Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan.

Part I: A Summary and Brief Refutation of the Well-Meant Offer

Most churches today that claim to be either Reformed or Presbyterian maintain that the preaching of the gospel is a well-meant offer of God to each person who hears it.  We deny this, and maintain over against it that the preached Word is a serious call of God to all who hear it, but a gracious and efficacious call only to God’s chosen people.

But what exactly is meant by a serious call to all and a gracious and efficacious call only to the elect?  And how does this idea of the call of God differ from that which is taught by those who hold to the well-meant offer?  I will endeavor to answer these questions in a few articles, contrasting the two positions, that the difference between them may be clearly seen.

I will begin by breaking down the “well-meant offer of the gospel” into five basic points.  Then I will show how these points are contrary both to Scripture and to the Reformed creeds.

The Well-Meant Offer

The false teaching known as the well-meant offer can be summarized as follows:

1. God is graciously inclined toward each one that hears the preaching.

This is another way of saying that God desires to save everyone who hears the preaching of the gospel. 

2. God expresses this gracious desire in the preaching, and does so by offering salvation to each one that hears it.

In other words, God makes known to all who hear the preaching of the gospel  that He wants to save them, and that He is trying to save them.   Here we see why the error is known as the well-meant offer.  It is the teaching that God offers His grace to each one that hears the preaching, and that He means well when He does this, for He sincerely seeks the salvation and well-being of each one that hears this offer.

3. God also gives all those who hear the preached gospel sufficient grace to accept His gracious offer.

This means that God tries to save all who hear the preaching, and does so by doing the following:

First: By offering His grace to all who hear it, making known to them that He loves them and desires each one of them to accept His offer.

Secondly: By giving each one of them the sufficient grace they need to accept the offer and be saved.

4. This gracious offer of God is resistible grace.

Man, it is said, can and often does resist this grace of God, so that God often fails to accomplish that which He desires.

5. Accepting the gracious offer and believing in Christ is the condition that man must fulfill to be saved.

God has done His part.  But for a man to be saved he must not resist God’s grace, but rather accept His offer.  God will help him to fulfill this condition (as was set forth in number three above), but some of the work is left for the man himself to contribute.

Brief Refutation of These Five Statements

Because many of those who hold to this false teaching claim that they are Reformed, it will be important to refute the above five statements not only from Scripture, but also from the Reformed creeds.   If we and our children are going to grow stronger in the faith, it is very important that we learn to refute errors not only by expounding passages of Scripture, but also by referring to articles in our confessions. 

1. Regarding God’s desire

The Reformed creeds clearly maintain that God is not graciously inclined toward everyone who hears the preaching.  Article 6 of the First Head of the Canons of Dordt states what those who are truly Reformed confess, namely:

That some receive the gift of faith from God and others do not receive it proceeds from God’s eternal decree…. According to which decree He graciously softens the hearts of the elect, however obstinate, and inclines them to believe, while He leaves the non-elect in His just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy.

Thus the Reformed position is that God does not desire the salvation of everyone who hears the preaching.  A person can be saved only by God’s act of giving to that person  faith.  But it pleases God not to give faith to many who hear the preaching of the gospel. Rather, God wills to glorify His name by executing His just judgment against those whom He has decreed to leave in their sins.

This is clearly the position of Scripture.  I Peter 2:8 says that those who reject the Word and experience that Word to be a stone of stumbling do so by God’s appointment.

Furthermore, Ephesians 1:11, which was quoted by our fathers in the article from the Canons that was just quoted, states that God “worketh all things after the counsel of His will.”  If God desires to save each person who hears the preaching, and yet fails to do this, then He does not work all things after the counsel of His will. Rather, this would mean that His will is normally frustrated.

2. Regarding an offer of salvation

If God does not desire to save each one who hears the preaching, then He obviously does not express a gracious desire to the reprobate who hear it.  But there is something else wrong with this second statement.  According to this view, God in the preaching merely offers to give people a gift, but does not actually give this gift to any of them.

This wrong view of what is meant by the gift of God can be seen clearly when we consider what is meant by God’s act of giving some people faith.   If you were trying to explain to an Arminian how we differ from Arminians on the doctrine of salvation by grace alone, and if you said that they teach that faith is man’s work and we teach that faith is a gift of God, the Arminian would likely respond that he, too, maintains that faith is a gift of God.  He may even quotePhilippians 1:29 and other passages that clearly state this.  But the Arminian has an unbiblical view of what it means for God to give someone a gift.  He thinks of God as one who holds out a gift, pleading with people to accept it, whereas Scripture teaches that when God gives someone a gracious gift, He actually bestows that gift upon the person, causing him to come to life and believe.

We confess this in the Canons of Dordt:

And this is the regeneration so highly celebrated in Scripture and denominated a new creation: a resurrection from the dead, a making alive, which God works in us without our aid.  But this is in no wise effected merely by the external preaching of the gospel, by moral suasion, or such a mode of operation that after God has performed His part it still remains in the power of man to be regenerated or not, to be converted or to continue unconverted; but it is evidently a supernatural work, most powerful, … so that all in whose heart God works in this marvelous manner are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated, and do actually believe … (III & IV.12).

God does not merely offer grace to anyone.  He gives grace, and does so only to the elect.

3. Regarding the giving of sufficient grace to accept an offer

Many of those who hold to the well-meant offer teach that God not only offers the gift of salvation to everyone who hears the preaching, but also helps each one by giving him sufficient grace to accept that which is offered.  This means that God, through the preaching, improves each of those who hears the preaching.  He takes those who are not able to accept the offer, and makes them able to accept the offer, but falls short of actually causing them to accept the offer.

This third statement involves a denial of total depravity.  A totally depraved person is dead in sin.  This means that there is absolutely nothing good in him, and that therefore he is completely unable to do anything that is the least bit good.  Such a person cannot be improved.  Only something that is at least somewhat good can be improved.  That which is dead must be destroyed; it cannot be improved.

But, someone may say, we believers have sinful natures and yet can be improved.  This is true, but it is not our sinful nature that is improved.  After God regenerates us, our sinful nature is still totally depraved.  Nor is it improved by the preaching of the gospel.  It is only in the new man that we grow more to reflect the glory of God.  As believers we long not for the improvement of our sinful nature, but for the complete destruction of our sinful nature (Rom. 6:6).

By teaching that an unregenerate person can be improved by the preaching of the gospel, those who hold to the well-meant offer really deny the fundamental truth of total depravity.  They teach that there is some good, some life, in the natural man, and that God, through the preaching, helps him to make use of this good.

The Scriptures, however, teach that the preaching does the opposite of graciously helping the unregenerate.  They are referred to in II Corinthians 2:15, 16 as “those who are perishing” while they arehearing the preaching.  The preached Word to them thrusts them deeper into corruption, just as the light of the sun causes an unburied corpse more to corrupt and putrefy.

4. Regarding the resistible nature of this grace

Irresistible grace is the fourth of what are referred to as the five points of Calvinism.  Those who hold to the well-meant offer invent a new kind of grace that is resistible, and is often resisted.   But, as has already been pointed out under number one above, this would mean that God does not always accomplish His will.  Those who hold to this false teaching blatantly deny what is emphatically set forth in Isaiah 46:9, 10:

For I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me,  Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure.

Note that this passage states not merely that God can perform everything  He pleases, but that He does perform everything He pleases.

5. Regarding the teaching that faith is a condition

This last statement is explicitly condemned in our creeds, such as in Article 14 of the Third and Fourth Heads of the Canons of Dordt.  But this subject, Lord willing, will be taken up in another article.