The two preceding editorials in this brief series summarized two extraordinarily significant articles that appeared in the April 2000 issue of the Calvin Theological Journal (CTJ). The articles recalled and reconsidered the controversy in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) over common grace. This controversy resulted in that church’s adoption of three points of common grace in 1924 and in the formation of the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) shortly thereafter. The first article, by Christian Reformed seminary professor John Bolt, examines the history surrounding the synodical decision of 1924, particularly the deposition of Rev. Herman Hoeksema. The second article, by Christian Reformed theologian Dr. Raymond A. Blacketer, critiques the doctrine of the well-meant offer of salvation. This doctrine is the more important part of the teaching of the first point of common grace. It remains in this editorial to reflect on the two articles in the CTJ. In the nature of the case, the PRC need say little in response to the articles. Probably we should say little, lest our enemies seize the occasion to accuse us of an unholy spirit of self-vindication. Men of standing in the CRC affirm, and demonstrate, that the beginning of the PRC was the unjust deposition of faithful ministers and consistories and that the well-meant offer of salvation-the doctrinal issue in the common grace controversy of 1924-is the Arminian explanation of the call of the gospel. Now let men from the other Reformed and Presbyterian churches, many of whom have consciously followed the lead of the CRC both as regards their unfavorable view of the existence of the PRC and as regards their enthusiastic adoption of the well-meant offer, comment on the articles in the CTJ. Nevertheless, a few, brief comments from the quarter of the PRC may be forgiven us, indeed must be expected.
The articles vindicate Herman Hoeksema. They vindicate his behavior in the history leading up to his deposition, his recording of this history, and his theology, at least insofar as he repudiated the well-meant offer and confessed that God’s grace in the preaching of the gospel is particular. This, of course, is not at all the main significance of the articles. In a way, such vindication of Hoeksema is unimportant. He is dead. Christ has justified and rewarded him by grace alone, according to his works, including his suffering for Christ’s sake. Still, I rejoice that theologians of stature in the CRC publicly judge well of him before the church world. The act of deposing him was a heavy blow. That he felt the blow keenly is evident from his pained reference in his history, The Protestant Reformed Churches in America, to the fact that the letter from Classis Grand Rapids East informing him of his deposition addressed him as “Mr. Hoeksema.” Hoeksema did not want to be separated from the CRC. Unlike ministers in the later history of the CRC, he was not looking for the opportunity to leave. The result of his deposition was that he became a pariah in the Reformed churches-isolated, ignored, slandered. Looking back on my own contact with him in my seminary training, I am grieved that such a sound, gifted Reformed theologian had only one student the first two years and only two, the third year. He met his students in a cubbyhole in the basement of First Church in Grand Rapids-a twentieth century “den and cave of the earth” (Heb. 11:38). Along the same lines, the articles in the CTJ are of some encouragement to the PRC. Contrary to the hitherto accepted view, their origin was not willful schism, but unrighteous deposition of faithful ministers and consistories for the sake of the Reformed faith. Contrary to the widely held notion that doctrinally they are hyper-Calvinists, their theology is, in fact, that of the Reformed confessions, particularly as regards the call of the gospel. The articles echo the testimony of the Christian Reformed synod of 1924 to the soundness of Henry Danhof and Herman Hoeksema: “Reformed in respect to the fundamental truths as they are formulated in the Confessions.” Not only do the articles echo the testimony, they also extend it to the very issue that divided the synod from the two ministers: the well-meant offer of the gospel.
Confronting Reformed Churches with the Issue of the Offer
Bringing the issue of the well-meant offer before the CRC, indeed before the entire English-speaking Reformed church world, is the real importance of the two articles in the CTJ. Vindication of Herman Hoeksema is of no fundamental importance. The PRC do not need encouragement from men to maintain the grand truths of sovereign, particular grace, welcome as the encouragement may be. But promotion of the truth that God’s grace in the gospel of Christ is sovereign and particular, that is, that God’s grace is truly grace, is of fundamental importance. Both articles promote the gospel of grace. Dr. Bolt’s article does this by showing that Hoeksema’s expulsion from the CRC may not be dismissed as the discipline of a hard-headed schismatic. Rather, it was unjust ecclesiastical punishment of an honorable defense especially of particular grace in the preaching of the gospel. Blacketer’s article promotes the truth of grace by its devastating indictment of the well-meant offer as the Arminian doctrine of the gospel-call. Thus the two articles confront, not only the CRC but also many other Reformed and Presbyterian churches with the calling to re-examine the well-meant offer. For many Reformed and Presbyterian churches have embraced the well-meant offer as Reformed orthodoxy. A number of them have done so under the influence of the CRC. Out of this re-examination of the well-meant offer great good can come, if God will bless the study with the Spirit of truth. There could be the purification of the confession of the churches from the foreign, corrupting element of a love of God in Christ for every human and a desire of God to save every human. There would then be solid advancement of genuine ecumenicity among Reformed and Presbyterian churches.
