Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Is the "free offer of the gospel" taught in the Canons of Dordt? (48)

Dear forum members,

In the one installment before the last I put to rest the false notion that our knowledge of God, which is apparently contradictory, is in God’s mind perfectly harmonious. Such an idea as this does two serious and destructive things to our knowledge of God. First, it results in theological agnosticism; that is, we cannot really know who and what God is and what is the nature of his mighty works. Second, we cannot know him with that saving knowledge of which Jesus speaks in his high-priestly prayer: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3).

In this installment, we turn to a consideration of the proof for a gracious and well-meant offer of the gospel that comes to all men to express God’s universal love and divine intention to save all who hear the gospel. It is my intention to treat first the confessional proof offered.

The Christian Reformed Church (CRC), which officially adopted the three points of common grace and made it binding on all members of the church, appealed especially to two articles in the Reformed confessions. Only two quotes from the confessions were given. The first is Canons 2.5, which reads: “Moreover, the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have everlasting life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel”

It is not clear how the CRC found even the suggestion of a gracious and well-meant gospel offer in this article. There is no mention of any kind of a grace that comes to all who hear the gospel; even though such a “common grace” is a part of the offer. It is possible that the CRC meant by appeal to this article that the word “promise” actually means “offer,” but it is hard to imagine that intelligent men would confuse “promise” with “offer.” The two are very different. It is more likely that the CRC found in the word “command” the idea of an offer. The article reads: “This promise (that God will save believers, HH) together with the command to repent and believe. . . ,” means that “This promise, together with the offer of salvation that man repent and believe . . . ,” was in the minds of those who established the offer as confessional doctrine. This interpretation would be supported by the fact that the article says: [The promise and command of the gospel] “ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons . . . .” In other words, that the command and promise of the gospel ought to be proclaimed to all the world means that the gospel is an offer to all men stating most emphatically that God loves them all and desires their salvation.

But the teaching of this article is clear and unambiguous. The preceding article speaks of the perfect sacrifice for sin by the eternal Son of God who came into our flesh to atone for sin. This article presupposes therefore, that Christ’s atonement is the content of the gospel. And Christ’s atonement is not made for everyone, but as Article 8 states emphatically: “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, it was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross . . . should effectually redeem . . . all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father. . .”

That gospel of Christ crucified contains this promise: “That whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have everlasting life” . The gospel proclaims that believers, and only believers in Christ crucified will be saved.

It has been argued that the wording of the promise makes believing or faith a condition to salvation. That is, it has been argued that the gospel is proclaimed requiring faith as a condition of its fulfillment. Thus, man by his own power believes. When he believes he is saved. Thus faith is the condition man must fulfill in order to be saved.

But this is not the intent of the Canons. Article 8, part of which we quoted above, also includes the following statement: “. . . It was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross . . . should effectually redeem . . . all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father; that He should confer upon them faith . . .” (Ibid). This is in harmony with what the Canons state in 1.6: “That some receive the gift of faith from God and others do not receive it proceeds from God’s eternal decree . . .”

The promise of the gospel is that God saves those who believe in Christ; and faith, the power by which men believe and are saved, is given through the power of the cross of Christ.

One may wonder why the article phrases the promise in the way that it does. The reason is that the article, as Scripture does, looks at the whole salvation of Christ as the conscious experience of the elect believer. Faith is brought to consciousness by the gospel. That faith lays hold on Christ set forth by the gospel, and lay hold on him only. Clinging to Christ alone the believer has salvation consciously as his own possession.

At the same time, the gospel also contains “the command to repent and believe” I hope to discuss this more in detail a bit later. Now, I only call attention to the fact that the command of God to man to repent and believe is a part of the gospel, accompanies the promise of the gospel, and is crucial for the preaching of the gospel. The command, as far as its contents are concerned, is serious. God means what he says. When he commands men to repent, he means that it is his will that men repent. Further, to repent of sin means also to believe. The act of believing that God commands is faith in Christ. That is, not simply a historical faith, which confesses that Christ is indeed the one who accomplished salvation, but faith that personally lays hold on Christ for one’s self as being God’s only way of salvation

It is at this point that the defenders of a gracious offer of the gospel find their justification for teaching that God wants all men to be saved. And it is here that these same defenders of common grace find ground for two wills in God: one will to save only the elect, and another will that seriously desires of all men that they forsake sin and believe in Christ.

