“The Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel”
Against the attack on reprobation within the Reformed community by means of the well-meant offer of the gospel, our defense is simple: the well-meant offer is not Reformed.
It is not historically Reformed. The Reformed faith has always distinguished the external call of the gospel and the internal call of the gospel. The internal call of God’s efficacious drawing of a. sinner unto Christ by the Word of the gospel bound upon his heart by the Holy Spirit. The internal call is directed to the elect only, as Romans 8:30 teaches; “Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called.” It is gracious. It is motivated by God’s favor towards the undeserving sinner, which favor desires his salvation; and it is the means by which the power of sovereign grace actually saves the sinner.
The external call is the authoritative voice of God in the preaching of the gospel, without the internal, drawing operation of the Spirit. This call comes to all who hear the gospel, reprobate as well as elect. Of this call, Matthew 22:14 speaks: “For many are called but few are chosen.” God directs this call to the reprobate, not with the purpose of their salvation (for He has purposed their damnation), not as an expression of grace (for He has excluded them from the grace of the gospel in His righteous wrath), and certainly not to give them a chance to be saved (for they have no ability to obey the call); but rather as His prescription of their solemn duty. The external call of the gospel to the non-elect, “Repent and believe!” is a serious call inasmuch as God shows them the way of salvation, confronts them with their duty to walk on that way, declares that He will give eternal life to every one who repents and believes, and, points out that penitence and faith please Him, whereas impenitence and unbelief displease Him.
Two quotations will fairly serve to show that Reformed theologians have not viewed the external call to the non-elect as a gracious, well-meant offer of salvation. The first is from an old, Dutch dogmatics, Kern der Christelijk Leer Dat is de Waarheden van den Hervormden Godsdienst (Essence of Christian Doctrine, that is, the Truths of the Reformed Religion). The author was the Reformed pastor, Aegidius Francken. .The book dates from 1713. Written in question and answer form, it has served as a popular catechism of the Reformed faith for generations of Dutch Reformed believers and their children. In the chapter, “Concerning the Calling,” we find the following (my translation of the Dutch):
Q. 5. What is the Calling?
A. The calling is a gracious work of God, by which He powerfully translates the elect sinner out of the state of sin into His fellowship.
Q. 6. Whom does God call unto His fellowship?
A. Only the elect. Rom. 8:30: “Whom He did predestinate, them He also called.”
Q. 7. Does not God call all men by a sufficient grace?
A. By no means; for many men are ignorant of the way of salvation, without which knowledge no one can be called unto God’s fellowship.
Q. 10. How does God call man?
A. Externally and internally.
Q. 11. By what does God call man externally?
A. By the word of the gospel, in which God presents to him Christ and His benefits.
Q. 15. Whom does God call then by the gospel unto the fellowship of Christ?
A. All who live under the gospel.
Q. 18. Does God then intend (beogen) the salvation of all whom He calls externally?
A. By no means; God intends only the salvation of His elect.
Q. 19. Prove that God in the external calling does not intend to save all.
A. That would conflict with God’s eternal intention of reprobation, in which He has determined to damn some on account of their sins, because He cannot intend in the preaching of the gospel to save those whom He had fitted unto vessels of wrath.
Q. 20. Does not God then deal deceitfully (bedriegelijk), when He calls reprobates unto salvation, whose salvation He does not intend?
A. By no means; for in the calling God only makes known to a sinner the way of salvationï¿½faith and conversion, and promises salvation only to those who believe and convert themselves; in this, God does not deal deceitfully with them, but only shows that He has made an inseparable connection between faith and salvation.
Q. 21. Is not then the external calling and the moral influence of the truth upon the conscience of men enough to translate a sinner unto God’s fellowship?
A. No, it is not enough; for the man is by nature wholly incapable of any spiritual good. II Cor. 3:5: “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourse1ve.s.”
Q. 22. What must then be added, if a sinner is actually to come unto God’s fellowship?
A. The internal calling.
Then follows a description of the internal calling as “gracious, efficacious, irresistible, unchangeable,” and for the elect only.
Were Reformed parents once again to rear their children on such a catechism, and to feed on it themselves, it might be hoped that God would remove the name, “Ichabod,” now written over much that is called Reformed.
As Francken represents the Dutch Reformed tradition, James Henley Thornwell represents the Presbyterian tradition. Thornwell, a southern Presbyterian, who died in 1862, served as professor of theology at the Theological Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. In volume 2 of The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell(published by The Banner of Truth Trust) appears an extended essay on “Election and Reprobation.” After explaining and proving predestination, Thornwell defends the doctrine against various objections. He notes that “the doctrine of election is supposed to be inconsistent with the sincerity of God in the general invitations and call of the Gospel, and with His professions of willingness that all should be saved.” Thornwell’s response, first of all, is the flat assertion that “God has no purpose of salvation for all.”
It is true that this doctrine (of election) is wholly irreconcilable with the idea of a fixed determination on the part of God to save, indiscriminately, the whole human race. The plain doctrine of the Presbyterian Church is that God has no purpose of salvation for all, and that He has not decreed that faith, repentance and holiness, and the eternal blessings of the Gospel, should be efficaciously applied to all. The necessary consequence of such a decree would be universal salvation. The Scriptures, which are supposed to prove that God sent His Son into the world with the specific intention of saving all without exception or limitation, it is confidently believed, teach, when correctly interpreted, no such doctrine.
