The free offer of the gospel (abbreviated “free offer”) has meant different things at different times. From a confessional standpoint, it can only mean that God sincerely offers salvation to all who repent and believe. The meaning is at best narrow. The confessions do not speak in terms of God’s desire for all men to be saved; they merely teach that God promises the gift of everlasting life to all who would turn from self to Christ. This promise of life through faith is sincere. It is a genuine offer. If you believe, you will be saved. This gospel is to go out to all men everywhere.
Arminians are often quick to point out that the free offer is inconsistent with Calvinism. They reason that if the offer of the gospel is sincere and to go out to all people without exception, then God must desire the salvation of all people without exception. Otherwise, they say, the offer isn’t sincere. How can God desire the salvation of all men without exception if God as the ultimate decider of man’s salvation chooses to pass over some? In other words, Arminians reason that unless God desires to save all men, which they observe does not comport with Calvinism, the free offer of life through faith is insincere when given to the reprobate. Their axiom is that a sincere gospel offer implies a sincere desire to see the offer accepted, a well-meant offer. More on that in a moment.
The OPC’s Majority Report
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), representative of possibly most Calvinists today on the matter of the free offer, under the leadership of John Murray and Ned Stonehouse, adopted as a majority position the Arminian view that God desires the salvation of all men. While still holding fast to the Reformed view of predestination, the OPC affirmed the view that that the free offer cannot adequately be disassociated from a divine desire of salvation for all men without exception. In other words, such Calvinists assert that the genuineness of the gospel offer presupposes God’s desire that all embrace Christ.
Subsequently, the free offer has taken on the additional meaning of a well-meant offer, or desire, that the reprobate turn and be saved. Accordingly, a major difference between Arminians and such Calvinists as these is on the question of consistency.
Back to first principles. What makes an offer genuine or sincere?
Can we judge whether an offer is genuine or sincere simply based on whether it is true or not? If God intends to keep his promise, then isn’t the offer genuine? With respect to the gospel, if one meets the condition of faith, he will one day enter the joy of Lord. Isn’t that enough to make the offer of salvation sincere?
Let’s do some basic theology…
What does it mean that God desires the salvation of the reprobate? Are we to believe that God desires the reprobate to do something he cannot do, namely regenerate himself and grant himself union with Christ? Or, is that to check our Calvinism at the door? Isn’t it Jesus who saves? Isn’t salvation of God after all? At best, if we are to remain consistent with our Calvinism, then wouldn’t it follow that to argue for a well-meant offer of the gospel we’d have to posit that God desires that he himself would regenerate the reprobate unto existential union with Christ? After all, when God desires the salvation of the elect, his desire is fulfilled not through sinners giving life to themselves but by God recreating sinners in Christ according to his predestinating decree of salvation.
Aside from the question of whether God desires that unchosen persons act contrary to the decree, what does it mean for God to desire that he himself act contrary to how he determined he would act? Of course, I know no Calvinist who affirms the well-meant offer of the gospel who would say that God desires that he had elected all unto salvation, or anything like that. Yet if man cannot turn himself, as Calvinism clearly affirms, then isn’t the implication of a well-meant offer that God desires that he would turn those he has determined not to save?
Simply stated, since Calvinism affirms total depravity, wouldn’t it stand to reason from a Calvinistic perspective that if God desires someone’s salvation, God must desire that he save that person? Accordingly, the questions that should be considered in this regard are either (a) “Does God desire the reprobate to turn himself and live?” Or (b), “Does God desire that he himself turn the reprobate so that he can live?”
Given that man is blind and deaf to spiritual things and cannot do anything to turn himself Godward, how are we not strictly dealing with the theological plausibility of (b), that God desires to turn the reprobate contrary to what he has already decreed? If TULIP is true, then (a) would seem to be a non-starter.
Now then, is it reasonable to think that the Holy Spirit desires to turn the reprobate Godward when the Father, in eternity, did not choose the reprobate in Christ? Moreover, if Christ did not die for the reprobate and does not pray that the efficacy of the cross would be applied to the reprobate (John 17:9), then in what sense does God desire the reprobate’s salvation? Does God desire that for which Christ does not pray? Does the Trinity desire that persons of the Godhead work at cross purposes? Does God desire true contradictions after all? Or is this a matter of mystery? Does God have multiple wills, let alone multiple wills that are at cross-purposes? Or is this a matter of two opposing truths that we should accept by faith? Apparent contradiction or true contradiction?
Let’s face it:
Not only can God not deny himself by acting contrary to the Covenant of Redemption (CoR) by saving the reprobate whom he did not elect in Christ; 2000 years ago God acted in time sealing that inability by securing salvation only for the elect. If so, then does it not follow that for God to desire the salvation of the reprobate, we should be willing to say that God, today, desires to break the CoR and that Jesus would have died for the reprobate 2000 years ago?
Or is there a third way of living looking at this? Does God live with a sense of regret or un-fulfillment? Is God passible or impassible?
The OPC is quick to point out that they are not advocating a position entailing God both desiring and not desiring his decree. Fine, but then what does it mean for God to desire that men act contrary to his decree? Can God desire his decree while also desiring men to act in such a way that would thwart it? No amount of mystery can salvage metaphysical (or broadly logical) contradiction.
