02 October, 2016

The History of the Free Offer: Chapter Three: “The Arminian Controversy and the Synod of Dordt”

Prof. Herman C. Hanko

[Source: Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, November 1983]

The Arminian controversy, which raged in the churches of the Netherlands during the last part of the sixteenth century and the early part of the seventeenth century, did not deal as such with the question of the free offer of the gospel. Nevertheless, there are two reasons why a consideration of this controversy is important for our discussion. In the first place, the Arminians in the defense of their position raised many of the identical issues that have been repeatedly raised in the discussions concerning the free offer. Especially in their views of the preaching and the relation between the preaching and the atonement, they set forth ideas that have been inextricably woven into the warp and woof of the free offer concept. Secondly, although the well-known Canons of Dordt were written over against the Arminian heresies, these same Canons have been repeatedly appealed to, especially in Dutch Reformed theology, in support of the idea of the free offer. It is said that the Canons themselves teach a free offer of the gospel. In fact, the Christian Reformed Church appealed to the Canons as confessional proof for the doctrine of the free offer in their decisions on common grace made in 1924.

While we cannot here discuss all the heresies that the Arminians taught in the Dutch Reformed Churches, there are especially three which have bearing on our subject and which we ought briefly to note.

In the first place, the Arminians taught a certain common grace, i.e., a grace of God that was imparted to all men.12  This common grace is equated with the light of nature, which constitutes the gifts left in man after the fall.

The Synod rejects the errors of those who teach: that the corrupt and natural man can so well use the common grace (by which they understood the light of nature), or the gifts still left him after the fall, that he can gradually gain by their good use a greater, viz., the evangelical or saving grace and salvation itself. And that in this way God on his part shows himself ready to reveal Christ unto all men, since he applies to all sufficiently and efficiently the means necessary to conversion (Canons, III and IV, B5).

This light of nature shows God as ready to reveal Christ to all and by it God applies to all sufficiently and efficiently the means necessary to receive Christ, to believe and repent. Thus one must use the light of nature aright to become worthy of saving grace. It was at this point that the Arminians introduced the idea of free will. And the salvation of man finally, was made dependent upon the exercise of his free will.

This same view, taught by the Arminians and condemned by the fathers at Dordt, has reappeared in Reformed theology in connection with and identification of general revelation and common grace. Wm. M. Masselink, e.g., taught this in his book, General Revelation and Common Grace,13 and Herman Bavinck taught the same in his work, Our Reasonable Faith.14

In the second place, the Arminians taught a governmental and universalistic view of the atonement, and held that in every sense of the word the atonement was for every individual person. However, this atonement only made salvation available and possible for all and thus its efficacy was denied. The Canons say:

The synod rejects the errors of those who teach: that it was not the purpose of the death of Christ that he should confirm the new covenant of grace through his blood, but only that he should acquire for the Father the mere right to establish with man such a covenant as he might please, whether of grace or of works....

Who teach: that Christ by his satisfaction merited neither salvation itself for anyone, nor faith, whereby this satisfaction of Christ unto salvation is effectually appropriated; but that he merited for the Father only the authority or the perfect will to deal again with man, and to prescribe new conditions as he might desire, obedience to which, however, depended on the free will of man, so that it therefore might have come to pass that either none or all should fulfill these conditions.

Who teach: that all men have been accepted unto the state of reconciliation and unto the grace of the covenant, so that no one shall be condemned because of it, but that all are free from the guilt of original sin . . . (Canons II, B, 2, 3, 5).

In connection with these distinct views, the Arminians also promoted a particular view of the preaching. On the one hand, they challenged the Reformed position on especially two counts: they claimed that the Reformed could not preach because they preached only to the elect, but did not know who the elect were.15 And they claimed that the Reformed could not preach faith and repentance as the general command of the gospel. Their own views are set forth, not only in their writings, but also in the "Opinions" which are relevant to the question of the calling.

Only those are obligated to believe that Christ died for them for whom Christ has indeed died. But the reprobate, as they are called, for whom Christ has not died, are not obligated to this faith, and can, by reason of their contrary unbelief, not be justly condemned, in fact, if there were such reprobates, they would be obligated to believe that Christ has not died for them (Quoted from the "Opinions" of the Arminians on Canons II, 14).

This article is intended to show the foolishness of the Reformed position that is caricatured. Written with characteristic vaguenessa vagueness which was deliberately intended, and setting forth what the Arminian considered to be the Reformed position, it is intended to prove that the Reformed, who insisted that Scripture taught an atonement only for the elect, could not confront all with the command to repent and believe. The reprobate could not be commanded to repent and believe in Christ, for they would be required to believe something which was not true, namely that Christ died for them.