Although Thornwell supposes that God has a “general benevolence” which is common (which he at once designates as “the common bounties of Providence”), this “general benevolence . . . implies no purpose of salvation at all.” In fact, Thornwell thinks it “preposterous . . . to deduce a purpose of universal salvation” from the texts that speak only of the common bounties of Providence, e.g., Matthew 5:44, 45, “as though God could not send rain upon the wicked and unjust without designing to save them.” That men, nevertheless, make this deduction is “amazing” to Thornwell.
With regard to the gospel’s call of all who hear, Thornwell calls attention to the important, Biblical distinction between God’s perceptive will and His decretive will: “The perceptive will of God is the rule of duty to us; the decretive will, the plan of operations to Himself.” That God calls every man who hears the gospel to believe does not imply that God purposes, or desires, the faith and salvation of all. The imperative of the preaching, “Believe!” prescribes man’s duty; it is the perceptive will of God—His command.
The Reformed faith, by its confession of double predestination, denies that God has a purpose of salvation toward all men. Always, the objection arises, “if God has no purpose of salvation toward all men, the invitations of the Gospel become only a mockery. God cannot possibly be sincere in the indiscriminate offer of salvation if He does not intend to bestow it upon each and every individual.” Thornwell dismisses this as a “specious objection.” It “proceeds upon a gratuitous assumption that the external call of the Word conveys to every sinner to whom it is directed a specific intimation that God designs his own salvation in particular. But this is far from the truth. The Gospel offer is not an expression of God’s purposes or decrees, but a plain and intelligible ground of duty to man. It comes to no one and says, ‘You individually and particularly are included in God’s purpose of saving mercy.’ If this were the nature of it, none could pretend to reconcile its acknowledged universality with the doctrines of election and reprobation.
“God is sincere in His invitations and entreaties, because He is only urging the sinner to the faithful discharge of solemn and imperative duty. And surely God as a Sovereign may require of man and urge upon him the performance of duty without duplicity or deceit, and yet withhold that strength which man has basely forfeited, and is now guilty for needing.”
Thornwell sums up the Reformed teaching thus:
Let is be borne in mind that the external call of the Gospel simply points out a ground of duty, and all difficulty is removed. This call merely represents God as a sovereign Legislator and man a dependent subject—a truth with which the doctrines of election and reprobation by no means interfere. This external call says not a syllable about the purposes of God in giving or withholding the grace of faith. But when the call is proclaimed among, men indefinitely, then comes in election and persuades some to receive and obey it, while others are left utterly without excuse for refusing to do what they . . . were . . . solemnly bound to do.
To Thornwell, it was not a Reformed doctrine, but “the Arminian hypothesis, that God actually wills or seriously intends the salvation of all men.”
Both Francken, the Reformed, and Thornwell, the Presbyterian, are faithful to the teaching of John Calvin, that mighty instrument of the God of truth for the restoration of the gospel of His grace and glory in the world. Commenting on the history of Israel recorded in Deuteronomy 2:24-37, Israel’s “words of peace” to Sihon of the Amorites, that he let them pass through his land on their way to Canaan, Calvin notes the striking fact that God called Sihon to allow Israel to pass in peace through his land (vss. 26-29), although God had determined the destruction of Sihon and his Amorites by way of Sihon’s refusal to let Israel pass by him (vss. 24, 25). Sihon’s refusal is explained in verse 30: “But Sihon king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him: for the LORD thy God hardened his spirit, and made his heart obstinate, that he might deliver him into tiny hand, as appeareth this day.”
Calvin sees in this history, “as in a glass,” a truth that destroys the notion of a well-meant offer as completely as Israel destroyed Sihon:
Whilst God earnestly invites the reprobate to repentance and the hope of salvation, He has no other object than that they may be rendered inexcusable by the detection of their impiety. Hence is their ignorance refuted, who gather from this that it is free for all promiscuously to embrace God’s grace, because its promulgation (doctrina) is common, and directed to all without exception; as if God was not aware of what Sihon would answer when He would have him attracted to equity by friendly and peaceful words; or as if, on his free will, the purpose of God was suspended as to the war, which was soon after carried forward by His decree (Harmony of Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Numbers, Vol. IV, pp. 170, 171).
Weightier still, the well-meant offer is notconfessionally Reformed. Both the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster Confession refer to the call of the gospel by the term, “offer,” but they mean by “offer” that God presents Christ and His salvation in the gospel to all who hear and seriously commands all without exception to repent and believe on Christ. That these creeds do not mean that God loves all, sincerely desires to save all, and extends the grace of salvation to all for all to accept if only they are willing, is so plain in the creeds themselves that he who runs may read.
For the well-meant offer is not Biblical. God loves the elect only—Jacob, not Esau (Rom. 9:13). God desires to save the elect only—there are vessels of mercy afore prepared unto glory, and there are vessels of wrath fitted to destruction (Rom 9:22, 23). God is gracious in the preaching of the gospel to the elect only—He has mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will He hardeneth (Rom. 9:18).
(to be continued)