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Rev. Joshua Engelsma, pastor of Crete PRC in Crete, Illinois

 

A necessary element of biblical, Reformed preaching is the issuing of the call of the gospel. That call is the command to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the only Savior from sin.

We ought to have a proper understanding of the place of the call of the gospel in the preaching on account of the history of the Protestant Reformed churches. Our origins as a denomination nearly one hundred years ago lie in a denial of the teaching that makes the call of the gospel into a well-meant offer. While opposing that teaching, we have been regularly charged with falling into the opposite error of promoting hyper-Calvinism. To avoid both of these errors we must understand and appreciate the nature and necessity of the gospel call.

Refute

To begin, let’s sketch out the two errors that we reject. Doing so will help clarify what we mean when we talk about the call of the gospel.

On the one hand, the church is threatened by the er­ror of the well-meant offer of the gospel. The teaching of the well-meant offer is, briefly, that in the preaching God offers salvation to all who hear, expressing a cer­tain kind of grace and love for them and a desire for them to be saved. According to the proponents of the well-meant offer, the only way in which the command to repent and believe can be preached with any urgency and fervor is if there is a certain desire of God for all who hear to be saved.

The PRC has consistently rejected the teaching of the well-meant offer of the gospel. In summary, we reject the well-meant offer for the following main reasons:

1) it is based on the idea of a universal, resistible grace of God to all who hear;

2) it implies that salvation is dependent upon the free will of natural man and his acceptance of the offered salvation;

3) it conflicts with the truth of God’s eternal, uncon­ditional election and His eternal desire to save only the elect;

4) it implies that Christ’s death on the cross made salvation possible for all, even though some for whom He died will not ultimately be saved.

Obviously, what we set forth positively regarding the call of the gospel must be distinguished clearly from the well-meant offer of the gospel. At the same time, it is important for our witness against the well-meant offer in the broader church world that we maintain and prac­tice the serious call of the gospel. Failing to do so gives occasion for the proponents of the well-meant offer to shrug off our objections merely by branding us as “hy­per-Calvinists.”

Hyper-Calvinism is the other outstanding error the church must be on guard against. The word “hyper” indicates something being above and beyond, so that hyper-Calvinism refers to someone who is going beyond Calvinism in his theology. Specifically, hyper-Calvinism is the error that maintains that the church ought not proclaim the call to repent and believe to all who hear. Rather, the call of the gospel may only be addressed to those whom we are reasonably sure are regenerated and, therefore, elect.

In the history of the church there have been genu­ine hyper-Calvinists. Usually the names of the English theologians Joseph Hussey, Lewis Wayman, John Brine, and John Gill are listed as proponents of hyper-Calvin­ism. In America, one example is Mrs. Anne Hutchin­son, who was involved in the antinomian controversy in New England in the 1600s. She denied the gospel call by saying that “all commands in the word are Law, and are not a way of life, and the command of faith is a Law, and therefore killeth.”1

As much as we are opposed to the error of the well-meant offer of the gospel, so opposed are we to the error of hyper-Calvinism. As much as we warn against the error of the well-meant offer of the gospel, so ought we to warn against the error of hyper-Calvinism. Neither one is genuinely Reformed.

Prove

Over against hyper-Calvinism, faithful preaching must include the promiscuous proclamation of the call of the gospel.

The fact that the call of the gospel must be an as­pect of faithful preaching is clearly taught in the New Testament. At the close of the Old Testament and the dawning of the New Testament, John the Baptist pre­pared the way for the Messiah by preaching the call of the gospel: “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2).

Jesus Christ Himself preached the call of the gospel during His earthly ministry. Matthew 4:17 summarizes the content of His preaching this way: “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the king­dom of heaven is at hand.” He preached the gospel (“the kingdom of heaven is at hand”), and with that He issued the command (“repent”). In the parallel passage in Mark 1:15, there is the added reference to Jesus’ preaching the call to faith: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.” In the well-known words of Matthew 11:28, Jesus said, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” and it is plain that by “come” He meant “believe” (cf. His identification of “coming” with “believing” in John 6:35).

