The question must now be faced, whether the Reformed doctrine of the call of the gospel is actually threatened by the error of hyper-Calvinism. Does the denial of the well-meant offer have to exert itself to ward off the danger of restricting the preaching of the gospel to born-again believers; the danger of silencing the call to sinners to repent and believe; and the danger of losing zeal for missions?
Hyper-Calvinism is not the predominant evil of our time. The man who has an eye for the overthrow of the doctrine of God’s sovereign, particular grace in the Reformed sphere today is inclined to regard the hue-and-cry raised against hyper-Calvinism as a display of ignorance at best, or a subterfuge at worst. As the Reformed house goes up in flames, the watchers alert us to the peril of flooding, call for lifeboats, and give swimming lessons. The same folly occurs in society. As society goes under in lawlessness and immorality, the supposed guardians of society decry the evils of a strait-laced, “Puritan” morality. In view of the advance of Arminianism in the past fifty years, especially in the area of “evangelism” and the call of the gospel, one is tempted to propose fifty years of hyper-Calvinism as a radical measure to check the wildfire spread of the free-will cancer.
This temptation, of course, must be decisively rejected. Error cannot be fought with error, but only with the truth. The Reformed faith has always been characterized by a refusal to become reactionary. It has never allowed heresy to drive it into the opposite error. It will not engage in theology, or preach, out of fear. Steadfastly, it insists on being Biblical.
The outstanding example of this is the Synod of Dordt. The Reformed churches were confronted with the false doctrine of man’s salvation of himself by his free will. Basic to this error was the teaching that the preaching of the gospel is God’s gracious effort to save every man. The Reformed fathers viewed this error as a perversion of the gospel, the destruction of the Reformed churches, and the robbery of the glory of God in His greatest work, the work of salvation.
The vehemence of their opposition to the Arminian heresy might have led the fathers to react by slighting the importance of the preaching of the gospel and by denying the serious call of God to everyone to whom the gospel comes. But such was not at all the case. The presence and power of the Holy Spirit at that “most holy Synod,” leading the Church into all the truth, are evident, in no small way, in its firm emphasis on the unique importance of the preaching of the gospel as the means of grace and in its unwavering insistence on the serious call by God and His Church to every person to whom God sends the gospel.
The approach of the Canons is that of the necessity of the preaching for the saving of lost sinners. They open by declaring that some men are delivered from the common misery by the preaching of the joyful tidings of the cross of Christ (I, 1-4). They make the calling of the elect unto salvation through the preaching of the gospel part of the decree of election itself (1, 7). For the assurance of election and salvation, they shut up the children of God to the preaching (I, 12, 16; V, 10). Even though the Arminians pervert this truth, deceiving many, the Canons are not at all embarrassed by the declaration that the promise of the gospel is that “whosoever believeth” shall be saved, nor do they hesitate to charge the Reformed churches and preachers to publish this promise to all nations and persons, “promiscuously and without distinction,” and to command all men to repent and believe (II, 5). This call is God’s serious call to all who hear the preaching, and those who reject it have themselves alone to blame (III, IV, 8, 9). The sovereignty of God’s grace in the actual quickening of the dead sinner, confessed by the Canons over against the Arminian teaching of a mere persuasion of the cooperating sinner, “in no wise,” the Canons are quick to add, “excludes, or subverts the use of the gospel, which the most wise God has ordained to be the seed of regeneration, and food of the soul.” God uses means, and, therefore, any separation of sovereign grace from “the sacred precepts of the gospel” is nothing less than the sin of tempting God (III, IV, 17). The preaching of the gospel is the necessary means of grace for the elect to the very end: “And as it hath pleased God, by the preaching of the gospel, to begin this work of grace in us, so he preserves, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of his Word, by meditation thereon, and by the exhortations, threatenings, and promises thereof, as well as by the use of the sacraments” (V, 14).
Also of this aspect of the instruction of the Canons, the Reformed believer and the Reformed church must be good and faithful students.
For the threat of hyper-Calvinism is real. It is the lie on the right that must be guarded against as scrupulously as the lie of self-salvation on the left. The reality of the threat is indicated, first, by the history of the church. Church history contains a Hussey and a Brine, who, in the name of Calvinism and the doctrines of grace, denied that the call of the gospel in its external aspect comes to any save the elect and who charged those who called ‘all men indiscriminately to repent of their sins and believe on Jesus Christ with Arminianism. These theologians have disciples today. Granted, these English hyper-Calvinists were not ecclesiastically Reformed. Nevertheless, since they claimed to be Calvinists and since others regarded them as Calvinists, they have had influence in the sphere of Reformed theology. Besides, evidence is. not altogether lacking that the hyper-Calvinistic error has appeared in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. It is at least questionable whether opposition to the Arminian offer has not sometime taken the form of a denial of the serious call of the gospel to any and all to whom the gospel comes, reprobate as well as elect.
Certainly, a reading of the histories of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands after the Afscheiding of 1834 reveals a struggle over the doctrine of the call of the gospel. There has not always been perfect clarity concerning this doctrine, any more than there has always been perfect clarity concerning the truth of the covenant; there is development in the understanding and confession of the truth. Men struggled with the question, “If God has elected some and reprobated others; if Christ died only for the elect and not for the non-elect; if God’s desire is the saving of the elect only; and if the Arminian teaching of an offer of salvation to all is false; can the preaching of the gospel be a serious call to repentance and faith to everyone who hears it?” “How can a serious call to all men be harmonized with election and particular grace?” “And is there not a danger that an insistence on the serious call to everyone will open up the way once more to the introduction of the hated Arminian heresy?”
It is not difficult to conceive that someone would conclude that the defense of sovereign grace and the warding off of Arminianism demand a minimizing, a silencing, or even a denying of the promiscuous proclamation of the gospel and the serious call of the gospel to all hearers. No doubt, this was exactly the motivation of the English hyper-Calvinists. But error remains error, no matter how “sincere” the motive; and the consequences of error are not a whit abated because the motives are “honorable.”
Nor are we ignorant of Satan’s devices. The appearance of the error of hyper-Calvinism in the history of the church cannot simply be ascribed to the frailty of theologians, but must be traced back to the father of the lie. Where the truth is and where, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the truth is being developed, there the Devil will also be found working. He is subtle. If he cannot prevent the recovery of the gospel of grace, he will try to turn grace into license. If he fails to destroy the Reformed faith with the doctrine of universal grace, dependent upon the will of man—the well-meant offer—he will endeavor to pervert this faith by a denial of the serious call of the gospel to all hearers and by a questioning of the church’s duty, and right, to bring this command to all nations and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction. This tactic is especially effective in the heat of controversy. As the church contends against a false doctrine, get her to succumb, in reaction, to the opposite error. As she guards the front door, slither in through the back window.
It does not surprise us that the Reformed faith has been threatened by the stultifying, deadening error of hyper-Calvinism. Indeed, we would be surprised if this were not the case. But we thank God that it has repudiated this error, as vigorously as it has repudiated the error of free-will.