The first article in this series dealt with the use of the term, hyper-Calvinism, to attack Calvinism itself. The second article pointed out that there has been a doctrinal error that might be called hyper-Calvinism, and found it to consist of the denial that God calls everyone who hears the preaching of the gospel to repent and to believe in Jesus Christ. The previous article also began to show that the hyper-Calvinistic denial of the call of the gospel is not Biblical, Reformed doctrine. This will be concluded in the present article.
What the Reformed faith, genuine Calvinism, confesses concerning the call of the gospel is set forth plainly in the Canons of Dordt. The promise that believers have eternal life and the command to repent and believe must be proclaimed “to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of his good pleasure sends the gospel” (II,5). God Himself “unfeignedly,” i.e., seriously, calls everyone who hears the gospel. He does this through the gospel itself. As He calls, He “most earnestly and truly” declares that it is “acceptable” to Him that “all who are called, should come unto Him” (III, IV, 8). One result of this serious call of the gospel is that many “refuse to come, and be converted.” This is not the gospel’s fault, nor Christ’s fault, nor God’s fault, but it is their own fault, for they wickedly reject the word of life (III, IV, 9). However, there is also the result that some obey the call of the gospel, and are converted. This is not due to free will or any ability in them “whereby one distinguishes himself above others,” but it is due to the sovereign grace of God alone. The reason why some come to Christ is that God efficaciously draws them by His Spirit. And He draws them, in distinction from others, because He has eternally elected them, whereas He eternally reprobated the others (III, IV, 10. cf. also I,6).
The Canons powerfully refute the Arminian charge that the doctrines of predestination, limited atonement, total depravity, irresistible grace, and perseverance of saints hinder, if they do not altogether nullify, the lively preaching, especially the gospel-call. What is so striking is the Canons’ refusal to react to the Arminian heresy by denying the call of the gospel to everyone, or even by becoming timid and hesitant concerning this call. They show that the Reformed faith will not allow Arminianism to drive it into the opposite error of hyper-Calvinism. This, however, was exactly what happened to those who denied the call of the gospel to all who hear the preaching.
Those who denied the external call of the gospel out of the fear that this compromised Calvinism were mistaken on two counts. First, they erred in supposing that the call, or command, to unregenerated unbelievers would imply the ability of the unregenerated to do what God required, namely, repent and believe. They argued that for God or for the Church to call everybody to believe on Christ would imply the false doctrine of free will. That this was the error of the hyper-Calvinists is evident from Article 33 of the confessional articles of the Gospel Standard Churches: “to address unconverted persons . . . calling upon them to savingly repent, believe and receive Christ . . . is . . . to imply creature power. . .” Oddly enough, this is the very same mistake that the Pelagians and Arminians have always made: to suppose that the exhortations and demands of Scripture imply the ability of man to fulfill the demands. The Pelagians and Arminians have always argued that, since God commands men to believe, men must have the ability to believe. The hyper-Calvinist, on the other hand, agreeing that the call to believe would imply free will, denies the call. The error of both is their failure to see that the call of God to sinners in no way presupposes the ability of sinners to heed the call.
Luther exposed the error of the notion that a command of God implies a corresponding ability in man in his controversy with the Pelagian, Erasmus, over the bondage of the will. Responding to Erasmus’ defense of a free will on the ground that God calls men to choose, turn, repent, etc., Luther wrote:*
“. . by the words of the law man is admonished and taught, not what he can do, but what he ought to do.”
“How is it that you theologians are twice as stupid as schoolboys, in that as soon as you get hold of a single imperative verb you infer an indicative meaning, as though the moment a thing is commanded it is done, or can be done?”
“The passages of Scripture which you cite are imperative; and they prove and establish nothing about the ability of man, but only lay down what is and is not to be done.”
Question 9 of the Heidelberg Catechism teaches, in regard to the demand of perfect obedience that God makes in His law, that God does exactly require of men that which they are incapable of doing. The same thing holds true for the command to repent that God makes in the gospel to the unregenerated. The call does not imply, nor is it based on, the free will of man. Rather, it sets forth man’s duty, and shows man what it is that pleases God.
