We have already stated that it is important to understand the background of this article and to note the Arminian accusation to which this article of the Canons is intended to be an answer. In our discussion of the translation we briefly pointed to this background. And on this we wish to elaborate now, and to call attention to the seriousness of the issue. First of all, we may note that the issue concerns the preaching of the gospel, and that too, to men without distinction, elect and reprobate alike. With the Arminians, of course, this presents no problem whatsoever: they have a general gospel, and are free to proclaim it to all men. However, it is obvious to both Reformed and Arminian that also according to the Reformed view the gospel must be proclaimed promiscuously. This is obvious for the simple reason that no man can single out the elect and preach only to them. Besides, of course, it is a fact that the Reformed preacher as well as the Arminian preaches to a mixed audience, consisting of both elect and reprobate. And we must well understand that such is also our calling. We may not preach and may not wish to preach only to the elect. It is God’s purpose that the gospel shall be proclaimed also to the reprobate. In the second place, we must notice that this preaching of the gospel is of God. We feel this immediately when we read the article. It deals not with the seriousness and veracity of a human word and a human calling, but with the seriousness and truth of God’s Word and God’s calling in the gospel. It is true that men preach the gospel, but only in the sense that they are instruments, ambassadors. They represent God. Hence, the preaching and the message of that preaching are of God. Through the preaching of the gospel God speaks and makes known His Word and His will. It is this point that we must clearly see. Hence, when the Arminian attacks our right to preach the gospel without distinction, his attack is really aimed at our conception of God. He charges that the God of the Reformed faith is an immoral monster, Who though He wills, according to His sovereign decree, the salvation of a certain definite number of persons, and intends to save and does save only them, yet causes the gospel of salvation in Christ to be proclaimed to all men without distinction, as though they all may be saved. And it is in answer to this attack upon the morality of the sovereignly predestinating God as He represents Himself in the proclamation of the gospel that this eighth article of Canons III and IV is proposed.
We must remember, moreover, that this attack is not aimed at the general proclamation of the gospel, but at the sovereign predestination of God. By this apparent dilemma the Arminian means to compel us to let go the truth of sovereign election and reprobation. He says it is either . . . or. If we maintain the truth of sovereign election and limited atonement, we must preach the gospel of that limited salvation only to those for whom it is divinely intended, namely the elect. If, on the other hand, we maintain that the gospel must be proclaimed to elect and reprobate alike, then we must no longer attempt to maintain that there is both in God’s decree and in Christ’s atonement salvation only for the elect. And, he maintains, since it is impossible to abandon the idea of promiscuous gospel-preaching, you must abandon the doctrine of salvation-for-the-sovereignly-elect-only.
Now it is passing strange, yea, incomprehensible, that there are those who in the name of the Reformed truth, in fact, under the very guise of the article we are discussing succumb to this Arminian attack, accept this Arminian dilemma, and cheerfully take refuge in the claim of “mystery” in order to escape being impaled on the horns of said dilemma. For what do they do? They calmly change “seriously” to “well-meaningly,” first of all. Thus they introduce the idea of a general grace in the preaching of the gospel. And they present the gospel as though God intends the salvation of all who hear the preaching. God well-meaningly, that is, with every intention of their salvation, calls all men to whom the gospel is proclaimed. Thus the calling as a work of salvation becomes general, comes on the part of God to all men, is corrupted into an offer, well-meaning on the part of God, to all men, the acceptance of which depends on the free will of man. And thus the Arminian dilemma is accepted. For the one horn of that dilemma the Reformed man has already accepted, namely, the truth of sovereign election and limited atonement (a limited gospel). And the other horn, namely, that God yet causes the gospel to be proclaimed as though all may be saved and as though He desires the salvation of all is accepted by this corruption of the call of the gospel into a general, well-meant offer of salvation. The Arminian now has every, right to say to such a “Reformed” man: “The way of escape from that dilemma is to abandon your doctrine of sovereign predestination. Don’t you see that you involve yourself in a plain and inescapable contradiction? Don’t you see that the God of your doctrinal presentation is unethical, is not upright, is a liar?” But as we said, having accepted this dilemma, this “Reformed” man blithely claims to escape its sharp horns by calling a contradiction a mystery. I say again: this is incomprehensible. Yet this is exactly what has been done in the Christian Reformed Churches and in other Reformed circles. And it has been done under the guise of this very paragraph of our Canons. One can scarcely read a commentary on this article in which that word “seriously” is not changed into “well-meaningly” at some point along the line. And the Christian Reformed Churches in 1924 cited this article in support of the First Point of Common Grace in the same sense, as is obvious also from their writings in defense of the Three Points.
Now is that truly the meaning of this article? Did the fathers actually mean to give ground to the Arminians here? Do they indeed mean to maintain the Arminian line in regard to the call of the gospel and at the same time the Reformed line in regard to the counsel of predestination and the atonement of Christ?
