10 April, 2019

Some Further Objections to the Free Offer of the Gospel

Rev. Ronald Hanko

Rev. Hanko is a minister in the Protestant Reformed Churches in America and has authored a number of books, including (among others) the following: Doctrine According to Godliness: A Primer on Reformed Doctrine (2004), The Coming of Zion’s Redeemer: Commentary on Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi (2015). He was also the joint author of Saved by Grace: A Study of the Five Points of Calvinism (1995) and its accompanying study guide.

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Introduction and Clarification

Many today believe that on God’s part the gospel is a free or well-meaning offer of salvation, by which they mean that God expresses in the preaching a passionate or earnest desire or want or wish that all who hear it be saved. We strenuously object to this teaching.

We do not, however, object to the word “offer.” Scripture does not use the word “offer” to describe the gospel, but the Reformed creeds do. We have no objection to the creeds.

Rightly understood, the word “offer” is not only acceptable, but emphasizes an important truth about gospel preaching. The root meaning of the word is “to present” or “to show.” The word is not used with that meaning anymore, at least not in everyday speech. But it is with that older meaning that the Reformed creeds use the word. Thus used, the word simply emphasizes the important truth that the preaching of the gospel must display Christ and make Him known to all who hear.

There are few today, however, who speak of the gospel as an offer and mean that Christ is “presented” in the gospel. Most mean that, in the gospel, God earnestly desires the salvation of absolutely all who hear and makes Christ available to them. This teaching we oppose.

The Free Offer and Arminianism

There are two main theologies which teach the free offer of the gospel in this wrong sense. In each case our objection is different.

On the one hand, there are those who acknowledge that they are not Reformed or Calvinistic. For them, the idea that the gospel is anything but a well-meant offer is incredible. If we may compare their system of doctrine to a jigsaw puzzle, the free offer of the gospel is just another piece in the puzzle. Into their picture, it fits nicely between the teaching that Christ died for absolutely everyone and the notion that man’s freewill choice determines if he will be saved by Christ.

In this system, sometimes called Arminianism, it is the free offer of the gospel that gives men the opportunity to decide for Jesus. When salvation is offered to them in the gospel, they are able either to accept or reject the redemption Christ purchased for them and for everyone by His sacrificial death. Indeed, the gospel can only be an offer, if salvation depends on man’s will and choice.

This alone ought to give Reformed men and women pause. A teaching that fits so well into the Arminian picture of salvation ought to be suspect.

In Arminianism, though, our objections are not only to the free-offer teaching, but to the whole system. We would not discard just one piece of the jigsaw but the whole picture. We do not want a system that makes man’s will (not God’s will, God’s cross or God’s grace) the decisive factor in salvation and which does not give all the glory to the Triune God alone.

The Free Offer and Reformed Theology

There are others, however, who are Calvinistic and Reformed. They believe in unconditional election (Eph. 1:4) and in particular redemption—that Christ died for His beloved sheep alone (John 10:11, 15, 26). They believe, too, that salvation, including faith, is a gift of God (Phil. 1:29). Nevertheless, they reckon that the gospel is a well-meant offer of salvation to all sinners who hear the preaching. In their case, we object to their efforts to make the free-offer teaching a part of Reformed theology and Calvinism. Some of these objections follow.

If we also compare Calvinism and Reformed theology to a jigsaw puzzle, then the free offer is like a piece that does not fit—a piece from the wrong puzzle. No matter how you turn it and try to force it, it will not fit. The thing to do then is to throw away the bad piece and to find the piece that does fit. In the hope that this will be done, we wish to show how and why an ineffectual desire of God to save the reprobate does not fit into Reformed theology.

The Free Offer and the Nature of God

One place where free-offer teaching does not fit into Reformed theology is in the whole area of theology proper, i.e., the doctrine of God. Implicitly or explicitly, a divine desire to save the reprobate denies fundamental truths regarding the nature of the Most High Himself. To put the matter bluntly, free-offer teaching leads to a different conception of God than does the theology of those who reject it. This alone, if true, ought to be enough to condemn free-offer teaching in the mind and heart of every Reformed person.

The free offer denies, first, a basic truth about revelation—the truth that all God’s revelation is self-revelation (God’s making Himself known to us). No matter what the content of that revelation, no matter how it is given, it all, in the end, reveals who and what God is.