The second error of the hyper-Calvinistic denial of the call of the gospel was the fear that a call of the gospel to the unregenerated wicked would jeopardize the doctrines of election and limited atonement. This is evident in Article 33 of the Gospel Standard Churches, quoted above, which continues: “. . . and . . . to deny the doctrine of special redemption.” This would indeed be true if the call to the reprobate expressed God’s love for him and manifested a desire of God to save him. But such is not the case. When God sends the gospel forth into all the world, presenting Christ crucified to all who hear the preaching and calling all who hear to repent of their sins and believe on that Christ, His purpose is to save the elect and the elect only. The love that sends forth the gospel, like the love that sent forth Christ in the fullness of time, is the love of God for the elect Church. This love is sovereign love. As the call to repent and believe goes out, God the Holy Spirit works that repentance and faith in the hearts of the elect in the audience. He gives us what He calls for, and He gives it by the calling. “Come!,” He says, and that sovereignly gracious call draws us irresistibly to Christ. This is the confidence of every preacher when he calls men to repent and believe: God will make it effective in the elect. With regard to the others in the audience, the’ call comes to them also, seriously. But the call does not express God’s love for them, nor does it imply that Jesus died for them. By the call, God confronts them with their duty, and shows them what will be pleasing to Him. But His purpose with the call to them is not a saving purpose. On the contrary, it is the purpose to render them inexcusable and to harden them (Romans 9:18. cf. alsoMatthew 11:25-27). There is always a two-fold outcome of the preaching of the gospel, including the serious call of the gospel to all who hear, according to the sovereign purpose of God with this preaching and call: “Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things?” (II Corinthians 2:14-16)
The practical effects of the hyper-Calvinistic denial of the call of the gospel to all and sundry and of the attempt to limit it to the reborn elect are disastrous. Basically, the effect is nothing less than the loss of the lively preaching of the gospel, first in the sphere of missions, and then, inevitably, within the church herself. The classic example is the well-known response of J. C. Ryland, close friend of John Gill, to William Carey’s plea for mission societies to preach the gospel in India: “Sit down, young man. When God pleases to convert the heathen He will do it without your aid and mine.” Apart now from the fact that mission societies are wrong and apart from the fact that old Ryland may have seen a mission spirit corrupted by Arminianism, his notion that God’s sovereignty in salvation makes preaching unnecessary was false. Applied consistently, this notion would rule out, not only preaching to the heathen, but also all preaching. The Biblical rejoinder, and the Reformed confession, is: the sovereign God is pleased to save His people through the preaching of the gospel.
To strip the call from the preaching is to do violence to the gospel itself. The call to believe is not an appendage of the gospel, to be tacked on awkwardly at the end like the proverbial tail on the donkey. It is an inherent part of the gospel itself. Whenever and wherever the gospel is preached, the call to repent and believe is sounded to all who hear, whether explicitly or implicitly. Usually the apostles made the call explicit: “Repent!, Believe!” Sometimes, the call was implied, e.g., in the sermon at Pisidian Antioch, recorded in Acts 13. Paul did not explicitly say, “Believe.” But his statement in verse 39 that justification comes only by faith in Christ, not from the law, and his warning in verses 40 and 41 against refusing to believe sound the call loudly and clearly : “Believe on this crucified and risen Christ!” The message proclaimed in the gospel is not something that may ever merely be received for information, nor does it ever leave anyone with the impression that God is satisfied with that. The message of the gospel is the message of God’s Son in our flesh, crucified and risen for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. The gospel must be believed, and the Christ presented in the gospel must be believed on — today. Nothing else will do. Therefore, the gospelcalls those who hear the good news.
Also, the attempt to limit the call to the regenerated is a hopeless task. It sets before any minister an impossible task. Before he may call a sinner to repent and believe, he must determine that the sinner is born again. Even if a person reveals some sorrow for sin, he ought to determine whether the sorrow is godly sorrow or the sorrow of the world. The result will be that a man, fearful of compromising Calvinism by calling an unregenerate, will call almost no one. This is to reverse God’s operations. For the sake of the elect, God has the Church call all who hear the preaching; lest it call a reprobate, hyper-Calvinism tends to call no one.
Condemnation of hyper-Calvinism does not touch the Protestant Reformed rejection of the “well meant gospel-offer.” Between the serious call to all who hear the gospel and the well-meant offer of the gospel, there is a vast gulf fixed, the gulf that separates the historic Reformed faith from Arminianism. (to be continued)