12 June, 2016


Rev. Herman Hoeksema

Chapter 4: More from Calvin

We already remarked that we were happy when we noticed that in his articles the Rev. Keegstra appealed to Calvin in support of his proposition that the preaching of the Gospel is a general, well-meant offer of grace on God’s part which comes to all men who come under the Gospel and under the sound of the preaching. For not only did we then have opportunity to correct the quotation from Calvin by the Rev. Keegstra and to complete it, but we were also unexpectedly furnished an opportunity to demonstrate still further that such a presentation indeed does not come from the great reformer of Geneva. In this chapter, therefore, we furnish the reader with more of Calvin’s thoughts on this subject.

We quote from Calvin’s Calvinism, a work of Calvin which we value highly, because Calvin wrote it during a later period of his life than his Institutes. It is to be expected that then he had more light concerning various questions than when he wrote his Institutes.2 We understand very well that this is not always true. It can very well be that a writer or leader is more orthodox in an earlier period of his life than in a later period. But in such a case there is change and departure in such a writer. And this there never was in Calvin. Principally he had no change of convictions after he, already at a very youthful age, had embraced and learned to love the cause of the Reformation. Indeed, he received more light concerning various difficult questions according as he searched the Scriptures and studied things. When he wrote his Institutes, he was still very young. When he wrote what now have been published in Calvin’s Calvinism, he was much older. Besides, the latter work was written by him precisely as a defense of the doctrine of the sovereign grace of God over against the opponents of that fundamental truth. Therefore we attach much value to this work.

We have quoted from this work on an earlier occasion, when we drew a comparison between the doctrine of Calvin, on the one hand, and that of Berkhof and H.J. Kuiper on the other hand.3 But this little work was written in the English language. And many of our people who like to investigate the truth of God and learn to understand it do not read English. We were all the more happy, therefore, that the Rev. Keegstra unexpectedly furnished us the opportunity to point also in Dutch to what Calvin has to say on this subject.

Calvin writes, p. 98ff.:

All this Pighius (one of the deniers of predestination and a proponent of the doctrine of free will, who was opposed by Calvin, HH) loudly denies, adducing that passage of the apostle (I Tim. 2:4): “Who will have all men to be saved;” and, referring also to Ezek. 18:23, he argues thus, “That God willeth not the death of a sinner,” may be taken upon His own oath, where He says by that prophet, “As I live, saith the Lord, I have no pleasure in the wicked that dieth; but rather that he should return from his ways and live.” Now we reply, that as the language of the prophet here is an exhortation to repentance, it is not at all marvellous in him to declare that God willeth all men to be saved. For the mutual relation between threats and promises shows that such forms of speaking are conditional. In this same manner God declared to the Ninevites and to the kings of Gerar and Egypt, that He would do that which, in reality, He did not intend to do, for their repentance averted the punishment which He had threatened to inflict upon them. Whence it is evident that the punishment was denounced on condition of their remaining obstinate and impenitent. And yet, the denunciation of the punishment was positive, as if it had been an irrevocable decree. But after God had terrified them with the apprehension of His wrath, and had duly humbled them as not being utterly desperate, He encourages them with the hope of pardon, that they might feel that there was yet left open a space for remedy. Just so it is with respect to the conditional promises of God, which invite all men to salvation. They do not positively prove that which God has decreed in His secret counsel, but declare only what God is ready to do to all those who are brought to faith and repentance.