All God says and does, therefore, is a revealing of who He is in Himself. That means, in turn, that God’s revelation cannot contradict what He is in Himself. What He says cannot be different from what He is. What He does cannot contradict who He is. For example, since God is a just God, then none of His works and words, whereby He reveals Himself, can be unjust. We may not be able always to demonstrate to unbelievers why God’s ways are always just, but because they are part of His revelation of Himself they cannot be unjust.

The logic of this is that, if any of God’s works or ways are unjust, then He is also unjust in Himself, an unjust God. And, if He is an unjust God, He is not God at all—likewise with all His attributes.

The defenders of the free offer deny this, often explicitly. They say, in defence of the free offer, that God can be something different in His dealings with men from what He is in Himself. Free-offer teaching says that He can desire to save everybody, love them and be gracious to them in the gospel, and yet be in Himself, from eternity, of a different mind, will and heart concerning them. His revelation of Himself in the gospel can and does contradict what He is in Himself.

If this is true, then revelation is not really revelation, an uncovering and showing of who and what God is in Himself. In fact, revelation would then tell the very opposite of the truth about the nature and will of God—it would be a lie. Put a bit more bluntly, free-offer teaching says that God does not tell those who perish the truth—especially the whole truth—about Himself. He speaks to them of love and grace and mercy. He even does loving, gracious and merciful things for them, the free offer claims, but in His own heart, mind and will there is no grace or love or mercy for them. He not only did not choose to save them but He did not even intend to have His Son die for them or to give His Spirit to them. What He says and shows in the gospel is not the truth about who and what He is from eternity and in Himself.

Yet those who believe in the well-meant offer are not afraid of saying this. They speak of two wills in God, a revealed will to save absolutely all who hear the preaching (expressed in the free offer of the gospel in time) and a secret will not to save them (determined in eternal reprobation). They may even say that God both hates (Rom. 9:13) and loves those who perish. That, however, only raises further problems with Jehovah’s other attributes.

For one thing, it denies God’s oneness. His oneness means that He is, in Himself and in His revelation, one and indivisible. This is denied by those who hold to the free offer.

They hold that God is of two minds, two wills, two hearts concerning those who perish (contrary to Job 23:13). He loves reprobate sinners and He does not love them (Ps. 11:5). He wills their salvation (in the gospel) and does not will it (in eternal election). Nor are His revelation and His eternal mind and will one and the same. In His revelation He is one thing—in Himself another. No defender of the free offer has ever shown how such teaching can be reconciled with the fundamental teaching of Scripture, the great “Shema” of Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD.” Indeed, it cannot be reconciled with God’s oneness. It is a piece that does not fit Reformed theology.

Another aspect of God’s oneness is His absolute simplicity. This means that there is no disharmony, no contradiction, and no imperfection, in God. In this sense also He is one and undivided in His nature and revelation, His words and works, and in all His attributes. The “theology” of the free offer cannot be reconciled with God’s simplicity. It flatly contradicts this crucial attribute by teaching that there are contradictions and imperfections in God. Think, for example, of the “two-wills” teaching, which is at the heart of free-offer theology. Not only do the two wills contradict each other, but one will always remain unfulfilled and unrealized with respect to all those who perish.

Nor are these the only attributes of God that are contradicted by the free-offer teaching. Such teaching also denies God’s unchangeableness (James 1:17). He changes His mind and will and His word about those who perish, showing a sincere desire for their salvation in the gospel and then, in the end, damning them. He promises them eternal life in the gospel but then does not give it, for He does not even give them the necessary means in the death of Christ and the work of His Spirit.

Free-offer teaching opposes the eternity of the Most High too (Ps. 90:2). It teaches that there is a love, a grace and mercy of God, which lasts as long as the gospel is preached, whereas God’s “mercy endureth for ever” (Ps. 136:1-26). His eternal will, so they say, is only revealed in predestination.

The free offer even contradicts His sovereignty (Isa. 46:9-10) in that it teaches that there are, in the gospel, a resistible grace and a divine love that do not save.

