Calvin and the Sincere Offer of Salvation

A Letter from a Reader

To the Editors of  TORCH AND TRUMPET:

In recent issues of TORCH AND TRUMPET and in his book God-Centered Evangelism, Prof. R. B. Kuiper quotes Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11, I Timothy 2:4, and II Peter 3:9 to prove God’s sincere offer of salvation to all to whom the gospel comes—that is, well-meant on the part of God. In some instances he refers to Calvin’s writings to prove his point.

I also would like to quote rather extensively from Calvin’s Institutes in order to do justice to the context.

In meeting the objections to the doctrine of the righteous rejection of the reprobate, Calvin also refers to the above texts.

Book Ill, 24, 15; “But since an objection is often founded on a few passages of Scripture, in which God seems to deny that the wicked perish through his ordination, except in so far as they spontaneously bring death upon themselves in opposition to his warning, let us briefly explain these passages, and demonstrate that they are not adverse to the above view. One of the passages adduced is, ‘Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God; and not that be should return from his ways and live?’ (Ezek. xviii. 23) If we are to extend this to the whole human race, why are not the very many whose minds might be more easily bent to obey urged to repentance, rather that those who by his invitations become daily more and more hardened? Our Lord declares that tho preaching of the gospel and miracles would have produced more fruit among the people of Nineveh and Sodom than in Judea (Matthew xiii. 23). How comes it, then, that if God would have all to be saved, he does not open a door of repentance for the wretched, who would more readily have received grace? Hence we may see that the passage is violently wrested, if the will of God, which the prophet mentions, is opposed to his eternal counsel, by which he separated the elect from the reprobate. Now, if the genuine meaning of the prophet is inquired into, it will be found that he only means to give the hope of pardon to them who repent. The sum is, that God is undoubtedly ready to pardon whenever the sinner turns. Therefore, he does not will his death, in so far as he wills repentance. But experience shows that this will, for the repentance of those whom he invites to himself, is not such as to make him touch all their hearts. Still, it cannot be said that h., acts deceitfully; for though the external word only renders those who hear it, and do not obey it. inexcusable, it is still truly regarded as an evidence of the grace by which he reconciles men to himself. Let us therefore hold the doctrine of the prophet, that God has no pleasure in the death of the sinner; that the godly may fee) confident that whenever they repent God is ready to pardon them; and that the wicked may feel that their guilt is doubled, when they respond not to tho great mercy and condescension of God. The mercy of God. therefore, will ever be ready to meet the penitent; but all the prophets, and apostles, and Ezekiel himself, clearly tell us who they are to whom repentance is given.”

Book III, 24, 16: “The second passage adduced is that in which Paul says that ‘God will have all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. ii. 4). Though the reason here differs from the former, they have somewhat in common. I answer, first, that the mode in which God thus wills is plain from the context; for Paul connects two things, a will to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the troth. If by this they will have it to be fixed by the eternal counsel of God that they are to receive the doctrine of salvation, what is meant by Moses in these words, ‘What nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them?’ (Deut. iv. 7.) How comes it that many nations are deprived of that light of the Gospel which others enjoy? How comes it that the pure knowledge of the doctrine of godliness has never reached some, and others have scarcely tasted some obscure rudiments of it? It will now be easy to extract the purport of Paul’s statement. He had commanded Timothy that prayers should be regularly offered up in the church for kings and princes; but as it seemed somewhat absurd that prayer should be offered up for a class of men who were almost hopeless (all of them being not only aliens from the body of Christ, but doing their utmost to overthrow his kingdom), he adds, that it was acceptable to God, who will have all men to be saved. By this he assuredly means nothing more than that the way of salvation was not shut against any order of men; that, on the contrary, he had manifested his mercy in such a way, that he would have none debarred from it.”

Again in the same paragraph we find this, “A stronger objection seems to be founded on the passage in Peter; the Lord is ‘not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance’ (2 Pet. iii. 9). But the solution of the difficulty is to be found in the second branch of the sentence, for his will that they should come to repentance cannot be wed in any other sense than that which is uniformly employed. Conversion is undoubtedly in the hand of God, whether he designs to convert all can be learned from himself, when he promises that he will give some a heart of flesh, and leave to others a heart of stone (Ezek. xxxvi. 26).”

In this same book and chapter, Sec. 17, we find this: “But why does he mention all men? Namely, that the consciences of the righteous may rest the more secure when they understand that there is no difference between sinners, provided they have faith, and that the ungodly may not be able to allege that they have not an asylum to which they may betake themselves from the bondage of sin, while they ungratefully reject the offer which is made to them. Therefore, since by the Gospel the mercy of God is offered. to both, it is faith, in other words, the illumination of God, which distinguishes between the righteous and the wicked; the former feeling the efficacy of the Gospel, the latter obtaining no benefit from it.”