Some will say, If God’s will and purpose is to save only the elect (Art. 8) and it is also God’s will that all men repent of sin and believe in Christ, is it not true that God has two wills that contradict each other?

I do not want to enter into this question in detail at this point. It is not a new question, for Calvin already discussed it in his Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God. There will be ample opportunity to discuss the question when we come to deal with various passages of Scripture that are appealed to as proof of the gracious, well-meant gospel offer. It is sufficient here to point out that God’s command to repent and believe is not rooted in, nor does it imply, God’s desire to save all men. The command to repent and believe rests in man’s original creation, in which man was created able to keep God’s law perfectly. That he fell from this lofty position into sin is not God’s fault, but man’s own sin. God, however, maintains his just demands on man. God cannot and will not simply overlook sin and excuse man for his failure to obey God. The gospel confronts man with the horror of his sin and insists that man forsake it
The figure has been correctly used of a man who contracts with a builder to build him a house. At the builder’s request, the cost of the house is given before building begins. But the builder takes that money and goes with his wife on a round-the-world cruise. Upon his return, the man who advanced the builder the money insists that now the builder build his house. The builder cannot successfully hide behind his inability to buy the materials needed. He was given the means to build the house; he failed, but he remains responsible for building that house. His inability does not free him from his responsibility.

Finally, the article (2.5) teaches that the promise of the gospel along with the command to repent of sin and believe in Christ must be preached throughout the world. Even here a limitation is included: “. . . ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.”
This promiscuous proclamation of the gospel is necessary, first, because God gathers a church from all the nations of the earth; and, second, because in the judgment day the crucial question, addressed to all nations, will be: “What did you do with Christ?” On the basis of the answer to this question they will be judged.

With warmest greetings,
Prof Hanko

Monday, November 15, 2010

Two Charges Against Deniers of a "Free Offer" (47)

Dear Forum members,

There are two more charges that are brought against those who deny that a gracious offer of the gospel is taught in either the Scriptures or the confessions.

The first charge is that those who deny the gospel offer cannot perform evangelism. This is a strange charge, but it is frequently made. The assumption is that a church cannot do evangelistic work unless the church believes that God gives all who hear the gospel grace in their hearts to accept or reject Christ, that he loves all men and that this universal love is possible because Christ died for all men. Basically, the charge is that a Calvinist cannot do evangelistic work, but one must be Arminian in his theology to do true evangelism.

We should put it the other way around: The fact is that no Arminian is able to do evangelistic work; only a Calvinist is able to keep the command of Christ to go into all the world and preach the gospel.

It has never been clear to me why this charge is made against those who deny a gracious and well-meant offer. Why does one have to tell all men that God loves them if evangelism is to be effective? The only answer I can think of is that the preacher must preach a gospel that tries to persuade a man to accept Christ, something which man has the power to do. And that is Arminianism.

That is not the description of the preaching of the gospel that Scripture gives us. Paul writes in Romans 1: 16 that the gospel is “the power of God” unto salvation. The idea is surely that God works through the gospel and is pleased to use the gospel to save those who were ordained unto eternal life. But God saves, not man. The power of the gospel is in God’s work, not the work of man. This is Paul’s contention in I Corinthians 2:5, II Corinthians 10:3, 4. No wooing is necessary; no persuasion is required. God saves irresistibly by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the elect. All that the preacher is called to do is proclaim the whole counsel of God by preaching Christ crucified.

The Canons of Dordrecht also oppose such nonsense. Instead of the word “persuading,” which I used above, the Canons uses the word “advising” to describe the Arminian error. The article is found in the Rejection of Errors 3/4, 7, where the Canons rejects the error of those who teach “that the grace whereby we are converted to God is only a gentle advising, or (as others explain it) that this is the noblest manner of working in the conversion of man, and that this manner of working, which consists in advising, is most in harmony with man’s nature and that there is no reason why this advising grace alone should not be sufficient to make the natural man spiritual, indeed, that God does not produce the consent of the will except through this manner of advising; and that the power of the divine working, whereby it surpasses the working of Satan, consists in this, that God promises eternal, while Satan promises only temporal goods. But this is altogether Pelagian and contrary to the whole Scripture which, besides this, teaches yet another and far more powerful and divine manner of the Holy Spirit’s working in the conversion of man, as in Ezekiel: a new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:26). ” (__________, The Confessions and the Church Order to the Protestant Reformed Churches [Protestant Reformed Churches, 2005] 172)

But there is more. The Scriptures also teach that the preaching of the gospel has a two-fold power: the power to save, but also the power to harden. Already in the Old Testament, the prophet was called to utter these words: For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (Is. 55:10,11). This figure is picked up in the New Testament in Hebrews 6, in which passage the author is explaining the reason for the unforgivable sin. He writes: “For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God: But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned.” (Heb. 6:7-8,).

