Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The controversy over common grace is of particular interest to the Protestant Reformed Churches, for it was the immediate occasion for the existence of these churches as a separate denomination. The founders of these churches, under God, were expelled from the Christian Reformed Church for refusing to agree with common grace as a doctrine taught in Scripture and the confessions. These leaders, Revs. Herman Hoeksema, George Ophoff, and Henry Danhof, refused to preach and teach it in their congregations as was required of them.
As the error of common grace was adopted officially by the Christian Reformed Church, it dealt with two ways in which the grace of God was said to be common to all men: 1) The operative and powerful grace of God in the hearts of the reprobate through the Spirit of Christ by which sin in the reprobate is restrained and the unregenerate are enabled to do good works of value to God and the church. 2) A grace that is common because it was a general manifestation of an attitude of favor and love towards all men manifested not only in the good gifts that all men receive from God, but also especially in the well-meaning and gracious offer of the gospel, which invites all men to believe on Christ. The common invitation of the gospel is an expression of God’s heartfelt longing for all men to be saved.
We will take a brief look at both kinds of common grace.
Although the term was not used, the idea of a gracious gospel offer was found in the church from very early times in the history of the church of the new dispensation. Already at the time of the great church father Augustine, in the last of the fourth and the first part of the fifth centuries, an issue between Augustine and Pelagius and his followers was sovereign and particular grace over against common grace. Augustine held to eternal and sovereign predestination. The followers of Pelagius held to a general desire of God to save all men and a universal atonement that made salvation possible for all men.*
Shortly after the great Synod of Dordt a heresy arose in France called Amyrauldianism, named after its chief defender, which proposed the same ideas as the Pelagians of Augustine’s time. The influence of this heresy, sometimes known as “Hypothetical Universalism,” was significant in France and the British Isles, and to a lesser extent in the Netherlands.
Although the Westminster Assembly, with a few Amyrauldians on the assembly, did not adopt the heresy, it nevertheless survived in such men as Richard Baxter and Edward Fisher. In the Marrow controversy of the eighteenth century it was revived by the so-called Marrow Men.
From Scotland, where the Marrow Controversy took place, it was imported into the Netherlands. Close contact between the church of Scotland and the church in the Netherlands made a transfer of doctrinal ideas inevitable. The emphasis on a gospel offer and a certain universality of the death of Christ (Christ did not die for all men, but He is dead for all men) crept into the thinking of the more Reformed in the Netherlands. The State Church in the Netherlands had become apostate, and the pious and orthodox people were forced to meet in conventicles to maintain their piety and orthodoxy. The emphasis on and spiritual warmth of piety and experience that characterized the Marrow Men appealed to the faithful in the Netherlands who were left cold by the apostasy in their own church. But along with such piety came the idea of the offer of the gospel.
At the time of the Separation of 1834 under DeCock and others, the idea of a well-meant offer had taken deep root. DeCock himself, along with VanVelzen, did not hold to such an idea of the gospel. But Brummelkamp, and quite likely VanRaalte, did. Thus it came into the thinking of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and, through immigration, into America.
Although Abraham Kuyper was opposed to the well-meant gospel offer that was current thinking in parts of the Reformed churches, and although his followers in America did not teach such a view, many of those who had their ecclesiastical roots in the Separation of 1834 (De Afscheiding) did believe this doctrine. So it was freely taught in the Christian Reformed Church by various preachers from the middle of the nineteenth century on.
It thus entered the thinking of the Christian Reformed Church, and it is no surprise that, when the CRC made decisions on common grace, it included a statement on the well-meant gospel offer.
The main ideas imbedded in the gospel offer are these.
1) The preaching of the gospel is and must be an expression of a desire on God’s part to save all who hear the gospel. That is, God’s will is that all who hear the gospel be saved. He earnestly desires this and expresses this desire in the preaching. Preachers therefore are duty bound to tell all who hear that God wants them to be saved and does all He possibly can to assure them that salvation is available to them.