Jesus taught the necessity of preaching the call of the gospel in a significant parable in Matthew 22. He likened the kingdom of heaven to a king who had pre­pared a wedding feast at the occasion of the wedding of his son. The king commanded his servants to go forth calling men to the feast: “Tell them which are bidden, Behold, I have prepared my dinner: my oxen and my failings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage” (v. 4). The parable concludes with the commentary: “For many are called, but few are chosen” (v. 14). It is plain that in the parable God is the king and Jesus Christ is the son. The servants are ministers, who are charged with proclaiming that the wedding feast is prepared and issuing the command to all to come. While many are called to the feast, only few come be­cause only few are chosen.

Having been taught by Jesus’ word and example as to how they were to preach, the apostles also issued the call to faith and repentance.

They preached the call to repentance. When Jesus sent the disciples out two-by-two to preach, they preached repentance: “And they went out, and preached that men should repent” (Mark 6:12). Peter called the crowd as­sembled in Jerusalem at Pentecost to repent (Acts 2:38), preached the same thing shortly after to the crowd in the temple after he healed the lame man (Acts 3:19), and called Simon the sorcerer to repent (Acts 8:22). Paul preached the call to repentance when he was in Athens on his second missionary journey: “And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent” (Acts 17:30).

The apostles also preached the call to faith in Christ. When Paul was in Antioch of Pisidia on his first mis­sionary journey, he clearly implied the call to believe: “Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the for­giveness of sins: and by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39). When the Philippian jailer asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:30-31).

When Paul summarized his preaching among the Ephesians, he mentions both elements of faith and re­pentance: “Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21).

Summarizing this biblical evidence, the Canons of Dordt (II.5) say, “Moreover, the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have everlasting life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.”2 Similarly, Q&A 84 of the Heidelberg Catechism says regarding preaching, “Thus, when according to the command of Christ it is declared and publicly testified to all and ev­ery believer, that, whenever they receive the promise of the gospel by a true faith, all their sins are really forgiv­en them of God, for the sake of Christ’s merits; and on the contrary, when it is declared and testified to all un­believers, and such as do not sincerely repent, that they stand exposed to the wrath of God and eternal con­demnation, so long as they are unconverted; according to which testimony of the gospel God will judge them, both in this life and in the life to come.” By subscrib­ing to the Reformed confessions, ministers are bound to proclaim the call of the gospel to both believers and unbelievers: “Repent and believe!”

Explain

Having seen the biblical mandate to preach the call of the gospel, we ought to understand something about the practice and theology of the gospel call.

How is the call of the gospel to be preached?

First, the preaching must expose sin. There is a place here for the preaching of the law (in the context of the gospel). One of the functions of the law is that it serves to bring sinners under the conviction of their sins and show them that there is no hope of salvation in them­selves and their keeping of the law.

Second, the preaching must set forth the gospel of salvation in Christ crucified alone. The law may not be preached as an end in itself so that sinners are merely left under the crushing weight of the law’s condemna­tion. The law must show sinners their hopeless condi­tion, and then the gospel must set forth Jesus Christ as the only hope for sinners. For preaching to be preach­ing, it must proclaim the gospel. Its emphasis must be on the Lord Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection, and His righteousness.

Third, the preaching will declare that faith is the sole means of salvation, the sole means by which sinners re­ceive and enjoy the benefits of salvation in Christ. This faith is not something of which any may boast, for it is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8; Phil. 1:29).

Fourth, the preaching must proclaim a particular promise, that is, a promise only for believers. That promise is: “whosoever believeth in him should not per­ish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:15, 16). This is not a general promise to all men, but a particular promise to believers (and those who believe are the elect).

Fifth, the preaching of the particular promise must be proclaimed promiscuously. It is not God’s will that the gospel be heard by all men; there have been many throughout history who have lived and died without ever hearing the gospel. But this fact may not keep the church from seeking to proclaim that gospel far and wide. And when the gospel is preached, there is no at­tempt to try to discern whether the hearers are elect and reprobate, for the Lord alone knows the hearts of men. The particular promise is proclaimed to both believers and unbelievers, elect and reprobate.

