That which is objectionable in the “free offer of the gospel,” or “well-meant gospel offer,” is not the teaching that the Church must preach the gospel to everyone and must call all hearers to faith in Jesus Christ. But the error of the doctrine of the, offer, and the reason why a Reformed man must repudiate it, is its teaching that the grace of God in Jesus Christ, grace that is saving in character, is directed to all men in the preaching of the gospel. Inherent in the offer of the gospel is the notion that God loves and desires to save all men; the notion that the preaching of the gospel is God’s grace to all men, an expression of God’s love to all men, and an attempt by God to save all men; and the notion that salvation is dependent upon man’s acceptance of the offered salvation, i.e., that salvation depends upon the free will of the sinner.¹ 

The first two of these elements are openly confessed by the proponents of the offer. In the first of the three points of common grace of 1924, the Christian Reformed Church expressed the following:

“Relative to the first point which concerns the favorable attitude of God towards humanity in general and not only towards the elect,, synod declares it to be established according to Scripture and the Confession that, apart from the saving grace of God shown only to those that are elect unto eternal life, there is also a certain favor or grace of God which He shows to His creatures in general. This is evident from the Scriptural passages quoted and from the Canons of Dordrecht, II, 5 and III, IV, 8, 9, which deal with the general offer of the Gospel, while it also appears from the citations made from Reformed writers of the most flourishing period of Reformed Theology that our Reformed writers from the past favored this view.”

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church confessed the same doctrine, if anything more plainly and more boldly, when in 1948 it adopted the doctrinal study of Professors Murray and Stonehouse on “the free offer of the gospel:”

“. . . there is in God a benevolent lovingkindness towards the repentance and salvation of even those whom he has not decreed to save. This pleasure, will, desire is expressed in the universal call to repentance . . . The full and free offer of the gospel is a grace bestowed upon all. Such grace is necessarily a manifestation of love or lovingkindness in the heart of God. And this lovingkindness is revealed to be of a character or kind that is correspondent with the grace bestowed. The grace offered is nothing less than salvation in its richness and fulness. The love or lovingkindness that lies back of that offer is not anything less; it is the will to that salvation. In other words, it is Christ in all the glory of his person and in all the perfection of his finished work whom God offers in the gospel. The loving and benevolent will that is the source of that offer and that grounds its veracity and reality is the will to the possession of Christ and the enjoyment of the salvation that resides in him.”²

The free offer, according to those who hold it, is the grace of God to all men in the preaching of the gospel and is rooted in God’s love for all men. This grace must be conceived of as God’s one, saving grace. For it is grace that desires men’s salvation; it is grace revealed in the preaching of the gospel of Christ crucified; and it is grace that offers Christ and the riches of salvation to men. In the first point of common grace the Christian Reformed Church identified the grace manifested in the offer as a “certain favor or grace of God” which is to be distinguished from “the saving grace of God shown only to those that are elect.” Following the lead of Abraham Kuyper, who however did not make “common grace” a favor of God which desired the salvation of all humanity and which offered all men salvation, the Christian Reformed Church distinguished two graces of God, “common grace”‘ and “special (saving) grace.” The former was viewed as a favor that gives all men earthly blessings, e.g., health, and the latter was viewed as the favor of God that gives the elect salvation. In the past, the Christian Reformed Church has attempted to defend its doctrine of the offer by claiming that it is the revelation of God’s common grace, not His special, saving grace. But the grace of God expressed in the well-meant offer is saving grace, not any common grace, i.e., even though it is grace that fails to save many to whom it is directed, it is as to its character the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ. It is not a grace that gives rain, sunshine, health, and wealth, but a grace that desires a man’s salvation and that well-meaningly offers a man Christ and Him crucified. It is sheer absurdity to make the offer of the gospel an expression of a non-saving “common grace.” It is simply a principle that will work its way out, regardless of all foolish distinctions, that the grace of God in the blessed gospel is saving grace. Besides, the fact of the matter is, Abraham Kuyper to the contrary notwithstanding, that the Scriptures know of only one grace of God and one love of God, His grace and love in Jesus Christ. This is the grace, and this is the love, revealed in the gospel. 

