The Free Offer of the Gospel: by John Murray and Ned B. Stonehouse
Published by Lewis J. Gratenhuis, Belvidere Road, Philipsburg, New Jersey. pp. 27. Paper bound. 25 cents.
Reformed theology has always spoken of a limited atonement. The atoning death of Christ is efficacious only in reference to those whom God has chosen unto salvation. In view of the limited character of the atonement, is it possible to speak of a universal offer of the gospel? Does God seriously offer salvation to those he does not intend to save? Can there be in the preaching of the gospel a genuine offer of salvation to the reprobate?
The conclusion might be reached that a limited atonement precludes an unlimited offer of salvation. It might be supposed that the gospel offer as well as the atonement is limited by the divine decree of election. However, the gospel itself places no such stricture on its offer of salvation. The gospel presents a serious, well-meant, genuine offer of saving grace to both elect and reprobate sinners. In connection with this fact it may also be said that God desires the salvation of all men, the reprobate as well as the elect. Such is the main contention of this booklet by Professors Murray and Stonehouse of Westminster Theological Seminary.
The theological problem involved in the free offer is a difficult one, especially for the Reformed theologian who emphasizes the sovereign character of divine grace, In order to deal decisively with this problem we must bear in mind the distinction between the secret will and the revealed will of God. God’s secret will includes his decree of election and reprobation, while his command that all men everywhere should repent and believe on the Savior is revealed in the gospel. Thus, God’s wiII includes both a decretive and a preceptive aspect, the one secret and the other revealed. However, God’s decree and his precept are not two contradictory or independent wills, but rather the one incomprehensible will of God is exhibited to us in two ways, as Calvin explains.
Since the divine will is manifold in its content and manifestation, it cannot be simply said that God does not will the salvation of those whom he sovereignly decreed to pass by with the invincible activity of his saving grace. It is the Father’s good pleasure to impart his grace efficaciously to those whom he has given the Son. But it is the Father’s good pleasure that his grace be freely offered to all men. According to God’s decretive will God wills to pass by some with the gift of salvation, and yet his revealed will in the gospel offer is that he wills that these sinners be saved.
This vexing problem is handled in a most helpful way. The authors show their colors as able exegetes in dealing carefully with about a dozen passages which express an ardent desire on the part of God for the salvation of the impenitent and reprobate. These passages show that the doctrine of sovereign electing grace in no way precludes a genuine offer of salvation to all sinners in the preaching of the gospel. It is further shown that “in the free offer there is expressed not simply the bare preceptive will of God but the disposition of lovingkindness on the part of God pointing to the salvation to be gained through compliance with the overtures of gospel grace” (p. 4).
The study of this problem has values for both dogmatics and practical theology. Reports from England indicate this booklet has stirred up a lively controversy there among conservatives. It has been feared that aid and encouragement have been given to Arminianism by this booklet. In America also the long standing debate on common grace, which comes to a focus in the question of the free offer, has been renewed by the appearance of this booklet. Some readers who hold Professors Murray and Stonehouse in high esteem as Reformed theologians believe that some of their statements border on the Arminian view of free grace. It is possible that some readers who are more or less unreformed in their thinking may draw Arminian inferences from certain statements found in this booklet. To be sure, one always runs the risk of being misconstrued when stating the truth. But there can be no justification for “erring on the safe side” when stating the truth, in order to prevent possible misconstructions, if in erring one must state less than the truth. No doubt those who have emphasized the sovereignty of divine grace exclusively while denying the free offer of divine grace have erred on the safe side, but we believe that they have erred seriously.
Free grace is sometimes virtually denied in an effort to avoid Hyper-Calvinism. On the other hand, free grace is often emphasized over against Arminianism. These two points of view are like two rocky cliffs, between which the water is very deep. We can steer a safe course between them only if we are guided by Scripture all the way. Surely, this is one of the deep things of God which is really incomprehensible to man. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and when men attempt to bring God’s thoughts within the range of their own understanding they must in the last analysis reduce God to the finite categories of human logic. The apparent dualism between electing grace and a universal offer, insoluble to human reason, serves to remind us of the depth and richness of divine wisdom. This in turn elicits our praise and worship. (cf. Romans 11:33).
On the side of practical theology it can be said without fear of contradiction that the Reformed faith has always taken seriously the truth of the free offer of the gospel. And yet it is to the shame of some Reformed churches that they have not always been the most active in the evangelistic mission of the church. And so it must be affirmed once again that Calvinism’s emphasis on the sovereignty of divine grace in predestination, when rightly understood, does not stifle evangelism but rather stimulates evangelism. We believe that a study of the implications of the “free offer” should be a real stimulus to true evangelism, and should also incline the church to take more seriously the great commission of her Lord.
JOSEPH A. HILL