Sixth, as the particular gospel promise is proclaimed, there is proclaimed with it the command to repent and believe. This serious command is set before all. It is pro­claimed not only on the mission field, but also in the established congregation. While the way in which we view the church institute is that she is the gathering of believers and their seed, we know that hypocrites may be found among her. All must be confronted with the gospel call. This call must often be proclaimed explicit­ly; but in every sermon where Jesus Christ is proclaimed the gospel call is at least clearly implied.

The fact that the command to repent and believe is set before all men without distinction does not imply the ability of the natural man to repent and believe. This is a fallacious line of thinking. God seriously commands men to repent and believe, but no natural man has the ability to repent and believe. “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (John 6:44).

What then is God’s purpose with the gospel call? While the one proclaiming the gospel call does not know who are elect and who are reprobate, God has a purpose with the gospel call for both.

On the one hand, God has a purpose with the gos­pel call for the reprobate. His purpose in setting before them the gospel of Jesus Christ and the call to repent and believe serves to harden them in their unbelief and impenitence, and thus leaves them further without ex­cuse in the judgment day.

On the other hand, God has a purpose with the gospel call for the elect. His purpose is to save them through it. As they hear the gospel proclaimed and hear the call of the gospel, God works in the hearts of His elect faith in Jesus Christ and sorrow over their sins. What He commands, He gives to the elect. “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17).

It is in this connection that we ought to note the dis­tinction made in Reformed theology between the external and internal aspects of the gospel call. The external as­pect of the calling refers to the outward preaching of the gospel alone, without the inner work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of those who hear. Those who receive the external call consist of both elect and reprobate (cf. Matt. 22:14). The internal aspect of the calling refers to that inner, saving work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the elect as they come under the external call of the gospel. This is sometimes referred to as the “effectual calling” or the “saving call,” and is reserved only for God’s elect. The Bible often has this aspect in view when it refers to the calling (for example, Rom. 8:30; I Pet. 2:9).

Apply

The necessity of the gospel call is an important reminder for us as members of the PRC. We ought not be nervous when the minister proclaims the gospel call, or become suspicious that his doing so is somehow sub-Reformed or Arminian. Many years ago Prof. David Engelsma warned the churches against the spirit of hyper-Calvinism, and those warnings are as fitting today as they were then:

Another betrayal of the spirit of hyper-Calvinism is embarrassment and hesitation, that is, fear, over giving the call “Repent! Believe!” and over declaring the promise, “Whosoever believes shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” This language is not suspect. It is not the language of Arminian free-willism. It is pure, sound, biblical language. It is as much a part of the Reformed heritage as is the statement of divine, double predestination.

When hyper-Calvinism has developed somewhat, there is a failure, even a refusal, to preach the admonitions and exhortations of the scriptures to the saints on the ground that good gospel preachers should not tell God’s people what to do. At the very least, the admonitions and exhortations are not proclaimed with the sharpness, urgency, boldness, and freedom that obtain in the scriptures.3

The necessity of the gospel call is also an important reminder for ministers of the gospel. We ministers ought not be hesitant or ashamed to preach the serious call of the gospel. It is biblical. It is truly Reformed. It ought not be a rare thing that our people hear us say: “Re­pent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ! Whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have everlasting life!”


1 Quoted in David J. Engelsma and Herman Hanko, Be Ye Holy: The Reformed Doctrine of Sanctification (Ballymena, NI: Brit¬ish Reformed Fellowship, 2016), 79.
2 Likewise, the Westminster Confession of Faith (15.1) says: “Re¬pentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ.” In summarizing the teaching of the Reformed confessions, the Protestant Reformed Churches’ “Declaration of Principles” says, “The Canons in II, 5 speak of the preaching of the promise. It presents the promise, not as general, but as par¬ticular, that is, for believers, and, therefore, for the elect. This preaching of the particular promise is promiscuous to all that hear the gospel, with the command, not a condition, to repent and believe.” Later it says, “And we maintain…that the preach¬ing comes to all; and that God seriously commands to faith and repentance; and that to all those who come and believe He prom¬ises life and peace.”
3 David J. Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel: An Examination of the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel, 3rd ed. (Jenison, MI: RFPA, 2014), 193-95.