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Rev. VanBaren is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.

On the “Free Offer”

The question of the “well-meant” or “free” offer of the gospel has had a very important part in the life of our churches. It is part of the First Point of Common Grace adopted by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1924 at Kalamazoo, Michigan.

The concept has been incorporated into the doctrine of most Reformed and Presbyterian churches today. Many become very upset if this “free offer” is questioned or condemned as being not Reformed and not Scriptural. The claim is made that a mission-minded church must come with this “free offer” to theheathen. Those who deny such an “offer” are labeled more often than not as “hyper-Calvinists.”

What is this “free offer”? It is supposed to be the offer of God through the preaching to all that hear, salvation in Jesus Christ. It is called “well-meant” because God would have declared His own earnest desire to save all who hear.

Now that fits in well with the Arminian view that God chose those whom He foresaw would believe, and that Christ died for all men without exception. Those who hold to what is Reformed, however, insist on an unconditional and eternal election not based on works. Likewise, these maintain a “limited” or particular atonement of Christ on the cross. The problem ought to be obvious: how can God offer what Christ did not obtain? How can an offer, not based on atonement on the cross, be “well-meant”? Some would be willing to label this a “paradox” or “apparent contradiction.” Only eternity, supposedly, will provide the answer to what seems contradictory.

But what was once considered an established doctrine in Reformed and Presbyterian circles is being questioned today again. And a careful examination of the issue would be profitable indeed.

Both in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom in general, Reformed people are asking questions—or emphatically asserting that the “free offer” is indeed Reformed. There has been discussion and debate. That is good—provided one carefully studies God’s Word concerning the issue.

It is of some degree of interest to us, as Protestant Reformed people, that the issue of the “free offer” is also being discussed in other circles in our own country. The Rev. Bernard Woudenberg recently provided us a copy of a paper presented by Pastor Albert C. Bean to the fifteenth General Synod of the Bible Presbyterian Church (BPC) in opposition to a motion that the BPC establish fraternal relations with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Pastor Albert Bean is minister in the Ebenezer Bible Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina and also moderator of the South Atlantic Presbytery of the BPC. I would quote the short paper in its entirety.

Fathers and Brethren,

A first cogent reason why the BPC should not establish fraternal relations with the OK is the tragic fact that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church holds a biblically erroneous view known as the well-meant gospel offer. Their view, in effect, constitutes an attack on the absolute sovereignty of Almighty God, and on the doctrines of unconditional particular election, the covenant of grace, particular redemption, predestination, irresistible sovereign grace, and reprobation. To state or imply that Almighty God wills, desires and intends to save men whom He does not actually save is to “undeify” God. Job 2213 declares, “But He is in one mind, and who can turn Him? and what His soul desireth, even that He doeth.” 

The Minutes of the Fifteenth General Assembly of the OPC, 1948, appendix, pages 51-63, are printed in a booklet titled The Free Offer of the Gospel. Professors John Murray and Ned B. Stonehouse write, “…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 the veracity and reality is the will to the possession of Christ and the enjoyment of the salvation that resides in him.” 

The venerable Presbyterian theologian, John H. Gerstner of Ligonier, Pennsylvania proclaimed, “I had the incomparable privilege of being a student of Professors Murray and Stonehouse. With tears in my heart, I nevertheless confidently assert that they erred profoundly in The Free Offer of the Gospel and died before they seem to have realized their error which because of their justifiably high reputations for Reformed excellence generally, still does incalculable damage to the cause of Jesus Christ and the proclamation of the gospel. 

“It is absolutely essential to the nature of the only true God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent that whatever His sovereign majesty desires or intends, most certainly—without conceivability of failure in one iota thereof—must come to pass! Soli Deo Gloria. Amen and Amen forevermore. God can never, ever desire or intend anything that does not come to pass, or He is not the living, happy God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but an eternally miserable being weeping tears of frustration that He was unable to prevent hell and can never end it, thus destroying Himself and heaven in the process.”

Brethren, over a quarter of a century before Westminster, the chief controversy between our Reformed forefathers and the Arminians was the particularity of sovereign grace. We do not worship, praise and laud a weak and disappointed God! (Emphasis my own—ACB). The Lord’s grand election of grace embraces a great host which no man can number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues.

Rev. 7:9

But the Lord does not will nor intend the salvation of reprobates.

I Peter 2:8; II Peter 2:12; Jude 4

“But our God is in the heavens; he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased.”

Psalm 115:3

Amen and Amen.

The result of this and other objections was that the motion to establish fraternal relations with the OPC failed. The Rev. Albert Bean believes it possible that the same motion will be considered again next year. One can be thankful, however, that this question of the “free offer” is not entirely a dead issue.