Rev. Miersma is home missionary of the Protestant Reformed Churches.

It has sometimes been said by the advocates of the offer that as Protestant Reformed Churches we cannot do mission work or preach the gospel in evangelism. Not only is this false, but, as I want to point out, the opposite is in fact true. It is my contention that it is those who hold the offer who have truncated the gospel, subverting its power and the word of grace. It is they who cripple mission work and debilitate the preaching of the gospel. The so-called free or well-meant offer on the mission field makes the gospel weak, ineffective, and anemic. Because of this, the preaching of the offer is not genuine mission work. In considering this thesis we should first consider what the preaching of the gospel, also on the mission field, really is.

What preaching is

Preaching is, first of all, the public and authoritative declaration of what God has done in Christ. It is the glorious wonder of Christ crucified and raised which is to be published and proclaimed to all who hear. The preacher comes as a herald and ambassador of Christ to say, “thus saith the Lord.” In that preaching, Christ is displayed in all the fullness of His death and resurrection, as the wonder work of God’s sovereign mercy, to save and redeem effectually His people from their sins. The gospel is the glad tidings of the God of our salvation, that God has fulfilled the promises which He spake to the fathers in the Old Testament in His Son Jesus Christ, and has accomplished atonement and reconciliation for the sins of His people. It involves the objective declaration of the facts of the gospel as the truth of God in Christ, together with the horrible reality of man’s sin, depravity, and corruption, and of his terrible guilt before a Holy God.

The good news of the gospel includes the whole counsel of God; it is not limited to the objective facts of the cross, to what is called in dogmatics the locus of Christology. It includes the wonder of God’s electing grace and mercy, His sovereign eternal good pleasure, and His eternal purpose and glory in Christ and His church — and that as good news. It includes also the glad tidings that God in Christ saves to the uttermost. That Christ, by the effectual working of the power of His death and resurrection, regenerates and quickens dead sinners to life, calls and converts men, and works repentance and imparts saving faith unto men who were dead in themselves and bound in sin. It includes all the loci of dogmatics from Theology to Soteriology to Eschatology.

Its purpose is to preach the whole Word of God, to set before men their wretched and miserable state and condition in themselves and to proclaim the wonder and glory of God in Christ, whose own arm has wrought salvation, and who reaches down to save His people from their sin. It leads one to stand in the presence of the holiness of God and the glory and wonder of His grace, to worship Him out of a broken and contrite heart, and to seek earnestly to walk before Him in newness of life in true gratitude. That word of the gospel is as much present, in principle, when one preaches on the glory of God’s institution of marriage, as it is when one preaches a sermon on Jesus’ death. It is complete, full, and uncompromising. It hides nothing in the closet of theology. It is that gospel which is the power of God unto salvation. It is a gospel which is proclaimed as propositional, factual truth, as a gospel of certainty, of what is surely to be believed. It preaches Christ, as the apostle Paul says to the Galatians, “before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you” (Gal. 3:1).

It is in the light of that glorious gospel that we also distinguish two aspects in the preaching, following the Canons of Dordt, that of command and promise. The gospel in its proclamation confronts men with the call to repent and believe. By the very reality of sin and the glory of God’s work in Christ, men are confronted with the command and duty to repent and believe. This command is not only explicit in the preaching but implicit in the very truth of man’s sin and the glory and wonder of the gospel. That call is a serious one, for, standing before a Holy God, wretched and miserable in themselves, and standing before the glory of His wonder in Christ, men ought to repent and believe. That they cannot do so of themselves because they are fallen does not change the seriousness of this demand. Nor does the particularity of the gospel in any way mitigate the truth that what is good and acceptable in the sight of that Holy God of the wonder is that man should repent and that the called ought to come unto Him.

That command, however, in the good pleasure of God, has a twofold effect upon them that hear. In the heart of the wicked and unbelieving it works a hardening of heart, stubbornness, and rebellion. The glorious gospel of Christ is for them a savor of death unto death. Seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, but willfully reject the gospel and put it away from them. It is foolishness unto them. They do not obey the gospel.