One more quotation will be cited from The Institutes (Book II, 5, 5), “What purpose then is served by exhortations? It is this: As the wicked, with obstinate heart, despise them, they will be a testimony against them when they stand at the judgment-scat of Cod; nay, they even now strike and lash their consciences. For, however they may petulantly deride, they cannot disapprove them.”

In Calvin’s Calvinism on page 277, I read: “Now, then, answer me, if God had willed that His troth should be known unto all men, how is it that, from the first preaching of the Gospel until now, so many nations exist unto whom His pure truth has never been sent by Him at all, and unto whom, therefore, it has never come? And, again, if such had been the will of God concerning all men, how is it that He never opened the eyes of all? For the internal illumination of the Spirit, with which God has condescended to bless so few, is indispensably necessary unto faith. And there is also another knot for thee to untie, Since no one but he who is drawn by the secret influence of the Spirit can approach unto God, how is it that God does not draw all men indiscriminately to Himself, if He really ‘willeth all men to be saved’ (in the common meaning of the expression)?”

We must remember that when Calvin uses the word offer it means “to present.” The gospel is presented in the preaching of the Word. Throughout Calvin emphasizes God’s sovereignty, his divine predestination, and his favor for the elect,

To sum it up, I find this:

1. The preaching of the gospel comes to all alike, but is efficacious only for the elect.

2. To the ungodly it is “the savour of death unto death.”

3. The above texts – Ezekiel 18:23, 33:11, I Timothy 2:4, and II Peter 3:9 – can not be appealed to in order to prove that the gospel call comes Sincerely to all when the Word is proclaimed.

Finally, in the Korte Verklaring Der fleilige Schrift, Dr.

S. Greijdanus in commenting on II Peter 3:8–9, page 145, writes this: “De Heere talmt niet met de belofte, dat Hij wederkomen zal ten oordeel, alsof Hij nalaten zou, die te vervullen, gelijk sommingen het nog niet in heerlijkheid verschenen zijn voor talmen houden, voor uitstellen, dat afstellen zou worden, maar is lankmoedig, en houdt daarom de uitstorting van Zijn toom over de zonde tegen, om in ontferming te dragen, en de straf over de goddeloze wereld uit te stellen om uwentwil, of, vol gens een andere lezing, jegens u, daar Hij niet wil, dat enigen van Zijn uitverkorenen en gekochten verloren gaan, en niet behouden worden, maar dat die allen tot bekering komen. Het getal van Gods verkorenen moet vol worden.” (Italics are those of Dr. S. Greijdanus.)

The “any” in “not willing that any should perish” refers to God’s people—His elect, as Dr. S. Greijdanus explains it. I shall refrain from quoting any more passages that I’ve come across which express the same general ideas.

We must interpret Scripture in the light of Scripture, If certain passages are not too clear, there are other passages that will give light on the subject. You can not get the author’s viewpoint by citing just one or two passages out of context.

Jack Arens

A Reply by Prof. R. B. Kuiper

Calvin was confronting the paradox of sovereign divine reprobation and the sincere divine offer of salvation to all to whom the gospel comes. To his credit it must be said that he faced that seeming contradiction squarely. He found both these doctrines taught unmistakably in the Bible and therefore upheld both of them uncompromisingly. And in so doing he frankly confessed his inability to square them with each other before the bar of his intellect. In short, he humbly subjected his own logic to the divine logos, the Word of God, which cannot contradict itself.

Brother Arens has shown in admirable fashion that Calvin steadfast1y refused to interpret any portion of Scripture in such a way as to detract so much as an iota from what we today can the five points of Calvinism and hence from the Scriptural teaching that God sovereignly decreed from eternity the damnation of many. Jt follows that the first two parts of Arens’ summary: “The preaching of the gospel comes to all alike, but is efficacious only for the elect” and “To the ungodly it is ‘the savour of death unto death’,” are undeniable.

The doctrine of reprobation is confessed in the First Head of Doctrine, Articles 6 and 15, of the Canons of Dordt. While there are those in Reformed circles today who would compromise that doctrine, anyone at all familiar with my writings knows that I am not one of them.

