Throughout their history, up to the present day, the Protestant Reformed Churches have been misrepresented as hyper-Calvinists, because of their denial of the well-meant offer of the gospel. This has been done by charging that they preach only to the elect, by charging that they refuse to call everyone to Christ, by charging that they do not believe in missions, and by outrightly referring to them as hyper-Calvinists. In various ways, men have represented their opposition to the well-meant offer of the gospel as a denial of the serious call of the gospel to all who hear the preaching and a weakening of the Church’s calling to preach the gospel to every creature, commanding all who come under the preaching to repent and believe. This is total, and usually inexcusable, misrepresentation.
A.C. De Jong did this in his book, The Well-Meant Gospel Offer: The Views of H. Hoeksema and K Schilder, a book that has framed the opinion that many have of the Protestant Reformed Churches’ denial of the well-meant offer. De Jong criticized Hoeksema’s denial of the offer as a virtual destruction of lively gospel preaching. He suggested that Hoeksema’s rejection of the offer means that Hoeksema cannot, indeed does not want to preach to all, and that Hoeksema cannot call everyone who hears the preaching to believe on Christ. For Hoeksema, preaching becomes “‘the communication of a certain group of logically interrelated doctrines” (The Well-meant Gospel Offer, p. 110). “There is in Hoeksema’s theology a subtle mutation of preaching into a report of an objective and fixed set of circumstances” (p. 111). Hoeksema merely “admits that all sinners are called to repent and believe” (p. 111). But his denial of the offer really makes this impossible: he can only call men “to a decision for or against a set of truths . . .” (p. 111). Because he denies the offer, Hoeksema is guilty of “restricting the proclamation of the good news that whosoever believeth on Christ shall not perish but have eternal life. He cannot personally address the good news” (p. 123). De Jong speaks of Hoeksema’s “depreciation of genuine responsibility and real decision” (p. 177). In short, Hoeksema is a hyper-Calvinist, unwilling to preach the good news promiscuously, and unable to call all sinners, in all seriousness, to repentance and faith.
We must refrain from taking up De Jong’s amazing assertion that preaching is not “in the first moment the communication of a certain group of . . . doctrines,” and that preaching is not “in the first instance an explication of an objective set of circumstances (or) a communication of a certain truth,” but that preaching is “in the first moment” and “in the first instance” a “summons to share in Christ’s victory over sin” (pp. 110, 111). Let it suffice to say that we regard preaching differently. “In the first instance,” preaching is exactly the communication of doctrine and truth, that is, the announcement of that which God has done and will do in Jesus Christ. It is the official declaration of news, the good news of God’s gracious salvation. It is “the explication of an objective set of circumstances”. “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures . . . and he rose again the third day . . .” (I Cor. 15:3, 4). Good, apostolic gospel-preaching is, in addition, a declaration of “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Then, and only then, it is also a “testifying . . . repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). To construe preaching as “in the first moment” in the imperative mood (telling man what he must do), and not in the indicative mood (telling man what God has done and promises to do), is to produce the monstrosity that passes for gospel-preaching today: a few minutes about Jesus followed by a twenty minute altar call. But we let this go. Our concern is only to show that Hoeksema’s denial of the offer had nothing to do with any hesitancy on Hoeksema’s part to give a summons to all who come under the preaching to believe on Christ, and that his denial of the offer implied no restriction of full, lively gospel-preaching.
What it is that the Protestant Reformed Churches object to in the well-meant offer of the gospel, what the issue really is in their denial of the offer, is made crystal-clear in Hoeksema’s book, Een Kracht Gods Tot Zaligheid of Genade Geen Aanbod ( A Power of God unto Salvation, or Grace No Offer, 1930)¹ Already in the earliest history of the Protestant Reformed Churches, men tried to leave the impression that the issue was the failure of the Protestant Reformed Churches to do justice to the call of the gospel to everyone who hears the preaching. Hoeksema insisted that this was misrepresentation, and that the issue was something quite different.
A certain Rev. Keegstra had written that Hoeksema’s denial of the well-meant offer of the gospel as adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in 1924 was really a denial that the gospel must be preached to everyone and a denial that God seriously calls everyone who hears the preaching to repent and believe. Against Keegstra, Hoeksema wrote that the issue involved in denying the offer had nothing to do with the question whether the gospel should be preached to everyone:
Our difference does not at all have to do with the question, whether the gospel, according to the will of God, must also be preached to all who are in our audience, reprobate as well as elect. This is taken for granted on both sides (A Power of God unto Salvation, p. 20).
