Our Protestant Reformed Position Regarding the “Free Offer Of The Gospel” (1)*

In this paper, we will treat the subject of the “free offer of the gospel” or, as it is also called, “the well-meant gospel offer.” This is the teaching of some Reformed and Presbyterian Churches and of other Calvinists that God, in the preaching of the gospel, offers salvation to everyone who hears the preaching, out of His love for everyone and with the desire that everyone be saved. 

It is evident that this teaching is no peripheral matter, of concern only to some Christians at a certain period in the history of the Church. Rather, this teaching raises questions that touch on the very heart of the gospel of grace. Does God love all men? Does God desire that all men be saved? Does God in the preaching try to accomplish the salvation of everyone? Is it the nature of preaching that it is an offer? If indeed God loves all and desires the salvation of all, why do some of them perish? Are God’s love and grace defeated? What does this teaching do to the Scriptural doctrine of election and reprobation? What becomes of the doctrine of irresistible grace? The significance of the subject has recently been shown by developments in the Christian Reformed Church. In 1962-1964, Harold Dekker, professor of Missions in Calvin Theological Seminary, in a series of articles inThe Reformed Journal, grounded his defense of universal atonement in the teaching of the well-meant gospel offer which the Christian Reformed Church adopted in 1924 in the first point of common grace. Of late, the subject of the free offer has been receiving much attention from Baptists who embrace some of the main tenets of Calvism. These men express their views in several magazines; ,i>Sword and Trowel, The Banner of Truth, and Reformation Today. Recently, the editor of Reformation Today, Errol1 Hulse, published a booklet, “The Free Offer.” They defend the free offer and castigate those who deny it as “hyper-Calvinists.” 

It is not the purpose of this paper to give an exhaustive treatment of the “free offer.” I only want to draw the main lines, as I see them in the interest of our subsequent discussion.

By the “free offer,” or the “well meant offer of the gospel,” we understand the teaching of certain Reformed and Presbyterian Churches, as well as others who profess to love the doctrines of grace, or Calvinism, that God offers Christ and salvation to everyone in the preaching of the gospel and that He does this because He loves everyone and desires the salvation of everyone. This was the teaching of the Christian Reformed Church in 1924 that became the occasion for the separate existence of our Protestant Reformed Churches. In the first of their three doctrinal statements regarding common grace, the C.R.C. said this:

“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 and 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.”

In this statement, the C.R.C. said that there is a “general offer of the Gospel” and that this offer is the expression of a “certain favor or grace of God” to all men, not only to, the elect, but also to the reprobate. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church has also officially adopted the teaching of the free offer as church doctrine. In 1948, they adopted the study of Professors John Murray and Ned Stonehouse that defended the free offer. (1) Following Murray and Stonehouse, the O.P.C. teaches that, there is a free offer of the gospel, maintaining that:

“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 fullness. 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. (“The Free Offer of the Gospel,” p; 27)

The Calvinistic Baptists mean essentially the same thing by the free offer as do the C.R.C. and the O.P.C. They are fond of quoting Murray and Stonehouse’s work on the free offer as authoritative. Ian Murray may be taken as representative of these men. Writing inSword and Trowel of February, 1969, in an article entitled; “The Free Offer of the Gospel,” Murray defends the Marrow-men who taught “a universal Gospel offer.” According to the Marrow-men and Murray, God invites everyone to salvation in the preaching of the Gospel. This offer is “a real and sincere offer. God is not offering something which He is unwilling to bestow. ‘God offers Christ cordially and affectionately in the gospel; his very heart goes out after sinners in the call and offer thereof’. . ‘Christ is willing to come into every heart.’ ” The offer is a “universal expression of God’s benevolence and compassion.” “His benevolence and compassion, expressed in the universal call to repentance, extend to every creature even to those whom He has not decreed to save.” Although the C.R.C., the O.P.C., and the Calvinistic Baptists claim that their doctrine of the free offer is different from Arminianism, it is impossible to ignore that historically it was the Arminians who taught a universal, well-meant offer of salvation in the preaching. According to the Arminians, the free offer is backed up by universal atonement and harmonizes with a conditional election. Everyone to whom the preaching comes has the ability of free will to accept the offer, because God gives everyone sufficient grace. Salvation, therefore, depends upon one’s acceptance of the offer. The Reformed Churches condemned the Arminians’ doctrine of the offer in the Canons of Dordt (cf. III, IV, 10, 14; III, IV, The Rejection of Errors.) 

The Protestant Reformed Churches deny the free offer. We maintain that the free offer is neither Scriptural nor confessional. We hold that the doctrine of the free offer that has found entrance into Reformed Churches is the introduction once again of the Arminian heresy into the Reformed sphere: “En wij aarzelen niet, om het onomwonden uit to spreken, dat hetstandpunt van 1924 Arminiaansch is. De predilcing des Evangelies algemeene genade, -dat is de Arminiaansche voorstelling.” 2 It is necessary, however, for men to understand just exactly what we are denying when we deny the free offer. We must make clear what it is in the doctrine of a well-meant gospel offer that we regard as un-Biblical and un-Reformed. Our position is both misrepresented and misunderstood. We need not here concern ourselves with those who misrepresent us, knowing full well that we do not deny that which they put in our mouths. But we will concern ourselves with the misunderstanding, of our position. Our denial of the offer is misunderstood by some because there have been those in, the history of the Church and apparently are still some today, who have denied the offer for different reasons than we do. Some have denied the offer, meaning by this denial that the Church should not call everyone who hears the preaching to repent and believe. To use the language of classic Reformed theology, they have denied the external call of the gospel. Their people have been called “hyper-Calvinists.” But this is not the idea of our opposition to the offer, nor is it an implication of our position. 