As for the sincere offer of the gospel, that Calvin upheld it just as uncompromisingly as he upheld the doctrine of reprobation is clear from his comment on such Scripture passages, among others, as Ezekiel 18:23 and II Peter 3:9. On the former he commented: “God desires nothing more earnestly than that those who were perishing and rushing to destruction should return into the way of safety…If any one should object—then there is no election of God, by which he has predestinated a fixed number to salvation, the answer is at hand: the Prophet does not here speak of God’s secret counsel, but only recalls miserable men from despair, that they may apprehend the hope of pardon, and repent and embrace the offered salvation. If anyone again objects—this is making God act with duplicity, the answer is ready, that God always wishes the same thing, though by different ways, and in a manner inscrutable to us. Although, therefore, God’s will is Simple, yet great variety is involved in it, as far as our senses are concerned. Besides, it is not surprising that our eyes should be blinded by intense light, so that we cannot certainly judge how God wishes all to be saved, and yet has devoted all the reprobate to eternal destruction, and wishes them to perish. \¥bile we look now through a glass darkly, we should be content with the measure of our intelligence.” And on II Peter 3:9 Calvin had this to say: “If God wishes none to perish, why is it that so many do perish? To this my answer is that no mention is here made of the hidden purpose of God, according to which the reprobate are doomed to their own ruin, but only of his will as made known to us in the gospel. For God there stretches forth his hand without a difference to all, but lays hold only of those, to lead them to himself, whom he has chosen before the foundation of the world.”

I am, of course, aware that there is a difference of opinion among Reformed exegetes as to the reference of “any” and “all” in the declaration of II Peter 3:9 that the Lord is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” Some think the reference is to the elect only; others are of the opinion that the reference is to all men. As Arens has pointed out, S. Greydanus is among the former. He might have added that Herman Hoeksema also is. However, in their study The Free Offer of the Gospel John Murray and N. B. Stonehouse come to the conclusion that the apostle had all men in mind. In The W ell-Meant Gospel Offer Alexander C. De Jong takes the same position. And it was Calvin’s position also. But II Peter 3:9 was but one of several passages of Scripture on which Calvin based his doctrine of the sincere divine offer of salvation.

The aforesaid paradox as taught by Calvin was discussed at some length by Herman Kuiper in his Calvin on Common Grace. He concluded his study of this matter with the observation that Calvin made it plain that this paradox is “involved in the teaching of Holy Scripture itself” (p. 224). And in his Common Grace Cornelius Van Til says of Scriptural paradoxes: “While we shun as poison the idea of the really contradictory, we embrace with passion the idea of the apparently contradictory. It is through the latter alone that we can reject the former…God dwells in light that no man can approach unto. This holds of his rationality as well as of his being…It follows that in everything with which we deal we are, in the last analysis, dealing with this infinite God, this God who hideth himself, this mysterious God…To seek to present the Christian position as rationally explicable in the sense of being comprehensible to the mind of man is to defeat our own purposes. To do so we must adopt the standard of reasoning of our opponent, and when we have accepted the standard of reasoning of our opponent, we must rest content with the idea of a finite God” (pp. 9f.).

Herman Bavinck was clearly on Scriptural ground when he insisted that for the reprobate Christ is “the savour of death unto death” (II Cor. 2:16). He was just as clearly on Scriptural ground when he asserted: “Although it is true that through calling salvation becomes the portion of but few, as everybody must admit, yet it has great value and significance also for those who reject it. It is for all without distinction proof of God’s infinite love and seals the word that he has no pleasure in the death of the sinner, but therein that he live” (Ezek. 33:11). Compare Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, II, 410 with IV, 7.

Occasionally one hears it said that, whereas the five points of Calvinism, reprobation included, are Reformed doctrine, the universal and sincere offer of the gospel is Arminian doctrine. But the Canons of Dordt, which were drawn up in order to refute Arminianism, confess the latter doctrine when they say: “As many as are called by the gospel are unfeignedly caned. For God has most earnestly and truly declared in his Word what is acceptable to him; namely, that those who are called should come unto him.” And is it not characteristic of Arminianism to make God dependent on the will of man? It says unashamedly that, although God wills to save all men, he is unable to do so because there are men who will not let him. Now that is not only a flat denial of the five points of Calvinism but also a grave distortion of the gospel offer. The Calvinist makes man dependent on God at every point, God dependent on man at no point. No one will respond in faith to the divine offer of salvation but by the sovereign irresistible grace of the Holy Spirit.

The Reformed theology is pre-eminently Scriptural. It is built on the Word of God alone and on the whole Word of God, those teachings included which defy comprehension by the finite mind of man. It would dec1are “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Precisely that is its glory. And thus it glorifies God, whose self-revelation the Bible is.