25 September, 2016

The History of the Free Offer: Introduction

Prof. Herman C. Hanko

While the doctrine of common grace was a central issue in the doctrinal controversies which led to the establishment of the Protestant Reformed Churches, imbedded in these issues concerning common grace was also the doctrine of the free offer of the gospel. In the first point of common grace, adopted by the Christian Reformed Church at the Synod of 1924, we find mention made of this idea, although in a somewhat passing manner. The first point reads:

Relative to the first point which concerns the favorable attitude of God towards humanity in general and not only towards the elect, synod declares it to be established according to Scripture and the Confession that, apart from the saving grace of God shown only to those that are elect unto eternal life, there is also a certain favor or grace of God which He shows to His creatures in general. This is evident from the Scriptural passages quoted and from the Canons of Dordrecht, II, 5 and III/IV, 8 and 9, which deal with the general offer of the Gospel, while it also appears from the citations made from Reformed writers of the most flourishing period of Reformed theology that our Reformed writers from the past favored this view. (Italics ours to indicate the reference in this decision to the free offer.)

In the discussions that 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 reason why the Protestant Reformed Churches are a separate denomination.

This denial of the free offer of the gospel by the Protestant Reformed Churches has set them apart from almost every ecclesiastical fellowship. It is difficult to find today a denomination, whether of Reformed or Presbyterian persuasion, which has not committed itself, either officially or unofficially, to the idea of the free offer. The whole notion has not only been widely accepted but the charge of hyper-Calvinism has been hurled against those that deny it. The idea behind this charge is, of course, that true Calvinism includes in it the whole conception of the free offer of the gospel. Those who repudiate this conception are not faithful to the teachings of Calvin nor to the genius of Calvinism, so it is alleged.

It is our purpose in this book to trace the history of the idea of the free offer throughout the time of the New Testament church. Where did the idea come from? What is its historical development? How did such ideas creep into the church? Have they always stood in the mainstream of the development of the truth? Or is it rather true that the church has consistently and repeatedly repudiated them when it stood doctrinally strong? An investigation of these questions will shed some interesting light on the whole question.

We are not now arguing that the history of the faith of the church is in any way decisive in determining the truth or falsity of the idea of the free offer. Scripture alone is our rule of faith and life. Regardless of what the church in former years may or may not have taught, this history of the doctrine may not determine for us whether we should accept as true the point in question.

The final arbiter is always God’s Holy Word. If all the church in the past has repudiated this idea, but Scripture teaches it, then we too must believe and confess it. But the opposite is also true. If all the church in the past has consistently held to this doctrine, and yet the Scriptures do not teach it, the testimony of Scripture stands above all else.

Yet a study of the question from the viewpoint of history is an important one. It is important because the Scriptures teach that Christ has promised the church the Spirit of Truth to lead the church into all truth (John 14:16, 17, 26; 15:26; 16:13). While it certainly is possible for the church to err and while indeed the church has erred many times in the past, the fact remains that the united testimony of the church is of some weight. If, e.g., it is true that the church from earliest New Testament times has confessed the truth of the divinity of Christ and this truth has never been called into question by the church, but that rather deniers of this truth have been consistently condemned, then we have a certain weight of history to consider. Believing the presence of the Spirit of Truth and finding that a given doctrine is confessed in every age by the church, at the very least this ought to give us pause if we are in some doubt whether or not the Scriptures teach this doctrine. Am I alone a possessor of the Spirit of Truth in this instance, while all the church before me lacked His presence? It is indeed a question that the child of God who earnestly seeks to know the truth seriously considers.

If it can be shown from history that not only has the church not confessed a given doctrine in most of her history, but rather has condemned it when it appeared in the teachings of various men within the church, that ought to make us hesitate to insist upon the fact that Scripture teaches this particular position. Once again, the question is: Do I want to place myself on the side of those who have been consistently repudiated by the church as teaching something contrary to Scripture? If Scripture itself requires this of me, then, of course, I doregardless of the consequences. But the fact remains that I had better be very sure. To go against the testimony of the church of all ages is indeed a bold move, and one can never be too sure that his position is firmly and unequivocally taught by Holy Writ. A study of history can be enlightening and helpful.

This is especially true of the doctrine of the free offer. While it is sometimes maintained that the doctrine of the free offer has the weight of history behind it, this is a false and empty claim. A study of the history of doctrine within the church will show that quite the contrary is true. Quite consistently heretics who were condemned by the church have held the doctrine of the free offer. Quite consistently the church has refused to adopt any such doctrine. The weight of history is surely behind those who deny that the free offer is the teaching of Scripture. It is this assertion that we hope to prove in this and subsequent chapters.

While it is impossible to avoid completely a Scriptural analysis of the idea of the free offer, it is not our intent in these articles to engage in any such exegetical study. Our purpose is primarily historical, and to the historical data we intend to limit ourselves as much as possible.1 It is to the history of this doctrine then that we turn our attention.

1. The doctrinal and exegetical issues involved in this question have been often treated in Protestant Reformed literature, most recently in Rev. D. Engelsma’s excellent book, Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel. This literature is available at the address printed from the Seminary. Engelsma’s book also contains some historical material.

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