Election, God’s Love and the Universal Offer

A characteristic of evangelical Arminianism is to interpret the atonement in the universalistic sense of placing men—all men—in a state of salvability. According to this theological system Christ’s death really effected nothing. It views the cross as the focal point where God displayed his holy hatred against sin and demonstrated his love for righteousness, the result being that God could now bestow pardon and confer spiritual blessings upon all men alike who were willing to accept these gifts.

Arminianism’s emphasis upon the unlimited love of God for all men, its subsequent refusal to attribute any limitation of God’s purpose in the atonement is closely allied w ith its disavowal of God’s limited ejection whereby he intended to save some members of the human race. There is evidence in Professor Harold Dekker’s writings that tends toward this form of theology. A clue to his basic position—was revealed in the article wherein he initiated the discussion. He wrote: “It is regrettable that some theologians, for the sake of a limited election, place limitation on the love of God. The most extreme and destructive form that this takes is the arbitrary interpretation of words such as ‘world’ as ‘elect world: and ‘all men’ as ‘all elect men’…However, a basically similar compromise of the Biblical paradox is made by close who distinguish between two kinds of love in God, positing a qualitative difference between God’s love for all men and His love for the elect…God’s love is love. It cannot be something else. Where in Biblical language or concept is there a qualitative difference within love as agape? Where in man’s experience with God is there something which is at one and the same time both love and other-than-love? A qualitative disjunction between different kinds of divine love is a sheer contradiction in terms. It safeguards neither the love of God nor the decree of election.”1

To state one’s position in the manner of the foregoing ,quotation betrays a lack of exegetical perspective. A careful examination of Scripture will refute Dekker’s position on this matter.


Such passages as Amos 3:2 (“You only have I known of :all the families of the earth”) establish that when the word “know” is used to describe God’s relationship to his people it is the equivalent of “love”. This expression points back to those passages in the Pentateuch which state that because the Lord loved Israel he chose them, not because they were greater in number than other peoples.

In Romans 8:29 Paul writes: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.” The word “foreknow” is practically the equivalent to “foreloved.” The element of love stands in the forefront of this passage. If love is co-extensive with predestination it follows that it cannot be given a broader extent. Since predestination is by its very nature restricted must not, therefore, the love that is included in the term “foreknow” also be restricted? This is a love which is not exercised toward the non-elect. Here is a clear example of a qualitative difference in the love of God which is a paramount ingredient in his “foreknowing” that resulted in the predestinating of some men to be conformed to the image of his Son.

In Ephesians 1:4–6 Paul relates predestination to the love of God. “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.” The expression “in love” dangles if taken with what precedes (vs. 4); it appears rather to be a legitimate qua.li6cation of the opening words of vs. 5. Thus the RSV: “He destined us in love to be sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…” Here is an obvious declaration that predestination is impelled by love! It is because God loved that he exercised his prerogative of making a qualitative distinction, namely, his decree of predestination! The text will not permit us to think of this distinguishing love as being exercised towards those not predestinated. The important consideration here is that the love which impelled predestination is of such a nature that predestination derives its determinative issue from it. If this is not clear evidence of how God’s love is qualitatively differentiated then words have lost their true meaning.



In his article “Telling the Good News to All Men” Dekker advises us to relegate the doctrine of election to the background whenever we engage in evangelistic preaching or personal witnessing to unbelievers. His advice is sound if one is tempted to speak of election in the derogatory manner he describes in the course of an imaginary conversation between himself and a traveling companion. We all agree that it would be wrong for anyone to reply to an unbeliever’s question, “Do you think God loves me?” in the manner described: “I don’t know. That depends On whether you have been chosen of God.”2 More likely a Reformed witness would choose to answer such a question in this fashion: “There is a way of determining this. If you know yourself to be a sinner, without spiritual merit, and if you are trusting in the sacrifice which Christ made on the cross, if you believe that he suffered God’s wrath against your sin, then you may be assured that God loves you. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth on him should not perish but have everlasting life…He that believeth on him is not condemned.” We believe that such an answer is true to the Scriptures and stands in contrast with the typical Arminian answer that God. loves all sinners and wants to save them because Christ died for everybody.

It should be obvious to all that no Reformed person would think of standing in front of a mission audience to give a dogmatical outline on sovereign election and righteous reprobation, or define the difference between infra- and supra-lapsarianism. Neither would one dare to conclude his message with such an absurd and pedagogically invalid statement as “if you are one of God’s elect, have no fear for you will ultimately be saved; and, if you are not, don’t blame God, for all his actions are just even if you cannot understand them.”

