Theological Vocabulary Thursday
The Free Offer of the Gospel
By Ron F. Hale, Minister of Missions, West Jackson Baptist Church. Jackson, TN
Does God have a universal saving will that desires the salvation of all people who will believe, or was our Lord’s atonement only sufficient for some?
Should the Gospel be preached to all indiscriminately with the purpose of calling everyone to repentance and faith?
Is God’s love and saving desire equal or unequal? Does God extend effectual (saving) grace to one group and a common grace to the other?
Is salvation sure and certain of all whom God gave to Christ before the foundation of the world and is in no way conditioned on a sinner responding to the preaching of the gospel?
Is the gospel invitation just a modern method instituted by Evangelist Charles Finney in the 19th century and has no biblical support?
These are questions that relate to the “free offer” or “well meant offer” of the Gospel. The aim of this article is give some definition to the term, share different perspectives, add some personal views, and ask more questions.
One definition of the term is:
The bona fide (“in good faith”) offer of salvation to all who hear the gospel and will repent of their sins and trust in Christ for forgiveness. Some non-Calvinists do not think that Calvinists can freely offer the gospel to all persons since they believe in a definite atonement of Christ for the elect alone. Calvinists respond that the extent of the atonement does not come into play in the preaching of the gospel, for the call is to sinners to repent and trust in Christ; the evangelist need not preach that “Jesus died for you.” The only group that denies the free offer to all sinners indiscriminately is hyper-Calvinism (Shawn D. Wright, “Glossary of Some Important Theological Terms,” in Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue, Nashville: B&H, 2008, 281).
Our Baptist Faith and Message 2000, does address this topic in the following statement:
Salvation involves the redemption of the whole man, and is offered freely to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, who by His own blood obtained eternal redemption for the believer. In its broadest sense salvation includes regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification. There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord (emphasis added; available at http://www.sbc.net/bfm/bfm2000.asp).
In thirty-five years of preaching the Gospel, I can honestly say that I’ve never struggled with the questions that I mentioned in the opening statements. As stated in the Baptist Faith and Message, the Gospel of our Lord is offered freely to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour! Yet, it seems that some Christians and Christian groups have struggled with these questions in history.
The teachings of the Protestant Reformed Churches of America (PRCA) on this subject are:
The well-meant offer teaches that God’s grace is universal. The Protestant Reformed Churches maintain that God’s grace is particular, specifically now in the preaching of the gospel. The truth that God’s grace is particular is essential for a confession of the sovereignty of grace. If God’s grace in the preaching is for everybody, it is not sovereign grace. And the truth that God’s grace in the preaching of the gospel is particular, sovereign grace is the very heart of the Reformed faith…
It is indisputable that the Protestant Reformed Churches’ rejection of a well-meant offer and a conditional promise is not and never was motivated by hyper-Calvinism, that is, by a refusal to preach the gospel to every creature, a refusal to call every hearer to repentance and faith, and a refusal to proclaim to everyone the promise that whoever believes shall be saved. This was simply not the issue. Rather, the issue in the doctrine of a well-meant offer of the gospel is this: does God love and have a gracious attitude toward everyone who hears the preaching, and does He in the preaching desire to save everyone? As Hoeksema never wearied of asking, “What grace does the reprobate receive in the preaching?” (emphasis is original; Reformed Free Publishing Association website, “Doctrines We Believe, Well-meant Offer” available at http://www.rfpa.org/catalog/well-meant-offer.php).
The PRCA refuse to see themselves as hyper-Calvinists, while resisting the belief that the gospel is meant to be offered to everyone!
In fighting hyper-Calvinism among English Baptists of the 19th Century, Charles H. Spurgeon indicates his fervor toward offering the gospel to all in the following quote:
Brethren, the command to believe in Christ must be the sinner’s warrant, if you consider the nature of our commission. How runs it? “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” It ought to run, according to the other [Hyper Calvinist] plan, “preach the gospel to every regenerate person, to every convinced sinner, to every sensible soul.” But it is not so; it is to “every creature.” But unless the warrant be a something in which every creature can take a share, there is no such thing as consistently preaching it to every creature. (Spurgeon’s sermon on 1 John 3:23: “The Warrant of Faith.”)
There seems to be a growing number of Southern Baptists that believe the public invitation is based on defective theology and 19th century gospel gimmicks. I would ask if the rise or resurgence in the belief of a “limited atonement” fuels the opposition to the public invitation or altar call. Dr. David L. Allen does a masterful job in his chapter entitled The Atonement: Limited or Universal? (Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism) in pointing out that limited atonement creates serious problems for God’s universal saving will; it provides an insufficient ground for evangelism by undercutting the well-meant offer; it undermines the bold proclamation of the gospel in preaching; and it contributes to a rejection of valid methods of evangelism such as the use of the evangelistic altar calls (p.107).
Dr. Allen asks a powerful and pertinent question: When is the atonement applied to the sinner (p.65)? He gives three possibilities:
- It is applied in the eternal decree of God.
- It is applied at the cross to all the elect at the time of Jesus’ death.
- It is applied at the moment the sinner exercises faith in Christ.
I contend with Dr. Allen that the atonement is applied when the sinner exercises faith in Christ. This reality gives me a sense of peace and freedom as I look into the eyes of a crowd or congregation and know the Holy Spirit is going to work and woo as His Gospel is preached. It still gives me chill bumps to know that God has called me to this high and holy calling.
Are you seeing signs that the “free offer of the gospel” is being questioned or quenched in SBC life?