01 November, 2016

The History of the Free Offer: Chapter Seven: “Later Presbyterian Thought”

Prof. Herman C. Hanko

[Source: Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, Novermber, 1985]

A completely worked out system of the theology of the free offer of the gospel did not appear within Presbyterian Churches for many years; and when it did finally appear and was officially adopted as dogma within the church, this was in only a part of Presbyterianism. Many Presbyterian thinkers discussed the offer and even adopted the language of the offer, but in important instances opposed the theology of the offer or were ambiguous in what precisely they meant by it.

We cannot discuss every Presbyterian thinker in these articles; we choose, therefore, to discuss only some representative thinkers, of more recent times, who influenced modern Presbyterian thought in no little way.

This does not mean, however, that the subject of the free offer never came up in the official discussions of Presbyterian Churches. An interesting example of such a case has recently been discussed by Maurice Roberts in an article entitled, “Dr. John KennedyA Memorial Sketch.” This article appeared in the August-September, 1984 issue of The Banner of Truth.

The article discusses, among many other things, the role that Rev. John Kennedy played in the union negotiations between the Free Church and the United Presbyterians in the middle of the nineteenth century. (Dr. Kennedy lived from 1819-1884.) Two points of difference especially were discussed in connection with these negotiations: the relation of the civil magistrate to the church of Christ, and the extent of the atonement of Christ. In connection with this latter, the subject of the offer was discussed. The article states:

The current in which much U. P. thinking about the question of the extent of the atonement was running can be fairly estimated from these quotations from some of their spokesmen:

(1) “It is impossible for any man to preach the gospel who preaches a limited atonement.”

(2) “The work of Christ has provided salvation for all men indiscriminately.”

(3) “The universal offer of the Gospel has its basis in the general reference of the work of Christ.”

(4) “Christ’s death made all men salvable.”

(5) “The grace of God is manifested to sinners indiscriminately in the provision and offer of the gospel.”

The gist of the U. P. Synod’s attitude was summed up in these two propositions:

(1) That the love of God, as expressed in the gift and death of the Son, was not love to the elect exclusively:

(2) That Christ died for all men, according to a divine intention, as, in some sense, their substitute, and with a view to procuring salvability, if not salvation, for them.

To these views not only did Dr. Kennedy object, but with him such outstanding men as Robert Smith Candlish, Robert Haldane, and Dr. William Cunningham. They appealed to a decision of the Secession Church’s Associate Synod of 1804 that had stated:

Christ died for the elect, and for them only. The death of Christ, possessing infinite merit, is, indeed, in itself sufficient for the redemption of all mankind. But in respect of the Father’s assignation, and his own intention, He died only for the elect … All for whom Christ died shall be infallibly saved … We therefore condemn, and testify against the following error that Christ died in some sense for all men.

It is interesting to observe in this connection that Dr. Kennedy accused the U. P. Church of Amyrauldianism; and, more interesting yet, he firmly believed that this Amyrauldianism was present in the church because of the teachings of the Marrow men particularly with respect to faith. He wrote in one of his pamphlets, as quoted in the article mentioned above:

I believe that, in the Marrow definition of faith, there was the germ of all errors which have been developed in Amyrauldianism, which is the fashion of the United Presbyterian theology.

That definition implied that the sinner, before believing, had a certain right of property in the Gospel salvation, because of a “deed of gift and grant” from God. This mistaken idea is the most marked thing of all they retain of inherited theology. It is the search for a basis, for this pre-believing right, that has carried them to the universal reference of the atonement, and to their dreamings of universal grace.

Candlish also wrote concerning this:

In Scottish theology, for example, any departure from the strict view of the extent of the atonement is to be seriously dreaded, because it almost uniformly indicates a lurking tendency to call in question the sovereignty of divine grace altogether. Here it is invariably found to open a door for the influx of the entire tide of the Pelagian theory of human ability, in the train of that Arminian notion of the divine decrees which is apt to be its precursor.