Dekker refers to several so-called universalistic passages that, when allowed to stand apart from the rest of Scripture, seem to lend credence to the alleged universality of the atonement’s purpose and intent. Regarding this methodology we do well to listen to the comment made by William Cunningham, eminent Scottish theologian of the 19th century. His precise language, breadth of learning, exactness of thought, and ability to define the issue are clearly evident throughout his writings. We quote: “The fair principle of interpretation is, to make the definite and limited statements the standard for explaining the general and indefinite ones, and not the reverse; especially as Scripture fUrnishes many examples in which all the unlimited expressions that are applied to the death of Christ, viewed in relation to its objects—the world, the whole world, all, every, etc.—are used, when no proper and absolute, but merely a relative or comparative universality was intended.”3 Cunningham further states: “Arminians commonly consider the passages which seem to indicate a limitation, in the object of the atonement, as referring to the application, as distinguished and separated from the interpretation or purchase of the blessings of redemption; while Calvinistic universalists usually regard them as referring to God’s special design to secure the salvation of the elect, which they hold in combination with an alleged design or purpose to do something by means at a universal atonement, directed to the salvation of all men” (Italics supplied).4 By “Calvinistic universalists” Cunningham means those who allege the universal design of the atonement while holding to Calvinism upon other points.

We must necessarily exercise caution and show discretion in using the doctrine of election in our preaching and witnessing. On the other hand, we should not act as if election has nothing to do with the good news of salvation. Without God’s electing love there would be no salvation for anyone. Calvinism’s difference with Arminianism is not merely in respect to the efficacy of the atonement, as Dekker’s writings imply, but concerns the entire doctrine of salvation.

The Canons of Dort teach, as Dekker has observed, that “the doctrine of divine election” should be “published in due time and place in the church of God, for whicll it was peculiarly designed, provided it be done with reverence, in the spirit of discretion and piety, for the glory of God’s most holy Name, and for enriching and comforting His people…”5 This gives us no warrant, however, for regarding the doctrine of election as having no bearing on the presentation of the gospel to unbelievers. If such were true, we dread to think of what the consequences would be. The next generation will demand that this strictly Calvinistic doctrine be confined to the church archives and will no longer allow it to be preached, not even in the church of God, since every congregation contains numbers yet unsaved. They will contend that to preach the doctrine of election in such a situation is not the part of discretion lest it becloud the universal aspects of the atonement!

Preaching election before unbelievers was, apparently. no problem for that eloquent Calvinistic evangelist, Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–1892). In his outstanding sermon entitled “Election” we note the following: “And now, lastly, to the ungodly. What says election to you? First, you ungodly ones, I will excuse you for a moment. There are many of you who do not like election, and I can not blame you for it, for I have heard those preach election, who have sat down, and said, ‘I have not one word to say to the sinner.’ Now, I say you ought to dislike such preaching as that, and I do not blame you for it.”

“But, I say, take courage, take hope, O thou sinner, that there is election! So far from dispiriting and discouraging thee, it is a very hopeful and joyous thing that there is an election. What if I told thee perhaps none can be saved, none are ordained to eternal life, wouldst thou not tremble, and fold thy hands in hopelessness, and say, ‘Then how can I be saved, since none are elect?’ But, I say, there is a multitude of elect, beyond all counting—a host that no mortal can number. Therefore, take heart, thou poor sinner! Cast away thy despondency -mayst not thou be elect as well as any other? for there is a host innumerable chosen. There is joy and comfort for thee.”6

A professing Calvinist should never separate the doctrine of election from the design and intent of the atonement. For whether the atonement actually procured the redemption of some men pursuant to God’s decree of election, as the Calvinist believes, or whether all men have, as a result of the atonement, merely been placed in a state of reconcilability, as the Arminian believes, will, of necessity, determine the manner in which the unbeliever is confronted with the gospel.


In his writings Professor Dekker has contended that the failure of the Christian Reformed ministry to appreciate the universal aspects of the atonement’s sufficiency, availability, and desire “impairs the principle of the unlimited love of God and tends to inhibit missionary spirit and activity.”7 The views he has publicly stated are all indicative of how he understands the atonement and the benefits which derive therefrom.