All those whom God calls unto salvation, those He calls seriously, that is, with an upright and altogether unfeigned purpose and will to save. And we do not agree with those who hold that God externally calls some whom he does not will to call internally, that is, does not will that they be actually converted, even before they have rejected the grace of the calling (Idem).

Notice that the Arminians specifically state here that it is their position that God calls all with the will and purpose to save all, that they disagree with those who teach that God does not will that those who are called externally actually be converted, at least, if this will of God is said to precede the rejection of the gospel by the wicked. Here is a clear statement of the Arminian conception of the theology of the free offer.
There is not in God such a hidden will which stands over against His will which is revealed in the Word, that He according to that will (that is, the hidden will) does not will the conversion and the salvation of the greater part of those whom He through the word of the gospel, and according to the revealed will, is seriously calling and inviting unto faith and salvation; neither do we here acknowledge, as some speak, a holy dissimulation, or a double person in God (Quoted from the "Opinions" of the Arminians on Canons (III—IV, 8, 9).

It is interesting to note that the Arminians in their "Opinions" on III and IV, 9 refuse, as more recent defenders of the free offer do, to make a distinction between the hidden will of God and His revealed will. Calvin taught that according to His hidden will, God willed the salvation of the elect; and that, although God commands all who hear the gospel to repent and believe, nevertheless there is no conflict between God’s will revealed in His Word and God’s hidden will. Modern day defenders of the free offer of the gospel insist that according to His hidden will, God desires and wills the salvation only of the elect, and that according to His revealed will, He desires and wills the salvation of all men; these two wills stand in flat contradiction to each other and their harmony remains a mystery. The Arminians also insist that there is not conflict between God’s hidden will and His revealed will; but they find the harmony by teaching that according to both God seriously desires and wills the salvation of all men.

All of these ideas, according to the Arminians were rooted in universal atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

The price of salvation, which Christ offered to God His Father, is not only in and by itself sufficient for the redemption of the whole human race, but also paid for all and every man, according to the decree, the will, and the grace of God the Father; and therefore no one is definitely excluded from the communion of the benefits of the death of Christ by an absolute and antecedent decree of God (Quoted from the "Opinions" of the Arminians on Canons II, 1).

Thus the following points were specifically made by the Arminians and condemned by the fathers at Dordt. Grace is offered to all men without exception in the preaching of the gospel. This is rooted in an unlimited atonement, i.e., an atonement that was for every man and for all. The acceptance or rejection of this offer depends upon the free will of man. The fathers condemned these when they write:

The Synod rejects the errors of those who use the difference between meriting and appropriating, to the end that they may instill into the minds of the imprudent and inexperienced this teaching that God, as far as He is concerned, has been minded of applying to all equally the benefits gained by the death of Christ; but that, while some obtain the pardon of sin and eternal life, and others do not, this difference depends on their own free will, which joins itself to the grace that is offered without exception, and that it is not dependent on the special gift of mercy, which powerfully works in them, that they rather than others should appropriate unto themselves this grace (Canons II. B, 6). (Italics ours).

This free will involves the exercise of faith that then becomes the work of man.

Faith is therefore to be considered as the gift of God, not on account of its being offered by God to man, to be accepted or rejected at His pleasure or even because God bestows the power or ability to believe, and then expects that man by the exercise of his own free will, consents to the terms of salvation, and actually believe in Christ (Canons III—IV, A, 14). (Italics ours.)

It is not surprising then that the preaching of the gospel is no longer the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16), but is only an attempt on God’s part to persuade the sinner to accept Christ and walk in obedience. That this is the teaching of Arminianism is evident from Canons III and IV, B, 7 where the fathers condemned 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.

From this it is clear that the Arminians, while teaching the idea of the offer as it is taught in recent times, nevertheless held to the same doctrines as those who maintain a general offer of the gospel. It is well to remind ourselves of the fact that these Canons were the product of the entire Reformed church world of that day and were signed by all the delegates both foreign and domestic.   A clearer confessional condemnation of the doctrines of the free offer can hardly be found. And this condemnation was the united opinion of all the churches of the Reformation.

What makes this all the more important is the fact that certain delegates from foreign countries, especially from England and Bremen, defended on the floor of the Synod the Arminian position.16

Although it is true that these delegates too subsequently signed the Canons, it is difficult to imagine how this was possible in the light of the fact that they consistently upheld the Arminian position. The point is, however, that the Arminian viewpoint was given a hearing on the floor of the Synod, not only when the Arminians themselves were permitted to speak, but also through the defense of the Arminian position by the delegates from Britain and Bremen. In spite of this, the fathers refused to adopt any Arminian viewpoint, but rather repudiated it consistently.

