It has been our purpose so far in this series of articles to show that denial of the well-meant offer of the gospel is not hyper-Calvinism. Hyper-Calvinism we have defined as the heresy that denies that God’s external call in the preaching of the gospel goes out to others than the elect and that inevitably results in the restriction and, finally, the loss of lively, promiscuous proclamation of the gospel. We found the essential evil of the well-meant offer to be its doctrine that God is gracious in the preaching of the gospel of Christ to all hearers, not only to the elect. Expressed as the teaching that God is favorable to all and sincerely desires the salvation of all, this doctrine of universal grace in the gospel is, in principle, the denial of election and reprobation; the denial of total depravity; the denial of limited atonement; and the denial of sovereign, efficacious grace. Opposition to the offer, therefore, neither stems from nor leads to hyper-Calvinism, but is grounded in the Reformed faith, or Calvinism itself and is necessary for the maintenance of the Reformed faith.
Over against the offer-theology, we have contended that the preaching of the gospel with its call, “Believe on Jesus Christ,”—which call is seriously made by God Himself—goes out to both elect and reprobate men, but that God’s purpose with the sending of the preaching is exclusively the gathering and saving of the elect. The preaching is God’s great draw-net cast out into the waters of mankind to catch the elect, and the elect only, from all nations, tongues, and tribes. In the preaching, God is favorable to the elect hearers only. His attitude of love and grace—His sincere desire to save—is towards them only, and He gives the power of grace to them only. God’s grace is particular—it is for the elect alone. As regards others who come under the preaching, God hates them, is justly angry with them, and purposes their judgment and condemnation—through the preaching of the gospel.
Is our doctrine historical Calvinism? Is it the Reformed faith as this faith has developed in history? Or is the offer-theology the representative today of the Reformed faith in history, whereas our denial of the offer is a novelty, a recent speculation pasted onto the Reformed faith, and, therefore, to be dismissed as “hyper-Calvinism,” or “ultra-Calvinism,” or “high-Calvinism,” or “hard-Calvinism,” or what have you?
Advocates of the offer have clothed their doctrine in the impressive garb of Reformed antiquity. To change the figure, they have baptized the well-meant gospel-offer as the legitimate off-spring of the Reformed fathers, all the while scorning our denial of the offer as a bastard. In each of her “Three Points of Common Grace,” the Christian Reformed Church ostentatiously wrapped herself in the flowing robes of classic Reformed thought by stating: “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.” Of late, certain Baptists have taken it upon themselves to give us instruction in the history of Reformed theology, alleging that Calvin, the Reformers, and the Reformed creeds teach the offer and charging that it is “the opposers of the historic Reformed position” who deny the offer.¹
We intend now to take a look at “the historic Reformed position.” We will examine, not a few citations snatched from here and there, but the body of Reformed thought, as expressed in the Reformed creeds, as sharpened in controversy, and as developed in certain of the outstanding Reformed theologians, including Calvin, Turretin, and Abraham Kuyper. Let us see whether the parentage of the well-meant offer is as honorable as is claimed for it and whether it has a right to parade so regally in the robes of historic Reformed Christianity. Perhaps, after all, the offer is an ill-begotten progeny of Pelagius, Rome, Erasmus, and Arminius in the Reformed family and the Protestant Reformed doctrine of preaching as particular grace, a genuine son of the fathers.
