Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Calvin 365: (6) The free offer of the Gospel

As a teenager I spent some summers involved in outreach at the seaside (n.b. British summers are a washout and British beaches something of a health hazard at the best of times).

We would teach children a chorus that said "Jesus-said-that-who-so-ever-will-may-come!" to which a few of us added in a late night discussion, and "Calvin-said-that-who-so-ever-won't."

At that stage I had not read a single word that Calvin had written, but that didn't stop me from having a grotesquely misshapen view of the man and his theology. It was a few years later, when reading through Ephesians 2:1-10, that my misinterpretation of Calvinism was exposed, and my inadequate grasp of the grace of God in the gospel was laid aside. I then saw, for the first time, that the Triune God saves, he really does do the work of saving, and that the offer of the gospel to all is made effective to those who are called. I saw that I was dead, but God made me alive with Christ even when I was dead in sin.

That is why today I am both a Calvinist, for want of a better phrase (I believe that the sovereign God graciously saves undeserving sinners) and an evangelist who is free to tell all people everywhere to repent and believe.

And Calvin, as the following makes clear, really did believe and teach that "who-so-ever-will-may-come":
The Gospel is indeed offered to all for their salvation, but its power is not universally manifest.

The fact that the Gospel is the taste of death to the ungodly arises not so much from from the nature of the Gospel itself, as from their own wickedness. By setting forth one way of salvation, it cuts off confidence in every other way. When men withdraw from this one salvation they find in the Gospel a sure evidence of their own ruin.

When, therefore, the Gospel invites all to partake of salvation without any difference, it is rightly termed the doctrine of salvation. For Christ is there offered, whose proper office is to save that which had been lost, and those who refuse to be saved by Him shall find Him their Judge.
Commentary on Romans, 1:16, p. 27


Sean Gerety said...

The central issue in the Free Offer debate is not a question of whether or not Christ is freely (i.e., indiscriminately) offered to all, but whether or not implied in that offer is a desire, a longing, on the part of God for “the fulfillment of something which he had…not decreed to come to come to pass” (John Murray, “The Free Offer of the Gospel”).

To answer that question we can look in any number of places, and since it’s referenced in the selection you provide above, why not start in Calvin's commentary of 2 Corinthians 2:15,16:

Here we have a remarkable passage, by which we are taught, that, whatever may be the issue of our preaching, it is, notwithstanding, wellpleasing to God, if the Gospel is preached, and our service will be acceptable to him; and also, that it does not detract in any degree from the dignity of the Gospel, that it does not do good to all; for God is glorified even in this, that the Gospel becomes an occasion of ruin to the wicked, nay, it must turn out so.

Clearly for Calvin the Gospel is not grace to all who hear, but is judgment to some and this too is pleasing to God. I would also recommend not only the OPC's minority report as a nice counter to Murray’s Free Offer doctrine which Robert Reymond rightly notes “imputes irrationality to God,” but Raymond Blacketeer’s, The Three Points in Most Parts Reformed: A Reexamination of the So-Called Well-Meant Offer of Salvation published in the April, 2000 Calvin Theological Journal, where he writes in part:

Regarding the promise of the gift of conversion in Jeremiah 31:33, Calvin remarks that "a man must be utterly beside himself to assert that this promise is made to all men generally and indiscriminately."80 Actual salvation, then, is not offered to all; but the way of salvation is proclaimed to all. The proposition that God desires the salvation of every individual cannot be maintained, Calvin argues, because not even the external preaching of the word comes to everyone, let alone the illumination of the Spirit: "Now let Pighius boast, if he can, that God wills all men to be saved!"81 If God does not intend salvation for all, how can he "offer" it to all? "No one but a man deprived of his common sense and common judgment can believe that salvation was ordained by the secret counsel of God equally and indiscriminately for all men."82

Returning to Pighius' use of 1 Timothy 2:4, where Paul says that God "wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth," Calvin argues that this passage does not mean that God wants each and every individual to be saved. "Who does not see that the apostle is here speaking of orders of men rather than of individuals? Indeed, that distinction which commentators here make is not without great reason and point; that classes of individuals, not individuals of classes, are here intended by Paul."83

When Calvin turns to the arguments of the monk Georgius Siculus, he makes a comment that could be construed to support the 1924 synod's well-meant offer. His opponent claimed that God had made salvation available to all, since, as 1John 2:2 declares, Christ became a propitiation for the sins of the whole world. Calvin responds that "although reconciliation is offered unto all men through him [Christ], yet, that the great benefit belongs particularly to the elect."84 But clearly Calvin does not mean that reconciliation is offered, in the modern sense of the term, to all without distinction. Given what Calvin has already said about God's not intending the salvation of all who are called, it is doubtful that he here reverses his course and affirms that God in fact offers reconciliation to the reprobate, that is, that he holds it out for them to take. Fortunately, we have Calvin's French version of this treatise, where he himself translates the phrase in question "la reconciliation faicte pare luy se presente à tous"--the reconciliation accomplished by him is presented to all. 85

The reason why Calvin does not think that God intends or offers salvation to all becomes clear, in an accidental fashion, from his commentary on that same passage. Calvin mentions the common dictum that "Christ suffered sufficiently for the whole world, but efficiently only for the elect." He admits that this is true, but he denies that this really applies to 1John 2:2, since John only has the elect in mind. Calvin adds, however, that "under the word all or whole, he does not include the reprobate, but designates those who should believe as well as those who were then scattered through various parts of the world."86

Derek Ashton said...


Thanks for this good article. What I find most interesting in Calvin is that he continually warns us not to make logical leaps in areas where there is apparent mystery (i.e., lack of knowledge on our part because God hasn't revealed everything, exhaustively, to mankind). For me, Calvin's note on Psalm 81:13 answers all of my questions related to the free offer. Unlike some of his modern followers, Calvin seems to be EXTREMELY balanced and wise in the way he articulates theology.

Calvin on Psalm 81:13

"If it is objected, that God in vain and without ground utters this complaint, since it was in his power to bend the stiff necks of the people, and that, when he was not pleased to do this, he had no reason to compare himself to a man deeply grieved; I answer, that he very properly makes use of this style of speaking on our account, that we may seek for the procuring cause of our misery nowhere but in ourselves. We must here beware of mingling together things which are totally different as widely different from each other as heaven is distant from the earth. God, in coming down to us by his word, and addressing his invitations to all men without exception, disappoints nobody. All who sincerely come to him are received, and find from actual experience that they were not called in vain. At the same time, we are to trace to the fountain of the secret electing purpose of God this difference, that the word enters into the heart of some, while others only hear the sound of it. And yet there is no inconsistency in his complaining, as it were, with tears, of our folly when we do not obey him.

In the invitations which he addresses to us by the external word, he shows himself to be a father; and why may he not also be understood as still representing himself under the image of a father in using this form of complaint? In Ezekiel 18:32, he declares with the strictest regard to truth, 'I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth,' provided in the interpretation of the passage we candidly and dispassionately take into view the whole scope of it. God has no pleasure in the death of a sinner: How? Because he would have all men turned to himself. But it is abundantly evident, that men by their own free-will cannot turn to God, until he first change their stony hearts into hearts of flesh: yea, this renovation, as Augustine judiciously observes, is a work surpassing that of the creation itself.

Now what hinders God from bending and framing the hearts of all men equally in submission to him? Here modesty and sobriety must be observed, that instead of presuming to intrude into his incomprehensible decrees, we may rest contented with the revelation which he has made of his will in his word. There is the justest ground for saying that he wills the salvation of those to whom that language is addressed, (Isaiah 21:12,) 'Come unto me, and be ye converted.'"