Those who defend a general, well-meant offer of salvation to all mankind also maintain that there is a certain ability in the unregenerated sinner to accept the gospel. An offer implies that one can accept or reject it; an invitation can be honored or turned down. And the ability, to accept or reject must necessarily lie with the person who receives the invitation. Therefore since the offer comes to every individual who hears the gospel, it must follow that all men have the ability to accept as well as to reject the gospel-invitation.
Prof. Dekker and others appeal to the Three Points of 1924 to show that the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches in 1924 already spoke of a general, well-meant offer of salvation to all who hear the gospel. The contention is made that a general, well-meant offer of the gospel implies a universal love of God for all mankind. God desires to save all men. Therefore God shows His grace to all men by restraining sin, making the sinner capable of doing good, and placing him in a position where he can accept or reject the gospel-offer. Consistency can allow for no other conclusion.
Just as in 1924 various passages of Scripture are quoted to sustain this conclusion. In this present article I intend to examine a few of those passages.
The most familiar of all these passages is, of course,John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Prof. Dekker refers to this text in particular when he repeatedly states in his writings, “For God so loved . . . all men.” (See The Reformed Journal, February, 1963). At present we are particularly interested in the term ‘world’, which is taken to refer to ‘all men’, that is, to every individual man, woman, and child. It is argued that God so loves all men that Christ died for all, and as a result salvation is offered to all, and all are able to accept it, if they are but willing.
Now any serious student of the Scriptures knows that the term ‘world’ in Scripture is never synonymous with ‘all men;’ no, never refers simply to men. An untruth can be repeated so often that it is not even challenged any more. An error can become so common that it is accepted as the simple truth. Thus the term ‘world’ has so often been made synonymous with ‘all men’ that this has simply been taken for granted. But honesty demands that we admit that this is not the case.
We meet the term ‘world’, for example, in Hebrews 11:3, “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” Here the term ‘worlds’ cannot possibly be translated as ‘all men’. The term cannot even be limited to all rational creatures, including the angels. But the text itself includes under the term “all things which are seen.”
We also meet the term ‘world’ in I John 2:15, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Who would want to read this passage as if it meant, “Love not all men”, including the people of God? Here the term obviously refers to this present evil world as it is subjected to the prince of darkness. The text mentions “the things that are in the world”, warning us not to set our hearts on those things, because they belong to the passing things of this age. Moreover, this wicked world includes all the reprobate wicked, who are characterized by the lusts of the flesh, the lusts of the eyes, and the pride of life. But the term does not and cannot refer to ‘all men’.
And the same applies to the term ‘world’ in John 3:16. Here the world is the very opposite of the world of I John 2:15. There John spoke of the world of reprobation that is consumed by the righteous judgment of God, just because it stands antithetically opposed to the world ofJohn 3:16. Here in John 3:16 Jesus is speaking of the world of God’s sovereign election. It is the world as it is chosen, redeemed and saved in Christ. Of that world Jesus Christ is the Head, just because He is the Firstborn among many brethren, the First-begotten from the dead, to be exalted as Head over all things in the new creation. Colossians 1:12-20. Whosoever is given the grace to believe may also rest assured that he will not perish, but have eternal life as part of that world which God loves. Eph. 2:8.
Another passage often referred to by those who maintain that the gospel is offered to all men for mere man to accept, is the passage found in I Timothy 2:4, “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.”
It must be granted that if ‘all men’ in this text refers to every man, woman and child upon the face of the earth, it also follows that God desires to save every one without exception. But then God does not attain to His desire. Yet how is that possible, since Job says of God, “But he is of one mind, and who can turn him? and what his soul desireth, even that he doeth.” (Job 23:13. See also Isaiah 46:10, Daniel 4:35, Isaiah 46:10). Mere man cannot possibly prevent the sovereign power and will of God. For God is GOD.
But the expression ‘all men’ in Scripture never refers to every individual. It always refers to all kinds of men, that is, to people from every rank, class, race, or color. That is even true when we use the expression in our conversations. I might say, for example, that ‘all Chicago’ came out to see the president. No one would consider this a gross exaggeration, even though every single individual did not make an appearance on the scene. No one would challenge my statement by asking whether the invalids, the infants, or the prisoners were also there. Every one would understand that I was speaking of all kinds of people from every part of the great metropolis.