It is clear from this that Presbyterianism struggled time and again with these central issues. It is also clear that the doctrines of the extent of the atonement and the free offer of the gospel were inseparably linked. Where the free offer was taught, a universality of the atonement inevitably went along with it. And as Candlish writes, this was always interwoven with Pelagian and Arminian heresy. It is sad that Presbyterianism of modern times has failed to see this.

Undoubtedly one of the greatest theologians in modern Presbyterianism was Charles Hodge, whose work in Systematic Theology has had as much influence on present day Presbyterian thought as any other work.63

In his writing on the effectual calling, Hodge is not entirely clear on what precisely he means by the offer. On the one hand, he seems, in the clearest possible way, to reject the theology of the offer, especially the idea that it is God’s intention, desire or purpose to save all that hear the gospel. In all he has to say on the subject of the calling, he never speaks of the concept of a free offer. Furthermore, he seems to limit the idea of the offer of the gospel to the command of the gospel, especially when he states that the unrestricted call of the gospel is not inconsistent with God’s decree of predestination.64 But his opposition to an idea of the offer which expresses a universal desire on God’s part to save all comes out most clearly in his repudiation of the position of Lutheranism.65 He correctly defines the Lutheran66  position as including a call of the gospel as an expression of God’s desire and intent to save all who hear, which is also the purpose and end God has in view. This Lutheran notion lies at the very heart of the idea of the offer and has been accepted in recent times by almost all who hold to an offer. But Hodge will have none of this. He offers a lengthy refutation of this view and makes the following points: 1) God’s intentions must always come to pass. If this were not so, it would be inconsistent with the divine being. 2) God’s purpose cannot fail or be resisted. Hence, if it were God’s intention or purpose to save all, all would be saved. 3) The Lutheran view denies that the ultimate reason for refusing the gospel is God’s eternal and unchangeable purpose. The Lutheran view, therefore, ultimately denies reprobation.   4) This position of the Lutherans has no support in Scripture. And here Hodge refers to a number of Scriptural passages which are often quoted in support of the offer, but which Hodge shows do not teach the offer at all.67

From all this one would conclude that Hodge is an enemy of the whole notion of the free offer and rejects it as heresy. But there are other elements in his treatment of the effectual calling which make one wonder. Sometimes it seems as if Hodge decides that he wants some kind of offer after all; at other times it seems as if he is really too unclear on the matter to come to any definite conclusions. When, e.g., he discusses the external call of the gospel, Hodge interprets this call to include a command, exhortation, invitation to accept offered mercy and an exhibition of the reasons why men ought to come to Christ. While it is true that this could conceivably be interpreted in such a way that it stands in harmony with other statements condemning the theology of the offer, he puts such hopes to rest when he interprets I Timothy 2:3, 4 as meaning that God intends or purposes that all should be saved because God delights in the happiness of His creatures. The same is true when Hodge discusses the whole idea of common grace.68 After defining common grace as, “that influence of the Spirit, which in a greater or lesser measure, is granted to all who hear the truth,” he goes on to speak of a sufficient grace which is the Spirit’s influence sufficient to repentance, and of preventing grace, which is the Spirit’s influence on the mind, which precedes and excites its efforts to return to God. By these graces the Spirit works in the hearts of all who hear the gospel to convict of sin, to resist evil in the heart, to strive and warn, to convict of the truth.

Now, while it is true that Hodge does not directly connect these ideas of common grace with the free offer of the gospel, nevertheless, historically that has been the case. We noticed this in some detail in our chapter on the Marrow controversy; and the same was true of subsequent thought both in Presbyterian and Reformed continental theology. The connection is this. It is not only by this general grace which is given to all who hear the gospel that God shows His willingness and desire to save all; but it is also by this very common grace that all receive the necessary spiritual strength to accept or reject the Christ offered in the gospel. These two ideas belong so closely together that it is impossible to separate them.

