A Contradiction in Terms?
One of the common objections among some Reformed believers to the free offer of the gospel is that it violates the norms of consistency and coherence. To affirm simultaneously the teachings of unconditional, particular election and of the well-meant gospel offer flies in the face of logic. How can God sovereignly decree not to save a lost sinner, and yet desire his salvation? This is tantamount to saying that God has two contrary wills or impulses: to save and not to save, to love and to hate. This introduces, so far as God’s will with respect to the salvation of sinners is concerned, a kind of duality or schizophrenia into God’s purposes. Such a position is hopelessly illogical and contradictory. To say that God expresses good will toward all lost sinners in the preaching and call of the gospel is tantamount to saying that “God is frustrated in His desire to save certain persons.”1
This is undoubtedly a difficult question. In our earlier treatment of Calvin’s view, we noted that he acknowledged the difficulty while admitting that he had no easy solution to it. Because Calvin was convinced that the Scriptures taught unconditional election and the well-meant offer of the gospel, he affirmed both of these teachings.
However, he also insisted upon their ultimate harmony within the will and purpose of God. Though Calvin readily admitted that he was unable to show fully and clearly how this was so, he insisted that God’s will is ultimately harmonious. Since the Scriptures distinguish between God’s revealed will and His will of decree, we must employ this kind of distinction as well in dealing with the gospel-call. But at no point, according to Calvin, may we admit that God’s will (however complex in relation to us) is contradictory.
Calvin’s unwillingness to attempt a full resolution of this apparent conflict between the teaching of unconditional, particular election and the free offer of the gospel is exemplary. Though it is always tempting to embrace the simple solution, which seems to accord most obviously with the dictates of logic, sometimes we have to follow the Scriptures wherever they lead, even when we are left with perplexing and even intractable problems. No doubt, the simplest position would be one that either affirms unconditional election at the expense of the free offer of the gospel, or affirms the free offer of the gospel at the expense of unconditional election. One or the other, so this approach would argue, must be true: either God elects to save some sinners and therefore expresses nogood-will or favor toward them in the preaching of the gospel; or, God expresses His good-will or favortoward all sinners in the gospel-call and therefore He has not purposed in love to save some and not others. Either of these views has the attraction of being simple and apparently consistent. The problem is that neither view accurately reflects the whole teaching of Scripture, however difficult it may be to see the consistency of all that Scripture teaches on this subject.
The best and wisest course at this point is to admit that, though the tension or inconsistency here is apparent, it is ultimately not real. Though the mystery of the full harmony and coherence of God’s will and purpose may finally lie beyond our grasp or reach, we must be content to follow the teaching of Scripture wherever it leads. If the Scriptures teach unconditional election, we should affirm this teaching. If the Scriptures teach the well-meant gospel offer, we should affirm this teaching as well. That we are unable to see through the consistency of these things says something about the limits of our grasp and understanding. But it is conceit on our part to insist that, because we cannot fully comprehend it, it is not true. As is often the case, Calvin offers us wise counsel in this area: “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. While we look now through a glass darkly, we should be content with the measure of our own intelligence. (1 Cor. 13:12). When we shall be like God, and see him face to face, then what is now obscure will then become plain.”2
There are, however, two additional observations that may be made regarding the consistency of the teaching of election and the free offer of the gospel.
First, contrary to the insistence of the hyper-Calvinist that it is a real contradiction to affirm both of these teachings, we must remember that the well-meant offer has to do with the revelation of God’s will or desire in the preaching of the gospel. To go back to a traditional distinction mentioned in my first article, when we speak of the gospel-call we are in the arena of what Reformed theology calls God’s revealed will, not his decretive will. Though this distinction may only seem to be a convenient attempt to “paper over” the apparent contradiction between the free offer of the gospel and God’s decree of election, it does remind us that the divine desire and good will expressed in the gospel do not describe God’s sovereign intentions or purposes of election. This is the reason I have consistently spoken of God desiring in some sense the salvation of all lost sinners. This desire, which is presented in the preaching of the gospel, is not to be confused with His sovereign purpose of election. Therefore, it is an unfortunate confusion when the language of God’s “will” to save the lost, when it relates to the free offer of the gospel, is regarded to have the same meaning as the language of God’s “will” to save the lost, when it relates to His decree of election.
Second, it is at least conceivable to imagine a circumstance in which God might desire something that He has not simultaneously determined to effect. Robert Lewis Dabney, who was an influential theologian in the southern Presbyterian tradition, addressed this point in his remarkable essay, “God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy, As Related to His Power, Wisdom, and Sincerity.” In this essay, which is an extraordinarily complex handling of our question, Dabney maintains that we can imagine circumstances in which a person might harbor a strong desire or “propension” to show mercy but at the same time, for reasons sometimes unknown to us, determine to effect something quite different. He mentions, for example, General Washington’s decision to sign a death-warrant during the Revolutionary War for Major André. Though Washington felt deep andgenuine compassion for Major André, he resolutely fulfilled his obligation in bringing him to justice for his treason during war-time. While admitting that this and other analogies drawn from human experience are inadequate to account for the harmonious, yet complex, ways of God in dealing with lost sinners, Dabney maintained that it might help us see how God could be simultaneously and sincerely compassionate toward lost sinners while, for reasons known alone to Him, be resolute in His sovereign determination not to save them. Though God’s complex will toward lost sinners would not involve the kind of tension and disharmony that often accompanies human motives and purposes, His will with respect to lost sinners is undoubtedly an infinitely complex one, which could accommodate at the same time a propensity to show mercy to lost sinners while sovereignly determining not to save them. Only an “overweening logic,” Dabney argued, would insist that God could not simultaneously reveal a sincere desire to show mercy to lost sinners and yet harbor in His secret and sovereign designs a purpose to save some and not others.3
I mention Dabney’s treatment of this objection because it confirms the point made in the previous section. Reformed theologians, while recognizing the difficulty of harmonizing the Scriptural teachings of a sovereign decree of election and a well-meant gospel offer, have generally sought to affirm both, to insist upon their ultimate harmony, and to admit that the “ways of God” in this and other respects lie beyond our capacity fully to comprehend.