But men untaught of God, not understanding these things, allege that we hereby attribute to God a twofold or double will. Whereas God is so far from being variable, that no shadow of such variableness appertains to Him, even in the most remote degree. Hence Pighius, ignorant of the Divine nature of these deep things, thus argues: “What else is this but making God a mocker of men, if God is represented as really not willing that which He professes to will, and as not having pleasure in that in which He in reality has pleasure?” But if these two members of the sentence be read in conjunction, as they ever ought to be“I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked;” and, “But that the wicked turn from his way and live”read these two propositions in connection with each other, and the calumny is washed off at once. God requires of us this conversion, or “turning away from our iniquity,” and in whomsoever He finds it He disappoints not such an one of the promised reward of eternal life. Wherefore, God is as much said to have pleasure in, and to will, this eternal life, as to have pleasure in the repentance; and He has pleasure in the latter, because He invites all men to it by His Word. Now all this is in perfect harmony with His secret and eternal counsel, by which He decreed to convert none but His own elect. None but God’s elect, therefore, ever do turn from their wickedness. And yet, the adorable God is not, on these accounts, to be considered variable or capable of change, because, as a Law-giver, He enlightens all men with the external doctrine of conditional life. In this primary manner He calls, or invites all men unto eternal life. But, in the latter case, He brings unto eternal life those whom He willed according to His eternal purpose, regenerating by His Spirit, as an eternal Father, His own children only.

Now the reader must understand that the importance of this quotation consists precisely in this: that it contains an explanation of a text which is usually quoted as a proof for the proposition of a general and well-meant offer of grace and salvation to all men on God’s part. The Synod of 1924 did this, as is well-known, in support of the first of the famed Three Points. Keegstra also does this in De Wachter.

Oh, thus men reason, it is so plainly stated that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, is it not? Who can do violence to this? It does not say that God has no pleasure in the death of the “elect” sinner, but it speaks altogether in the general of the sinner. How can one drag election in here? No, here you have a clear proof of the calling of the minister to proceed from the position of a general and well-meant offer of grace and salvation. No one can contradict that, He who nevertheless does contradict it does not want to accept Scripture, but wants to drag into the Scriptures his own presentation. And men do not at all understand that if this is the meaning of the text in Ezekiel, we must not only draw the conclusion that there is a general, well-meant offer of grace and salvation, but we must concede the correctness of the entire doctrine of Arminius.

This ought to be plain in any event.

Ezekiel 18:23 does not speak of a general offer; the text simply speaks of what God wills. The text does not say that God offers something to the sinnerit merely says what God wants. It indicates simply wherein God delights. He has no pleasure in the death of the sinner. Now do not read this in its context. Do not read it in the context of the whole of Scripture. Do not limit it in a single respect. Read here that God has no delight in the death of any sinner, that He wills to save all without distinction. And what do you have then? A general offer of salvation? Not at all! Then you simply have the doctrine of Arminius: that God wills that all men shall be saved. For God does not say here that He offers something; He says simply what He wills.

But does Calvin explain this text as those who want a general offer of grace and salvation?

Absolutely not.

No, he says, there is no conflict here with God’s eternal and unchangeable counsel of election.

You must also pay attention to the last clause of the text. And then you must take both clauses together and understand them in connection with one another.

And if you do that, so writes Calvin, then you have no general and well-meant offer of grace and salvation on God’s part; then God does not say here to all men that He wants to save them. But then you have here the general proclamation of a particular Gospel. The second clause in the text, thus Calvin says, limits the promise of life to those who turn from their wicked way. God does not simply say in general that He has delight in the life of all the wicked, but in the conversion and life of the sinner. Life and conversion belong together, can never be separated. But that conversion is not the work of man. On the contrary, it is the work of God alone; and He works it only in His elect. Hence, the entire text is also particular in its entire content. God has pleasure in the life of those wicked who turn. But He does not bestow that conversion on all, but only on His elect children. The conclusion is plain: He lays upon the prophet the obligation to proclaim to all a particular, a conditional Gospel.

Such is the explanation of Calvin.

If he had anywhere spoken of a general, well-meant offer of grace, he would have done it in connection with this text.

He could have answered Pighius, as in our day it has become a common occurrence: this is a mystery, Pighius, these are the two tracks. You must not try to comprehend things. You must simply accept the fact that there is, on the one hand, a well-meant offer of salvation which on God’s part comes to all men, and, on the other hand, that God nevertheless does not will that all shall be saved. This is what men do today. But Calvin did not do this. He must have nothing of such a double will in God. Therefore he furnishes an altogether different interpretation of Ezekiel 18:23 from that which is given today.

