28 March, 2016

The Biblical Offer of the Gospel:
Analysis and answer to Rev. K. W. Stebbins' book “Christ Freely Offered” in Light of Scripture and the Confessions.

Rev. Christopher J. Connors


Chapter One - The Occasion and Issues.

Rev. K. W. Stebbins of the Presbyterian Reformed Church of Australia has attempted to give an answer to three questions put by Professor D. J. Engelsma of the Protestant Reformed Churches of America to the proponents of the well-meant offer. To this end he wrote the book “Christ Freely Offered.” The implications of the "free offer" or well-meant offer, acknowledges Rev. Stebbins, are summed up in the following three questions:

1. Does God desire the salvation of everyone?
2. Does God offer the gospel to all because He loves all men? Does God love all?
3. Does God offer Christ and salvation to everyone in the preaching of the gospel?1

Rev. Stebbins gives an affirmative answer to each of the above questions. He in effect says:

1. Yes, God desires (delights in and pursues) the salvation of every man.
2. Yes, God loves everyone and His grace is for all.
3. Yes, God offers (desires to give) Christ to every one in the preaching of the gospel.

Though Rev. Stebbins teaches that God loves all men, he also insists that God has decreed and immutably determined to save only the elect, that Christ and saving grace is only for the elect, and that God effects the salvation of only the elect through the well-meant offer of the gospel. We should be aware that certain contradictory "truths" are an essential part of Rev. Stebbins' theology. Rev. Stebbins is in effect saying "yes" and "no" to each of the above questions. The well-meant offer he thinks is grounded in the "yes" while the contradiction created by the "no" is left to God to resolve within His own being. According to Rev. Stebbins just how God can say "yes" and "no" and be one, simple, eternally unchangeable God is "the mystery!"

Rev. Stebbins in effect sets himself to defend a conditional will (delight) of God to save all, universal love and grace, and the well-meant offer as an expression of God's will to universal salvation. By so doing, Rev. Stebbins has embraced the universal grace of the Arminians while seeking to hold to the particular grace of Calvinism. He holds these two in irreconcilable tension.

Over against Rev. Stebbins we believe that the Reformed Faith must answer these three questions negatively. God desires to save only the elect. God's love and grace are particular to only the elect in Christ. God does not desire the salvation of all in the preaching of the gospel, nor does God make conditional promises to the reprobate.

In this chapter we must consider in more detail how Rev. Stebbins arrives at the point that he believes he can answer "yes" to the above questions.



Rev. Stebbins' Answer to the First Question:

How does Rev. Stebbins arrive at the conclusion that the God of sovereign predestination delights or desires to save all men, including the reprobate?

Rev. Stebbins finds an active "principle of God's nature" that requires that one give an affirmative answer to this question.2 This “principle of God's nature” is revealed not in God's decretive will, but by God's preceptive will.3 This will of precept indicates, supposedly, that God according to His natural goodness "delights" in the salvation of all. We have, he says:

“…two basic principles of God's nature. The first is that whereby He delights that men would turn to Him; the second is that whereby He delights in sovereign love. God expresses both of these in His dealings with men generally. Because He delights in sovereign love He manifests sovereign benevolence which includes provision of the means intrinsically useful for finding salvation.”4

Rev. Stebbins does not find a basis for his well-meant offer in the will of God. He does not find it in a vicarious and limited atonement either. He does not even find his basis in the command of God that all men repent and believe. Rather, he finds his basis in an "active principle of God's nature" that stands back of the God's revealed will. Let the reader be fully aware that although Rev. Stebbins says God "sovereignly" loves all men, he insists that this principle of "delight is not a free act of will but a necessary principle in God."5 This means God MUST love and pursue the salvation of all men through the gospel offer, even while according to His decree God actively wills not to love and favour the reprobate.

Rev. Stebbins' seems to be aware that his argument cannot stand close scrutiny at this point, therefore he insists that his principle of God's nature revealed by the precept MUST govern one's understanding of the offer of the gospel. We must NOT have our understanding of the gospel governed by what God reveals in His Word concerning His eternal purpose and decree.6 Rev. Stebbins continues, having removed the barrier of God's decree out of the way, to the next step of his argument. That is, the necessary principle of God's nature requires that God's delight is that sinners turn and live (Ezekiel 18:23, 31, 32; 33:11). God, therefore, delights to save all men because of an active principle of His very nature.7

Rev. Stebbins prefers not to say that God "desires" all men to be saved, but that God "delights" that all be saved. He does not feel comfortable with the word "desire" which sounds a bit too volitional, so he substitutes what he imagines is the more passive term "delight."8 In this way, God out of a principle of His very nature is said to delight in what He has decreed not to do; namely, save the non-elect through the preaching of the gospel.