For us, the issue is the teaching of the doctrine of the free offer that God is gracious in the preaching to everyone who hears the preaching, the reprobate as well as the elect. Inherent in the doctrine of the free offer is the teaching that God loves everyone (or, what amounts to the same thing, that there is an attitude of favor on God’s part towards everyone, a gracious attitude), that God desires to save everyone, and that, therefore, the preaching is grace to all who hear. This is the doctrine of the well-meant offer as set forth by the C.R.C. in the fast point of common grace of 1924. There is a “favorable attitude of God towards humanity in general,” “a certain favor or grace of God,” which is expressed in the “general offer of the Gospel.” This is the conception of the free offer set forth by Murray and Stonehouse and adopted by the O.P.C. Errol1 Hulse, a representative of the Caivinistic Baptists, is in full agreement: “But does he (God) desire or wish salvation for all? We answer, Yes!” (“The Free Offer,” p. 7). Hulse sees the well-known words of Revelation 22:17as “further cogent proof of the most gracious expressions of God concerning his will for all men to be saved” (p. 8). The love and grace of God revealed in the offer of the gospel is necessarily a saving love and grace. It is not saving as to its effect, for the defenders of the offer admit that it actually fails to accomplish the salvation of many towards whom it is directed. But it is saving as to its nature. It is a love that desires the salvation of the objects of that love. It is a grace expressed in the preaching of the gospel of the Savior from sin, indeed, a grace expressed in the well-meant offer of that Savior. Obviously, the grace of God for all men, including the reprobate, in the free offer is not the “common grace” of Abraham Kuyper, for that “grace” was only a temporal favor of God expressed in earthly things such as rain and sunshine. It was not saving as to its nature or as to God’s intention. It was not expressed in any well-meant offer. But the grace of God expressed in the free offer is nothing less than a favor that desires to save and that goes out in the gospel itself. This is the very essence of the free offer, and it is to this that we are saying “No,” when we deny the free offer. The free offer is a denial of the sovereignty of God’s grace. The saving grace of God in Christ fails, and the love of God revealed in the cross of Calvary is frustrated. We see the issue as essentially the same as that for which the Reformed fathers contended at the Synod of Dordt against the Arminians. For do not forget that, although the truths of election, total depravity, the atonement, and perseverance were all at stake, the nub of the controversy was the Arminian’s denial of efficacious, sovereign grace.3 Against this Arminian denial, the fathers maintained “irresistible grace,” especially in Heads III, IV of the Canons. 

History has verified our contention that the well-meant offer is Arminian in a striking way. In 1962- 1964, Harold Dekker of the C.R.C. seminary argued from the well meant offer to universal atonement. He showed, correctly; that there are not two kinds of love or two kinds of grace in God: “The difference between common grace and special grace, between common love and special love, is not in the respective quality or essence of these, but in the effect produced” (The Reformed Journal, Feb. 1963). He expressed agreement on this point with Hoeksema: “both of us agree that God’s love is not two but one, although he limits this one love of God to the elect while I ascribe it to all men” (The Reformed Journal, March, 1963). This one love is redemptive love. Dekker contended, again correctly, that by adopting the well-meant offer the C.R.C. had committed itself (rightly, in Dekker’s view) to the teaching that God loves all men with a redemptive love and is gracious to them with saving grace. He then showed that this implies universal atonement. Dekker argued powerfully, as it turned out, irrefutably, that the doctrine of the well-meant offer demanded the teaching of universal atonement.

“Second, is the salvation which the atonement provides available to all men? Indeed it is. Otherwise the well-meant offer of the gospel is a farce, for it then offers sincerely to all men what cannot be sincerely said to be available to all” (The Reformed Journal, Dec., 1962). 

“The Scriptures testify to a divine love for all men in the atonement of Christ and in the universal invitation of the gospel” (Redemptive Love and the Gospel Offer,” The Reformed Journal, Jan., 1964. Cf. the entire article).

There is one step that the defenders of the free offer have refused to take as yet, the step of maintaining free will. This must come in time as the principles involved in the free offer work through. Already a man like Erroll Hulse takes a weak and dangerous position in this regard. As he struggles with the problem that God offers salvation to totally depraved sinners, absolutely incapable of accepting the offer, he writes: “As has been shown men are dead in sin, being dead to spiritual matters because of their enmity to God. Yet they are not dead as men. They still bear God’s image. They are still moral, rational, responsible creatures. However miserable in their unregenerate state they are not irresponsibly dead. God deals with them as responsible . . . This is the root of the matter and the reason why it is necessary to be clear about common grace (my emphasis – DE). It cannot be too strongly stressed that we speak to men as men. They are not tables and chairs or cups and saucers. They are very much alive, very much alive toward a world without God,” (“The Free Offer,” p. 15). The power of the offer-idea will irresistibly sweep away the truth of total depravity in the direction of free will, through the channel, no doubt, of the notion that fallen men “still bear God’s image” because of “common grace.” 

(to be continued) 

1 This study has been printed as a booklet entitled, “The Free Offer of the Gospel It is available from Lewis J. Grotenhuis, Belvidere Road, Phillipsburg, N.J.

2 H. Hoeksema, Een Kracht Gocs Tot Zaligheid of Genade Geen Aanbod, 1930, p. 17. (“And we do not hesitate to express forth- rightly that the standpoint of 1924 is Arminian. The preaching of the Gospel as universal grace – that is the Arminian idea.”)

3. This is made plain in Carl Bangs’ recent book, sympathetic to the Arminians, Arminius (Nashville: Abington Press, 1971).