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“THE WELL-MEANT OFFER OF THE GOSPEL”

The development of doctrine in the Christian Reformed Church over the past fifty years affords a text-book illustration of the certain overthrow of the Reformed doctrine of double predestination by the teaching of a “well-meant offer of the gospel.” In 1924, the CRC adopted the doctrine of a well-meant offer of grace in the preaching of the gospel. For years, her theologians defended themselves against the charge that a grace of God for all men in the gospel militated against double predestination by asserting that double predestination and the well-meant offer, although apparently contradictory, were paradoxical truths. Rejection of the offer as a contradiction of double predestination, they decried as “logic” and “rationalism.” The CRC intended to hold both predestination and the well-meant offer in paradoxical tension. 

R. B. Kuiper, was representative. Having described the offer as expressing God’s “desir(ing) the salvation of every sinner reached by the gospel,” he notes that “it has been argued that (the) doctrine (of reprobation) rules out the universal and sincere offer of the gospel. If God decreed from eternity that some men would perish everlastingly, it is said to be inconceivable that he would in time sincerely invite all without distinction to everlasting life.” Kuiper declares that “the all-important fact is that the Word of God teaches unmistakably both divine reprobation and the universality as well as the sincerity of the gospel offer.” To the charge that the two doctrines contradict each other, he replies: “We may as well admit, in fact, it must be admitted, that these teachings cannot be reconciled with each other by human reason. As far as human logic is concerned, they rule one another out. However, the acceptance of either to the exclusion of the other stands condemned as rationalism. Not human reason, but God’s infallible Word, is the norm of truth. That Word contains many paradoxes. The classical example is that of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. The two teachings now under consideration also constitute a striking paradox. To destroy a Scriptural paradox by rejecting one of its elements is to place human logic above the divine Word” (God-Centered Evangelism, Chapters 2 and 3). 

The “striking paradox” was severely shaken in the 1960’s. In a series of articles in The Reformed Journal, Harold Dekker, professor at Calvin Seminary, argued for a universal redemptive love of God and a universal atonement of Christ. He based these teachings on the doctrine of the well-meant offer, already adopted by the CRC. In the original article of December, 1962, “God So Loved—All Men!,” Dekker wrote: “The universal love of God is also revealed in His invitation of the gospel, sincerely extended to all without reservation or limitation.” He asked: “. . . is the salvation which the atonement provides availableto all men? Indeed it is. Otherwise the well-meant offer of the gospel is a farce, for it then offers sincerely to all men what cannot be sincerely said to be available to all.” 

In a later article, “Redemptive Love and the Gospel Offer” (January, 1964), he wrote: “This article intends to set forth the universal factors inherent in the well-meant offer of the gospel. It carries one main thrust: that the love of God expressed in the gospel and its universal invitation is truly a redemptive love and that the presentation of the gospel must express this principle.” 

Dekker’s response to his Christian Reformed critics, committed to a man to the “paradox” of a well-meant offer side-by-side with double predestination, was to hoist them with their own petard:

Why are my critics unwilling td recognize a paradox between a universal atonement and a limited redemption when this is so plainly taught in the Bible? Why are they unwilling to recognize a paradox of a redemptive love which does not always redeem when this is so clearly the presentation of Scripture? Do they suppose that such paradoxes as these are any greater or any more difficult to accept than the paradox which they affirm of a God who sincerely desires the salvation of all men and yet does not save them all? (The Reformed Journal, September, 1964).

The outcome of the controversy was the approval of the doctrines of universal redemptive love and universal atonement by the Synod of 1967. Synod refused to adopt the recommendations that would have condemned the doctrines taught by Dekker, contenting itself with an admonition of Dekker “for the ambiguous and abstract way in which he has expressed himself in his writing on the love of God and the atonement.”

Whatever remains of the “paradox” is presently being dissolved in the CRC. The acid is the gravamen of Harry Boer against the doctrine of reprobation in the Canons of Dordt. In 1975, Boer addressed a letter to the Synod. The letter was first published as an open letter in the April, 1975 issue of The Reformed Journal. Boer denied that the letter was a gravamen against the doctrine of reprobation. He presented it as “a request for information: what is the express testimony of sacred Scripture’ that teaches the doctrine confessed” in the Canons, I, 6 and I, 15? Nevertheless, the letter was obviously an attack on the doctrine of reprobation as found in the Canons. The letter charged that the doctrine of reprobation set .forth in the Canons is a basic cause of the CRC’s losing their birthright, namely, the truth of salvation by grace alone. It accused reprobation of making it impossible to preach on election in the CRC. Like a “diseased appendix,” reprobation plays a destructive role in the body of the CRC. 

