The OPC and “Free Offer” (2)

We are now ready, after furnishing in our previous editorial on this subject the historical background, to discuss the current Orthodox Presbyterian position on the so-called “free offer” as this is embodied and expounded in the Murray-Stonehouse pamphlet, “The Free Offer Of The Gospel.” 

The basic issue, you will recall, developed (in the course of the Clark Case) into one that involved the preaching of the gospel. The complainants against Dr. Gordon Clark took the position that the preacher must say that God sincerely seeks the salvation of the reprobate through the preaching of the gospel

This, we must remember, is the heart and core of the whole controversy concerning the “free offer.” The issue is not whether the preaching of the gospel is promiscuous; every Reformed man believes this. The issue is not correctly stated in the following question:may and must the preacher say that God sincerely seeks the salvation of all men through the preaching of the gospel? The “free offer” doctrine has often been formulated thus. And in a general way this is a correct formulation. But it does not “zero in” on the fundamental issue. After all, among “all men” are also God’s elect. And there is no debate about the question whether God sincerely seeks the salvation of the electin the preaching of the gospel. But the problem—not a problem for me or for any truly Reformed man, but for the supporters of the “free offer” doctrine—is that among “all men” there are the reprobate as well as the elect. And to state the fundamental issue correctly and accurately, in such a way that the specific issue stands out clearly, therefore, we must phrase it as follows: may and must the preaching of the gospel say that God sincerely seeks the salvation of the reprobate through the preaching of the gospel? 

The position which Dr. Clark took—and which we took in 1924 and still take today—is: NO! 

The position of the OPC in “The Free Offer of the Gospel” is: YES! 

The latter position we propose to examine in the light of Scripture and the confessions. In doing this, we shall quote at length from the pamphlet itself, so that we cannot be accused of misrepresentation or misinterpretation. And although the pamphlet itself fails to appeal to the confessions or even to attempt to justify its position in the light of the confessions, we expect to conduct our examination in the light of the confessions (both the Westminster Confession and our Reformed confessions, especially the Canons): to us it is inconceivable that the confessions should be totally ignored in a discussion of this kind. It is both Presbyterian and Reformed to apply the test of the confessions to any doctrinal position. 

The Murray-Stonehouse pamphlet is divided into three parts. First is a brief, but important, introduction. In it the authors set forth their position in brief, a position which is supposed to be a Reformed theology of the “free offer.” The second, and by far the largest, part of the pamphlet is entitled “Scriptural Basis.” In this section the authors produce their alleged Scriptural evidence for the doctrine of the “free offer.” The third part is very brief; in it the authors present five conclusions. 

We will begin with the statement of position furnished in the Introduction

In the first two paragraphs we read the following:

It would appear that the real point in dispute in connection with the free offer of the gospel is whether it can properly be said that God desires the salvation of all men. The Committee elected by the Twelfth General Assembly in its report to the Thirteenth General Assembly said, “God not only delights in the penitent but is also moved by the riches of his goodness and mercy to desire the repentance and salvation of the impenitent and reprobate.” (Minutes, p. 67). It should have been apparent that the aforesaid Committee, in predicating such “desire” of God, was not dealing with the decretive will of God; it was dealing with the free offer of the gospel to all without distinction and that surely respects, not the decretive or secret will of God, but the revealed will. There is no ground for supposition that the expression was intended to refer to God’s decretive will.

It must be admitted that if the expression were intended to apply to the decretive will of God then there would be, at least, implicit contradiction. For to say that God desires the salvation of the reprobate and also that God wills the damnation of the reprobate and apply the former to the same thing as the latter, namely, the decretive will, would be contradiction; it would amount to averring of the same thing, viewed from the same aspect, God wills and God does not will.

This is about as clear a statement of position as one could desire. We may summarize it in the following statements: 

1. According to the will of His decree, God wills the damnation of the reprobate. According to that same will of His decree, God does not will the repentance and salvation of the reprobate. To assert that He does would involve one in a plain contradiction. 

2. When one speaks of the free offer of the gospel, he is not dealing with the decretive or secret will of God, but with the revealed will. 

3. According to the revealed will of God, He wills the very opposite of what He wills according to His decretive will, namely, the salvation of the reprobate. Now the conclusion from the above position is obvious. It is this, that there are in God two wills, each willing the very opposite of the other. We shall enter into this matter in detail a bit later in our discussion: for here we have the most basic issue in the entire debate about the “free offer.” This is indeed a doctrine which involves one’s theology, one’s doctrine of God. Is there contradiction in God? Is there conflict in God? Or even, is there contradiction and conflict between God’s Being and God’s revelation? Can it be said—dare it be said—that God is one kind of God according to His eternal Being and His eternal thoughts (His decree), but that He is another kind of God according to His revelation (His revealed will), that is, according to His Word, the Scriptures? 