Thus, Rev. Stebbins finds the basis for the well-meant offer to be a necessary principle in the nature of God. God, according to Rev. Stebbins, just can't help loving and delighting in the salvation of all men head for head. This remains the case, he thinks, while God wills to save only His elect through the means of grace.



Rev. Stebbins' Answer to the Second Question:

How does Rev. Stebbins arrive at the conclusion that God loves all and His grace is for all? Again, God's love flows to all men out of a necessary principle of His nature.

Rev. Stebbins finds the same principle of God's nature that moved Him to delight in universal salvation to be the source of a species of universal love. This love that is manifest as "common" grace and mercy, flows to all men from the necessary principle of God's natural goodness. Goodness, he says, is that "attribute of God by which He delights to deal bountifully and kindly with all His creatures."9 To remove the sovereign will of God in reprobation, which is the Biblical barrier to such reasoning, Rev. Stebbins argues that God's decree of reprobation ("Esau have I hated"), "says nothing about God's attitude toward the reprobate . . . nor about their destiny."10 Therefore, says Rev. Stebbins: "All acts of God's goodness toward men are acts of love or benevolence and flow from a nature inclined towards benevolence."11 If God communicates His goodness to all, He must be graciously and kindly disposed to all.12 This principle of goodness is "common" grace. This is grace for all in the good things bestowed upon all men.13 Rev. Stebbins defines God's grace as undeserved favour, but he INSISTS that grace is in God as the giver -- and -- in the gift that proceeds from God's nature.14 Therefore, all God's good gifts are grace, to both elect and reprobate alike.

The next step in Rev. Stebbins' argument is to join his first two necessary principles, (delight to save all, and love and grace to all) to the further notion that God is "pursuing" all men with salvation.15 God, he says, pursues all men's physical well-being through temporal blessings and pursues all men's eternal salvation through the means of grace.16 At this point the reader must clearly understand that the "necessary principle of God's nature" is no longer confined to action within the Divine Mind (ad-infra). It is now volitional and active outside the being of God (ad-extra) toward and in the creation. It is pursuing the salvation of all men. Note carefully that Rev. Stebbins' "common grace" has as its intended end the salvation of sinners in Christ Jesus.

At this point Rev. Stebbins' view is all but indistinguishable from Arminianism's "general grace" in the conditional offer of salvation. Rev. Stebbins, however, seeks to stop short of this heresy. He recognises that "common" grace and God's necessary principle of delight cannot possibly achieve the desired end. God's eternal, immutable decree stands in its way as an insurmountable barrier. Therefore, he draws a distinction between "common" grace and "special" grace. God loves mankind as a class with ‘benevolent’ love, and loves the elect as a class with ‘electing’ love.17 "God therefore pursues man's preservation, including its highest form in salvation but in the elect alone He has determined to pursue it to the end."18 God's love and hatred, it follows, are common to the reprobate and elect alike.19 God embraces elect and reprobate alike with a species of love called "sovereign benevolent love" for a time. After a brief time under God's love while in this world, God withdraws His love from the wicked because they resisted it, and they are eternally damned. God goes on from "common love and grace" to love the regenerated, sanctified elect with a love of greater magnitude and abiding virtue called "pleasurable love."20

To summarize Rev. Stebbins' argument thus far, we must say that God delights to save all, loves all, is gracious toward all, and therefore, pursues all men with salvation in the well-meant offer of the gospel -- BUT - God wills never to achieve this end. God's love fails to save. God's delight is not realized.



Rev. Stebbins' Answer to the Third Question:

The question is: Does God "offer" Christ to all in the preaching of the gospel? That is, does God desire to give Christ to all who will take Him in the offer of the gospel?

Having provided a basis in a principle of God's nature whereby He loves all, delights to save all, and graciously pursues the salvation of all, Rev. Stebbins next attempts to show how the universal offer of salvation is the expression of His love and gracious pursuit.

Rev. Stebbins does not define the term "offer". The closest he comes is: "The gospel is a gracious offer of salvation to man if he will perform his duty."21 Rev. Stebbins in effect has God making a conditional promise to save the reprobate if he will fulfil the conditions.22

The question, Rev. Stebbins rightly says, is this: "…whether God merely commands all men to repent and believe or whether He earnestly and seriously calls upon all men to receive salvation by repenting and believing."23 This raises the CRUCIAL question, as Rev. Stebbins acknowledges. What is God's warrant for making a universal well-meant offer? "How can God offer salvation to those for whom it was neither ordained nor purchased?"24