Clarifying the Issue
Dr. Blacketer’s article does real service to the promotion of the truth by clarifying the issues regarding the well-meant offer. The well-meant offer teaches, and practices, a love of God in Christ for all to whom the gospel comes, a love that sincerely desires the salvation of every one of them. No longer can Reformed theologians misrepresent opposition to the offer as unwillingness to preach to all and to summon all to repentance and faith. The well-meant offer confuses a distinction concerning the will of God that is basic both in Scripture and in the Reformed tradition: the will of God’s decree and the will of God’s command. By making God’s command, “Believe on Christ!” inherently an expression of God’s gracious wish, or loving desire, to save all to whom the command comes, the well-meant offer confuses the command with the decree. Thus, the well-meant offer negates the decree of predestination according to which God graciously wishes and lovingly desires the salvation only of some who hear the gospel. The well-meant offer assumes that the fathers of Dordt meant by the “serious call” of the gospel the same thing as did the Arminians. But if this were so, the delegates at Dordt contradicted in their explanation of the “serious call” everything they taught elsewhere in the Canons concerning the particular, sovereign grace of God. Besides, the Arminians’ own confession concerning the call, which Blacketer quotes, shows plainly enough that they understood very well that the Reformed conception of the external call excluded any desire of God for the salvation of the reprobate. In this connection, Blacketer lays to rest (finally, I hope) the superficial notion that the term “offer,” which is used of the call both by the Canons of Dordt and by the Westminster Confession of Faith, had for Reformed orthodoxy in the seventeenth century the same meaning that it has for Billy Graham in the twentieth century. Blacketer points out that the well-meant offer of Christ and salvation necessarily is grounded in the atonement. He asks, repeatedly, “How can that which is not actually acquired or intended for the reprobate be offered to them with the desire that they accept it? In other words, how can Christ be offered to the reprobate, when in fact he has not been offered for them?” The history of dogma supports Blacketer’s insight. Committed as they were to the well-meant offer, the Marrowmen of Scotland had to preach universal atonement, saying to every man, “Christ is dead for you.” It was inevitable that Christian Reformed theologian Harold Dekker would argue from the well-meant offer to universal atonement. Blacketer notes also that, as Hoeksema had suggested earlier, the well-meant offer found ready acceptance in the CRC through the covenant doctrine of William Heyns. For many years, Heyns had taught Christian Reformed seminarians that God is gracious to all children of believing parents. In the wider Reformed community today, the well-meant offer is closely linked to a doctrine of the covenant that refuses to apply election and reprobation to the physical children of godly parents, but rather insists that God on His part is gracious to them all, graciously promises salvation to them all, and lovingly desires the salvation of them all. Universal, resistible grace in the sphere of the covenant leads to universal, resistible grace in the widest sphere of the preaching of the gospel. In the light of these clarifications, the articles in the CTJ call Reformed churches to discuss the issue of the well-meant offer. The articles are not the polemic of the PRC. They are scholarly articles by reputable Christian Reformed theologians. Will the Reformed churches take note, and will they take up the discussion?
Calling to Ecumenicity
There is also the ecumenical purpose of the articles. Dr. Bolt gives expression to this in his opening lines: The journal committee believed that it was an appropriate time to revisit the Synod of 1924 and its pronouncements in a fraternal spirit of ecumenical goodwill with respect to our brothers and sisters in the Protestant Reformed Churches. This, more than anything else, warms my heart. For the first time in 75 years, there is a call from the side of the CRC to ecumenical discussion, in a brotherly and friendly spirit, not by ignoring common grace, especially the well-meant offer, not by disparaging the issue as unimportant and therefore unworthy of consideration, but by a full, frank discussion of the well-meant offer in the light of Scripture, the confessions, and the Reformed tradition. At this point, the call comes, not from the CRC but only from certain members of the CRC. The CRC should act. She should take the advice of her theologians and invite the PRC to discuss the three points of common grace, beginning with the little, but basic, point of the first point: the well-meant offer. The PRC would, I think, accept with eagerness. We should. Throughout our history, we have hoped for this. We have officially requested it more than once. Later developments in the CRC should not deter us. There have been such developments, especially developments of a practical nature, e.g., her decisions on divorce and remarriage; her innovations regarding worship; and her acceptance of theistic evolution. But let us start with the doctrine of common grace. Who can say where the Spirit of truth and unity may lead us? If the CRC fails to act (though she certainly is aware of her own theological journal), the synod of the PRC should once again address the CRC, in a friendly spirit calling her to discuss with her spiritual and ecclesiastical daughter, who is not unloving, the issue of common grace, on account of which mother ungraciously put her daughter out of her house and has disowned her these 75 years. The PRC should appeal to the articles in the CTJ. As so often, Herman Hoeksema showed us the way. He did this in a speech to a gathering of Protestant Reformed and Christian Reformed ministers in Grand Rapids in 1939. The speech was published in English translation under the title, “The Reunion of the Christian Reformed and Protestant Reformed Churches.” Because the speech bears on the ecumenical overture of the two articles in the CTJ, because it is helpful concerning the motive and method of ecumenicity in general, and because it is not widely known or readily available, we will publish the speech in several installments in the Standard Bearer, beginning with the next issue. And we eagerly await John Bolt’s article on the third point of common grace in the November 2000 issue of the CTJ.