Paul makes this two-fold effect of the gospel explicit when he writes: “Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things? For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ” (II Cor. 2:14-17).

It is impossible to fit into that verse anything that even resembles the gracious and well-meant gospel offer.

One more charge must be considered: I speak of the charge that all who deny the gracious and well-meant offer are called “Hyper-Calvinists.” This is rather silly, because never so far as I know has a reason been given why those who deny the heresy of the well-meant gospel offer are Hyper-Calvinists. But the charge sticks and many in America and overseas, especially in the British Isles, have picked up the term.

In a way, it is a lazy man’s method of argumentation. To find an opprobrious name and to label someone with it is a far easier way to refute someone’s position than to show carefully and fully why one is wrong in what he does or teaches. To label one a Hyper-Calvinist who shows carefully that the gracious and well-meant gospel offer is contrary to Scripture seems to relieve one of the more difficult task of showing from Scripture that Scripture indeed teaches a grace of God towards all men in the preaching of the gospel.

But as is true of all labels and opprobrious names, this one too is spurious. The church is plagued by Hyper-Calvinists. I myself have debated in correspondence with and lost the friendship of those who are adamant in their Hyper-Calvinistic position. Hyper-Calvinists teach that the gospel, especially the command of the gospel to repent from sin and believe in Christ, is for the elect only. They deny, therefore, the words of Jesus, “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14). They do not deal honestly with such passages as Proverbs 8:1-6: “Doth not wisdom cry? And understanding put forth her voice? She standeth in the top of high places, by the way in the places of the paths. She crieth at the gates, at the entry of the city, at the coming in at the doors. Unto you, O men, I call; and my voice is to the sons of man. O ye simple, understand wisdom: and ye fools, be ye of an understanding heart. Hear; for I will speak of excellent things . . .”

There are many other passages of a similar kind. One can find a detailed discussion of this subject in David Engelsma’s book, Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel.

It is Biblical and Reformed to teach that the gospel is and must be promiscuously proclaimed. Christ’s command is to go into all the world and teach all nations (Matt. 28:19). That preaching of the gospel must include the promise of God to save all those who believe, and the command to all who hear the gospel to repent of their sins and believe in Christ.

There is a world of difference between an offer and a command. God does not offer salvation, give grace to a depraved sinner that he may make a choice, and then await the man’s decision. He commands to man to repent of sin and believe in Christ. It is an obligation laid on everyone to turn from one’s evil way and serve God. It is so much an obligation that to disobey warrants punishment in hell. Disobedience to God’s command is deadly.

The obligation to repent of sin rests upon man in spite of his total depravity. The proponents of common grace are sufficiently intelligent to see that a totally depraved man cannot obey the command, nor can he accept the offer of salvation. A general grace has to be introduced; a grace that makes it possible for a totally depraved man to accept or reject what is proclaimed in the gospel and offered to him.

Underneath lies the problem: How can God demand of a man that which he is incapable of doing? How can God require man to repent of sin when he is totally depraved and incapable of obeying God’s command? How can he believe in Christ when faith is a gift of God and God gives faith only to those whom he has elected?

The Hyper-Calvinist says: “God doesn’t do this. He does not demand of man that which he cannot do” The gracious-offer man says: “God would be unjust in demanding of man that which he is incapable of doing. Therefore, God really wants him to be saved, but permits the choice to be man’s choice, and he gives grace so that his total depravity is mitigated and he can make the choice.” The Reformed man says, without hesitation, “Yes, God demands of man that which He cannot do. That is Biblical and Confessional teaching. “Doth not God then do injustice to man, by requiring from him in His law that which he cannot perform? Not at all, for God made man capable of performing it; but man, by the instigation of the devil, and his own willful disobedience, deprived himself and all his posterity of those divine gifts” (________, Confessions, 86 Heidelberg Catechism q & a 9).