In the heart of God’s elect, however, God works by that demand of the gospel the obedience of faith, graciously calling forth faith and repentance by the power of His grace, and quickening in us the obedience of faith. This is wrought both by the grace of God through the objective call of the gospel and the internal, efficacious working of the Spirit in the heart. It is one work of God by an efficacious, irresistible call.

To that command God has joined the promises of the gospel, as the sure word of His grace to His people. By the promises He addresses His sheep by name and calls them, according to their spiritual characteristics, into the certain spiritual blessings which they have in Christ. By the promises of the gospel God comforts the brokenhearted and assures them of pardon for sin and life eternal. He speaks His Word as Jesus did to the man sick of the palsy, “Thy sins are forgiven thee” (Luke 5:20). Those promises are unconditional and particular, and that exactly because they are personally addressed and intended, and grounded in the finished and accomplished work of Christ. They are God’s sure Word unto His people. The promises of the gospel therefore do not address God’s people as merely offered to be accepted or rejected, nor as a check to be endorsed by our believing, but as a receipt stamped “paid in full” with our name on it. They address us as weary and laboring, as those who sorrow and mourn because of sin, as hungering and thirsting after righteousness, as saints who fear God. By them Christ calls His sheep by name, and we hear His voice and follow Him.

By that command and particular promise God leaves no one in doubt, neither the wicked nor His children, as to their own duty, their spiritual state, or the certainty of the truth of the gospel. It is in the light of this reality of the gospel, that we must evaluate the well-meant offer or the so-called free offer of the gospel.

The offer historically

The theory of the offer belongs to a certain semi-Arminian trend which has been present in the Reformed and Presbyterian community since the time of the Synod of Dordt. It is an attempt to marry the conditional universalism of Arminianism to the truth of the sovereign, particular grace of Calvinism. Perhaps the best description of this error is to call it hypothetical universalism.

This synergism was first taught at the time of the Synod of Dordt by John Cameron in France and England, and, both then and later, by his notable disciples Amyraud in France and Davenant, the British delegate to the Synod of Dordt. In its original form it was an attempt to join the Reformed and Arminian doctrines of election by teaching two distinct decrees of election, one an Arminian decree that God decreed to save all and every man in Christ on condition of faith, and the second a semi-Calvinistic decree, that God decreed to fulfill the conditions and give faith only to some. Briefly, this is the notion that God wants to save all but wills to save only some. It is a contradictory dualism, a two-track theology. Its universal election is conditional and Arminian, and in the light of the notion of a particular decree to save some, it is also only hypothetical. This view was resisted by the Synod of Dordt, which teaches in the Canons, whenever God’s intention, design, and purpose are mentioned, only an intention and design to save the elect.

As Amyraud and his following continued to teach this notion after the Synod, his views were condemned, under the leadership of Francis Turretin, by the second Helvetic consensus as Arminian and inconsistent with Dordt. Similarly, when the views of Davenant and his followers were promoted in England, they were opposed by the Puritan John Owen in his book The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.

It is particularly in the area of the doctrine of the covenant, both in connection with preaching and baptism, that this Amyrauldian heresy continues to raise its head. This usually takes the form of a general conditional promise, the so-called Heynsian view. This view involves more than a general conditional promise, it involves a separation not only between the covenant and election but also in the work of Christ. In Reformed theology all of God’s works are rooted in eternity, in His decrees. To teach that God’s covenant is established with elect and reprobate, upon conditional promises, as an objective bequest to all who are baptized or brought under the preaching, is first of all to teach something about God’s eternal decree of that covenant. All of God’s works are eternal. Their realization in time is the working out externally (ad extra) of that which He has purposed in Himself internally (ad intra). Slogans, such as calling this principle scholastic, rationalistic, etc., simply evade the issue.

Along with this separation of the covenant and election is to be found a dispensational-like corruption of the doctrine of the Mediator. To maintain this separation, those who hold it teach that Christ is the “Mediator of the covenant” but the “Head of the elect.” In doing this they do not mean merely to draw a fine distinction between the meaning of two terms, Mediator and Head, but to separate them. This covenant of which Christ is the Mediator, according to this view, is established by promise, though conditionally, with elect and reprobate, all who are outwardly included in the church. Christ is the Mediator of God’s covenant with Esau.