In turn, this is, you will understand, an important question also with respect to a question that is currently much discussed, namely, revelation and Holy Scripture. Are the Scriptures trustworthy? Do they truly and correctly and accurately make God known to us? Or are God and His will and His purpose and His attitude really not the same as they are revealed to be in God’s Word, the Scriptures? You see, these are important questions. It simply will not do to give formal assent to the authority and infallibility of the Scriptures, but then in actual fact to deny the trustworthiness of those same Scriptures. If you do so, you lose revelation and you lose all possibility of the knowledge of God. Either God is as He has revealed Himself to be in the Scriptures, or we cannot and do not know Him at all. In fact, either God has revealed His so-called decretive will in the Scriptures (and then it isrevealed!), or we cannot even say that God has a decretive will, much less say that the contents of that decretive will is the damnation of the reprobate. 

Now it is perfectly obvious that the authors felt the force of the contradiction in which they were involving God in the above quoted paragraphs. In fact, they mention it. They state the problem plainly in the last sentence. But what do they attempt to do? They attempt to escape the contradiction by proposing that there are two wills in God: the will of God’s decree and His revealed will. 

Do not say that this is not true. Do not say that they are only talking about two aspects of one will. For two aspects of one and the same will cannot possibly be contradictory. When you consider the one will of God from two aspects, or points of view, it cannot possibly be said that God wills the damnation of the reprobateand that God does not will the damnation of the reprobate. There is no rational being who can possibly convince himself or be convinced of this. 

Hence, the authors of this pamphlet involve themselves in something that is in a way worse. It is bad theology! It strikes at the very attributes of God’s Being, namely, His unity and His simplicity. For the doctrine of two wills in God is a denial of these attributes. 

But even so, the authors of “The Free Offer Of The Gospel” do not escape the contradiction; they only move it back a step by their doctrine of two wills in God. This is very easily tested. For do not forget that when they write about these two wills in God, they are nevertheless writing about God, the willing God. You may reduce the expression “the decretive will of God” to: “God wills, according to His eternal decree.” And you may reduce the expression “the revealed will of God” to: “God wills, according to His own revelation.” Put thus, the contradiction is as glaring as ever: 

1. God wills the damnation of the reprobate. 

2. God wills the salvation of the reprobate. And no amount of mental gymnastics can persuade one to accept both propositions. 

What is the practical result for the preaching? The preacher who holds to the doctrine of the “free offer” necessarily must let go of proposition No. 1. And he does so, too! He will not preach it. Nor, by the way, will he preach sovereign election at all consistently. And if he does occasionally mention reprobation, he will either give it mere lip-service or he will present the Arminian doctrine of conditional reprobation. It never fails! 

But there is a second, very serious contradiction involved in the position of the “free offer.” To make this plain it is necessary to quote two more paragraphs of the Introduction:

The question then is: what is implicit in, or lies back of, the full and free offer of the gospel to all without distinction? The word “desire” has come to be used in the debate, not because it is necessarily the most accurate or felicitous word but because it serves to set forth quite sharply a certain implication of the full and free offer, of the gospel to all. This implication is that in the free offer there is expressed not simply the bare preceptive will of God (another will, the will of God’s command, HCH) but the disposition of lovingkindness on the part of God pointing to the salvation to be gained through compliance with the overtures of gospel grace. In other words, the gospel is not simply an offer or invitation but also implies that God delights that those to whom the offer comes would enjoy what is offered in all its fullness. And the word “desire” has been used in order to express the thought epitomized in

Ezekiel 33:11,

which is to the effect that God has pleasure that the wicked turn from his evil way and live. It might as well have been said, “It pleases God that the wicked repent and be saved.” 

Again, the expression “God desires,” in the formula that crystallizes the crux of the question, is intended to notify not at all the “seeming” attitude of God but a real attitude, a real disposition of lovingkindness inherent in the free offer to all, in other words, a pleasure or delight in God, contemplating the blessed result to be achieved by compliance with the overture proffered and the invitation given.

The above language leaves much to be desired as far as clarity is concerned. And there is more to be criticized than the single point which we now make. The only item we now wish to point out is that here is a second contradiction with respect to God. For here it is emphasized that the “free offer to all” bespeaks ac attitude of “lovingkindness” on the part of God. This is said to be “inherent” in the “free offer to all.” And it is even emphasized that this is not a “‘seeming’ attitude” of God, but a “real attitude, a real disposition of lovingkindness.” 

But do not forget that reprobation is not a mere formal decree to damn some. Reprobation means divine hatred! It means that God from eternity hates some. 

Hence, here is the second contradiction in God which is posited by “The Free Offer of the Gospel”: 

1. God from eternity hates the reprobate, and reveals Himself as such. 

2. God is filled with a real disposition of lovingkindness toward the reprobate, and reveals Himself as such. 

Again, of course, the only “escape” from this contradiction is to keep silence about proposition No. 1 or to pervert sovereign reprobation into the Arminian heresy of conditional reprobation. 

But let no one imagine that these are abstract theological problems. They involve God! They involve God’s revelation and its trustworthiness! They involve the truthfulness of the preaching! 

What must the preacher, as an ambassador of Jesus Christ, preach? 

He dare not, in the name of Christ, preach both!