And the same thing is true of the passage in Timothy. In the first verse of this chapter, Paul exhorts that prayers be made for all men. And immediately he adds, “for kings, and for all that are in authority.” He wanted the early church to pray for people of all classes, not excluding those cruel rulers who were heaping persecution upon them. And the apostle encourages them to pray for all men with the assurance that God will save His elect out of every rank, class, race, or color.
A passage often quoted to show that man himself can and must accept the gospel invitation is taken fromRevelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” Frequently Christ is presented in pictures as well as in sermons as standing at the door of the human heart, pleading, even begging to attain entrance into the heart that has the knob on the inside. Christ cannot possibly enter unless sinful, rebellious man opens the door and lets him in. Concerning this interpretation, B.A. Warburton writes in his book on “Calvinism” as follows:
Men are asked to believe that Christ is represented here as knocking at the door of a sinner’s heart, seeking admittance. Where, when and how did such a notion arise, for it has not the slightest vestige of support in the passage in question? Christ is speaking to a Church which has professed His Name, a Church embracing, as a Church must, many individual members, but a Church which now, bloated with its wealth and self-satisfied with its material prosperity, has turned its back upon the vital realities of the true faith, and so far as its corporate life is concerned, has become lukewarm. So far has it drifted away from the things which are Christ’s, that Christ, as He addresses it, represents Himself as standing outside—outside the Church, and knocking at the door of the Church. There may be (there must be, C.H.) some one or other in that Church dissatisfied with its condition, discontented with its present Christless, worldly state; some individual member who wants a return to a more spiritual position. This one is not a dead sinner but a living soul which mourns the declension which has taken place, and it is to this one Christ addresses His words. The common interpretation is one of the most glaring inconsistencies of interpretation which can possibly be imagined and yet on such a foundation men-would seek to build an assumed doctrine which assigns creature power and free will to unrenewed man, and ability as a natural man to obtain salvation by his own efforts.
I will refer to just one more passage in this connection. This is taken from Revelation 22:17, “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely.”
This passage is quoted very often as if it presented a general, well-meant offer of salvation to each and every individual under the strain of “whosoever will may come.” The acceptance of the gospel, it is said, depends entirely upon the human will. Anyone who is willing can and will be saved, if only he is willing.
Yet a sober look at the text must immediately show us that Christ is addressing a very definite group or class of people here. And of that group He addresses each one individually. He addresses the one who hears, the one who thirsts, the one who wills. In each case it is the same individual.
Now no one can possibly say that every individual hears the gospel call. Although he may hear it with his ear, he certainly does not hear it in the sense that it penetrates into the deepest recesses of his heart to draw him unto salvation. The Psalmist confesses, “The hearing ear, the willing heart, Thou gavest unto me.” (See Psalm 40:6). Jesus declares, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27.) And again He says, “No man can come unto me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:44)
When Jesus adds in Revelation 22:17, “And let him that is athirst come”, He again is speaking to that individual who by the grace of God is athirst for the waters of life. The sinner thirsts and pants after sin and corruption. God is not in all his thoughts. But the regenerated sinner is characterized by that very fact, that he realizes his sin and misery, turns in anguish of soul to God, longs for peace with God and mercy.
That is the individual whom Jesus addresses by saying, “And whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely.” Whosoever he may be, though his sins be as scarlet and his guilt greater than he can bear, he finds mercy and compassion in drinking of the waters of life as they flow to him from Christ, through the Spirit in his heart, by the means of the Word.
That leaves the question whether this does not deny the responsibility of men. On the one hand, how can God demand of the sinner that he repent when he is not even able of himself to repent from his sins? Our Catechism in Lord’s Day 4 asks a very similar question. It asks: “Doth not God do injustice to man, by requiring from him in his law, that which he cannot perform? And there the answer is given, that applies also here: Not at all, man was created good, but by his own willful disobedience deprived himself and all his posterity of his divine gifts.
On the other hand, the question may be raised, if we of ourselves cannot heed the call to faith and repentance, why does God call us? To that it must be answered, that God never deals with us as stocks and blocks, but always as rational, moral, responsible creatures. He works His grace in our hearts by giving us ears to hear, eyes to see, hearts to understand. So that as His sheep we hear Him tailing us and we come. But this is all of grace.