02 July, 2017

The Free Offer and Irresistible Grace

Prof. Herman C Hanko

[Source: The Standard Bearer, vol. 59, no. 19 (Aug 1, 1983), pp. 454-456]

The free offer of the gospel is a heresy which teaches that in the preaching of the gospel God expresses His desire, intention, and purpose to save all those who hear the gospel. The gospel tells every man that God on His part wants each to be saved, earnestly desires that he take Christ as his own, eagerly seeks that every one come to Christ, receive Him as his Savior, and enter into the joy of salvation. It is true that sometimes within Reformed circles the term “offer” has been used in a different sense: as the presentation or proclamation of Christ in the preaching which is heard by all. This is the sense in which Calvin used the term, in which it is used in the Canons of Dordt, III & IV, 9 and in the writings of many theologians of both the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition. But this is not its use in the generally accepted sense of that word. Today (and in the past) most have used the term to express God’s own personal desire and intention to save every one who hears the gospel.

It is not difficult to understand that this view of the free offer has a great deal to say concerning grace. Historically, one of the “five points of Calvinism” has been the truth of irresistible grace, i.e., that the work of salvation in the hearts of those who are saved is a work which God performs irresistibly. Those whom God saves are saved; and they are saved by a work of grace which the sinner cannot resist. God overcomes all the natural resistance of the totally depraved sinner, conquers mightily and powerfully the force of sin in him, and brings him to salvation. Nothing can resist that work. Neither Satan and his hosts of devils nor the hatred and opposition of the sinner can bring that work of God to a standstill. “All that the Father giveth to Me shall come to Me; and him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37).

This grace is worked through the preaching of the gospel, for the Holy Spirit so works in the hearts of God’s elect that that preaching is grace, a grace that saves. So the preaching stands inseparably connected with grace. What then is the relation between grace and the free offer of the gospel? Or, to put the question a bit differently, how can those who teach that the preaching expresses God’s desire and willingness to save all men still maintain at the same time that grace is absolutely irresistible?

There have been different answers to this question.

The Arminians deny irresistible grace altogether. They too maintain a free offer of the gospel and emphatically assert that God desires to save all men. But they simply take the position that the grace which is offered to all men in the gospel is not actually given until man accepts that grace and actually believes in Christ. This was the position of the Arminians against whom the Canons of Dordt were written in 1618-1619. In their “Remonstrance,” formulated in 1610, they write: “But as respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible, inasmuch as it is written concerning many, that they have resisted the Holy Ghost.” (Italics mine.) And this has been consistently the position of all Arminianism until the present.

But others who have attempted to claim allegiance to the five points of Calvinism (and the truth of irresistible grace) while still maintaining the free offer of the gospel have had recourse to “common grace.” This has been done, e.g., by the Baptist Erroll Hulse in his book, The Free Offer: An Exposition of Common Grace and the Free Invitation of the Gospel. In this book he writes: “The subject of common grace is inescapably connected with the free offer. It is not possible to deal adequately with the question of the offer without getting to grips with the subject of common grace.”

The same is true of the “Three Points of Common Grace” adopted by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1924. In the first point the Synod adopted the view that God is gracious to all His creatures, and that this gracious attitude towards all was especially revealed in the offer of the gospel.

Now common grace, according to the Christian Reformed Church, is different from saving grace. Common grace is for all men; saving grace is only for the elect. Common grace is especially revealed in temporal blessings; saving grace is revealed in salvation itself. Common grace is only given in time; saving grace is everlasting. Nevertheless, grace, even common, belongs to and is a part of the preaching of the gospel. And it must not be forgotten that the preaching of the gospel deals with Christ and salvation, and, therefore, with saving grace.

Current Presbyterian thought does the same. John Murray, in the book, Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. I, writes: “The universality of the demand for repentance implies an universal overture of grace,” and, “This is the full and unrestricted offer of the gospel to all men” (p. 60). In the pamphlet of Murray and Stonehouse on The Free Offer of the Gospel (a pamphlet which contains the official decisions on this question by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church made in 1948) the same idea is taught. In teaching that “God desires the salvation of the impenitent and reprobate” (p. 3), they claim that this involves God’s general attitude of mercy, benevolence, and grace to all.

Now it is not always easy to sort all these things out, and one sometimes wonders how otherwise clear-thinking men can write so obscurely about important points of doctrine. But, whatever the case may be, questions naturally arise. Does the gospel offer saving grace or common grace? or both? Does the gospel itself work grace in the hearts of all? And if so, is this grace worked through preaching a saving grace or a common grace? or both?

Generally speaking, it seems as if the defenders of the free offer take the position, first of all, that with respect to common grace, the fact that God desires and wills the salvation of all men is an objective manifestation of God’s grace to all. He shows His favor to all by expressing His desire to save all. But there is more. It is clear from the decisions on common grace made by the Christian Reformed Church that the preaching of the gospel also works subjectively grace in the hearts of all—although this grace worked in the hearts of all is common, not saving. The late Prof. Berkhof, e.g., in his defense of the three points and in his interpretation of Genesis 6:3 writes: “The Holy Spirit resisted the ungodliness and perversity of those generations who lived before the flood. He sought to check their ungodliness and to lead them to repentance … But the Spirit strove in vain; sin increased rapidly” (Quoted from A Triple Breach, p. 33).