Implications for Evangelism
To conclude our treatment of the gospel-call, we need to return to the question with which we began: does this have implications for evangelism and missions?4 As I have noted, it is often argued that the Reformed view of election inhibits a rigorous pursuit of evangelism and missions. Reformed believers are hesitant, even reluctant, to preach the gospel indiscriminately and vigorously to all lost sinners, since they fear any approach that would compromise the sovereign and electing grace of God. Those who argue against the Reformed view of election allege that the error of hyper-Calvinism, which denies the legitimacy and sincerity of the gospel call, is an inherent and inescapable feature of Reformed teaching.
This is not any easy argument to answer for several reasons. Since Reformed believers and churches are often delinquent in the area of evangelism and missions, it is certainly legitimate to ask whether its teaching may account for this delinquency. We may not brush aside too quickly the question whether the distinctive teaching of the Reformed churches may not account for their failures in this area. Furthermore, there are Reformed believers and churches who may hold to what I have called a “soft” hyper-Calvinism but whose interest in and energetic pursuit of the church’s evangelistic calling are commendable. It would be a cheap and inappropriate criticism to allege that all those who deny the free offer of the gospel are guilty of an unbiblical indifference toward the task of preaching the gospel to lost sinners. Likewise, proponents of the teaching of a well-meant gospel offer may easily comfort themselves that, by virtue of affirming this offer, they have absolved themselves of any responsibility to act. Remarkably, it is often the case that believers whose teaching is sound betray that teaching by their lives. Others whose teaching falls short of the biblical norm may nonetheless exhibit more faithfulness to the biblical norm in their conduct.
However, the question still needs to be pressed whether a denial of the well-meant offer of the gospel has any impact upon the work of evangelism. To that question, I am convinced, the answer has to be a guarded “yes.” Where the teaching of sovereign election leads to a denial of the free offer of the gospel, the work of evangelism will generally suffer. If believers are not permitted to desire the salvation of all those to whom the gospel is presented, their gospel presentation will lack the passion for the lost that might otherwise be present. To say the least, the preaching of the gospel will lack that heartfelt compassion toward all lost sinners that should belong to biblical evangelism. When the well-meant offer is denied, the gospel can no longer be extended to sinners as a gracious offer, as an earnest and heartfelt invitation, which seeks the salvation of all those to whom it is addressed.
Even though the motives for evangelism are several— including the principal motive of advancing God’s glory and name—one of the most important is a genuine compassion for all lost sinners. As Dabney rightly grasped in his handling of this subject, the paramount issue is whether there is any heart in our preaching of the gospel. If the gospel preacher is not permitted to express his heart’s compassion toward all lost sinners, then what remains of the message of “good news?” How can it be a gospel word any longer, if the preacher must beware of extending the gospel promise in an inappropriate manner to non-elect persons?
Hyper-Calvinism’s denial of the free offer of the gospel cannot but constrict and restrain the open display of God’s mercy and compassion in Christ toward the lost. It can only present the gospel as an exhibit, but not as an invitation. It can only present the gospel as general truth, but not as a personal summons. And it must ever live in fear of presenting the message in an openly conditional form (“if you believe … then you will be saved”). But if the gospel may not be preached conditionally, as an invitation to believe and to repent and so be saved, then how can it be preached at all?
The debate about the free offer of the gospel is, accordingly, an important one for Reformed believers and churches. Failure to embrace as biblical the teaching of the free offer has inhibited and will inhibit the work of evangelism. Unless those who minister in Christ’s name can say, “my heart’s desire and prayer to God is that they may be saved,” they will not be as free and unfettered in seeking the lost as they ought to be.
1 Cf. David J. Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel (rev. ed.; Grand Rapids: The Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1964), p. 6: “The well-meant offer teaches that God is frustrated in His desire to save certain persons.” Engelsma insists (and cites John Gerstner to the same effect) that proponents of the well-meant offer teach that God both “wills and intends” to save all sinners and “does not will and intend” to save some sinners (the non-elect). No doubt proponents of the well meant offer (myself included) have not always stated their position in a fully consistent and clear manner. But I know no Reformed proponent of the offer who would use the terms “will” and “desire” to mean the same thing with respect to the well-meant offer as he means with respect to God’s decree of election. This is a misrepresentation of the well-meant offer that serves to buttress the claim that the idea of the free offer is a real contradiction.
2 Calvin’s Commentaries (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1843–55), vol. 12, pp. 247–8.
3 Robert Lewis Dabney, Discussions of Robert Lewis Dabney (1891; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), vol. 1, pp. 282–313. Cf. John Piper, “Are There Two Wills in God? Divine Election and God’s Desire for All to Be Saved,” in The Grace of God and The Bondage of the Will, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Brace A. Ware (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), vol. 1, pp. 107–32.
4 Cf. Norman Geisler, Chosen But Free. A Balanced View of Divine Election (2nd ed.; Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1999, 2001), pp. 141–2.
Dr. Cornel Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary where he also teaches Doctrinal Studies. Dr. Venema is a contributing editor to The Outlook.