That Biblical, Reformed preaching includes the call to every hearer to repent and believe is plainly and emphatically the teaching of the Canons of Dordt. “. . . the command to repent and believe ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of his good pleasure sends the gospel” (II, 5). There are “many who are called by the gospel (who) do not repent, nor believe in Christ, but perish in unbelief” (II, 6). The Canons hold that it is God Who calls all those who hear the gospel and that His call is unfeigned, i.e., serious: “As many as are called by the gospel, are unfeignedly called . . . It is not the fault of . . . God, who calls men by the gospel . . . . that those who are called by the ministry of the word, refuse to come, and be converted. . .” (II, IV, 8, 9).
This Reformed Confession is thoroughly Biblical on this point. Scripture teaches that one element of the proclamation of the gospel is the demand of every hearer, “Repent! Believe!”; and Scripture terms this a “call.” In addition, Scripture makes clear that this summons is a divine summons—God’s call. Jesus teaches this in the parable of the marriage of the king’s son in Matthew 22:1-14. God sends out preachers to call to the salvation that He has prepared in Jesus Christ many persons, both Jews and Gentiles, who make light of that call and reject it. God’s call, through His servants, is: “Come unto the marriage!” (vs. 4), i.e., “Believe on My crucified and risen Son, Jesus.” The Lord Himself indicates the teaching of the parable to be that “‘many are called, but few are chosen” (vs. 14). This verse exposes the error both of hyper-Calvinism and of the well-meant offer. Against the former, it plainly teaches that God in the preaching of the gospel calls more men to believe in Christ than the elect, as many men, in fact, as the Church finds on the highways of history. Against the latter, the advocates of the offer, the text plainly teaches that many of those who are called by the external call of the gospel are not elect, i.e., that God does not call them out of any love or with any (sincere desire to save them.”
Acts 17:30 states that “(God) now commandeth all men every where to repent.” Passages such as Mark 16:16 and, John 3:18, which warn of the terrible guilt of not believing on Jesus Christ, indicate that the gospel very really did call men who ultimately perish to believe in Christ and that it very really was their responsibility to do so. All of Scripture shows that it was the practice of the prophets, of John the Baptist, of Jesus, and of the apostles to confront all their audience with the call to repent and believe.
As regards those who reject the call, the Canons and Scripture maintain that, even though they had not the least ability to heed the call, so that it was totally impossible for them to do what the call required—the impossibility of a dead man raising himself—they themselves are completely to blame for their refusal to believe. “The cause or guilt of this unbelief . . . is no wise in God, but in man himself” (Canons, I, 5). “It is not the fault of the gospel, nor of Christ offered (i.e., set forth—DE) therein, nor of God, who calls men by the gospel . . . that those who are called . . . refuse to come . . . the fault lies in themselves” (Canons III, IV, 9). It is their bounden duty to believe; they know it to be their duty; God most earnestly and truly declares in the very Word that calls them that obedience to the command pleases Him, whereas disobedience angers Him (Canons, III, IV, 8); the reason why they refuse to come is that they consciously, deliberately, wickedly, and foolishly hate Christ and life and love sin and death. Hence, God punishes them for this gross iniquity: “But when the king heard thereof, he was wrath: and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city” (Matt. 22:7).
Since the gospel shows men the way of life and since it sets forth God’s grace in Jesus Christ, those who reject the call are guilty of despising life and holding the grace of God in contempt. Advocates of the offer have sometimes argued that without a grace of God for each man personally who comes under the preaching, justice cannot be done to the Biblical teaching that those who spurn the gospel are guilty of the enormity of despising the grace of God. On such reasoning, we would have to conclude also that without a “Christ for everybody” there can be no guilt of unbelief, i.e., rejecting the crucified Christ. Those who do not believe the gospel sin against the grace of God, not as if they resist and frustrate God’s grace directed to them personally in an attempt to save them—which is the heresy of the well-meant offer—but in the sense that they say, “No,” to the Christ presented to them in the gospel. Objectively, they stand before Jesus Christ, the Revelation of the grace of God, just as in the Lord’s Supper an unbeliever stands before the sign of the body and blood of the Lord Jesus, so that, in their unbelief, they are guilty of despising God’s grace in Christ, just as the unworthy partaker at the Supper is guilty of the body and blood of the Lord—even though, as a matter of fact, that grace was never intended for them or extended to them. Theirs is a far, far greater guilt—and punishment—than that of the pagan who only holds under in unrighteousness the truth of God that is revealed in creation. Acts 13:46 ascribes such guilt to those who refused the apostles’ call to believe: “It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles.” Similarly, Hebrews 10:29 charges the apostate with the sin of treading under foot the Son of God, counting the blood of the covenant with which he was sanctified an unholy thing, and doing despite to the Spirit of grace. So really is this guilt theirs that both Christ and the apostles—and the Reformed preacher today—are angry with those who refuse to believe (cf. Mark 3:5; Acts 18:6).
It is clear, then, that the Reformed preacher, although he repudiates the well-meant offer, can call sinners, any sinner and all sinners, to repentance and faith and that he can do this with all seriousness and urgency. Needless to say, he can do full justice to the tender, comforting aspect of the call of the gospel that applies only to God’s elect, regenerated people—the call that is directed specifically to those who are broken and wounded with the guilt of their sins (Is. 61:1); those who are consciously sinners (Luke 5:32); those who labor and are heavy laden (Matt. 11:28); those who, pricked in their hearts, cry out, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 3:37); those who, on account of their sins, are thirsty for righteousness (Is. 55:1) and willing to receive the water of life (Rev. 22:17). Such regenerated but grieving sinners, he tenderly directs to the Savior, saying, “Come,” “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus,” “Take of the water of life freely,” “Believe,” and promising them remission of sins, rest, salvation, and eternal life (cf. Is. 55:2, 3; Matt. 11:28; Acts 3:38; Acts 16:30, 31).