Two points are made here. The first is that the fall of Adam is our responsibility, for Adam sinned as our federal head. We turned our backs on God and his command – in Adam. The second is that God does not simply forget his just demands of man. He cannot do that and remain just – any more than a bank may excuse a mortgage holder from making his payments on the mortgage. The house-owner’s own profligacy does not excuse him from his monthly payments.

And so the command continues to come to man to repent of his sin, forsake his evil way and live in obedience to God.

To believe in Christ is for sinful man the way to escape his depravity and be saved from his sin. Of course, man cannot believe any more than he can repent. Repentance brings him necessarily to Christ and faith in Christ. Hence the command is to repent and to believe in Christ. Both are part of one command.

But Hyper-Calvinists we are not.

With warmest regards,


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Further reflection on the "knowledge of God." - (46)

Dear Forum members,

Before we go on in our discussion of the gracious and well-meant gospel offer, I want to go back briefly to Clark’s distinction between knowledge as it is in God and knowledge as we receive it. R. Scott Clark calls this the difference between theologia archetypa and theologia ectypa, a distinction that, in Scott’s opinion, solves the apparent contradiction between knowledge as it is in God (God’s decree to save only his people) and knowledge of God that we possess (God’s desire to save all men).

The Latin terms may give a sense of learning to the argument and persuade others by some superior language found only in the Latin, but the fact is that the English words mean something quite different. According to my trusty Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, confirmed by Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, the English word archetype means “original” and the English word ectype means “copy.”

Now, I do not think that it would be proper to call our knowledge of God a “copy” of God’s knowledge of Himself. Our knowledge of God is the knowledge of fellowship and friendship. It is like the knowledge to learn about my knowledge I have of my wife; and Scripture confirms that I have God’s full consent to use the analogy of marriage. Nor must we forget this when we talk of the knowledge of God. Scripture makes it very clear that our knowledge of God is of such a kind that the same word can be used for it as is used for Adam and Eve, when Adam “Knew” his wife Eve and she conceived and bore a son (Gen. 4:1).

The wicked have a certain knowledge of God as well, acquired through God’s speech in creation (Rom. 1:18ff.) But this knowledge is very limited, although accurate. They know, Paul says, that God is God and that he alone must be served. This is not a knowledge different from what God has in himself and of himself; if it were, the wicked would have an excellent excuse for not serving him (Rom. 1:20). They will not be able to say in the judgment: “We had only ectypal knowledge of thee and did not know that thou art the only God.”

But the knowledge that the believer has is saving knowledge, knowledge of covenant fellowship. With God, knowledge that sets free, knowledge that saves. But it is impossible to imagine that such knowledge could be intimate and covenantal if it involved contradictions. If I may carry the analogy of the knowledge of my wife into the context of the well-meant gospel offer, the intimate knowledge of our marriage would be impossible. She told me that she loved me and wanted to be married to me and to live with me in the intimacy of marriage. But she told me also that, in some sort of different way, which I could not comprehend, she loved other men as well and desired to be married to them. This sort of thing would make the knowledge of the intimacy of marriage impossible – even if she said to me, (as some defenders of the well-meant gospel offer say): “My love for other men is different from my love for you. It is not contradictory, as you seem to think, but you are not capable of understanding why it is not contradictory.” I assure you, that would do little to relieve my concern – if “concern” is a strong enough word.

But, supposing that we use the ideas of “original” and “copy” for a moment. If God’s knowledge of Himself is original (as it is) and our knowledge of God is a copy, the copy is like the original in many respects or it is not a copy. If the copy says that God loves his people as elect, but God loves all men in his desire to save them, then the original has to say that too, or the copy is no more a copy. In other words, if the copy says things not found in the original, it is not a copy.

To say that the copy has problems and contradictions in it that the original does not have is to say that we do not have a copy at all, and that we cannot tell what the original says. We are incapable of saying anything about the original. We cannot say anything about God from the knowledge we have in Scripture. We are theological agnostics; and the knowledge of God as our God is forever impossible – even in heaven. Even in heaven, I say, for our knowledge of God that we shall have in heaven is the same as it is now in all respects. We know God always and only through Christ. The difference is only that now we know Christ through a mirror darkly (I Cor. 12:13), but presently we shall know him face to face.