The Arminians with whom the Reformed Churches had to do were fundamentally rationalistic. This is important to understand. The system that they were defending was a thoroughgoing system that involved almost all points of doctrine. It was a theological position that proceeded from a rationalistic starting point and which, by rationalistic deduction, demonstrated that departure in one element of the truth leads to departure in every part of it. Thus the Arminianism condemned at Dordt was somewhat different from the Arminianism which appeared later in England under the influence of the Wesleys. In an interesting article on, "Arminianism," Rev. J. I. Packer correctly characterizes the Arminianism of the Wesleys as a Pietistic Arminianism that never developed into a complete theological system. Nevertheless, as Packer also notes, the basic ideas of both were the same.17

There are two or three questions that we ought to face in connection with our discussion of the Canons. The first has to do with Canons II, 3 where the fathers speak of the atoning sacrifice of Christ as “the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin; (which) is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.” It has been sometimes maintained that here is one place where the fathers definitely speak of a general atonement in the sense of sufficiency. And, while this is certainly true, the following points must be remembered.

1) This article was included in the Canons because it was intended to serve as an answer to the Arminian charge that the Reformed in their doctrine of a limited atonement or particular redemption did injustice to the sacrifice of Christ and spoke disparagingly of its value. This accusation the fathers repudiate and in fact turn the tables on the Arminians and insist that not they, but the Arminians speak disparagingly of the atonement because the Arminians have a doctrine of the atonement which teaches that Christ’s sacrifice, made for everyone, does not even actually save since many go lost.

2) That the fathers did not intend to teach that actual atonement was made for all men is clear from their 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 …" (II, 8). (Italics ours.)

3) As is plain from II, 3, the fathers looked at this “sufficiency” from the viewpoint of the One Who offered this sacrificethe eternal Son of God: “this death derives its infinite value and dignity from these considerations, because the person who submitted to it was not only really man and perfectly holy, but also the only begotten Son of God …”

4) It is evident therefore, that the intent of the article is merely to state that, taken purely by itself, without any reference to those for whom Christ died, Christ’s atonement, because He was the eternal Son of God, was of infinite value in God’s sight. It was sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world because it was God’s Son that died; and God’s Son cannot make a sacrifice which qualitatively speaking is a partial sacrifice.

5) But that this “universal sufficiency” was intended by the fathers to form the basis for a general offer of the gospel is totally foreign to their thinking.

The second question has to do with the claim of some that, after all, the Canons teach a general offer of the gospel. Those who maintain this refer especially to three articles in the Canons which we quote in full.

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 to 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 (II, 5).

As many, however, as are called by the Gospel, are seriously called. For God has seriously and most truly shown in His Word, what is pleasing to Him, namely, that the called should come unto Him. He even promises seriously to all those coming to Him and believing rest of soul and eternal life (III—IV, 8).

That many who have been called by the ministry of the gospel do not come and are not convertedof this the fault is not in the gospel, nor in Christ offered through the gospel, nor in God Who calls through the gospel, and even bestows on them various gifts, but in the called themselves … (III-IV, 9).18

Concerning these articles we point out the following:

1) There is no mention in these articles of the free offer of the gospel in the sense of an intention or desire or will of God, expressed in the gospel, to save all who hear the gospel. It is true that the word "offer" is used in III-IV, 9, but, as we have had occasion to notice earlier, this word was very commonly used to express the idea that Christ is presented, set forth, proclaimed in the gospel as the One through Whom God has accomplished salvation. But the idea that God expresses in the gospel a general desire to save all who hear is an idea totally foreign to the Canons and can be read into them only by altering the clear language of the articles and imposing ideas upon the fathers of Dort which they did not have.

2) II, 5 speaks emphatically of the promise of the gospel, but insists that this promise of the gospel is very particular; i.e., it is only to those who believe in Christ. And it is clear from the rest of the Canonsthat those who believe in Christ are only the elect ("That some receive the gift of faith from God, and others do not receive it proceeds from God's eternal decree," I, 6), who are converted to God by efficacious grace merited in Christ's limited atonement.

3) II, 5 also speaks of the fact that this promise ought to be proclaimed everywhere, "to whom God out of his good pleasure sends the gospel." So the article speaks very clearly of a general proclamation of a particular promise and this has always been the position held by the Reformed churches.