In the light of this, it is difficult to judge with certainty Hodge’s thinking on this matter. Perhaps the best we can say is that, while he emphatically repudiates the offer, he nevertheless seems to want to retain some idea of it in some sense of the word. But to harmonize these two aspects of his thought seems impossible.

What is true of Charles Hodge, is also true of A. A. Hodge. We need not say very much about his work, for he followed, for the most part C. Hodge, even on the matter of common grace. It is, however, interesting to note that in his book on The Atonement he makes the rather astounding and unwarranted statement that everyone believes in a universal offer.69 In his Outlines of Theology,70 he writes: “[The gospel] is addressed to the non-elect equally with the elect, because it is equally their duty and interest to accept the gospel, because the provisions of salvation are equally suited to their case, and abundantly sufficient for all, and because God intends (underscoring ours, H.H.) that its benefits shall actually accrue to everyone who accepts it.”

The idea of the free offer, however, comes to fuller expression in the writings of John Murray. In a rather lengthy article in Murray’s Collected Writings,71 Murray discusses, “The Atonement and the Free Offer.” As far as the idea of the offer itself is concerned, he speaks of the fact that, “The universality of the demand for repentance implies a universal overture of grace.”72 This “is the full and unrestricted offer of the gospel to all men.”73 Yet this in itself is not very clear. Does Murray mean that the universal overture of grace and the full and unrestricted offer of the gospel is nothing else but the command to all to repent of sin and believe in Christ? It is not clear.

But when he comes to his discussion of the relation between the offer and the atonement, his ideas become somewhat clearer. He insists that a universal offer must of necessity imply a certain universality in redemption.74 And he defines this universal aspect of redemption in terms of the many benefits which come to the non-elect and which are merited on the cross by our Lord Jesus Christ, among which blessings is also the blessing of the gospel.

There are many questions that one could ask at this point. Is it not obvious that Murray means more by an unrestricted offer than merely the command to repent and believe in Christ? After all, there is no need for the redemptive work of Christ to serve as a basis for the demand of the gospel to repent and believe. But another question which arises is: How is it possible for the redeeming and atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross to merit blessings for the non-elect, which blessings are non-saving? It would seem that the sacrifice of Christ was actually non-redeeming and non-saving. Does it not follow then that Christ died for His people, but not to save them? Or, are there two works of Christ performed on the cross, one redeeming and saving, and another non-redeeming and non-saving? The Arminians have answered this impossible question by asserting that the death of Christ on the cross is only a sacrifice that makes salvation available to all. And this is the usual end when the well-meant offer is taught and connected with the atonement. And just as importantly, where in all Scripture is there one statement that so much as suggests that Christ died to merit blessings for the non-elect, which in fact are not actually saved?75

But as Murray develops this notion, it becomes clear that he means more by it. This redeeming power of the cross which does not actually save, but which merits blessings for the non-elect in turn implies a love of God for the non-elect. And this love of God for all is the source of many blessings and is a love most highly expressed in “the entreaties, overtures, and demands of the gospel proclamation.”76 And while his love offered in the gospel is indeed a saving love for all that.77

In connection with the faith which the gospel demands, Murray makes a distinction between belief of people that God loves them and faith as a commitment to Christ. In this latter sense the gospel cannot declare indiscriminately that Christ died for every man. Nevertheless, there is an indiscriminate warrant of faith that every sinner possesses. This warrant is not any personal assurance that Christ has saved him, but it is a warrant in the all-sufficiency of the Savior and the suitability of His atoning sacrifice.