It may be helpful to quote some Reformed theologians to point out the contrast in thought that exists between Dekker and these men. To begin, let us hear Cunningham: “The Arminians, believing in universal grace. in the sense of God’s love to all men—that is. omnibus et singulis, or His design and purpose to save all men conditionally—and in universal redemption, or Christ’s dying for all men consistently follow out these views by asserting a universal proclamation to men of God’s purpose of mercy, a universal vocation, or offer and invitation, to men to receive pardon and salvation—accompanied by a universal sufficient grace—gracious assistance actually and universally bestowed, sufficient to enable all men, if they choose, to attain to the full possession of spiritual blessings, and ultimately to salvation. Calvinists, while they admit that pardon and salvation are offered indiscriminately to all to whom the gospel is preached, and that all who can be reached should be invited and urged to come to Christ and embrace Him, deny that this Haws from, or indicates, any design or purpose on God’s part to save all men; and without pretending to understand or unfold all the objects or ends of this arrangement, or to assert that it has no other object or end whatever, regard it as mainly designed to effect tile result of calling out and saving God’s chosen people.”8

If by saying that tile offer of the gospel is redemptive love Dekker means that in some sense Christ has made satisfaction for the non-elect he is clearly without the war· rant of Scripture. Furthermore, it appears that he is desperately trying to prove the sincerity of God. His reasoning seems to be that God is insincere unless the offer of the gospel is based upon atoning benefits being available to all men. William C. T. Shedd, outstanding Presbyterian theologian, in refuting the error that God is under obligation to all men states: “If justice forbids him to ‘pass by’ any sinners, and ‘ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin,’ he is bound to elect all sinners and ‘predestinate them to everlasting life.’ He has no liberty or sovereignty in tile case. He cannot say, ‘I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy, and whom I will I harden (do not soften)” (Rom. 9:18). This transmutes mercy into justice. Pardon becomes a Divine duty. The offer of Christ’s sacrifice, nay even the providing of it, becomes a debt which God owes to every human creature. This is the assumption that lies under all the various modes of Universalism. Sinful men, loving sin, bent on sin, are told that they are entitled to the offer of mercy and regenerating grace; that they must have a ‘fair opportunity’ of salvation, if not here, then hereafter. Sinful men, full of self-indulgence, confessing no sin and putting up no prayer for forgiveness, and who have all their lifetime suppressed the monitions of conscience and quenched the Holy Spirit’s strivings with them in his exercise of common grace, are taught that if God shall pass them by, and leave them to tho sin that they prefer, he is an unmerciful despot.”


A masterful understanding of the subject under discussion is exhibited by Dr. Geerhardus Vos (1862–1949) in a learned treatise on “The Scriptural Doctrine of the Love of God.” Dr. Vos, who occupied the Chair of Biblical Theology at Princeton Seminary for nearly forty years, was blessed with the ability of a penetrating insight into theological issues. His contribution should aid greatly in understanding the matter before us.

He wrote; “But whatever there is of organic adjustment between the sphere of nature and of the kingdom, between that of common and of special grace, between the love of compassion and the love of adoption, cannot justify us in identifying the one with the other. In our Lord’s teaching this is never done. So far as the actual manifestation lies in this, that the enjoyment of the common love of God outside of tile kingdom does not exempt man from being subject at the same time to the divine wrath on account of sin. Love and wrath here are not mutually exclusive. Within the circle of redemption, on the other hand, the enjoyment of the paternal love of God means absolute forgiveness and deliverance from all wrath. Even this, however, is not sufficient clearly to mark the distinction between these two kinds of love, the wider and the narrower. For, previously to the moment of believing, those who are appointed for salvation, no less than the others, are subject in their consciousness to the experience of the wrath of God. It would seem, therefore, that in his pre-Christian state the one who will later become a child of God is not differentiated fro m the one who never will, inasmuch as both are in an equal sense tile objects of the general benevolence of God and of His wrath in their experience. Thus a representation would result as if the line of God’s general love ran singly up to the point of conversion, there to pass over into the line of His special love. The general love of God, as a common possession of all men, would then be the only factor to be reckoned with outside of the sphere of the kingdom; and a special love of God could be spoken of only with reference to those who have actually become His children. And on this standpoint tile temptation would always be strong to view the special love of God as conditioned by the spiritual character of man, since it does not apply to any except the regenerate.”

“In order to clear the subject thoroughly, therefore, we must note the further fact that, according to our Lord’s teaching, even before the divine wrath is lifted off the sinner at the moment of his believing, there exists alongside of the general benevolence which embraces all mankind a special affection in the heart of God for certain individuals, who are destined to become subsequently His children, and who are in their subjective consciousness as yet the objects of His wrath. Already during the pre-Christian state of the elect there are two lines, that of general and special love, running parallel in God’s disposition toward them. It is not the special love itself which originates at the moment of conversion, but only the subjective realization and enjoyment of it on the part of the sinner.”