The truth is that the free offer of the gospel fits none of God’s attributes. Is a grace that well-meaningly offers salvation but does not give the means of salvation an infinite grace? Is telling men that God loves them, while He does nothing either in the cross or by the Spirit to save them, in keeping with His truthfulness (Deut. 32:4)? Is it divine wisdom well-meaningly to offer salvation to those whom He excluded from it by eternal reprobation (Rom. 9:17-18, 22)? Is it really love to say to them that God passionately desires their salvation while He secretly planned otherwise?

What then? The free offer does not fit with revelation. It does not fit the attributes of God. It does not fit the doctrine of God. It fits nowhere. Nor can any defender of the offer make it fit without bending or ruining other pieces of the picture.

The Free Offer and the Five Points of Calvinism

There is, however, another part of the picture called the “Five Points of Calvinism.” Every Calvinist know and loves the Five Points. Does the offer teaching fit there? Again, the answer is “No!” Consider the following.

Free-offer teaching contradicts the first of the Five Points, the doctrine of total depravity. Total depravity means, very simply, that fallen man is “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). To offer something well-meaningly to a dead man, wanting and intending him to have what is offered, is both useless and foolish.

Free-offer teaching does not square with unconditional election and reprobation (Westminster Confession 3:7), since its offer is, by its very nature, conditional. It is conditional in that its acceptance depends on the will of the person to whom the offer is made. You cannot offer something to a tree, which has no will. You cannot offer something to someone who is asleep, whose will is not active. Yet free-offer teaching says that God well-meaningly offers something to those whose wills are inactive for good and cannot—if you believe the Reformed truth of the bondage of the will (Rom. 3:11; 8:7)—choose to accept it. A desire of God to save the reprobate does not fit with the truth that salvation does not depend on man’s will but wholly on God’s eternal, unconditional will and good pleasure (John 1:12-13).

Free-offer teaching does not reconcile with limited or particular atonement either (Eph. 5:25). Almost inevitably, it leads to a denial of limited atonement. An offer of salvation in Christ is both insincere and empty, if Christ did not die for those to whom the offer was made. Even men who believe in particular atonement are forced to make statements that deny limited atonement in their defence of the free offer. In the very last paragraph of The Free Offer of the Gospel, John Murray and Ned Stonehouse say, “It is Christ in all the glory of His person and finished work whom God offers in the Gospel.” How can He be so offered, if He is not available?

The offer also denies irresistible grace. The offer is supposed to be a kind of divine grace, yet the grace shown in the offer is not only resistible, but always resisted by those who perish. Where, then, is the great Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace?

Nor can a gospel, which is only an offer, provide anything of what is necessary for perseverance. The gospel is the means of perseverance to the end—but not if it only an offer. What can an offer do to keep us “through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (I Pet. 1:5)?

Here, too, the pieces of the jigsaw must be bent, forced or cut to a different shape to allow the teaching of a desire of God to save the reprobate to fit among them. The free offer adds nothing positive to Reformed theology. It is a piece from a different picture—that of Arminianism.

The Call of the Gospel

But what is the piece we are looking for? What is the gospel if it is not a well-meant offer?

The answer is plain. The gospel comes with a command or call, which is sovereign and powerfully irresistible to awaken those dead sinners whom the Son wishes to quicken (John 5:21, 25), thus accomplishing what God eternally and unchangeably willed, and applying the redemption that Christ achieved for them on the cross. The gospel is also a means of hardening, according to which the good pleasure of God is sovereignly accomplished with respect to those who refuse to repent and are punished for their sins (John 12:39-41; II Cor. 2:16).

This is a truth largely forgotten today. Even those who are not caught up in free offer theology have, for the most part, forgotten this great truth. Not knowing that the preaching of the gospel is “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16), the means by which faith comes (Rom. 10:17), the way in which we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd (John 10:27-28), they neglect preaching. Both preachers (who ought to know better) and the members of their congregations (who probably do not) are guilty. Not knowing that the gospel is the effectual word by which God calls His people out of darkness into light, the clear proclamation of the truth of Scripture is replaced by appeals, emotional displays and a hawking of Jesus Christ that makes Him little more than something to be sold in the marketplace.

May God grant, therefore, not only a correct understanding of what preaching is, but also a revival of true preaching in the church and in evangelism—preaching that is indeed the power of God unto salvation to all those whom He has chosen and for whom Christ died.

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