Note well, (the issue) is not whether the gospel must be proclaimed by the preacher to all men who sit in his audience without distinction., Every Reformed man believes this (p. 27).
Nor is this the issue, that the Protestant Reformed Churches dislike to call everyone who hears the preaching:
We have nothing against a universal demand of faith and conversion. About this there is no dispute. . . That the demand of conversion and faith applies to all, even though all cannot fulfill it and even though it is only almighty grace that enables one to fulfill it, we readily grant (p. 30).
Hoeksema expresses agreement with Calvin who taught “that through the ministry of the gospel by men, many are called in the external sense of the word; called to faith and conversion; called to the salvation in Christ; that many come under the promise: whoever believes has eternal life. But this is something entirely different from confessing that God now well-meaningly offers His salvation in Christ to all who hear the Word” (p. 63). Almost impatiently, Hoeksema rejected the misrepresentation of his stand against the offer:
Let us keep this point firmly in mind. The question is not what God demands. The question is also not whether God wills that the gospel shall be preached to all without distinction to whom He sends it according to His good pleasure. No, the question is simply this: is that gospel according to its content a well-meaning and common offer on God’s part (p. 68)? Rev. Keegstra, please, there is between us no difference over the fact that many who are called by the gospel perish in their unbelief! Nor is there any question between us about the equally firm fact that the guilt of such unbelief does not lie in any lack in Christ, but in themselves (p. 105).
What then was the issue in the common grace controversy of 1924? Why did Hoeksema refuse to subscribe to the doctrine of the well-meant offer of the gospel, even though the price he paid was expulsion from the Christian Reformed Church? Why do the Protestant Reformed Churches repudiate the offer today? Hoeksema opposed the doctrine of the well-meant offer of the gospel that was taught by the Christian Reformed Church in the first point of common grace of 1924. The teaching of that first point is that God has a “favorable attitude . . . towards humanity in general and not only towards the elect,” that there is “a certain favor or grace of God which He shows to His creatures in general,” and that “the general offer of the gospel” is an expression of that favor or grace of God to all men. With reference to this first point of common grace and its doctrine of the offer, Hoeksema wrote:
What is the real point of the first point (het puntje van dit eerste punt)? Only this, that the offer of the gospel is common? No, but that this offer of the gospel is common grace (emphasis his—DE). The preaching of the gospel, so the Synod of 1924 has taught, is God’s grace, not only for the elect, but also for the reprobate, not only for those who are saved by it, but also for those who perish under it. That is the point. The preaching of the gospel is grace for all (pp. 16, 17).
The well-meant offer teaches that God goes out, in the preaching, to many sinners in love and grace, desiring to save them and trying to save them, but failing to save them. Concerning such a view, Hoeksema wrote:
I find this in one word, terrible. For to me it is nothing less than a direct denial of the almighty grace of the Savior, a denial of the sovereign grace of God; an enthronement of the will of man (p. 45).
The issue at stake in the doctrine of the offer is nothing less than the truth qf sovereign grace: “. . . the standpoint of 1924 is Arminian. That the preaching of the gospel is common grace—this is the Arminian conception” (p. 17). In opposition to the well-meant offer, Hoeksema held, not that there is no call to all who hear the gospel, but that “the preaching of the gospel is grace only for the elect, and that it is not and can never be anything else for the reprobate than a judgment and a savor of death to death.” This is the issue; this is “our difference with the Christian Reformed Church” (p. 17).
The well-meant offer teaches that God’s grace is universal. The Protestant Reformed Churches maintain that God’s grace is particular, specifically now in the preaching of the gospel. The truth that God’s grace is particular is essential for a confession of thesovereignty of grace—if God’s grace in the preaching is for everybody, it is not sovereign grace. And the truth that God’s grace in the preaching of the gospel is particular, sovereign grace is the very heart of the Reformed faith:
For him who loves the Reformed faith, the confession that God’s grace is particular is of the very highest importance. He sees it as one of the most fundamental articles of faith. He maintains thereby that God the Lord is absolutely sovereign and that He .alone determines who shall be saved. With this confession, as far as he is concerned, stands or falls the entire Reformed faith. By this confession, it is maintained that God is God, that no one is God except Him (“Foreword” of A Power of God).
