Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Gracious Well-meant Offer (41)

Dear Forum members,

I begin with this installment a discussion of the fourth aspect of common grace, probably the most widely accepted aspect, and about which much has been written. I refer to that point of common grace that is called the gracious well-meant gospel offer. It is the doctrine that defines the gospel as an declaration from God that it is his desire to save all that hear the gospel proclaimed.

Many books have been written on the subject, and it surely is not my intention to write yet another book. We shall therefore, limit these articles to an examination of what is meant by this gracious and well-meant gospel offer, what proof is given from Scripture and the confessions in support of it, what aberrations in doctrine have resulted from it, and what is the Biblical teaching over against it.

Actually, the doctrine itself is of rather recent origin. In the form in which it is taught by many churches today, it did not appear in the preaching until the so-called Marrow Controversy that took place in Scotland in the early part of the 18th century.

This does not mean, however, that various other doctrines that are a necessary part of the doctrine of the well-meant offer have not been taught in the church for a very long time. A brief survey of the history will demonstrate this.

Until the time of the great church father, Augustine, the church with few exceptions held to the doctrine of the free will of man. The church was, of course, preoccupied with the development of the truths of the trinity and the person and natures of our Lord Jesus Christ. It had little time to give the doctrines of salvation by grace any attention. This doctrine of the free will of man was thought necessary because of the heresies of Gnosticism and Manichaeism that had troubled the church. Both these heresies had taught that matter itself, of which the creation was composed, was inherently evil. There was, therefore a certain necessity in evil. To escape this necessity of evil, the church clung to the doctrine of man’s free will.

It was not until the time of Augustine that the church took a long and hard look at the widely accepted doctrine of free will. This was occasioned by the heresy of Pelagianism. (For a detailed history of Pelagianism and its teachings see my recently published book, Contending for the Faith, available from the RFPA.) Because Pelagianism was blatantly and openly a heresy that based salvation firmly in the hands of man, Augustine developed the doctrines of grace – the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism,” although, of course, they were not called that till over 1000 years later. Augustine’s teachings were exactly like we believe today. He even explained such texts as II Timothy 2:4, II Peter 3:9, and other such texts as are used by the defenders of the gracious offer of the gospel to prove that Scripture teaches this heresy, as referring only to the elect.

When the Roman Catholic Church faced the question of sovereign grace, it waffled badly. Many in the Romish Church insisted the atoning sacrifice of Christ was for all men and that this general atonement made salvation for all men possible . The Romish Church officially adopted a Semi-Pelagian view of salvation by faith and works.

While the Arminian controversy, which arose in the Netherlands in less than 100 years after the Reformation, did not address itself specifically to the question of the gracious offer of the gospel, it did condemn two doctrines inevitably attached to and an integral part of the offer. Although all adherents of the gracious offer of the gospel will not admit it, the broadening of the extent of the atonement is necessary to maintain the error. Because man is a sinner, only Christ can earn for the sinner God’s grace. He can do this only in his suffering and death of the cross of Calvary. The relation between the gracious offer and the atonement is so compelling that most who hold to the offer also hold to the doctrine that, at least in some sense, Christ died for every one. Even John Murray, the noted Presbyterian theologian, had no hesitation in writing: “The unbelieving and reprobate in this world enjoy numerous benefits that flow from the fact that Christ died and rose again.” (John Murray, Redemption – Accomplished and Applied [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,1955] 71.) But Dordt would have no such increasing the extent of the atonement beyond the elect. (Canons 2.8).

In France, the Amyraldian heresy arose, a heresy that developed another aspect of the doctrine of the gracious offer. This heresy taught that God has two wills, one of which determines salvation only for the elect, and another will according to which God desires the salvation of all men. This heresy, rejected by the Genevan theologians, nevertheless took root in Scotland and was held by the so-called Marrow Men. They taught, not only that the gospel had to be presented in such a way that God’s desire to save all men was proclaimed, but that it was right and proper to speak of Christ as dead for all men.

Although the Marrow position was officially condemned by the Presbyterian church of Scotland, it entered the Netherlands by way of the close ecclesiastical contact between those who were concerned for the orthodoxy of the church in the Netherlands and the Marrow men. And so, this idea entered into the thinking of Dutch theologians.

When the Separation of 1834 took place under the leadership of Henry De Cock and others, the movement was divided between an orthodox wing of the Separation represented by De Cock and Van Velzen, and a weaker wing represented by Brummelkamp and Henry De Cock’s son, Helenius De Cock.

The separation from the State Church that took place 52 years later under the leadership of Abraham Kuyper was, on this point of a gracious gospel offer, sound and orthodox. In fact Kuyper himself repudiated the idea of a gospel offer in his book, Dat De Genade Particulier Is (That Grace is Particular. This book has been translated by Marvin Kamps and is available from the Reformed Free Publishing Association, under the title, Particular Grace.) This book was written by the earlier Kuyper, several years before he published his three-volume work on common or general grace. But even in this latter work he did not and would not teach a gracious offer of the gospel.

Because many of the immigrants to this country in the latter half of the 19th century were from the Separation of 1834, the idea of a gracious offer of the gospel entered into the thinking of the Christian Reformed Church. Hence, when the common grace controversy erupted in the late nineteen-teens and came to a head at the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, in 1924, the gracious gospel offer was a point at issue. The Synod included it in its decisions on common grace, although strangely enough, it was mentioned only in passing. The first point reads: “Regarding the first point, touching the favorable attitude of God toward mankind in general and not only toward the elect, synod declares that according to Scripture and the Confessions it is established, that besides the saving grace of God shown only to the elect unto eternal life, there is also a certain favor or grace of God which He shows to His creatures in general. This is evident from the Scripture passages that were quoted and from the Canons of Dordt, II, 5 and III, IV, 8, 9, where the general offer of the gospel is set forth . . .” (emphasis is mine, HH).

Yet, in spite of the fact that the “general offer of the gospel is only mentioned in passing, it became the most important part of the entire theory of common grace.

The issue was also faced by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the Forties when controversy arose between Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark over the incomprehensibility of God. In the report that was submitted to the General Assembly a section was devoted to the question of the gracious gospel offer. While this part of the report was never adopted by the OPC, it nevertheless was distributed in the churches by the General Assembly in pamphlet form. Authored by John Murray and Ned Stonehouse, it is a detailed defense of the gracious and well-meant gospel offer.

Today the doctrine has spread far and wide and its supporters from Northern Ireland to Australia. And so it has entered the thinking and theology of many churches and has driven the church into open Arminianism.

With warm regards,

Prof. Hanko

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