But saving grace is given only to the elect. They and they alone receive the benefits of salvation through grace.

If one asks how it is possible for God to desire the salvation of all men on the one hand, while He, in fact, saves (and determines to save) only some, the answer is usually given that God desires the salvation of all men according to His preceptive decree, while He actually saves all men according to His determinative decree. And if one asks how it is possible that two such conflicting wills can be in God, the answer is blithely given: This is a mystery.

Now there are a couple of conclusions which seem to be obvious in all this. The first is that, strangely enough, it is common grace which takes on an irresistible character. Common grace is given to all, and it is given without man wanting it, asking for it, seeking it, or in any way working to obtain it. It is simply there, given graciously, coming from God’s own heart, directed to every sinner, and given in an irresistible manner. Common grace becomes irresistible grace. Common grace is worked irresistibly in the hearts of men. And while it does not save in itself, it is nevertheless God’s gracious and free gift which comes whether men want it or not.

Secondly, this irresistible common grace is inseparably connected with saving grace in this way. It is by common grace that a man possesses the power to accept or reject the saving grace in Christ offered in the gospel. After all, we face the inescapable question: If God desires the salvation of all, why is it that not all men are saved? And the answer is that man rejects the grace which is offered. Thus Berkhof writes in his interpretation of Romans 2:4: “The explanation of (the riches of God’s goodness) must be found in the purpose God had in view with this revelation of His love. And what was this purpose? Was it to cast the ungodly Jews more deeply into perdition? No, but to lead them to repentance … But in the case of the Jews the result does not correspond to the intention. They hardened themselves against this revelation of God’s goodness” (Quoted from A Triple Breach; the underscoring is ours.)

So the relation between common grace and saving grace is this: common grace puts a man into a position to accept the overtures of saving grace in Christ, or to reject them, thus frustrating the intention of God. So common grace is irresistible, saving grace is not. Saving grace can be resisted so that God’s intention can be frustrated.

Those who defend the doctrine of the free offer of the gospel insist that saving grace is irresistibly given. They do this in the interests of trying to salvage a semblance of Calvinism and in an effort to demonstrate that they still maintain the “five points.” But this will not do. But it simply remains a fact, and that fact cannot be denied, that if God desires the salvation of all and expresses this desire in the preaching, then, when all are not saved, it is because man has resisted these overtures of grace. Grace is resistible. Salvation is no longer sovereignly accomplished. Salvation depends upon the work of man. The Arminians were at least consistent; Berkhof states as much—although the meanwhile professing some sort of strange allegiance to Calvinism.

But all this is emphatically repudiated by Scripture and the confessions.

There is an important point here which ought never to escape our attention. When we talk of the irresistibility of grace, we are not talking about some abstract concept of grace, as if grace were a power in itself. Grace is God’s grace. It is His attitude of favor and goodness, of love and mercy. Because it is God’s attitude, it is an attitude which is rooted in His own sovereign will. And that will is always efficacious. The question is not finally whether grace is, in itself, resistible or irresistible, but whether God’s will is resistible or irresistible. And all Scripture and the confessions teach the truth that God is sovereign.­­­­

This is the emphasis of Canons III & IV, 11:

But when God accomplishes His good pleasure (note this emphatic statement concerning God’s good pleasure, H.H.) in the elect, or works in them true conversion, he not only causes the gospel to be externally preached to them, and powerfully illuminates their minds by His Holy Spirit, that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God; but by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit, pervades the inmost recesses of the man; he opens the closed, and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised, infuses new qualities into the will, which though heretofore dead, he quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, he renders it good, obedient, and pliable, actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruits of good actions.

The same is true of the Westminster Confession of Faith in Chapter X, Arts. 1 and 2. And the same is the teaching of all Scripture (cf. Matt. 11:25-26; John 6:65, 10:26-30; 12:39-40; Rom. 9:18; 11:7-10; 8:29-30; II Cor. 2:14-16, etc.)

What is the conclusion of the matter? In the first place, it ought to be clear that it is impossible to maintain the doctrine of the free offer without at the same time denying the irresistible character of grace. If there are those who persist in wanting the free offer, let them openly admit that they do not want the historic position of Calvinism and the Reformed creeds. This would, at least, be honest. In the second place, it ought not to escape us that the comfort of the believer is finally in the sovereignty of God’s grace. If his salvation depended upon himself, he would be forever cast about on the stormy seas of doubt, for he can do nothing for his salvation since all his works are corrupted by sin. But his comfort is in resting only upon Christ. And resting only upon Christ, he rests upon the particular and sovereign grace of his God who has delivered him from sin and will surely preserve him to the end to the praise of the glory of God’s grace.

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