Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Teaching of "The Well-meant Offer" of Salvation" (42)

Dear Forum Members,

In the last installment I gave a brief history of the doctrine of the gracious and well-meant gospel offer. I shall in this installment, describe what the teaching of this error is. I have used for references chiefly the following works, so that the reader can, if he wishes, look them up himself.

Louis Berkhof, De Drie Punten in Alle Deelen Gereformeerd (The Three Points, Reformed in all its Parts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1925).

K. W. Stebbins, Christ Freely Offered (Covenanter Press, 1958).

John Murray, The Free Offer of the Gospel (A copy downloaded from the internet with a foreword by R. Scott Clark. Found on R. Scott Clark blog.)

R. Scott Clark, Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel and Westminster Theology. The chapter referred to is Chapter 7 of The Pattern of Sound Doctrine, David Van Drunen, ed.

H. J. Kuiper, The Three Points of Common Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., no date).

I recognize the fact that dozens of books have been written on the question, but these books and papers mentioned above contain, in one way or another, all the basic teachings of the gracious and well-meant offer. I might add that Hugh Lindsay Williams has written (and is still writing) a thorough critique of the well-meant offer in The British Reformed Journal. These articles are a critique of David Silversides, The Free Offer: Biblical and Reformed (Marpet Press, 2005).The articles are thoroughly researched and carefully written. Copies can be obtained from Rev. Angus Stewart in Ballymena, Northern Ireland.

The following points are the chief points of the well-meant gospel offer as defined by the proponents of common grace.

First this gospel offer is part of common grace; that is, it is part of God’s attitude of favor towards all men. The first point adopted by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1924 explicitly stated this: “. . . synod declares it to be established . . . that, apart from the saving grace of God shown only to those that are 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 general offer of the gospel . . . .” In fact, almost all the Scriptural and confessional proof that was offered in support of the first point refers to this general offer of the gospel; it would seem that in the mind of synod the offer was the chief way in which God showed his favor to all men.

I remind our readers that subsequent discussions of common grace made clear that God’s attitude of favor towards the wicked includes God’s love, mercy, lovingkindness and all communicable attributes.

Second, the grace and love that God has for all men is expressed in the preaching of the gospel. The gospel must not hesitate to say to all who hear, “God loves you and is favorably inclined towards you. He is gracious and merciful towards you.”

Third, that love and favor God has towards all men and expressed in the gospel is explicitly expressed by telling people that it is God’s desire that all who hear the gospel be saved. God wants all men to be with him in heaven. His desire and will are that all men be a part of the church, which some day is destined to go to heaven.

Fourth, God expresses his desire to save all that hear the gospel by doing all that is possible for him to do to persuade man that salvation is preferable to damnation and that accepting Christ is preferable to rejecting him; that they should, therefore, hear God’s overtures of love. There is, so to speak, nothing more that God can do. If man persists in rejecting Christ proclaimed in the gospel, it is due to man’s own refusal to do what alone is good for him.

Questions arise in connection with this presentation to which various answers have been given.

One crucially important question involves the extent of the atonement. The question can be stated in this way: “What is the judicial ground of God’s favor towards the wicked? And, specifically, God’s desire to save them?” The point here is that if God loves the wicked, even though it be with a non-saving love, it must be rooted in what Christ does for men, for it cannot be grounded on man’s meriting that love. Besides, the justice of God must be satisfied: for sin is against God’s most high majesty and the debt sin incurs must be paid. Christ has paid that debt, for no man can possibly pay it. The answer to the question has been ambiguous with some saying, Yes, Christ died for all men; and others saying, No, the atonement is limited. But the very force of the relation between God’s love and favor towards all men has compelled many to say that, although Christ did not necessarily die efficaciously or effectively for all men, his atonement is sufficient for all men and its effectiveness depends on man’s response to the gospel.

Another important question that has come up, especially among Calvinists, is the harmony between God’s will to save some (the elect) and to reprobate others on the one hand, and his will that all men be saved on the other. There is evident and incontrovertible conflict between the two wills of God. In answer to this problem, some have felt free to speak of two wills in God, one will to save all, and another will to save some. Others have appealed to paradox and apparent contradiction, by which God’s “logic” is placed on a much higher level that our logic, so that what seems to us as contradictory is not contradictory in God’s thoughts.

This, e.g., is the whole argument of R. Scott Clark in an article entitled “Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel and Westminster Theology.” He writes, “This essay contends that the reason the well-meant offer has not been more persuasive is that its critics have not understood or sympathized with the fundamental assumption on which the doctrine of the well-meant offer was premised: the distinction between theology as God knows it (theolologia archetypa) and theology as it is revealed to and done by us (theologia ectypa). In making the biblical case for the claim that God reveals himself as desiring what he has not secretly willed to do, Murray and Strimple assumed this distinction which they did not articulate explicitly.”

This proposed solution is a rather fancy and Latinized way of saying that the conflict in God’s will to save the elect only and God’s will to save all men is only in our theology and not in God’s theology. God’s theology is fundamentally different from revelation and from our theology.

Yet another problem with the well-meant offer is the rather obvious conclusion that, because God desires the salvation of all men, yet not all are saved, the final decision for or against salvation rests with man. Arminians, of course, see no problem here. They insisted all along that man’s choice by his own free will is the decisive factor in salvation. But Calvinists struggle with this question, for they profess to believe that God actually works faith in the hearts of men. So, one stands perplexed over the problem of why God only works faith in the hearts of a few when his desire is to save all who hear the gospel. This too is a problem without solution, although some, once again, almost in desperation, appeal to paradox and apparent contradiction to support such a strange position. Apparent contradiction is found to be a safe haven in which to find refuge when confronted with a problem to which no answer can be found.

A charge that is consistently brought against those who repudiate such an idea as a well-meant offer is that a denial of a well-meant offer makes all evangelism impossible. The argument seems to be that one cannot go out to preach to the unchurched unless one can assure them that God loves them and on his part is longing to save them. But why? Why is evangelism dependent upon a gospel that announces God’s love for all? I have never been able to come up with any answer to this question other than to conclude that wrong ideas of evangelism have brought about some notions that God must be shown to have done all he possibly can to save sinners, but that the salvation of sinners rests on their willingness to accept God’s overtures. But this is Arminian to the core and not at all what evangelism is all about.

Much the same is true of those who label all who deny the well-meant offer as “Hyper-Calvinists.” One point that needs to be made is that it is easiest when caught up in a theological debate to escape responsible defenses of one’s position by labeling one’s opponents with an opprobrious name. When one raises objections to the whole concept of a well-meant offer, his arguments are dismissed, not by careful and Biblical counter-arguments, but by the remark, “Those people are Hyper-Calvinists.” And it is assumed that Hyper-Calvinists are dangerous people to have around and whose theological arguments are not worth weighing and considering carefully. But it works with the unwary. I have met the charge myself – repeatedly. “Oh, you deny the well-meant offer? You must be a Hyper Calvinist. I need not listen to what you have to say. Your theology is dangerous.” Such responses save a lot of time and hard work – the hard work of searching the Scriptures.

What I have said in this installment pretty much sums up the position of those who hold to a well-meant offer. I shall examine the arguments in later installments and present in a positive way the teaching of Scripture and the Reformed Confessions on the matter.

With warm regards,



  1. Theologia ectypa must be theology tainted by darkened reasoning?

  2. Part of the wonder of revelation is that God reveals Himself in the Scriptures to men whose mind is darkened. But such revelation includes the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit. The result is not the theologgica ectypa but the true knowledge of God in Jesus Christ.
    Herman Hanko