Indeed, the “offer-man” is unable to call sinners. Inherent in the idea of the call is a lordly authority—the authority of the Lord of lords, Jesus the Christ. An “offer-man,” if he is consistent, must beg sinners; and this disgraceful practice abounds today. It is revolting to anyone who has caught a glimpse of the majesty of God, the excellent glory of the risen Jesus, and the sovereignty of grace to hear the “offer-men” begging recalcitrant sinners please to accept Jesus and come to the front. They conjure up the spectacle of the Baa1 prophets ranting and raving in their “altar call” for their powerless god to send the fire. Is it out of place for us to stand on the sidelines and urge these preachers to cry harder and longer because probably their god of salvation, namely, the free will of the sinner, is sleeping?
There is a command to all hearers to believe. But this “external call of the gospel” is not a well-meant offer. It is grace to God’s elect who, as God calls them in the preaching, receive the gift of the Spirit’s irresistible drawing in their hearts, so that they infallibly believe and are saved. To the others, the reprobate, neither is the call directed to them by God out of grace nor is it actually grace to them. Rather, it is God’s righteous, serious declaration to them of their duty and His serious insistence that they perform their duty. The call makes known to them what they ought to do, not what God wills to do with them. Right after they have insisted that God unfeignedly calls all those who hear the gospel, the Canons deny that “God on his part shows himself ready to reveal Christ unto all men,” as if God “applies to all sufficiently and efficiently the means necessary to conversion” (III, IV, Rejection of Errors, 5). God’s purpose and desire with the call to those whom He has not elected is not their salvation, but their damnation. Hence, He does not give them the faith which He demands and, instead, hardens them by the preaching of the gospel. He has mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He wills, He hardeneth (Rom. 9:18). In every age, the elect obtain salvation, and the rest are blinded (Rom. 11:7).
There are several things that will not be found in Reformed preaching to the unconverted. Reformed preaching will not approach the audience with the declaration: God loves all of you, and Christ died for all of you. It will not say to every man: God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. It will not proclaim to all hearers: God is gracious to all of you and sincerely desires your salvation. This message is a lie. Not only are these statements false, but they are also the bane of effective missions. Never did the apostles take this approach, or proclaim this message, to the unconverted. Such a message is incipient universalism, which assures the sinner that all is well with him in his sin—God loves him, and Christ died for him!—so that there is really no need for him to repent and believe. Arminianism, which blusters of its concern to save the lost, peters out in universalism which blesses all religions, as well as the irreligious, and sees no need of any preaching of the gospel. Biblical preaching assures the sinner of God’s love for him personally only in the way of his faith in Christ crucified.
To the objection that has been made, that if the preacher cannot say to every sinner, “Christ died for you,” he cannot command him to believe anything, the answer is simple: a preacher does not call a man to believe some thing, but he calls him to believe on Someone. He presents Christ and calls the hearers to believe on that Christ.
Secondly, Reformed preaching to the unconverted will never tell the audience that their salvation depends upon their free will, decision for Christ, acceptance of the offered salvation, opening their heart to let Jesus come in, etc. On the contrary, it will make unmistakably plain that their salvation does not depend and cannot depend upon them—not their willing and not their running (Rom. 9:16). For Reformed preaching proclaims the gospel of grace. To preach that salvation, in the end, depends on man’s will is to preach another gospel than the gospel of Christ. One could as well preach that salvation has to be earned by the sinner’s works of obedience to the law. Reformed preaching will make clear, especially today, that the believing which is called for is not a new, grand work of man meriting or effecting salvation, but the total renunciation of all of man’s efforts and entirely the gift of God worked in the sinner by the Holy Spirit. It will loudly declare: “no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father” (John 6:65).
Finally, Reformed preaching, i.e., Biblical gospel preaching will not promise salvation to everybody. It will promiscuously publish the promise that whoever believes shall not perish but have everlasting life, as the Canons teach (11, 5). The preaching of the gospel is, at its very heart, the proclamation of the promise. But the promise itself is particular. It is addressed to the believer (John 3:16); to the willing (Rev. 22:17); to the one who labors and is heavy laden with the burden of the guilt of his sin (Matt. 11:28). The promise is for the elect alone. This is Paul’s doctrine in Romans 9. The word of God promising salvation to Israel must not be thought to be without effect, because so many Israelites perished (vs. 6). For there were, only some in that nation who were the “children of the promise” (vs. 8), i.e., persons to whom God gave the promise and persons brought to life spiritually by the promise. These were the elect (vss. 10 ff.). Therefore, the Westminster Confession of Faith is correct when it limits the promise of the covenant of grace to God’s elect: God “promise(s) to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe” (Chapter VII, III). Thus, the promise is sure and certain. The elect believer can rely on it for time and eternity; faith clings to that sure promise (Rom. 4:19-21). A universal promise, i.e., a promise made to every hearer, is at once a promise dependent for its efficacy upon the sinner and a promise that fails in multitudes of cases. Such a promise would be unworthy of God, of no value to those who perish, and a source of enormous doubt for the believer.
All of which is to say that Reformed preaching is untainted by the well-meant offer.
(to be continued)