It is widely assumed that the well-meant gospel-offer, or free offer, has strong backing in the Dutch Reformed theologian, Abraham Kuyper. Is not the crucial question in the controversy over the offer, whether grace is common or particular? And did not Kuyper write a massive, three-volume work, De Gemeene Gratie (Common Grace), in which he propounded the view that God has a favorable attitude towards all men and that a power of God works in all men, restraining sin in the unbelieving world and enabling them to do much that is good and beautiful? Certainly, then, those today who so vigorously propagate the offer stand in the line of the great Kuyper, whereas those who oppose the offer thereby place themselves outside the stream of historic Reformed theology as it developed in the Netherlands in the late 1800’s.
This assumption is false.
It is indeed true that Kuyper taught a certain grace of God to all men, especially in his De Gemeene Gratie. It is also undoubtedly true that this teaching has been influential, in the history of the Reformed faith from 1900 to the present day, in the development of the theory of the well-meant offer of the gospel. But it is not true that Kuyper held the doctrine of the well-meant offer—not even in De Gemeene Gratie; on the contrary, he was an avowed foe of the theology of the offer.
It is the express teaching of the doctrine of the offer that God is gracious to the reprobate with a grace thatsincerely desires their salvation and that comes to them in the gospel. It is the implied teaching of the offer, where indeed this is not stated explicitly—as is happening more and more in Reformed circles today, that Christ died for all men and that salvation depends upon man’s acceptance of the offer by his free will.
Kuyper’s common grace had nothing to do with this universal grace. The common grace of Kuyper was merely a favor of God that gives the world “the temporal blessings” of rain, sunshine, health, and riches and that restrains corruption in the world, so that the world can produce good culture. It was not a grace that aimed at the salvation of the reprobate; a grace that was expressed in a well-meaning offer of Christ; or a grace that was grounded in a universal atonement. “Here now lies the root of the doctrine of ‘common grace,'” writes Kuyper. “There (is) in this sinful world, also outside the church, so much that is respectable, so much that arouses to jealousy . . . To the good and beautiful outside the church, among unbelievers, in the world, we may not shut our eyes.” The explanation of all this goodness in the world? “. . .outside the church, among the heathen, in the midst of the world, grace is working, grace which is not eternal, nor to the end of salvation, but which is temporal and to the end of checking the destruction that inheres in sin.”¹
Kuyper sharply distinguished this common grace from the saving grace of God. So concerned was he that “common grace” not be confused with “saving grace” (which is particular, according to Kuyper—for the elect only) that he deliberately gave “common grace” a name distinct from that of “particular grace.” Common grace, he called gratie, whereas particular, saving grace was called genade. Kuyper feared—prophetically, as history shows!—that misuse would be made of the doctrine of common grace, “as if saving grace were meant by it,” with the result that “the firm foundation that grace (genade) is particular would again be dislodged.” It is, however, “absolutely Trot the case” that common grace is saving grace. This may not “once be said of common grace.” We must “guard against this vigorously and sharply (kras en scherp).” Common grace “does not contain a single saving germ and is, therefore, of a completely different nature than particular grace or covenant grace.”²
Kuyper’s attempt to prevent common grace from developing into universal saving grace by giving the two graces different names was futile. The precarious coexistence of particular, saving grace and common, non-saving grace was short-lived. Soon, common grace began nibbling on particular grace, until, by the present time, it almost completely devoured particular grace. The result is a “common grace” that sincerely desires the salvation of all and that expresses itself in offering Christ to all.
An outstanding and very clear instance of the fatal development of common grace into universal, saving grace is the first point of the doctrine of common grace adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in 1924. Beginning with Kuyper’s distinction between two graces, “the saving grace of God shown only to those that are elect” and a “favorable attitude of God towards humanity in general and not only towards the elect,” the first point concludes by introducing common grace into the realm of salvation—the very error Kuyper warned against, declaring that God’s grace towards all humanity is revealed in the “general offer of the Gospel.” No longer is common grace a favor that fills barns, fattens bellies, and produces Beethoven’s5th Symphony, but it has become a favor that desires the salvation of all men and that operates towards all in the blessed gospel, offering all men eternal life.
Nor is this, by any means, an isolated instance. One finds on every hand that men ground their teaching of a grace of God for all in the preaching, i.e., the well-meant offer, in God’s common grace, thus transforming common (non-saving) grace into the universal (saving) grace of historic Romanism and Arminianism. In doing this, they are deaf to Kuyper’s pleas not to make this mistake.
