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


  1. Re the free offer of the Gospel, those who promulgate this teaching tend to also believe that the preaching of the Gospel is the means which God uses to call out His elect.

  2. The preaching of the gospel is the means God uses to save his elect (Rom. 10:13-16). This gospel is not a well-meant offer, but the "power of God unto salvation" (Rom. 1:16)