The past and all it contemplates is necessary. Therefore, in our refutation of a well meant offer, we may develop and apply the principle of accidental necessity as it relates to God allegedly desiring to be true (the salvation of the reprobate), when it is now past and consequently necessarily false that atonement was made on behalf of the reprobate! In other words, does God desire things He has now made impossible to obtain? (This observation also pertains to the preposterous notion of Hypothetical Universalism.)
Mystery cannot save contradiction. Accordingly, any appeal to exegesis should not make God out to be internally incoherent. It’s to put forth a passible and a non-omnipotent God to declare to any particular person that God desires her salvation in particular. God desires to save only those chosen in Christ – those who are called according to His purpose – those for whom Christ first desired to save! For this is love, that Christ laid his life down for his sheep. Did God desire that Christ lay his life down for those ordained unto goats?
Let’s go a bit further:
Let x = God’s decree
Let y = The reprobation of some
If y is a fact of x, then y is essential to x. If God (as God) desires x (and is aware that y is essential to x), then we may infer that at least in some sense God’s desire for y is entailed by His desire for x. (I’m speaking in terms of God as God in order to inform our discussion of God with orthodoxy, that we might avoid strict logical possibility that is not ontologically or broadly logical.)
Can God desire x while not desiring y? If not, then in what sense does God desire the converse of y (salvation of the reprobate) given a desire for x (a plan that includes the reprobation of some)?
Let’s briefly entertain three solutions.
1 and 2. Competing desires and unfulfillment:
Some well known Calvinists have posited that God desires the salvation of the reprobate but that he desires their damnation for his own glory even more. There’s something attractive about such a theory. It makes no apology for God positively desiring his decree, which includes his decree of reprobation. The downside is that it implies competing desires within the Godhead, a priority or ordering of yearnings to arrive at one decree. Although perhaps an improvement upon another well known Calvinist’s view that suggests in some sense God is “unfulfilled“ in his desire for the reprobate’s salvation, it nonetheless leaves God longing in making a trade-off. It’s an affront on God’s impassibility.
3. Abstracting the particular from the whole in light of distinguishing desires from pleasures:
We do well to distinguish desire from pleasure. If I desire to go to the doctor but going requires I get soaking wet in the rain, which ordinary I would not desire, then in one sense I do not desire to go out in the rain but in another sense I do. I do not want to go out in the rain if we consider going out in the rain as an abstraction from the overall plan of going to see the doctor. Yet I do desire to go out in the rain if getting drenched is necessary to fulfill my desire to see the doctor. Accordingly, it’s not foreign to our own experience to desire that which is not pleasurable. Context provides relevance.
The notion of abstracting particulars from the whole can be useful in this larger discussion. Although in isolation God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked; God certainly takes pleasure in his overall decree, which he also desires. Moreover, that something isn’t pleasurable for God doesn’t mean it’s not desirable for God. God desired to punish his Son for our sins, though surely it was not pleasurable (though the overall decretive results are pleasurable). Likewise, God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but he would not have decreed reprobation without having truly desired it!
God desires all the components of his comprehensive plan because they serve his desired purpose. Notwithstanding, as a matter of an isolated instance, God takes no intrinsic pleasure in punishment. As an abstraction without purpose, judgement is neither desirable nor pleasurable. Yet in the context of all things – God, his plan, his glory etc., God takes the highest pleasure in himself and his decree, which includes his just indignation against the impenitent who have been ordained to judgement (Jude verse 4) for God’s own glory.
God’s decree is eternal, free and one. In isolation we can consider something evil, but God who transcends time and space ordains evil for good. As an abstraction, God does not desire sin and reprobation for the mere sake of sin and reprobation. Rather, God often desires that which displeases him, but always in service to his glory and the good of the elect. Indeed, God takes pleasure when the wicked turns from his ways, which entails God turning the wicked from his ways! Consequently, that God takes pleasure in all who turn does not imply that God desires all would turn. We may, therefore, say that although God does not take pleasure in in the particularity of reprobation, God nonetheless desires the individuality of reprobation because he takes pleasure in the unity and purpose of the divine decree. God desires the many in so much as it serves his desire for the one. The plurality and unity entailed by the decree are equally ultimate, a reflection of God in three Persons.
Given man’s fallen condition, for God to desire a sinner’s rebirth, God would have to desire not that dead sinners give themselves life, but that He Himself would grant life to the dead. Does God desire to regenerate those he does not desire to irresistibly draw? Secondly, given that God does not have opposing desires or in any way go unfulfilled, we should maintain that God does not desire any providence that is outside his desired decreed. We too, following Christ, are to submit our wills to God’s ultimate plan and purpose (Matthew 16:23; 26:39). Notwithstanding, God never desires sin for the sake of sin itself but for the sake of his own glory in his unified plan of creation, fall, redemption and consummation.
Although God does not desire the salvation of the reprobate, we may declare with full confidence and without equivocation: “God came to save sinners, like you and like me. Come now, receive and rest Christ as he is freely offered to you this day and you will be saved!”
This class lays the groundwork for the corruption of the free offer offer of the gospel in the context of God’s three wills of decree, precept and wisdom.
This class focuses on the free offer.