It ought to be evident that Murray is not very clear in all this. He emphatically insists on an offer, but shies away from many of the implications of the offer.  He tends somewhat towards the Marrow position when he speaks of the warrant of faith, but does not seem to go as far as the Marrow men went. He wants a universal overture of grace and an unrestricted offer to all, but never offers a clear and precise definition of these terms. He teaches a universality in the atonement rooted in a universal love of God for all, but also insists that we may never say that Christ loves all or died for allat least in the saving sense of those words. And what is meant by a non-saving love and a non-saving atonement we do not know. He certainly, in this essay, never speaks of God’s desire, intention, or purpose to save all; he never mentions a distinction between the will of God’s decree and God’s preceptive willtwo key doctrines in the theology of the offer; but his language suggests strongly such a universal desire of God, and his views immediately bring to mind the question whether he believes in a double will of God or whether he rejects that notion.

It is all confusing and unsatisfactory.

But if his essay is confusing and unsatisfactory and leaves many questions unanswered, his views are very clearly set forth in a pamphlet authored by him and Ned B. Stonehouse which has become the official position of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

This pamphlet, entitled, The Free Offer of the Gospel and published separately as such, is in fact only a part of the decision of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church on a broader issue. In the 1940’s, a complaint was lodged against the licensure and ordination of Dr. Gordon H. Clark by the Presbytery of Philadelphia with the General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The Twelfth General Assembly appointed a committee to investigate the doctrinal implications of the complaint. The report of the committee was presented to the Thirteenth General Assembly that met in May, 1946. On that committee were John Murray and Ned B. Stonehouse. This pamphlet on the free offer was a part of the committee report.

We are not concerned here with all the aspects of his case, nor with all the decisions that were taken at that time.78  What is of concern to us is the fact that, among other things, Dr. Clark was accused of denying the well-meant offer of salvation to the reprobate. The committee included in its report and in defense of the doctrine of the well-meant offer the following:

Such passages as Ezekiel 18:23 and 33:11 indicate that God not only delights in the repentance of the actually penitent but also has that benevolence towards the wicked whereby He is pleased that they should repent. God not only delights in the penitent but is also moved by the riches of His goodness and mercy to desire the repentance and salvation of the impenitent and reprobate. To put this negatively, God does not take delight or pleasure in the death of the wicked. On the contrary, His delight is in mercy. God desires that the reprobate exercise that repentance which they will never exercise and desires for them the enjoyment of good they will never enjoy. And not only so, He desires the exercise of that which they are foreordained not to exercise and He desires for them the enjoyment of good they are foreordained not to enjoy.

… The question was: how can God make an offer of salvation to those that are foreordained to damnation? It does not explain the mystery of co-existence of the full and free offer of salvation and foreordination to damnation to make the obviously necessary distinction between the outward and inward call. For even after full recognition is given to the truth that God effectually calls only the elect the mystery of God’s will in the offer of salvation to the reprobate still remains.

The Committee has no zeal for the word “paradox.” But the Committee believes that great mystery surrounds this matter. Even the reprobate are the objects of divine benevolence, compassion and loving kindness, not only in gifts of this present life such as rain and sunshine, food and raiment, but also in the full and free overtures of God’s grace in the gospel …

This matter of the free offer was given to another committee which was instructed to report to the Fourteenth General Assembly. The Fourteenth General Assembly recommended the committee report to the churches, but never officially adopted it.

The whole concept of the free offer is clearly set forth here without ambiguity and equivocation. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church has therefore, officially adopted the following elements concerning the free offer of the gospel. 1) In God’s providence God reveals a general attitude of mercy, benevolence and grace towards all men that is an expression of God’s universal love. 2) While this general benevolence and favor is especially revealed in providence, it comes to special expression in the preaching of the gospel in which God expressly states His desire to save all who hear the gospel. 3) Because God expresses an ardent desire for things He has not decreed, this involves a distinction between the decretive and preceptive will of God and a contradiction which cannot be harmonized, but the resolution of which lies in the depths of God’s own eternal thought.

It is interesting that nothing was ever said in this connection concerning the relation between the free offer of the gospel and the atonement of Christ. While later this was discussed by Murray in the essay referred to earlier (the article quoted from his Collected Writings was written after this decision was taken), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church never officially entered into this question.