“The Fourth Gospel, in which so many at present profess to find an indiscriminate universalism of the redemptive love of God. is the most emphatic on this point of all the New Testament writings, Paul alone excepted. Not merely is sovereign election taught here in unequivocal terms: it is also brought into organic connection with the love of God. Those who are appointed unto life are children and sheep of the fold antecedently to their own acceptance of the Gospel. They belong to the Father in a special sense, and in virtue of this ownership are given by Him to the Son, who is in His whole appearance and activity the exact reproduction of the Father, chooses them out of the world, and makes them the objects of that High-priestly intercession from which the world is on principle excluded. Believers know that they love God, because He loved them first: And, what is strongest of all, in a context where the Saviour dwells upon the Father’s love, which was His before the foundation of the world, He identifies the disciples with Himself even in this unique possession: ‘In order that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.”10

It is highly necessary for us to see that God’s decree of election is inseparably connected with the expression of his love. God’s love of compassion for all men, and his love of adoption for some men “cannot justify us in identifying the one with the other” as Vos has so aptly stated. We cannot avoid the conclusion that so long as Professor Dekker expounds the atonement as that great event in the process of redemption whereby Christ is said to have died for all men because of his unrestricted love that the doctrine of election will increasingly be treated as an after thought and will ultimately disappear from mission principles taught in Calvin Seminary.


As a prelude to our evaluation of the issue we again turn to the writings of Geerhardus Vos: “…the Scriptures do not leave room for the opinion that at any point, either in the eternal decree or in its historical unfolding, God’s love for those intended to become His people has been undifferentiated from His love for wider groups of humanity. Every formula which would efface or tend to obscure this fundamental distinction ought to be at the outset rejected as unbiblical. The divine love for the elect is different not only in degree but specifically from all other forms of love, because it involves a purpose to save, of which all the other forms fall short. It was the great fault of the Amyraldian system that, on the one hand it ascribed to the universal redemptive love which it assumed, the character of a purpose to save: and that, on the other hand, by doing so it made the special relation of God to the elect emerge at a secondary stage in the decree of redemption. This is not only destructive of the principle that the purpose of God cannot under any circumstances be frustrated; it strikes at the root of the specifically religious significance of the doctrine of election. The love of God for His own thus becomes an afterthought and loses the better part of its value” (Italics supplied).11

Professor Dekker’s writings stand out, by way of contrast, with the careful distinctions made by eminent theologians of the Reformed faith. In the light of their well-defined contributions regarding the love of God and the purpose of the atonement it is disturbing that he has expressed himself in a manner in which the particularism of divine grace has not been adequately guarded. Moreover, we consider most unsuitable his seriously-meant suggestion that the doctrine of limited atonement as understood and taught in the Christian Reformed Church has been faulty. In effect, he has indicted not only faithful ministers and missionaries of his own church but he has summoned the Reformed tradition itself before his bar of judgment. We believe that Professor Dekker desires to be in accord with Scripture but we are disheartened by the pragmatic theme running through his series of articles.

Should we desire to say to all and each, “Christ died for you”? Is this theme necessary to “successful” evangelism? Must this statement be made to validate the gospel offer and vindicate the sincerity of God? The preacher who speaks in this fashion plainly controverts the indisputable teaching of Scripture and the Reformed creeds that the death of Christ makes no saving, or atoning benefits available to the reprobate. The question is not whether any benefits short of justification and salvation accrue to men from the death of Christ. No one denies this. We contend that the gospel offer is rooted in God’s love of compassion for all men. We deny that it is grounded in the expiatory sacrifice which Christ made to obtain eternal redemption. The question is: for whom did Christ offer himself as a sacrifice for sin? For “all men” or “some men”? Redemption does not denote a state of redeemability. Dekker has attempted to stimulate mission activity among us by advocating that Christ’s death has placed all men in a redeemable position. His insistence that the atoning benefits of Christ’s expiatory sacrifice be given a universal reference stands in marked opposition to basic Reformed thought. We fear that his emphasis seriously affects the Reformed character of our seminary.

1. Harold Dekker in The Reformed Journal. Dec. 1962, page 8.

2. Harold Dekker in The Reformed Journal. March, 1964, page 17.

3. William Cunningham in Historical Theology, Vol. II, The Banner of Truth Trust, London, 1960, page 340.

4. Ibid., page 342.

5. Canons of Dort, Chapter I, Article 14.

6. Charles Haddon Spurgeon in a sermon entitled “Election”, published by The Committee on Christian Education, The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, Pa., pages 21f.

7. Harold Dekker in The Reformed Journal, Dec. 1962, page 7.

8. William Cunningham in Historical Theology, Vol. II, pages 396 f.

9. William G. T. Shedd in Calvinism: Pure and Mixed, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1893, pages 54 f.

10. Geerhardus Vas in The Presbyterian and Reformed Review, Vol. XIII , January, 1902, pages 24 f.

11. Ibid., pages 36 f.