Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Theological Arguments Given for the "Free Offer of the Gospel" (43)

Dear Forum Members,

Before we get into the Biblical and confessional proof that was offered for the well-meant offer of the gospel, I want to say some things about the arguments that have been used to substantiate the well-meant offer as answers to theological objections which have been brought against it. These objections of a theological nature have been mentioned and described in the previous installment. They are important for our discussion, because they are the crutches used to make it possible to walk the path of a well-meant offer.

The first point that needs addressing is the claim that the well-meant offer is the testimony of God’s grace to all men. The claim itself I have addressed more than once in previous installments, but as that claim is made in connection with what has been called “the chief point of the first point” – with an obvious reference to the first point of common grace adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in 1924, I have not said anything about it.

Our readers will recall that when we were discussing the teaching that there is a grace of God shown to all men and not only to the elect, I claimed that this common grace was not intended to be limited to an outward attitude of God towards all men (although it surely includes that), but was also intended to include a subjective infusion of grace into the hearts of the unregenerate, which did not result in conversion and salvation, but which was there to enable the unregenerate to do good works pleasing in the sight of God. In the preaching of the gospel the same is true: a certain grace is conveyed to those who hear the gospel.

It is quite possible that this idea too, came from the Marrow Men of Scotland. The Marrow Men taught a certain “preparationism;” by which they meant that all who heard the gospel, were by a grace that came to all the hearers, prepared for the gospel itself and its reception. Usually it was maintained that the preaching of the law conveyed to the hearer the grace that put the sinner under the conviction of sin, so that he saw sin in himself as it really was, saw the hopelessness of his own sad condition, and saw the need for help outside himself in order to escape the just punishment of sin. But this conviction of sin did not necessarily guarantee that such a one would be saved.

One defender of the well-meant offer told me that this grace conveyed to the unregenerate enabled the person who received it to pray for regeneration. That is a powerful grace, but a prayer which, apparently, God does not always hear.

Some of the distinguishing features of preparationism can be found in Norman Petit, The Heart Prepared: Grace and Conversion in Puritan Spiritual Life (Wesleyan University Press, 1969.) The later Puritans were not so concerned with “the disparity between the regenerate and the unregenerate and with the requirement of grace as an instantaneous illumination,” the author writes; “Rather, the baptized were expected to look for the beginnings, or first ‘signs,’ of regeneration.” Petit goes on to say, “If God’s will was always omnipotent, still He looked to the inner man for the ‘new heart’ required in the new covenant. If God alone sought out those to be taken, man had always to ‘choose’ God by entering the covenant voluntarily. And as the more English Puritans turned toward voluntarism, the higher became their conception of baptism, with greater possibilities for man’s doing something of his own” (13)

Thus the Puritans made room for man’s own work in salvation. “The preparationists maintain that contrition and humiliation were not in themselves saving graces but preliminary steps, and that while God takes away all resistance, this cannot be done without man’s consent” (18). “God’s mercy could be denied in the end. The prepared heart, while a necessary prerequisite to the conversion experience, was no guarantee of salvation. The lost soul could be left in utter confusion, between preparation and conversion, in ‘horror of heart, anguish and perplexity of spirit,’ even in the ‘very flames of hell’” (19).

More and more the emphasis in Puritan thought fell on man’s work. Petit writes, “With Hildersam (a Puritan theologian of great influence who lived 1536 – 1632, HH), in fact, the steps leading up to effectual conversion were given full elaboration for the first time. Beginning with the work of the Law in the external call, he alluded to the covenant promises themselves and emphasized throughout what man must ‘do’ before conversion. Ever careful to insist that regeneration ‘to speak properly be the mighty work of God,’ he nevertheless proclaimed that ‘we may ourselves do much in this work, yea . . . we must be doers in it ourselves or else it will never be well done’” (57, 58).

Still describing Hilversam’s position, the author goes on to say, “Hilversam does not commit himself on the efficacy of the preparatory states themselves. This point is also unclear in Rogers, where man in preparation is considered neither to have faith nor to be entirely ‘without it.’ In effect, Puritan divines had yet to take a clear stand on man’s spiritual status in the preparatory phase. If a reprobate, could man desire grace as well as fear the Law? Or are all desires God-given, indicating some kind of regenerative condition? Few Puritans, if any, could offer a satisfactory solution; but of those who tried, William Perkins was perhaps the most articulate of his age.” (61).

