Col. 1:28). Because God has determined that the preaching of the gospel is the power (that is, means) unto salvation, the faithful church and minister preach the Word promiscuously.
The preaching of the gospel is not an ineffective offer, but the very power of God unto salvation. And what a power it is! Dead sinners are raised to life. Intractable rebels are brought to bow the knee to Christ’s scepter. Avowed enemies of God are made His friends. Slaves of Satan are made servants of the living God. There is no power like the power of the gospel!
1 Some dispute this. They insist that more is implied in the word offero. Among them is R. Scott Clark. The interested reader can consult his contribution entitled “Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel, and Westminster Theology,” in The Pattern of Sound Doctrine: Systematic Theology at the Westminster Seminaries (Essays in Honor of Robert B. Strimple), ed. David VanDrunen (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004), 149-179. In part, because of his faulty understanding of the distinction between archetypal and ectypal knowledge of God, Clark is critical of the PRCA for the meaning its theologians have generally given to offero in Canon III/IV, 9.