14 November, 2016

The History of the Free Offer: Chapter Ten: “The Controversy in the Christian Reformed Church in 1924”

Prof. Herman C. Hanko

[Source: Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, April/November, 1986]

Because the history of the controversy in 1924 is so important for our discussion, we shall be somewhat detailed in describing it.

The problem really started in connection with the so-called “Janssen Case.” Dr. Janssen was a professor in Calvin Seminary, in Old Testament branches, who introduced higher critical views into his teachings. When he was required to give an account of his views, he appealed to the doctrine of common grace in support of them. His views of common grace were chiefly those of Kuyper and he connected common grace to his higher critical views in various ways, into which we cannot enter here.106 While Dr. Janssen never mentioned a well-meant offer in his writings, he brought the issue of common grace before the churches.

While his higher critical views were condemned by the Synod of 1922, the Synod did not make any decisions with respect to common grace itself. That crucial question, the basis for Janssen’s defense, was left untouched. In a way this was sad, for the outcome of the common grace struggle might have been considerably different had the issue been tackled then.

However that may be, many Janssen supporters remained in the Church, though Janssen himself was deposed from office. Because of their presence in the Church, nothing was really resolved.

Rev. Herman Hoeksema, at that time minister of the Word in the Eastern Ave. Christian Reformed Church, determined to bring the matter of common grace before the consciousness of the Church in the hopes that the Church would see the error of it. He began a series of articles in the Church paper, The Banner, in which he subjected the whole doctrine to a careful Scriptural analysis and came to the conclusion that the doctrine was contrary to the Word of God.107

The result of this was that many protests were lodged against him both from members of his own congregation and others in the denomination. These protests not only took exception to his views on common grace, but also challenged his position on the free offer of the gospel. Eventually all this material came to the Synod of 1924 where the issue was resolved. Three doctrinal statements were made concerning the doctrine of common grace and the free offer. We quote them here.

1. Regarding the first point, touching the favorable attitude of God toward mankind in general and not only toward the elect, synod declares that according to Scripture and the Confession it is established, that besides the saving grace of God shown only to the 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 Scripture passages that were quoted and the Canons of Dordt, II, 5 and III & IV, 8 & 9, where the general offer of the gospel is set forth; while it also is evident from the citations made from Reformed writers belonging to the most flourishing period of Reformed theology that our fathers from of old maintained this view.

2. Regarding the second point touching the restraint of sin in the life of the individual man and of society in general, synod declares that according to Scripture and the Confession there is such a restraint of sin. This is evident from the Scripture passages that were quoted and from the Netherlands Confession, Arts. 13 and 36, which teach that God by a general operation of His Spirit, without renewing the heart, restrains the unbridled manifestation of sin, so that life in human society remains possible; while the citations from Reformed authors of the most flourishing period of Reformed theology prove, moreover, that our fathers from of old maintained this view.

3. Regarding the third point, touching the performance of so-called civic righteousness by the unregenerate, synod declares that according to Scripture and the Confession, the unregenerate, though incapable of doing any spiritual good (Canons of Dordt, III & IV, 3) are able to perform such civic good. This is evident from the Scripture passages that were quoted and from the Canons of Dordt, III & IV, 4, and from the Netherlands Confession, Art. 36, which teach that God without renewing the heart, exercises such an influence upon man that he is enabled to do civic good; while it is, moreover, evident from the citations made from Reformed writers of the most flourishing period of Reformed theology that our fathers from of old maintained this view.108

A detailed analysis and criticism of these three points is not important here for our present study. We are concerned mainly about two points: 1) the teaching concerning the free offer; and, 2) the relation between the teaching of the free offer and common grace.

It is especially in the first point that the free offer of the gospel is mentioned, and then it is mentioned somewhat in passing. When the Synod offered its proof for “a certain favor or grace of God which He shows to His creatures in general,” the Synod turned to the Canons of Dordt which, in Synod’s judgment, spoke of the free offer.109 So the reasoning of the Synod was, apparently, that the free offer of the gospel is proof of God’s general attitude of favor and grace to all creatures.

