“Hyper-Calvinism” and the Call of the Gospel (2)

(This is actually the second article of Rev. Engelsma’s series. Due to a printer’s error, the THIRD article appeared in the May 15 issue and was called the second installment. Our apologies for the mistake. To get the proper connection, please read this article first, and follow up with the May 15 article. H.C.H.)

In a previous article, we saw that the charge, “hyper-Calvinism,” is often an attack, not on an exaggeration of Calvinism, but on Calvinism itself. This raises the question: has there ever been, and is there now, a theological position that may fairly be called hyper-Calvinism? Or is the charge nothing but a theological bugbear? 

We will not concern ourselves here with the terms themselves, whether Calvinism is a good name for the Reformed faith and whether hyper-Calvinism is an accurate description of a theology that has fundamentally perverted genuine Calvinism. We are concerned only with the question whether some who professed Calvinism have drawn un-Biblical and unwarranted inferences from the doctrines of Calvinism, so that their doctrine and practice went ”beyond Calvinism,” and deserved to be called hyper-Calvinism. 

The answer to this question is that there has been a teaching and corresponding practice that can rightly be called hyper-Calvinism, and that could give occasion to some today (mistakenly) to regard the denial of the well-meant offer of the gospel by the Protestant Reformed Churches as hyper-Calvinism. It is important, however, to be clear as to what it is that takes a theology beyond the pale of true Calvinism into the realm of hyper-Calvinism. Contrary to the thinking of some, the doctrine of supralapsarianism does not make one a hyper-Calvinist. There has always been room in the Reformed faith for supralapsarianism.(1) Although the Reformed confessions are infralapsarian, the Canons of Dordt deliberately so, over against the strong plea of Gomarus for supralapsarianism, they do not condemn supralapsarianism as un-Reformed or hyper-Calvinistic. Nor is one a hyper-Calvinist because he holds the doctrines of eternal justification and immediate regeneration. Sound Reformed theologians have both denied and affirmed these teachings. Neither is it the case that hyper-Calvinism is a matter of a strong emphasis on God’s eternal counsel and God’s sovereignty in salvation. No true Calvinist ever lacked this strong emphasis. But hyper-Calvinism is the denial that God in the preaching of the gospel calls everyone who hears the preaching to repent and believe. It is the denial that the Church should call everyone in the preaching. It is the denial that the unregenerated have a duty to repent and believe. It manifests itself in the practice of the preacher’s addressing the call of the gospel, “repent and believe on Christ crucified,” only to those in his audience who show signs of regeneration, and thereby of election, namely, some conviction of sin and some interest in salvation. 

This error actually appeared in the history of Calvinism in England.(2) It was the position of several Congregational and Baptist ministers, including Joseph Hussey (1660-1726), Lewis Wayman (d. 1764), John Brine (1703-1765), and the well-known John Gill (b. 1697).(3) Wayman, Brine, and Gill were involved in a theological controversy known as “the Modern Question.” “The Modern Question” was: “Whether saving faith in Christ is a duty required by the moral law of all those who live under the Gospel revelation?” Basically, the question was whether the reprobate unbeliever is required by God in the preaching to believe in Christ. Wayman, Brine, and Gill denied this. Since many New Testament passages plainly teach that Christ and the apostles did, in fact, command everyone in their audience to, repent and believe, the reprobate as well as the elect, these men resorted to a distinction between legal and evangelical repentance, and between common and saving faith. “Legal repentance” and “common faith” according to this distinction, are virtually synonymous with the demand of the law, which God makes of everyone; “evangelical repentance” and “saving faith,” then, make up the real gospel-call, which God gives only to the regenerated elect. This artificial and impossible distinction only serves to make plane that these men denied that God calls everyone who hears the preaching to repent of his sins and to believe on the Christ presented in the gospel, and that it is the duty of every man who comes under the preaching to repent and believe. But these men called their position “the denial of the offers of grace,” and this is what many think of when they hear that a church denies the offer of the gospel. 

The Gospel Standard (Baptist) Churches in England continue to maintain this hyper-Calvinism, as certain articles of their confession show:

“Article 26 — We reject the doctrine that men in a state of nature should be exhorted to believe in, or turn to God. 