4) II, 5 also speaks of the fact that this promise, generally proclaimed but particular in its contents, is proclaimed together with the command to repent and believe. In III-IV, 8 & 9 this is also said to be the call of the gospel. This call is described as being serious in nature. God requires of all men, through the preaching, that they forsake their sins and turn from their evil ways, that they believe in Christ Who has shed His blood for sin. Concerning this point there are two points that ought to be made.

a) In the first place, no one who stands in the line of Calvinistic and Reformed thought has ever denied this truth. This is important to understand. The Reformed have sometimes been charged with being unable to preach the gospel to all men because they insist that the promise of the gospel is for the elect alone and no preacher knows who the elect are. But this is a distortion of the Reformed view. The gospel must be generally preached both because it is the means whereby God calls out of darkness into light those whom He has chosen to everlasting life, and because, through this general proclamation, all men are confronted with the obligation to forsake their sins and believe in Christ.

b) Nor have the Reformed ever denied that this command or call is serious. God means exactly what He says. He is not joking when He comes to all with this command. He is not saying something in the gospel that is not really true. Quite the opposite is the case. Man was originally created perfect and upright. When man fell in Adam, he fell by his own sinful choice. His depravity which made it impossible for him any longer to serve God becomes his lot in life because for God's just judgment upon the sinner. But God does not, on that account, require any less of man than He did at the beginning. God is God. He remains just and holy and righteous in all His ways. He does not now say: Oh, you are such a poor sinner, no longer able to do what I have commanded; I will no longer require of you that you serve me and flee from your sins. It is perfectly all right if you do less than you were originally required to do. Oh, no! Then God would not be just and righteous. God still insists that this man serve him. And man is confronted with that demand every time the gospel comes to him.

It is interesting and important to note that II, 5 speaks of the “promise together with the command to repent and believe,” as forming the contents of the gospel. It is exactly in this way that God works His purpose in His elect by enabling them to repent and believe, and it is exactly because of this that the wicked are responsible for their own failure to repent and believe. It is not the fault of the gospel, nor of Christ offered therein, nor of God Who calls, but the fault lies in the wicked themselves. And so God is also perfectly just when He casts the wicked forever from His presence.

It is not difficult to see that all this is a far cry from the free offer of the gospel as that is presented and defended in our times. Of this the fathers wanted no part and it is a perversion of our Canons to try to find support for the idea of the free offer in this Confession. Even R. B. Kuiper has difficulty finding confessional grounds for his support of the free offer of the gospel.

He can, finally, only point to two articles in the Canons: Canons II, 5, to which we have referred above and which cannot in any sense of the word be stretched into supporting a free offer, and Canons II, 3 which speaks of the sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ and which we have discussed earlier in this chapter.19  It is interesting to note, however, that Kuiper argues from this statement on sufficiency to a position which sets forth the fact that Christ’s atonement is also suitable for all, and from there he argues to the position that the atonement is, as far as its sufficiency and suitability are concerned, divinely designed for all. Once again it becomes apparent how the defenders of the free offer of the gospel must in some sense of the word make the atonement of Christ universal. But Kuiper’s argument from the Canons is specious.

To conclude, therefore, we see that although the issue of the offer as such was not an issue at the time of Dordt, the Confession of Dordt nevertheless holds to the idea of preaching which has always been Reformed and no appeal to these Canons can possibly support the idea of a free offer.


12. It is interesting to note that, while many who stand in the tradition of Dordt also teach common grace and even appeal to the Canons in support of their views, the term itself appears in the Canons only in the mouth of the Arminians where it is condemned.

13. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 1953.

14. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 1956. See especially chapters III and IV.

15. How interesting and striking it is that this very objection of the Arminians against the Reformed is the same as is repeatedly hurled by the defenders of the free offer of the gospel against those who oppose this heresy.

16. Among the British delegates was to be found a man by name of John Davenant. We call attention to this because we shall have occasion, in a later article, to refer to the teaching of Davenant and what became known as the “Davenant School”
a school represented on the Westminster Assembly.

17. The Manifold Grace of God, papers read at the Puritan and Reformed Studies Conference, 1968, pp. 22ff.

18. The translations are taken from The Voice of our Fathers, by Prof. H. C. Hoeksema, a commentary of the Canons of Dort published by the Reformed Free Publishing Association.

19. For Whom Did Christ Die? A Study of the Divine Design of the Atonement, R. B. Kuiper: Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1982; pp. 78ff. This reference to Kuiper’s book is a reference to chapter 5, which is entitled, “Scriptural Universalism” and which, in defense of the free offer of the gospel and of common grace, overthrows everything Kuiper has said in the preceding four chapters.

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