Notice that the Synod spoke of a general grace: i.e., a grace which is shown to God’s creatures in general, by which latter expression Synod apparently meant not trees and stars, grasshoppers and bedbugs, but people. Thus common or general grace is an attitude of favor or grace on God’s part which is shown to elect and reprobate alike: “… toward mankind in general and not only toward the elect …” This grace is different from saving grace and must not be confused with it. From the Scriptural proof which Synod offered (Ps. 145:9; Matt. 5:44, 45; Luke 6:35, 36; Acts 14:16, 17) it is clear that Synod included in common grace also such things as rain and sunshine and all God’s good gifts. Nevertheless, there is no mention of these things in the doctrinal statement proper. The only evidence, according to the wording of the first point, of God’s general grace is the free offer. So the free offer is especially the way in which God’s attitude of favor or grace is shown to mankind in general. Thus, God shows that He is favorably inclined to all men without exception by offering them Christ in the gospel. The conclusion is inescapable that this means and specifically refers to God’s desire (in His love and grace) to save all who hear the gospel. God manifests Himself as a loving and gracious God, full of mercy and compassion to all in His offer of the gospel to them. Thus the salvation in Christ that God prepared through the cross has universal availability: it is there for all as far as God is concerned. That all do not in fact receive this salvation is due to its conditionality. Only those who fulfill the condition of faith and accept that which is offered actually receive it as their own possession.

The second point speaks of a restraint of sin by the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of all men. This is, it must be remembered, also a part of God’s universal attitude of favor. God shows His favor also to all men, elect and reprobate, by giving His Spirit so that sin is restrained in them. Now, while the connection between the teaching concerning the free offer and this restraint of sin is not clearly set forth in these statements, the conclusion is obvious. The free offer and the internal and subjective restraint of sin in the heart are both manifestations of the same grace of God. Hence, there is at least suggested here the idea that this grace which restrains sin is a kind of preparatory grace which makes one amenable to the gospel in which Christ is offered. And this is in keeping with what Bavinck taught in the reference to his writings earlier in these articles. So this internal and gracious operation of the Spirit puts every man into a position where he is able to accept or reject the gospel. This idea is strengthened by the third point where it is specifically taught that, as a result of these restraining, though not saving, influences of the Spirit, man is able to do good. It is true that the Synod specifically stated that this good is not spiritual but civic good; but the fact remains that it is goodgood in the sight of God. And the idea that this good is somehow of such a kind that man is more susceptible to the gospel offer is implicit in the formulation and was indeed taught by defenders of this theory.

Concerning these doctrinal statements we must make some conclusions.

In the first place, these statements laid to rest the controversy that had raged in the Christian Reformed Church between the Kuyperians in their view of common grace and the people of the Afscheiding and their views. In a rather neat way, these points of' doctrine combined the two into one doctrinal teaching, unfaithful to the genius of' Kuyper, but satisfying to all. The common grace (gemeene gratie) of Kuyper which had nothing to do with the free offer, and the general grace (algemeene genade) of part of the Afscheiding tradition were merged into one doctrinal statement.

In the second place, while the Synod spoke boldly of this teaching as being the teaching of all Reformed theologians in the most flourishing period of Reformed theology, the Synod was badly over-stating itself. It offered no proof for this bold contention, and none can be found. The simple fact of the matter is that this view is not to be found anywhere in early Reformed theology; it is rather an innovation of a rather late date and must be traced back, not to Dordt and Calvin, but to Arminius and Amyraut. It is, without question, a serious and fundamental departure from the genius of the Reformed faith.

In the third place, as the doctrine of common grace and the free offer developed in the Christian Reformed Church, the Arminianism inherent in it soon came to clearer manifestation. Not only did free-will Arminianism begin to flourish in the Christian Reformed Church, but in the Sixties Prof. H. Dekker could openly teach and write that the atonement of Christ was universal in its extent, availability and intention, although he limited the efficacy of the atonement to the elect alone. He could do this without ecclesiastical penalty and thus committed the Christian Reformed Church to an explicit universalism. And because the love of God was manifested in the cross (so Dekker), the saving love of God was universalized.

In the fourth place, this had serious consequences for the basic and fundamental doctrines of sovereign grace. The truths of total depravity, sovereign predestination, irresistible grace, limited atonement, and the perseverance of the saints were not only seldom heard any longer, but were in many instances openly denied.

Finally, because Rev. Hoeksema continued to deny these aberrations in the Reformed faith he was ultimately deposed from office and put out of the denomination even though the same Synod that adopted these doctrinal statements testified of him that “he was basically Reformed, though with a tendency towards one-sidedness.” It was this deposition and ultimate ouster that was the historic occasion for the beginning of the Protestant Reformed Churches.


106. For a detailed examination of this question, see my book, A Study of the Relations between the views of Prof. Janssen and Common Grace, available from the Seminary in syllabus form.

107. Rev. H. Hoeksema began to write against common grace before the Janssen controversy arose in the churches. He criticized especially the common grace of Dr. A. Kuyper.

108. These points are quoted from The Protestant Reformed Churches in America.

109. With this interpretation of the Canons we do not agree. A cursory reading of the Canons themselves in these three articles and a study of the Canons in their historical context will clearly show that the appeal to these articles was a vain effort to find some Confessional proof for Synod’s contention.

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