“Article 33 — Therefore, that for ministers in the present day to address unconverted persons, or indiscriminately all in a mixed congregation, calling upon them to savingly repent, believe and receive Christ, or perform any other acts dependent upon the new creative power of the Holy Ghost, is, on the one hand, to imply creature power and on the other, to deny the doctrine of special redemption.”(4)

There are also Baptist Churches in the United States which vehemently oppose “‘the offer of the gospel” in the name of Calvinism, but which are actually opposed to calling anyone to believe on Christ, except the regenerated elect. 

It seems that men fell into this error in reaction to the abounding Arminianism of their time. Gill, e.g., was a contemporary of the notorious, admitted Arminian, John Wesley. It may even be the case that the practice of referring to the call of the gospel as “the offer” contributed to the error of the English hyper-Calvinists. At issue, in reality, was that which Reformed theology speaks of as “the external call of the gospel.” But both parties in the controversy referred to “the offer of the gospel.”(5) Since the term, “offer,” has the Arminian flavor, it is not surprising that the would be defenders of Calvinism rejected the offer, especially since the Arminian conception of the offer was rampant at that time. The trouble was that in throwing out the bath-water, they threw out the baby, i.e., the external call to all who hear the gospel, reprobate and elect alike. 

Those who repudiated the external call of the gospel to all who hear certainly supposed that they were defending Calvinism. This is why their error may be called hyper-Calvinism. This is plain especially in Article 33 of the confessional articles of the Gospel Standard Churches. It argues that a call to an unconverted person to repent and believe would imply “creature power,” i.e., the ability of that unconverted person to do what he was called to do. In other words, the call to the unconverted would imply free-will, and would be a denial of total depravity. Also, such a call would be a denial of “the doctrine of special redemption,” i.e., the doctrine of limited atonement. The argument is that if all are called to believe in Christ, Christ must have died for all, and must desire to be the Savior of all. But since Christ died only for the elect, only the elect are to be called in the preaching. 

Although put forth as true Calvinism, the teaching that denies the call of the gospel to all who hear the preaching is not Reformed, Biblical doctrine. It is indeed true that God calls only the predestinated, or elect, with the effectual, saving call. Them and them only He calls by drawing them efficaciously to Himself by a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, even as He says, “Come!” in the preaching of the gospel. This is the teaching of Romans 8:30: “Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called . . .” But there is also a sense, according to Scripture, in which He calls those who are not elect, and calls them in the preaching of the gospel. Matthew 22:14 teaches this: “For many are called, but few are chosen.” More people than the elect are called by God. As is plain from the parable that precedes, the parable of the king’s wedding-feast, the reference is to the call that God makes through His Church and her preachers when He commands all who hear the gospel to repent of their sins and believe on Jesus Christ. God commands men to come to the feast of salvation prepared through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The response of many to this call is that they reject it. By doing so, they bring down upon themselves the wrathful judgment of God, terrible exactly because it is the punishment for rejecting the call of the gospel. Theirs is the sin of sins: despising Christ presented to them in the gospel, and rejecting God’s call to believe on Him. That the call to repent is not restricted to the regenerated, or “the sensible sinner,” but goes out to everyone who hears the preaching is taught in Acts 17:30: “(God) now commandeth all men everywhere to repent.” This was the practice of the apostles. Having proclaimed Christ to their audiences, they called everyone to repent of his sins and to believe on Christ (cf. Acts 3:19Acts 8:22Acts 13:38-41Acts 20:21). This was the ministry of John the Baptist. He “came . . . preaching . . . and saying, Repent ye.” He called also the Pharisees and Sadducees, a “generation of vipers,” to “Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance” (cf. Matt. 3:1-12). Such was the nature of the preaching of Jesus Himself: “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God. And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15).

1.Such Calvinists as Theodore Beza, Abraham Kuyper, and Herman Hoeksema were supralapsarians.

2.For this history, but not for the analysis of it, I am largely dependent on Peter Toon’s The Emergence of Hyper-Calvinism in English Nonconformity 1689-1765 (London: The Olive Tree, 1967)

3.It is worth noting that, so far as I am aware, no Reformed theologian has ever embraced this error.

4.These articles are quoted by B. Honeysett in the religious periodical, Reformation Today (Summer 1970, in an article entitled “The Ill-Fated Articles”

5.Hussey’s book was entitled: God’s Operation of Grace but No Offers of His Grace. Andrew Fuller, criticizing the hyper-Calvinism of Hussey and the others, asserted “the free offer of salvation to sinners.”