The whole position of Rev. Stebbins stands or falls on this point. If he cannot demonstrate a true basis for a well-meant offer from Scripture, then, Rev. Stebbins' view must be rejected. Rev. Stebbins provides no basis! His "necessary principle in God" is no help to him here. That principle was supposed to provide a basis for "non-saving" love and grace. Rev. Stebbins is unable to give any basis for his universally well-meant offer in God's sovereign decree of election and reprobation; nor, as he acknowledges, can he show any basis for it in Christ's limited atonement. He stands before a glaring contradiction at the very heart of his argument and declares:

“There is no more I can say as to God's warrant for offering the gospel to all. Endeavouring to explain further what is essentially mysterious, can only result in darkening counsel by words without knowledge . . . Such endeavours, where we have nothing to draw with and the well is deep, betray a shallow apprehension of the limits of our faculties.”25

This avoiding of the issue is totally unacceptable. Rev. Stebbins, after all, cannot produce any revealed basis for a well-meant offer. We are told clearly in Scripture that God our Saviour sent Christ only for His elect, but now Rev. Stebbins has God delighting and promising to give Christ to all men! How can this be sincere? Rev. Stebbins instructs us to stand with our hands upon our mouths before a divine mystery!

This contradiction, or mystery as Rev. Stebbins calls it, is the direct result of trying to wed the particularity of the Covenant of Grace to a view of the offer. This is a fundamental compromise with Arminianism. Rev. Stebbins has concocted a species of hypothetical universalism that shrouds itself in the cloak of the mystery.

The elaborate basis Rev. Stebbins built out of the "necessary principles of God's nature" does not help him here. In fact, Rev. Stebbins' "necessary principles" create a further problem: How can God's necessary delight to give, stand in flat contradiction to His free and sovereign will to withhold? Is this not a "necessary contradiction?" The problem is, that Rev. Stebbins makes this contradiction to exist in the very nature of God. His argument begs this question: How can God be so contradictory and still be God? We do not, however, believe that the problems inherent in Rev. Stebbins' views exist. His mystery is imaginary. It rises out of his erroneous view of the "offer" and of the nature and will of God.

Thus far we have sought to set forth Rev. Stebbins' position and drawn the lines for this discussion. We can now proceed in more detail to demonstrate the erroneous nature of Rev. Stebbins' views, and set forth what we believe is the truth of Scripture and the Westminster Confession regarding the sincere and non-contradictory offer of God in the preaching of the gospel.


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FOOTNOTES

1. K.W. Stebbins, Christ Freely Offered, (Strathpine, Aust: Covenanter Press, 1978).
2. Ibid. p. 14-20.
3. The terms "preceptive will" and "precept" in this discussion of the free offer primarily refer to the command of God to repent and believe.
4. Stebbins, Op. cit. p. 84.
5. Ibid. p. 20-21.
6. Ibid. p. 15.
7. Ibid. p. 20.
8. Note that Stebbins says "delight" not "desire." He seeks to distance himself from the glaring weakness of Murray and Stonehouse who taught that God "desired" the salvation of all yet did not fulfill that desire. Stebbins, as we shall see, changes the word "desire" to "delight." The word "desire," he thinks, has volitional active force, whereas "delight implies no such active connotation but refers to the character of God, (Ibid., p. 20). In essence Stebbins' argument is simply that of Murray and Stonehouse with the word "delight" substituted for "desire." This sleight of hand fails to extricate him from his dilemma, but is, as we shall see, a distinction without a difference.
9. Stebbins, Op. cit., p. 56.
10. Ibid. p. 60.
11. Ibid. p. 58.
12. This is of course to confuse the issue by failing to recognize the distinction between God's goodness and God's grace. It is argued by Stebbins' opponents that God who is perfectly good, good in all His works, and never evil, brings all things to pass and is kindly disposed to every man upon whom He has sovereignly set His love in Christ before the foundation of the world, (Eph. 1:4-10 ).
13. Ibid. p. 56.
14. Ibid. p. 55.
15. Ibid. p. 67.
16. Ibid. p. 67.
17. Ibid. p. 59.
18. Ibid. p. 70-71.
19. Ibid. p. 61.
20. Ibid. p. 59.
21. Ibid. p. 95.
22. He assumes that for God to reveal Christ as Saviour, to require faith and to make particular promises to all who believe IS God delighting in, loving and pursuing all men's salvation conditioned upon man's choice. He assumes what he and the Arminians must prove.
23. Ibid., p. 94. Rev Stebbins side steps the issue. Stebbins must prove that in the preaching of the gospel God makes a universal conditional promise to all hearers of the external call. If this latter is to be maintained it must be shown that God is “sincere” in promising the blood of Christ, shed for the elect, to all men conditionally. This is the issue. For such an offer to be sincere it must have a basis in Christ's atonement. It would also be necessary for Rev. Stebbins to demonstrate with more than asserting contradictions how he has differed from the Arminianism condemned at Dort.
24. Ibid. p. 6


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