2) It is claimed by those who defend this view that it is impossible to do evangelism work and missionary work on foreign fields unless one can assure his listeners that God truly desires their salvation, and that it is God’s will that they be saved. Thus also the door is open for the minister to plead with sinners to accept Christ, to invite them to come to Christ, and to urge them to close with Christ—a phrase popular with the Marrow Men.
3) Such a desire on God’s part to save all who hear the gospel is rooted in a certain favorable attitude towards all men. God is favorably inclined to all men and expresses that inclination in His will to save all. This is where grace enters in. God’s favorable inclination is His gracious attitude towards all men. This gracious attitude towards all men is revealed in other ways, such as rain and sunshine, health and prosperity, and a good and prosperous life. But it is especially revealed in God’s express statements to all who hear the gospel that God, on His part, really wants those who hear to be saved.
4) But grace is only one aspect of a favorable attitude of God toward all men. Grace includes all God’s attributes: love, kindness, longsuffering, mercy, etc. God loves all men, is merciful to all men, is kind towards all men, and does nothing but that which will underscore His desire to save all men.
5) Because one necessarily must ask concerning the judicial ground for such an attitude of favor, this idea of common grace involved also a certain universal atonement. The judicial ground is the universal character and efficacy of the suffering of Christ. God cannot want to save those for whom no salvation is available. God cannot offer blessings that are not in God’s storehouse. A universal gracious gospel offer involves a universal aspect to the atoning sacrifice of Christ.
6) If the preaching expresses what God wants, it is obvious that whether a man is saved or not depends on what man wants. God does all He can, including atoning for sin in His Son; it remains to be seen what man will do. Thus a blatant Arminianism is tied to the gracious gospel offer. Salvation hinges on the free will of man.
Those defenders of common grace who are still somewhat committed to Calvinism and its five points have attempted to preserve their Calvinism by insisting that man has no free will, but that God gives special and saving grace to His elect only. But such harsh contradictions arise from a God who both wants to save and does not want to save, that free will wins out, and those committed to a gracious and well-meant gospel offer have openly espoused the Arminian doctrine of free will.
7) Almost always, if not always, this common grace that comes through the preaching of the gospel is not only an objective statement of God’s love for all men, but it is also a subjective bestowal of grace on those who hear the gospel, which grace is applied to the hearts of the hearers. This grace gives to those who hear the spiritual ability to choose for or against the offer of the gospel. It is a grace, therefore, that can be resisted.
The objections against this view of the gospel, which have been brought throughout the centuries and particularly by the Protestant Reformed Churches, are the following.
1) The Protestant Reformed Churches have insisted that the gospel cannot be and never is a mere offer, for it is “the power of God unto salvation to all who believe” (Rom. 1:16). A power unto salvation is quite different from an offer that depends on man’s will for the reception of its contents.
2) Along with a well-meant and gracious gospel offer goes a whole package of doctrines that do dishonor to God by destroying the doctrines of sovereign and particular grace. Scripture and the confessions teach that God does all things for His glory as the sovereign Lord of all. He, in salvation, determines who will be saved and who will not; for whom Christ died and for whom He did not die; in whom the Spirit works salvation and who is hardened by the Spirit. God saves His own elect through the power of the cross, and His work of salvation is entirely His own. Thus, while the heresy of the gracious offer of the gospel is Arminian, the Scriptures teach a sovereign and particular grace of God that gives all glory to God.
3) The whole concept of a gracious gospel offer introduces an impossible contradiction into God’s own mind. It teaches (at least among those who claim to be Reformed) that God both wills the salvation of all men and does not will the salvation of all men. When confronted with such a contradiction, the defenders of this heresy fall back on the lame doctrine of paradox and apparent contradiction.
4) The view that the gospel expresses God’s desire to save all men puts those who hold it into the camp of a long line of heretics beginning with the Pelagians of the fifth century. Sovereign and particular grace was the truth of the church from ancient times.
Such are the issues of the common grace of the well-meant gospel offer.
* For a detailed study of the history of the well-meant offer of salvation, see my syllabus, published by the Protestant Reformed Seminary, entitled,The History of the Free Offer.