What Calvin’s interpretation of this aspect of the truth was becomes still clearer from the following, pp. 100ff.:

It is quite certain that men do not “turn from their evil ways” to the Lord of their own accord, nor by any instinct of nature. Equally certain is it that the gift of conversion is not common to all men; because this is that one of the two covenants which God promises that He will not make with any but with His own elect people, concerning whom He has recorded His promise that “He will write His law in their hearts” (Jer. 31:33). Now, a man must be utterly beside himself to assert that this promise is made to all men generally and indiscriminately. (Italics added).

This is surely something other than a general offer of grace and salvation to all men. This promise of the Gospel, that God will write His law in our hearts, says Calvin, is not for all men. No, anyone must be beside himself to assert this.

It is important that we pause to point this out.

What do they mean who so readily speak of a general offer of salvation to all men, well-meant on God’s part? What do they really mean with the Gospel? What do they proclaim?

In general, they mean by this that the Lord Jesus came, died for sinners, shed His blood for a ransom for sinners, is risen, and that now there is forgiveness and salvation in His blood. And now He is offered by God, in the preaching of the Gospel, to all who hear. Come to Jesus, such is the call.

Thus, then, the Gospel is proclaimed.

But is that really the Gospel? Is that really the full proclamation of the salvation which is in Jesus Christ?

No! The bare proclamation of that which the Saviour has done for us, when He suffered and died and arose from the dead, is only half of the truth. Even conceived of apart from the fact that someone always proclaims only a half-truth if he preaches that Jesus has died for sinners, without adding that He has merited reconciliation only for the elect, such a proclamation of the Gospel is also very defective because to the full proclamation of the Gospel belongs not only what Jesus has done for us, but no less what He does in us. I have in view regeneration, the effectual calling, the change from darkness to His marvelous light, the gift of faith, of justification, of sanctification, of preservation, and of final glorification. God also promises to His people that through His Spirit He will bestow on them regeneration, will call, will bestow faith, justify and sanctify, and preserve to the end. And the proclamation of this also belongs to the Gospel, no less than the preaching of the salvation which the Saviour has accomplished for His people in the objective sense of the word.

But how will men proclaim all this under the motto: a general offer of grace and salvation to all men, well-meant on God’s part?

Would anyone have the courage to say: God now offers all of you regeneration?

Would a preacher presume to preach to all his hearers this Gospel: God is willing to bestow on all of you faith?

However, if everyone feels that this would be not only thoroughly unscriptural and unreformed, but also nonsensical, how then can he nevertheless make of the preaching of the Gospel a general and well-meant offer of grace and salvation?

Calvin refers to this in the quotation which we made above from Calvin’s Calvinism. The entire subjective, internal work of salvation is in fact indicated by that writing of God’s law in the hearts. He does not offer it. This is no offer. Not only is it not a general offer, but it is the work of the Holy Spirit, the irresistible work of God Himself. However, this almighty work of God’s grace indeed occurs in Holy Scripture as a promise which God gives to His people. No offer, but indeed a promise. And the difference between an offer and a promise is clear. An offer presupposes that the person to whom something is offered can accept it; a promise is fulfilled by him who makes the promise. Grace is indeed a promise. God promises salvation. He also promises that He will actually bestow all the blessings in Christ Jesus upon His people. And it is to one of these promises that Calvin points. God promises that He will write His law in our hearts. But, says Calvin, anyone must be beside himself to assert that this promise pertains to all men without distinction. The reason for this declaration of Calvin is plain. That which God promises He also surely fulfils, for He is the faithful and true God. If He promises His salvation to all men without distinction, then He will also certainly bestow it upon all without distinction. The promise is, therefore, truly particular. And of a particular promise of God no one can and may make a general offer.