The doctrine of the offer, therefore, teaches that the love of God in Christ is universal. Apart from all other considerations, this is the denial of the Reformed, Biblical doctrine of election and the sell-out of the Reformed faith to Arminianism. For the meaning of the doctrine of election is that the love of God in Christ is eternally directed towards some definite, particular men, willing their salvation and efficaciously accomplishing it. Election is simply the choosing love of God (Deut. 7:6-8Rom. 8:28-39). Universal love is universal election, and that was the position of the Arminians. 

Since the offer maintains that God’s grace is directed to all men in the preaching, it is the denial of the efficacy, or sovereignty, of grace, that which the fourth of the so-called five points of Calvinism calls “the irresistibility of grace.” For the doctrine of the offer does admit that many of those to whom God is gracious in the preaching are not saved. 

Here the doctrine of the offer most clearly shows itself lo be the resurrection of the old Arminian heresy in the Reformed camp. The pivotal point in the controversy between the Reformed faith and Arminianism at the time of the Synod of Dordt was the Arminian denial of the sovereignty of grace. Basic to the Arminian position was their teaching that God’s grace was given to all men, not sovereignly to save them, but merely to enable them to choose salvation, if they willed. At this crucial juncture—the actual salvation of a man—everything depended upon the man himself, upon his exercise of his free will. And the whole of Arminian theology is built on this rotten foundation: election, the atonement, and final salvation are conditioned by the free will of the sinner.³

The Synod of Dordt laid waste the entire Arminian system, and maintained the gospel of gracious salvation, by confessing with the Scriptures that the grace of God, both as an attitude in God and as His power in men, does not enable a man to be saved, does not merely make salvation’ possible, but efficaciously saves everyone towards whom it is directed and in whom it is worked. The Synod denied “that after God has performed his part, it still remains in the power of man to be regenerated or not to be regenerated, to be converted or to continue unconverted” (Canons, III, IV, 12). Rather, the work of grace is such “that all in whose heart God works in this marvelous manner, are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated and do actually believe.” The Canons go on to say, in Article 14:

“Faith is therefore to be considered as the gift of God, not on account of its being offered by God to man, to be accepted or rejected at his pleasure; but because it is in reality conferred, breathed, and infused into him; or even because God bestows the power or ability to believe, and then expects that man should-by the exercise of his own free will, consent to the terms of salvation, and actually believe in Christ; but because he who works in man both to will and to do, and indeed all things in all, produces both the will to believe, and the act of believing also.”

Salvation by grace, as taught in Ephesians 2:1-10, means that dead sinners are quickened by the almighty power of God, i.e., sovereign grace. This implies, as Ephesians I explicitly teaches, that God’s favorable attitude, His will to save, i.e., His grace, is directed towards some particular men, namely, the elect. In this light, the Arminian notions of conditional election and an atonement whose application depends on the sinner’s decision are also exposed as fraudulent. The gospel is the good news of sovereign, particular grace. The doctrine of the well-meant offer is opposed to this. 

to be continued

¹ In his book, Een Kracht Gods Tot Zaligheid, Hoeksema listed four objectionable elements in the idea of an offer of salvation. First, the offer teaches that God wills and desires to give grace to, or save, all men. Secondly, it teaches that God actually possesses satiation for all, that is, that Christ’s atonement was universal. Thirdly, it holds that God plainly reveals that it is His intention to give His grace to all. Fourthly, it implies that salvation is conditioned by the free will of the sinner. Each of these elements “indruischt tegen de Gereformeerde waarheid.” The offer and the Reformed truth “sluiten elkander uit.” 

² “The Free Offer of the Gospel,” p. 273

³ The significance at Dordt of the truth of sovereign, “irresistible” grace is indicated in Carl Bangs’ book, sympathetic to the Arminians, Arminius (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971).