Before we begin, several observations are in order. First, the ultimate authority for the Church’s confession and the ultimate criterion for judging doctrines is Holy Scripture—not councils, classes, or synods and not the fathers and their writings. This was Luther’s response when his opponent, Erasmus, appealed to the church fathers against Luther’s doctrine and pulled from the corpus of their writings certain citations that favored Rome and contradicted the Reformation: “We hold that all spirits should be proved in the sight of the church by the judgment of Scripture.” In asserting the sole authority of Scripture, Luther was not conceding that the fathers were in fact altogether against him (on the point in dispute: the bondage of the will)—for he claimed Augustine, the best of all the fathers—but he was recognizing that the saints, even the greatest, were weak, sinful flesh: “All that I say of those saints of yours—ours, rather—is this: that, since they differ among themselves, those should rather have been followed who spoke best (that is, for grace against ‘free-will’), leaving aside those who through weakness of the flesh testified of the flesh rather than of the Spirit. So, too, in the case of those who are inconsistent, the places where they speak from the Spirit should have been picked out and held fast, and those where they savor of the flesh let go. This is the right course for the Christian reader. . . But as it is we abandon our judgment and swallow everything indiscriminately; or else (what is more wretched still) we reject the better and acclaim the worse in one and the same author.”² So, the writings of the saints—including Luther himself and Calvin!—must be judged by the clear, consistent, infallible Scripture. The Belgic Confession insists on this sole authority of Scripture, as “the only rule of faith,” in Article VII. This holds true for the doctrine of the well-meant offer. The decisive question is not, “Do the Reformed fathers teach it?”; much less, “Are there now and then in the Reformed fathers statements, inconsistent with the overwhelming thrust of their theology, which seem to favor the offer?”; but the decisive question is, “Does Scripture teach it?”
Secondly, there is place in the Reformed Church for development of the truth. Because the Reformed faith is the truth of Scripture, the gospel, the living Word of God, the Church does not only hand it on to the next generation unimpaired—although she may never do less!—but she also grows in her knowledge of the truth, by the enlightenment of the gracious Spirit, so that there is ongoing development of the truth— richer, deeper, fuller knowledge and confession. That which lay implicit is made explicit; that which was hidden is made plain; that which was taught only in rudimentary beginning is carried through to its conclusion; a truth largely ignored is dealt with and given its proper place. Nor is it impossible that foreign elements get mixed into the theological thinking of the Church, which must then be purged, always by the fire of the testing Scriptures and always in accordance with the fundamental principles themselves of Reformed theology. Just think how foreign elements appeared in the apostolic churches: works-righteousness; gnosticism; antinomism. Just think how they were soon found in the Church after the apostles: denial of the Deity of Jesus; the innate goodness of man; the papacy. Just think how they were not absent from the amazing Luther: the physical presence of Jesus’ body and blood in the Supper. Think how they soon corrupted Lutheranism: synergism, which is essentially nothing else than free will. Even Calvin, who as an exegete and theologian towers over all others, does not escape. There are, e.g., in Calvin, statements regarding the extent of the atonement that not only suffer from lack of clarity but that are also erroneous, statements that are contradicted, to be sure, not only by the essence of Calvin’s own theology, but also by Calvin’s explicit statements elsewhere; but statements, nevertheless, that head in the direction of universal atonement. Commenting on the phrase in Romans 5:18, “the free gift came unto all men to justification of life,” Calvin says: “Paul makes grace common to all men, not because it in fact extends to all, but because it is offered to all. Although Christ suffered for the sins of the world, and is offered by the goodness of God without distinction to all men, yet not all receive Him”—exegesis that is patently false, for the apostle does not say that the free gift attempts to come to all men, but comes to all men, so that all men actually have the justification of Christ’s cross and possess eternal life. Calvin’s error here rests upon his failure to see that “all men” in the phrase refers to all those represented by Christ, that is, the elect. The Reformed faith did not spring full-blown from the head of Calvin, but develops.
Reformed preachers and theologians do not deliberately set about to concoct something new and different. To teach and to hear some new thing is the lust of philosophers, heretics, and itching ears in the pews. But the servants of the Word labor with the Scriptures—real toil! They do this, praying earnestly and without ceasing for the Holy Spirit’s guidance. They do this, gratefully receiving the theology of the Church in the past, especially as contained in her confessions. The Reformed theologian enters into Reformed theology of the past—he knows it, wrestles with it, and makes it his own—and he allows himself to be guided in his work with the Scriptures by this theology. Thus, there is development of the truth, as naturally and inevitably as a seed sprouts, grows, blossoms; and flowers in rich, dark soil.
(to be continued)
¹ Cf. Erroll Hulse, “The Free Offer,” pp. 9ff.
² Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, tr. Packer and Johnston, (London: James Clarke & Co., Ltd., 19571, pp. 109ff.