There is probably an historical reason for this. Although we will have opportunity to discuss in a future article the decisions of the Christian Reformed Church made concerning the free offer in 1924, it is interesting to note that these decisions were indeed made over twenty years before the decisions of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. No doubt, the whole question of the free offer arose in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church because of the influence in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church of Christian Reformed men who went to Westminster Seminary to teachmen such as C. Van Til, R. B. Kuiper and Ned B. Stonehouse. They were the men who brought the free offer into the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and were instrumental in getting the matter adopted by the General Assembly. This is why the issue of the relation between the free offer and the atonement of Christ was not specifically faced. It was not faced in the common grace controversy in the Christian Reformed Church; and it was only after questions were repeatedly asked of the Christian Reformed Church men concerning this relation, that this question finally attracted the attention of theologians in both denominations. In the Christian Reformed Church this received official attention in the Sixties when Prof. Harold Dekker, in defense of the free offer of the gospel and common grace, insisted that the atonement of Christ has to be general and for all, except in its efficacy. We need say nothing more about this matter here, for we will have opportunity to discuss it at a later date.

This doctrine of the well-meant offer has also received official sanction in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (Covenanters) when it was made a part of their new Testimony. In this document both common grace and the well-meant offer have received official and creedal status. We quote from the addition to Chapter 10 of the Westminster Confession of Faith on the effectual call:

Preaching the gospel consists in the offer of salvation through Christ to sinners, accompanied with such an explanation of the various parts of God’s Word as may help to persuade men to receive Christ as Saviour, and to live and walk in him. 2 Cor. 5:20; Matt. 28:20; Isa. 55:1-3.

The elect are effectually called by means of the gospel offer. This offer is not a declaration to any sinner that his name is in the Book of Life. It is founded upon God’s command to offer Christ and all his benefits to sinners. There is no inconsistency between the biblical doctrine of particular redemption and the command to offer the gospel to all men. Deut. 29:29; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:46-47; 2 Tim. 2:19.

We reject the teaching that the gospel offer of salvation is freely and truly offered only to the elect. We reject the teaching that particular redemption is to be so understood and presented that Christ as ransom and propitiation is not preached or offered to all men indiscriminately.

And the doctrine itself, without always official decisions, has become all-pervasive within many Presbyterian denominations. This does not mean that there are not men in these various denominations who still oppose it; but the fact remains that it is not only a part of the preaching and teaching, but that many of these churches have moved beyond it to out-right Arminianisma heresy which is an inevitable result.


63. The edition which I have used is the 1946 edition published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, Mi. It is especially in Volume II, pp. 641ff., where Hodge discusses the effectual calling, that his views on the offer are developed.

64. p. 642.

65. pp. 649-652.

66. See Chapter Two which deals with the Lutheran Reformation, especially the references in that article to the Formula of Concord.

67. It would be profitable for the defenders of the free offer, who often appeal to the same texts to which Hodge refers, to read carefully Hodge’s analysis of these passages.

68. pp. 54ff.

69. pp. 371, 372.

70. Hodder & Stoughton, New York, 1878, p. 446.

71. Vol. 1, chapter IX, Banner of Truth, 1976, pp. 59ff.

72. p. 60.

73. p. 60.

74. p. 62.

75. It is interesting to note in this connection that in the controversy in 1924 concerning common grace and the well-meant offer, the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church also spoke of blessings which came to all men. Repeatedly the question was put to them: What is the ground of these blessings? The Synod refused to answer it, undoubtedly because it feared ascribing a certain universality to the cross of Christ. Only in the sixties did Prof. Harold Dekker make this explicit by insisting that the doctrine of common grace necessarily implied a certain universality in Christ’s redemptive work.

76. p. 68.

77. p. 83.

78. Material on the entire “Clark Case” can be found in a number of articles in Volume XXII of The Standard Bearer, written by Rev. H. Hoeksema, who analyzed thoroughly the whole case including the idea of the well-meant offer. These articles were later published by The Trinity Foundation.

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