This notion became the ground for the emphasis that was placed in the preaching to urge the hearer to close with Christ, a plea that was filled with tenderness, pathos, and with the assurances that God truly desired the salvation of the sinner. And this subjective grace, worked in the hearts of the hearers by the preaching, put the hearer in a position to accept or reject the gospel offer. Especially the Marrow Men in the early 18th century emphasized this aspect of the preaching.

It is of passing interest that this same idea is present in the theology of those who hold to a conditional covenant. Their claim is that all who are baptized receive the promise of God that they will be saved, on condition of faith. But all at baptism also receive covenantal grace, by which they are enabled to make their decision.

So also the well-meant gospel offer is gracious, that is, it actually bestows grace on the sinner; not saving grace but grace sufficient for a man to choose between accepting or rejecting the gospel.

There is no evidence in Scripture or the confessions that God gives such a grace to all who hear the gospel. In fact, our Canons sharply repudiated the notion of a conviction of sin brought about by the gospel: “The synod rejects the errors of those who teach that the unregenerate man is not really nor utterly dead in sin, nor destitute of all powers unto spiritual good, but that he can yet hunger and thirst after righteousness and life, and offer the sacrifice of a contrite and broken spirit, which is pleasing to God” (Canons, 3/4.B.4).

The whole concept of a subjective grace is Arminian. I know full well that those who want to maintain their Calvinistic credentials appeal to the fact that the final decision to accept Christ is due to the special grace of God; but this is like tipping one’s hat in God’s direction to acknowledge his presence, while ignoring him in fact as one goes his way down Arminian paths. God, in doing all he can do to persuade man to accept Christ, even goes so far as to give him grace by which he can accept Christ, but which grace does not guarantee salvation. When one adds to this the essential idea of the well-meant offer, namely that God earnestly desires the salvation of the sinner, then one has been caught in the quicksand of Arminian free-willism.

The question of the extent of Christ’s atonement is crucial to any discussion of the well-meant offer. Theologians have proposed different solutions to the problem of the relationship between a well-meant gospel offer and the question: For whom did Christ die? Calvinists who held to limited atonement frequently refused to face the question and simply tried to maintain both a limited atonement and a general or universal desire on God’s part to save all men. But this proved impossible. Grace, whether common or particular, is unmerited favor. Somewhere, somehow that grace shown to reprobate people had to have some judicial basis in God’s own being if God’s justice was to be maintained. Grace cannot be justly given to unworthy sinners unless God’s justice is satisfied. And so gradually the idea of a universalizing of the atonement crept into the churches, which held to a well-meant offer.

The Calvinistic Church in Wales finally drifted into a universal atonement because of the pressure of those who held to a well-meant gospel offer and charged all who denied it with the charge: Hyper-Calvinism. The Christian Reformed Church, because of its adoption of a well-meant offer, was forced in the 60’s to face the question of the extent of the atonement. I was present at the synod when the discussion was being carried on and there were those who opposed widening the effects of the atonement. But a stop was put to the debate by one speaker who said, in a fairly lengthy speech, Brethren, we believe in a well-meant offer, do we not? How is it then that we can deny that in some important ways Christ died for all men? As I recall, the three key words that were used to define a universal atonement were: intention, availability and sufficiency. Efficacy was denied and limited to the people of God.

The pressure put on the importance of the question of the extent of the atonement arose out of the simple question: “Can God, without hypocrisy, offer men what is not available?” It would surely be hypocrisy on my part to offer everyone who came to my front door $100.00, if I only had about $100.00 available to me.

But it is the question of the sufficiency of the gospel that attracted the most support, and most defenders were willing to base the well-meant gospel offer on the sufficiency of the atonement for all. This probably was due to the fact that the Canons of Dordt speak of the universal sufficiency of the atonement. The Canons say: “The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin, and is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world’ (Canons 2.3).

That the Canons do not intend to teach a universal atonement is evident from what the confession says a bit later in the same chapter: “For this was the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect . . . that is, that it was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross . . . should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language all those, and those only (emphasis is mine HH) who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given Him by the Father. . .” (Canons 2.8).

We shall have to examine this question of sufficiency further, but at a later time.

With warm regards,


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