The Free Offer Of The Gospel

WSC Q&A 31:
Q. What is effectual calling?
A. Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.

Canons of Dort 2.5:
Moreover, it is the promise of the gospel that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel.

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. Arminians find the free offer inconsistent with unconditional election, whereas these sorts of Calvinists (who hold to an expanded view of “free offer”) do not.

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 union with Christ and salvation?

Simply stated, since Calvinism affirms total depravity and compatibilism, 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 question that should be considered in this regard is 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 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) is 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, 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 truths that we should accept by faith? Apparent contradiction or true contradiction?

Not only can God not save the reprobate whom he did not elect in Christ; 2000 years ago didn’t God act 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 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? 

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? Moreover, aside from the question of whether God desires that man act contrary to God’s decree, what does it mean for God to desire that he himself act contrary to how he decreed he would act? Of course, I know no Calvinist who affirms the well-meant offer of the gospel who would also say that God desires that he elected more 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 to save those he has determined not to save? So much for a well meant offer.

Competing desires and unfulfillment

John Piper has 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 Piper’s 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 pleasures within the same decree. Although perhaps an improvement upon John MacArthur’s view that in some sense God is “unfulfilled“ in his desire for the reprobate’s salvation, it nonetheless leaves God wanting. It’s an affront on God’s impassibility.

Abstractions, perhaps a useful tool…

If I desire to go to the doctor but it 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 given that is what is necessary to get to see the doctor. The notion of abstracting particulars from the whole can be useful in this context. Although God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, God most certainly takes pleasure in his eternal decree coming to pass. He desires all the components of his comprehensive plan because it serves his purposes. As a matter of an isolated instance, God takes no pleasure in punishment. As an abstraction without purpose salvation is pleasurable, judgement is not. Yet in the context of all things – God himself, his plan, his glory etc., God takes the highest pleasure in himself, which includes his just indignation against the impenitent who have been ordained to judgement (Jude verse 4) for his own glory. God answers to no one.

God does not consider isolated instances outside the whole. In isolation we can consider something evil, but God who transcends time and space ordains evil for good. Therefore, as an abstraction, God does not desire reprobation for the mere sake of reprobation. Rather, God desires reprobation for his own glory and the good of the elect in the context of his one plan and purpose for this world.

God’s love and ours…

God hates the reprobate (Psalm 5:5; 11:5) and, therefore, has an active love only for those who love him. We may safely say that a necessary condition1 for God’s love to be presently active in the life of a sinner is for the sinner to love God (Proverbs 8:17) and love the Savior (John 14:21,23; 15:10; 16:27). But for sinners to love God, they must first be loved of God (1 John 4:19), which is the cause of the love relationship. Therefore, for the sinner to love God in order for her to experience God’s love in her life, she must first be the object of God’s predestinating love (Ephesians 1:4). Does God desire to grant predestinating love to those he has ordained to wrath (Jude 4)? If not, then in what sense does God desire to save them?


 

1. Condition in this context is not causal. The converted sinner’s love for God does not cause or produce God’s love for the sinner. Neither is the relationship between the two a quid pro quo. It’s a relationship predicated on pure grace. To say that the believer’s love for God (x) is a necessary condition for God’s active love in the life of the converted sinner (y) is simply to say that it is impossible to have y without x. Which is to say, the absence of x guarantees the absence of y. It’s also to say that the presence of y guarantees x.

God’s active love in the life of the sinner, which is a transforming love, is also biconditional. Not just only if the sinner loves God does the sinner experience God’s Iove but also if the sinner loves God. (The latter being the prima facie rendering of the texts.) The sinner’s love for God are necessary and sufficient conditions for receiving God’s love (and likewise for God’s active love in the sinners’s life as it relates to the believer’s love for God). And again, conditions pertain not to cause but state of affairs.