We will cite one more passage from the same work of Calvin, pp. 81ff.:

Now let us listen to the Evangelist John. He will be no ambiguous interpreter of this same passage of the prophet Isaiah. “But though (says John) Jesus had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on Him, that the saying of Esaias the prophet might be fulfilled which he spake, Lord, who hath believed our report? and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed? Therefore they could not believe, because that Esaias said again, He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart,” etc. Now, most certainly John does not here give us to understand that the Jews were prevented from believing by their own sinfulness. For though this be quite true in one sense, yet the cause of their not believing must be traced to a far higher source. The secret and eternal purpose and counsel of God must be viewed as the original cause of their blindness and unbelief. It perplexed, in no small degree, the ignorant and the weak, when they heard that there was no place for Christ among the people of God (for the Jews were such). John explains the reason by showing that none believe save those to whom it is given, and that there are few to whom God reveals His arm. This other prophecy concerning “the arm of the Lord,” the Evangelist weaves into his argument to prove the same great truth. And his words have a momentous weight. He says, “Therefore, they could not believe.” Wherefore, let men torture themselves as long as they will with reasoning, the cause of the difference madewhy God does not reveal His arm equally to alllies hidden in His own eternal degree. The whole of the Evangelist’s argument amounts evidently to this: that faith is a special gift, and that the wisdom of Christ is too high and too deep to come within the compass of man’s understanding. The unbelief of the world, therefore, ought not to astonish us, if even the wisest and most acute of men fail to believe. Hence, unless we would elude the plain and confessed meaning of the Evangelist, that few receive the Gospel, we must fully conclude that the cause is the will of God; and that the outward sound of that Gospel strikes the ear in vain until God is pleased to touch by it the heart within.
It is clear that also in this quotation the subject is the preaching of the Gospel. Isaiah had proclaimed the Word of the Lord, but only a few had believed, so that Isaiah even complains: who hath believed our report? The Saviour preached to the multitudes, did signs and wonders, and yet they believed not in Him. Such was the situation. And thus it is still today. The preacher can engage in all kinds of contortions, such as, for example, Billy Sunday and those who ape him. He may glory in thousands of converts. It is and remains a fact that only a few believe his preaching.

But the question which Calvin confronts is: where is the deep cause of the fact that so many do not believe?

Whence comes the difference among men as far as their attitude toward the Gospel of Christ is concerned?

Does Calvin say that the Gospel is a general and well-meant offer of grace, and that it is simply up to man?

On the contrary, he teaches here that the cause also of the unbelief of the Jews must be sought in the will of the Lord. This could not very well be otherwise, because Holy Scripture itself does this. They could not believe, for the Lord revealed His arm, the Gospel, not to all; He blinded and hardened many.

But what is left then of a general, well-meant offer of grace and salvation in Calvin?

If it does not please the Lord to reveal His arm to all, also not when the Gospel is brought to them; if under and through that preaching He hardens many and wills to reveal His arm only to the elect; where then is the general offer?

It simply is not there.

Calvin never taught that the preaching of the Gospel is an offer of grace to all men, well-meant on God’s part. Surely, he taught that through the ministry of the Gospel by men many are called in the outward sense; called to faith and repentance; called to the salvation in Christ; that many come under the promise: he who believeth hath everlasting life. But this is something altogether different from asserting that God well-meaningly offers His salvation in Christ to all who hear the Word. To assert this, says Calvin, one must be utterly beside himself.

And in place of teaching this, he declared unambiguously, as Scripture also does, that the Lord Himself causes the Gospel and its proclamation to be two-fold: a savor of life unto life, and a savor of death unto death.

If only few believe, while nevertheless the same Gospel is proclaimed to all without distinction, then this is because God works in a twofold manner. He touches the heart unto salvation in the few; He blinds and hardens in the many. Thus Calvin teaches. Thus Scripture teaches.

The preacher, therefore, must be well aware of this. He may not be wiser than God. Neither may he present himself as being more merciful than God. Surely, he must preach, preach to all. But he must be prepared in that preaching to be a savor of life unto life, but also a savor of death unto death.

And he must be willing to be that.


2. While it is true that Calvin’s work, A Treatise On the Eternal Predestination of God, to which Hoeksema here refers,  was written after some of the earlier editions of the Institutes, it was not written after the last edition of 1559. The date of the work to which Hoeksema refers is 1551.

3. A little brochure entitled, Calvin, Berkhof, and H.J. Kuiper: A Comparison. In earlier years, Prof. L. Berkhof and the Rev. H.J. Kuiper were two of the chief defenders of the Three Points of Common Grace adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in 1924, HCH.

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