The Orthodox Presbyterian theologians, Murray and Stonehouse, are guilty of this. They are concerned to defend the free offer, the “real point” of which, according to their own analysis, is the teaching that “God desires the salvation of all men” (my emphasis—DE). This grace, of course, “is expressed in the universal call to repentance,” i.e., the preaching of the gospel. But where do they begin, when they look for Biblical support for this doctrine? Matthew 5:44-48!, a passage which they themselves admit “does not indeed .deal with the overtures of grace in the gospel. . . .The particular aspect of God’s grace reflected upon here is the common gifts of providence, the making of the sun to rise upon evil and good. . . .” Nevertheless, this “common grace” in things temporal is made the foundation and source of the doctrine of a grace of God that desires salvation and that operates in the preaching: In the common grace of God “is disclosed to us a principle that applies to all manifestations of divine grace, namely, that the grace bestowed expresses the lovingkindness in the heart of God . . . .”³
Erroll Hulse, the Calvinistic Baptist, propounds the same confusion, without any of the carefulness of Murray and Stonehouse, who at least recognized that a grace that gives rain and a grace that offers salvation are two distinct things. That Hulse intends to press common grace into the service of a universal grace in the gospel is indicated already in the title of his booklet; “The Free Offer: an exposition of common grace and the free invitation of the Gospel.” The content all too plainly confirms our suspicion. Hulse tells us that “the subject of common grace is inescapably connected with the free offer. It is not possible to deal adequately with the question of the offer without getting to grips with the subject of common grace.” He is determined to arrive at the conclusion that God desires, or wishes, salvation for all and expresses this desire in the offer of salvation to all, i.e., that God is gracious to all in the preaching. The premise on which this conclusion is based, according to Hulse, is common grace, God’s favor to men in temporal things. Indeed, Hulse, nothing if not bold, goes so far as to identify common and special grace; there is no longer any qualitative difference between them. “. . .common grace finds its fullest expression in the provision of a Gospel to be addressed to all without exception. ” “Common grace then, finds its highest expression in that desire and will of God not only for fallen man’s temporal well-being but for his soul’s salvation and eternal happiness” (my emphasis—DE). Apparently, it has never crossed Hulse’s mind that there might be a favor of God to men in earthly things without a grace that desires their salvation, as; on the view now of those who hold such a common grace, would have to be the case throughout the whole Old Testament time, when “the free invitation of the Gospel” to the heathen nations was not very conspicuous.4
The confounding of “common grace” and “saving grace,” particularly now by the appeal to common grace to prove the universal grace of the offer, has a profound, theological cause. Men simply cannot escape the overpowering testimony of Scripture that the grace of God is one, not two, and that this grace is the glorious favor of God towards damn-worthy sinners that wills their deliverance from sin and death, provides redemption for them in the cross of the Beloved, and manifests itself in the gospel. If then God’s grace is for all, men must conclude that the grace of God in Christ Jesus is for all. From this viewpoint, the Christian Reformed Church, the Orthodox Presbyterians, Errol1 Hulse, and all their numerous allies are disciples of Abraham Kuyper—in spite of themselves.
The only safeguard against universal, saving grace is the complete repudiation of Kuyperian common grace. Probably it is wishful thinking, but the startling appearance of outright universalism in Reformed. churches today, universal atonement, universal redemptive love, universal election, and even universal salvation, ought to make those who profess to love Reformed particularism reexamine the doctrine of common grace, uncritically accepted for so long as an aspect, even a basic aspect, of Reformed doctrine.
But if Abraham Kuyper fathered the universal grace teaching of the well-meant offer, he did so as Lot fathered Moab and Ammon—unwittingly and unwillingly. Kuyper was an enemy of the teaching that is basic to the offer, namely, that God is gracious in the preaching to all men, the reprobate as well as the elect; and he was a champion of the truth of’ particular, sovereign grace. He made this plain in his book, Dat De Genade Particulier Is (That Grace is Particular).5
¹ De Gemeene Gratie (Kampen: J. H. Kok, second edition), Vol. 1, p. 11 (the translation from the Dutch in this and the following article is mine).
² De Gemeene Gratie, Vol. 1, pp. 8.9.
³ Cf. Murray and Stonehouse, “The Free Offer of the Gospel.”
4 Cf. Erroll Hulse, “The Free Offer”
5 The first volume of a three-volume set entitled, Uit Het Woord (Out of the Word). The book was published in Amsterdam in 1884. The series of articles in the magazine, De Heraut, in which form the work originally appeared, began in 1878. The series of articles in the same magazine on common grace was begun in 1895, some 17 years later.