The Crux of the Free Offer of the Gospel

by | Jul 31, 2017 | Course offerings, Historical Theology, Systematic Theology

The following is Dr. Sam Waldron’s introduction to his lectures for our upcoming module:

Hyper-Calvinism & the Free Offer of the Gospel

In the historic documents which brought to its climax the confessional development sparked by the Reformation—the Westminster Confession (1644-46), the Savoy Declaration (1658), and the 1689 Baptist Confession—the free offer of the gospel is confessed in each in chapter 7 and in identical language.  The Westminster Confession and its daughter and grand-daughter confessions each speak of “the covenant of grace, wherein he freely offereth unto sinners, life and salvation by Jesus Christ.”[1]

It is both the conviction and assumption of these lectures that the crux of the doctrine of the free offer of the gospel is God’s Indiscriminate Desire for the Salvation of Sinners.  To put this in other words, at the core of the free offer of the gospel is what is called the “well-meant” offer of the gospel.  Though it may be well to speak of the “well-meant” offer of the gospel for the sake of doctrinal clarity, I am jealous to affirm here that this is both the natural and necessary implication of the “free” offer confessed by the climactic Reformation confessions.

My conviction is that the “free” offer in the confessional documents is and must be understood as a “well-meant” offer.  Though this affirmation may be defended at length (and will be by Dr. Daniel in his historical treatment in this course, it may be proper here for me to briefly mention the grounds upon which my conviction is based.  I maintain that the “free” offer in the confessional documents is and must be understood as a “well-meant” offer for a number of reasons.

  • It is, I think, the logical and necessary implication of speaking of a free offer. In fact, it seems to me that this is the implication of both the word, offer, and the word, free.  “Offer” contains in it the notion of a proposal presented to someone which the one presenting it desires for him to accept.  An offer not presented with such intent or desire would be regarded as insincere.  What man proposes marriage to a woman without a desire that she should accept his proposal?  What woman would regard such a proposal as authentic or genuine if it was not accompanied by the desire of the man for it to be accepted.  The word, free, however, emphasizes the notion of a desire that one should take the offer presented.  An offer is presented with the desire that it should be taken by the one to whom it is presented.  A “free” offer accentuates such desire and the “well-meant” character of the offer by providing an extra incentive for the proposal to be accepted.
  • That this is the meaning and implication of a “free offer” was generally recognized by the modern opponents of the free offer in the controversy over common grace in the Christian Reformed denomination in the controversy that came to its denominational culmination in 1924. The Protestant Reformed Churches denied the free offer because they properly understood that a free offer was a well-meant offer—an offer that contained common grace.  So much is this the case that Herman Hanko referencing the first point of common grace adopted by the Christian Reformed Church at the synod of 1924 and writing in the official journal of the Protestant Reformed Churches can write:

In the discussions which followed the adoption of this statement of doctrine, the reference to the free offer was often called, “het puntje van het eerste punt.”  (The main point of the first point.)  While it is our intention to deal more specifically with this question at a later date, the point we wish to make now is that a denial of the free offer of the gospel is a part of the doctrinal confession of the Protestant Reformed Churches from their very beginning.  This denial of the free offer of the gospel by the Protestant Reformed Churches has set them apart from almost every ecclesiastical fellowship.[2]

  • That by the confessional free offer was intended a well-meant offer is the necessary conclusion to be reached from the historical backdrop of the climactic Reformed confessions. The high points of this backdrop (Calvin and the Canons of Dort) teach a free and well-meant offer.  This is not the place for a detailed presentation of the evidence for this. Dr. Daniel will be providing such a presentation.  It may be good, however, to illustrate the truth of this assertion.  Perhaps the classic affirmation of the Free Offer by Calvin comes in a letter to Melancthon.  There he says:

And it cannot be attributed to hallucination, that you, a man acute and wise, and deeply versed in Scripture, confound the election of God with His promises, which are universal.  For nothing is more certain than that the gospel is addressed to all promiscuously, but that the Spirit of faith is bestowed on the elect alone, by peculiar privilege.  The promises are universal.  How does it happen, therefore, that their efficacy is not equally felt by all?  For this reason, because God does not reveal His arm to all.  Indeed, among men but moderately skilled in Scripture, this subject needs not to be discussed, seeing that the promises of the Gospel make offer of the grace of Christ equally to all; and God, by the external call, invites all who are willing to accept of salvation.[3]

  • The classic assertion of the free and well-meant offer of the gospel by the Canons of Dort comes in The Second Head of Doctrine, Article 5 and The Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine, Articles 6-8. The second reference bears comment.  In Articles 6 and 7 gospel preaching and calls given to many who are not elect are described as “grace” and “so great and so gracious a blessing.”  Article 8 then asserts, “As many as are called by the gospel, are unfeignedly called.  For God hath most earnestly and truly declared in His Word, what will be acceptable to him; namely, that all who are called, should comply with the invitation.”  If this language does not assert a free and well-meant offer, one wonders how such an idea could be stated without using the exact or precise words.

To all this needs to be added a comment about the more recent history of Reformed truth.  The resurgence of Reformed theology beginning in the 50’s and 60’s of the 20th Century can be traced in large part to Banner of Truth Trust; a Westminster Theological Seminary dominated by Cornelius Van Til and John Murray; and the revival of interest in the writing of Charles H. Spurgeon.  In so far as this is true it is right to say that this resurgence of Calvinism was committed to the free and well-meant offer of the gospel.

In spite of all this and with the blossoming of wider interest in Reformed theology, there has come a denial of the well-meant offer of the gospel in recent years.  It is this resurgence of a denial of the free and well-meant offer which has given birth in my mind to the necessity of this course and these lectures.

My lectures are not intended strictly speaking as a supplement to those of Dr. Daniel.  It seemed better for us both to follow our own track in opening up this subject.  I think we are of single mind on the subject, but perhaps such duplication as there may be between us will serve the student.  Perhaps as well, whatever differences of emphasis there may be will also be of value to the student.

Outline of Dr. Waldron’s Lectures

Part 1:  The Well-Meant Offer—Its Scriptural Exposition (from John 5:34)

Part 2:  The Well-Meant Offer—Its Biblical Confirmation

Part 3:  The Well-Meant Offer—Its Confessional Position

Section 1:  The Explicit Assertion

Section 2:  The Implicit Affirmation

Part 4:  The Well-Meant Offer—Its Doctrinal Implications

Section 1:  The Love of God

Section 2:  The Will of God

Section 3:  The Mystery of God

Part 5:  The Well-Meant Offer—Its Major Objections

Section 1:  The Objection from the Doctrine of Election

Section 2:  The Objection from the Doctrine of Simplicity

Section 3:  The Objection from the Fact of Anthropopathisms

Part 6:  The Well-Meant Offer—Its Practical Applications

Section 1:  The Warning against Rationalism

Section 2:  The Warrant of Faith

Section 3:  The Way of Preaching

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[1]This language is found in chapter 7, paragraph 2, in the 1689, but in chapter 7 paragraph 3 in the Savoy and Westminster.

[2]Herman Hanko, The History of the Free Offer, accessed on the Internet July 21, 2017  Further confirmation of the Protestant Reformed denial of the free offer of the gospel may be seen in David Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel: An Examination of the Well-Meant of the Gospel (The Reformed Free Publishing Company: Jenison, MI, 2014).

[3]Calvin, John, Selected Works of John Calvin, ed. by Henry Beveridge, trans. by Jules Bonnet (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983), vol. V, p. 379f.

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