This involves a fundamental corruption of Christ’s work as the Mediator. It is exactly as He is the legal representative Head of the elect, the Christ, that He in His mediatorial work establishes and confirms the new covenant in His blood, as the Lord our Righteousness. This is plain from the teaching of the Canons, which explicitly join Christ’s mediatorial office and His headship and make it clear that He is the Mediator of the elect alone. Thus we read, “Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby before the foundation of the world, He hath out of mere grace, according to His own will, chosen, from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault, from their primitive state of rectitude, into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, whom He from eternity appointed the Mediator and Head of the elect, and the foundation of salvation” (Canons I, Art. 7). That Christ is the “Mediator and Head of the elect,” could not be clearer. The same is true when we read, “… it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given Him by the Father…” (Canons II, Art. 8). Again the Canons explicitly join the blood of the covenant and God’s purpose in it to the mediatorial work of Christ and election.

The original form of this error was an assault upon the doctrine of election. It developed into an assault upon the Reformed doctrine of the atonement. Under the influence of its promoters in England and Scotland the focus was shifted to the idea that one could preach that Jesus was dead for all but had died only for some. That is, hypothetically, Jesus’ death was not simply sufficient, considered in itself, for all, but designed and intended to be available to all upon condition of faith and repentance. This was an attempt to marry the Reformed and Arminian doctrines of the atonement, to teach a provision for all men in the death of Christ but an efficacy only for some. This trend came together in the Marrow Controversy in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. This dualist conception of the atonement was condemned by the Presbyterian Church of Scotland as Arminianism.

It has sometimes been contended that the Synod in Scotland was influenced by liberal or rationalistic Arminian thinking, that it condemned the Marrow Theology because of its evangelicalism or out of narrow-mindedness. That there were in this complex controversy elements of this, as well as miscommunication in understanding one another’s position, is well possible. What concerns us, however, is the central doctrinal issue, whether one may teach that Christ’s atoning death is universal in scope, and in some sense designed and intended for all, or so as to be available for all. May we preach, as the offer inherently does, that Christ is dead for all, though He died only for some? May we deduce from Christ’s sufficiency a universal scope to the atonement, such that it may be offered to all, or presented as intended or available to all?

In connection with this we may look at our own Canons of Dordt. The Canons certainly teach that Christ’s death is “sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world” in view of the fact that the Person of the Son of God died in our flesh (Canons II, Art. 3). How could it be any less than this? The point is, however, that Christ died for certain persons, and bought for them saving faith and the blessings of salvation through faith; and they are not all men, nor all who sit under the preaching, nor all the baptized. The Canons (and the Westminster Confession is essentially no different) find in this sufficiency of Christ only that it leaves men without excuse in their unbelief, as there is nothing lacking in Christ or the gospel why they do not believe (Canons II, Art. 6). As to the intent and design of Christ’s death, the Canons draw two conclusions, that it was intended for the elect alone and not universal (Canons II, Art. 7, 8), and that its infinite worth and value is for the benefit of “us,” that is, God’s elect, redeemed, believing people. Notice this in the language of the Canons, in explaining the source of this infinite worth and value, its bearing upon Christ’s qualifications, and its necessity. The Canons say, “which qualifications were necessary to constitute him a Savior for us; and because it was attended with a sense of the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin” (Canons II, Art. 4). In discussing the blessed fruit of this infinitely valuable sacrifice of Christ, the Canons find it of benefit strictly for certain persons, us. In the light of this, to preach otherwise, a Christ for all or available for all, is to present not only that which is hypothetical, but hypocritical. The Canons do not find in the sufficiency of Christ a universal offer, but a profound comfort for a believer, whose sins are so great that only a sacrifice of infinite worth and value is sufficient to take them all away. When the men who promote the offer take up this subject in the Canons, they engage in eisegesis, the reading into the Canons of their own speculative notions.

… to be continued.