The Protestant Reformed Churches have persevered in warding off the hyper-Calvinistic danger on the left hand, even as they did battle with Arminianism on the right hand. In the early 1950’s, through a fierce internal struggle, they rejected the doctrine of a conditional covenant, a doctrine essentially the same as that of the well-meant offer of salvation. At that time, they adopted “A Brief Declaration of Principles” in which they confessed the doctrine of God’s unconditional covenant of grace, and the truth of the unconditional promise of the gospel.² Even though they had their eye on the teaching that the preaching is a conditional promise of God to all hearers, a teaching found at that time within their own denomination, they did not react by swinging over to the other, hyper-Calvinistic extreme. In the very “Declaration” in which they condemned the doctrine of a conditional promise, they steadfastly confessed that the preaching of the (particular) promise is and must be promiscuous, and that the preaching calls all hearers to repent and believe:
This preaching of the particular promise is promiscuous to all that hear the gospel with the command, not a condition, to repent and believe.”
“And we maintain:
1. That God surely and infallibly fulfills His promise to the elect.
2. The sure promise of God which He realizes in us as rational and moral creatures not only makes it impossible that we should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness but also confronts us with the obligation of love, to walk in a new and holy life, and constantly to watch unto prayer.
All those who are not thus disposed, who do not repent but walk in sin, are the object of His just wrath and excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven.
That the preaching comes to all; and that God seriously commands to faith and repentance, and that to all those who come and believe He promises life and peace.
It is indisputable that the Protestant Reformed Churches’ rejection of a well-meant offer and a conditional promise is not, and never was, motivated by hyper-Calvinism, that is, by a refusal to preach the gospel to every creature, a refusal to call every hearer to repentance and faith, and a refusal to proclaim to everyone the promise that whoever believes shall be saved. This was simply not the issue. As we will see more fully in a following article, the issue in the doctrine of a well-meant offer of the gospel is this: does God love and have a gracious attitude towards everyone who hears the preaching, and does He, in the preaching, desire to save everyone? As Hoeksema never wearied of asking, “What grace does the reprobate receive in the preaching?”
Just as it is misrepresentation to set forth Hoeksema’s rejection of the offer as hyper-Calvinism, so it is nothing but a caricature to portray him and others who deny the offer as men who, by virtue of their rejection of the offer, lack the ardor of the apostle Paul to gain and save many (I Cor. 9:19ff), as men who are unable or unwilling to beseech others to be reconciled to God (II Cor. 5:20), and as men who take delight in preaching men to hell. Invariably, critics of his opposition to the offer have painted Hoeksema in these colors. Essentially, it is nothing more or less than the hoary Arminian calumny of the Reformed preacher, because of his confession of the doctrine of reprobation. Everything that has been said along these lines about those who deny that God is gracious to all in the preaching holds with equal validity for those who confess reprobation. But the portrayal is false, if not malicious. In the spirit of Calvin, who called the doctrine of reprobation the “decretum horrible“³ (without for a moment ceasing to confess and publicly proclaim it), Hoeksema admonished his students never to take the word, “reprobation,” on their lips, in their preaching and teaching, without trembling. In his book, A Power of God, after he has explained II Corinthians 2:14-16, Hoeksema wrote:
From a human viewpoint, a preacher may wart to save all who are in his audience, and want to take them with him to heaven. Certainly he will not, cannot, and may not seek to be a savor of death unto death. His calling is to be a good savor of Christ, and to preach God’s Word faithfully. If he does this, his task is fulfilled, and he leaves the outcome to the Lord.
But the faithful preacher also “prepared himself to be willing to be a savor of death unto death, as well as a savor of life unto life. For such is the will of God. And only in this way is he always a conqueror” (p. 96).
¹ The book has not been translated. All quotations from it are my translations of the Dutch.
² This “Declaration of Principles,” which was intended “to be used only by the Mission Committee and the Missionaries for the organization of prospective Churches” appears in the back of the book containing the church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches. The book can be obtained from the Stated Clerk of the Churches.
³ Institutes, I II, XXIII, 7. Calvin is speaking of God’s decree that some men perish eternally through the fall of Adam which He ordained. “Here the most loquacious tongues must be dumb. The decree, I admit, is dreadful; and yet it is impossible to deny that God foreknew that the end of man was to be before he made him, and foreknew, because he had so ordained by his decree.”