In a significant section of the letter, Boer called attention to the amazing silence regarding reprobation, when the Church was debating and judging Harold Dekker’s teaching of universal redemptive love and universal atonement. Boer noted, pointedly, that Dekker grounded his teaching in “the universal well-meant offer of the gospel, a teaching strongly held in the CRC.” By implication, Boer argued that the doctrines of the offer and universal atonement, accepted by the CRC, have overthrown the doctrine of reprobation already, and that the theologians are well aware of it! Because it clearly points out the line that runs from the well-meant offer to the denial of reprobation, via universal atonement, this part of Boer’s letter deserves to be quoted in full.

The public situation has an official aspect which makes that situation even more ominous. The ambiguous manner in which the doctrine of reprobation is held in the Christian Reformed Church stood forth starkly during the so-called “Love of God” controversy, 1963-1967, though I am not aware that public note has ever been taken of this. In that controversy Professor Harold Dekker, teacher of missions at Calvin Theological Seminary, was called to account before the highest judiciary of the Church for having written publicly that God loves all men redemptively. He did so in terms of the universal well-meant offer of the gospel, a teaching strongly held in the Christian Reformed Church, and of Christ’s atonement which in Reformed doctrine is sufficient to atone for the sins of all men; The theme of his argument was signaled by the title of his main article in the Reformed Journal, December 1962, “God So Loved . . . All Men!” 

Beyond question, Professor Dekker raised issues of profound theological import in the Reformed tradition. It is no part of the purpose of this address to enter upon them. There is, however, one aspect of the theological confrontation which Professor Dekker’s articles elicited that has been wholly overlooked although it is of the most crucial significance. The doctrine of reprobation played no role of any kind whatever in the debate that was carried on for four-and-one-half years. The synodical study committee (specifically mandated to study the medal as well as the scriptural aspects of issues arising), the numerous overtures to the Synod of 1967, and most notably the decisive and fully documented action of that Synod never raised the relevance of the doctrine of reprobation. Nowhere and by no one was it made a constitutive element either in study or in adjudication. How could this happen? What could in such a debate as ensued conceivably be of more basic and determinative significance than God’s eternal decree? Out of it the whole redemptive work of Christ flows. Would the decree of reprobation not have bearing on the problem of limited atonement which was discussed at such great length? Or on the universal well-meant offer of the gospel? How was it possible to belabor Professor Dekker with all the ponderous charges of departure from the teachings of the Reformed Confessions that were leveled at him, especially, nota bene, the Canons of Dart, without involving the doctrine of reprobation and that at the deepest and most determinative levels? This was not done. That it was not done is the “impossible possibility” of the whole “Love of God” disputation: impossible because inconceivable; possible because it happened. 

It is hardly warranted to have so low an opinion of Christian Reformed theological competence as to suppose that the theological community at large, the several members of the synodical study committee, and the constituency of the Synod of 1967 were man for man unaware of the inescapable correlation between reprobation and the “God So Loved. . . All Men” thesis of Professor Dekker. But all were silent on the subject. The informed and concerned observer of the scene can hardly fail to conclude that the Christian Reformed Church is not only silent on reprobation, but that there is an unspoken consensus to be so and to remain so.

The 1975 Synod of the CRC received Boer’s letter, declaring “that Dr. Boer has raised a legitimate concern to which the church should address herself.” In 1977, Boer submitted to the Synod “a gravamen against the Reformed doctrine of reprobation as taught notably in the Canons of Dart I/6 and I/15.” According to Article 75 of the “1977 Acts of Synod” of the CRC (the cover of which, in supreme irony, is a photo depicting the Synod of Dordt!), the decision of Synod concerning the gravamen was the appointment of “a committee to receive the reactions of individuals, consistories, and classes, to study the gravamen in the light of Scripture, and to advise the Synod of 1980 as to the cogency of the gravamen and how it should further be dealt with by synod.” Can anyone stand in doubt as to the outcome? 

In fifty years, the doctrine of a well-meant offer has overthrown the Reformed doctrines of limited atonement and double predestination in the CRC; and it has done this in an open, public, official way. 

The question will not down: Why does no one—not the Reformed and Presbyterian communities looking on, not those within the CRC opposed to the attacks on limited atonement and reprobation, no one—challenge the legitimacy of the well-meant offer, even though all behold the offer devastating the historic, confessional, Reformed doctrine of sovereign, particular grace? 

(to be continued)