It may be true that this article is not characterized by exemplary clarity. But its language is certainly plain enough to determine that there is no slightest tinge of Arminianism in it. On the very face of it, it is false to maintain that this paragraph teaches a general, well-meant offer of salvation to ail who hear the gospel. Such would be contrary to the whole tenor of the Canons, and it cannot possibly be distilled from this article.
Let us engage in a little analysis of the thought here.
First of all, let it be noted that the paragraph deals not with the will of God’s decree, but with the will of His command, or His ethical will. And it is from this point of view that the fathers here look at the call of the gospel. The gospel is viewed here not from the point of view of the fact that in it God declares Hisgood pleasure, welbehagen, beneplacitum, but from the viewpoint of “what is pleasing to him, wat Hem aangenaam is, quid sibi gratum sit.” Hence, as we have noted, the article also deals with the seriousness, and that too, in the sense of the veracity, truthfulness, and faithfulness of God in the call of the gospel.
In the second place, the fathers are here speaking of a calling that proceeds from God through the preaching of the gospel to all who hear, both elect and reprobate. This is sometimes termed “the external calling.” However, the fathers do not use this term; and to use it is, in my opinion, both mistaken and confusing. It is better to speak of an external and an internal aspect of the one saving calling, and to insist that they are co-extensive: with a saving calling God calls only His elect, whether you view that calling from its external or its internal aspect. The fathers speak of those who are called by the gospel. And it is plain both from this article and from the two following that they have in mind a calling that can be and actually is obeyed or disobeyed. And it is true that the saving calling is irresistible: it cannot be disobeyed, but is always obeyed. Now it may be said that the call of the gospel and the saving calling in its external aspect are alike in form and contents. Nevertheless, we must distinguish, in order to maintain the efficacious and particular character of the calling unto salvation. And then we may say that the sound of the calling, externally considered, proceeds to all. Or: God through the call of the gospel calls His elect unto salvation.
In the third place, we must consider the contents of this call of the gospel. To that call of the gospel belongs the preaching of Christ crucified in all His fullness, first of all. In that connection, we must bear in mind that to the content of the gospel-call belongs the proclamation of God’s sovereign good pleasure also. So surely as God makes known in His Word the good pleasure of His will, so surely it must also be proclaimed in the gospel. Nor must it be camouflaged and covered up. It is inherently false to assert that one cannot go to the mission field with the gospel of predestinating grace, for the simple reason that it is of the essence of the gospel of Christ according to the Scriptures. In the third place, to the call of the gospel belongs the call to faith and repentance. And it is in that call to faith and repentance that you find the point of contact between Christ crucified and the heart of the sinner to whom the gospel is preached. Only it must be remembered that the call to faith and repentance is a calling of God, and therefore it is not to be characterized as an invitation, but as Canons II, 5 has it, as a demand, or a command. In the fourth place, therefore, it must also be stated that in the tail of the gospel God even promises to all those coming to him and believing rest of soul and eternal life. This is the same language as that of Canons II, 5, that the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have everlasting life. But it must be noted that while this promise is generally proclaimed, it is not a general promise, but, in fact, quite particular, for the elect alone: for it is a promise only to those who come to Him and believe.
Now the question is: is there anything not serious about all this? Is there anything in this call of the gospel that is not according to truth? In the gospel God calls all to faith and repentance. And God is serious about it: no man has the right before God to remain in his sin and unbelief. Is that not in complete harmony with the truth of God? God in the gospel presents to the sinner the way of sin as a way that displeases Him and makes him the object of His wrath, as a way in which he heaps to himself treasures of wrath in the day of the revelation of God’s righteous judgment. And in that same gospel God presents the way of faith and repentance as a way that is pleasing to Him, as the way of life eternal and glory. Is not God serious about this? And is not this gospel entirely in harmony with the truth of God? In the gospel God opens for him that repents the way of reconciliation to God, the way of return to the heart of God, and assures him that repents and believes that he will never be cast out, and promises him eternal life. But in that same gospel God declares to the impenitent and unbelieving that the wrath of God abideth on him. Is not God serious about this? Is not this gospel entirely according to truth? And does not God always act according to this gospel in His judgment, so that those that believe and repent are saved, while those who continue unbelieving and impenitent are damned?
No, there is absolutely nothing false or deceitful in that call of the gospel.
Nor is there anything general in it. It is a particular gospel that is generally proclaimed.
And its seriousness and veracity is not at all affected by the fact that there are some who are unable to heed the call. The inability of man to repent and believe by nature does not change the seriousness and the truth of God’s Word one iota.
Such, then, is the truth concerning the call of the gospel, according to our Reformed confessions. The question concerning the harmony of this truth with that of sovereign predestination is not touched on in this article, and may be dealt with in another connection.