But again our knowledge that we have through a mirror darkly is not and cannot be contradictory and therefore inaccurate. If I am shaving in front of the mirror and see my wife behind me, I do not expect that by turning around and seeing who is behind me, it will be another person than my wife. When we turn around in heaven, throw away the mirror, and see Christ face to face, and God in Christ, we will not say (thank God) I had an entirely wrong knowledge of you while I was in the world. I thought you said in the mirror, “I love not only you, but all men.” And the answer would come to us in heaven, “Your knowledge of me while you were on earth was only theologia ectypa and not theologia archetypa. We ought to be very thankful that that is not the case. Can you imagine a martyr willing to die for his knowledge of Christ when it is only theologia ectypa? I would not be prepared to do that. I will gladly and willingly die for one who is my Friend, who has cared for me, saved me from the wreck I made of my own life, and will take me into his own covenant life. I cannot imagine myself dying for a god of whom I know nothing, much less whether he truly loves me, when he loves everybody, even those who kill me and who go to hell.

No, the distinction will do nothing to solve the problem, but it will only rob us of the knowledge of our God through Jesus Christ, a knowledge that is more than life to us.

* * * *

I called attention to the fact in an earlier installment that the well-meant gospel offer was inevitably Arminian. We must give some attention to this, although the charge is so obvious that it does not require much discussion.

We must bear in mind that the well-meant gospel offer insists that it is God’s desire to save all men and that he provides the grace necessary for man to make a decision for or against the gospel. This is Arminian on the very surface of it. Nothing can alter that conclusion and no arguments can gainsay this inevitable charge.

God either desires the salvation of all men or he does not. One of the two has to be true. If he does not, the well-meant gospel offer is false; if he does, one is forced to explain why not all are saved. a god that is unable to accomplish what he desires is a god who leaves the final decision of salvation to the sinner. If that is not true, then all knowledge of God is impossible, and we are left bereft of our assurance of salvation.

I am aware of the attempts that have been made to escape this difficulty, but we have examined these attempts, chiefly the one I discussed in the first part of this installment and in the installment previous to this one, and have found it, after being weighed in the balances, to be wanting.

That the well-meant offer of the gospel leads to Arminianism is a fact of Scripture. There are pretended Calvinists who in their defense of the well-meant offer, have denied reprobation. It is interesting to ask a defender of the offer whether he believes in reprobation, and his answer will be either, “Yes, but we have nothing to do with it, for it belongs to the hidden things of God,” or, “No, I do not believe in sovereign reprobation, but only such reprobation as God’s rejection and punishment of those who reject the gospel.

More and more, defenders of the well-meant offer argue for a universal atonement, at least in some sense of the word. But the fact is simply this: Christ died for the elect, or Christ died for everyone. If God makes salvation available to everyone, Christ died for everyone. No theological squirming can avoid this choice.

The well-meant offer is accompanied by preparatory grace. As I pointed out in an earlier installment, such preparationism, already among the Puritans, put emphasis on man’s contribution to salvation and thrust into man’s hands some of the responsibility for his ultimate salvation. But as one farmer said to Henry De Cock, minister of the Reformed Church in Ulrum, the Netherlands, and leader of the Separation of 1834, “Reverend, if I had to contribute one sigh to my salvation, I would be forever lost.” “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” Eph. 2:8, 9).

A striking example of the Arminianism of the gracious and well-meant gospel offer is a decision of the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church last summer. An appeal was brought to Synod, which appealed a decision of a classis. This classical decision exonerated a prominent minister in the CRC who taught a universal atonement of Christ, a universal love of God, and a free-will in man, upon the choice of which depended a man’s salvation. The synod also exonerated him without any discussion. (You can find an analysis of the decision in the October 1 issue of the Standard Bearer. The Standard Bearer can be found on the Protestant Reformed website.)

All five points of Calvinism are lost. Man is no longer totally depraved; he is the object of God’s grace. Grace is resistible because the grace of preparationism can be used to reject the gospel; salvation is never certain, because final salvation depends on the faithfulness of the one who has, by his power, accepted the offer of the gospel.

There is no amount of semantic or theological legerdemain that can extricate someone from this morass.

With warm greetings in the Lord,

Prof Hanko