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Against the Well-Meant Offer

by John H. Gerstner

I.

Most Reformed theologians also include, as a by-product of the atonement, the well-meant offer of the gospel by which all men can be saved. Some Reformed theologians take a further step still and say that God even intends that they should be saved by this atonement which nevertheless was made only for the elect. For example, John Murray and Ned Stonehouse write:

Our Lord ... says expressly that he willed the bestowal of his saving and protecting grace upon those whom neither the Father nor he decreed thus to save and protect.

One may sadly say that Westminster Theological Seminary stands for this misunderstanding of the Reformed doctrine since not only John Murray and Ned Stonehouse but also Cornelius Van Til, R.B. Kuiper, John Frame, and, so far as we know, all of the faculty have favored it. The Christian Reformed Church had already in 1920 taken this sad step away from Reformed orthodoxy and has been declining ever since. The Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. had even earlier, though somewhat ambiguously, departed and the present mainline Presbyterian church affirms that “The risen Christ is the savior for all men.”

The Presbyterian Church in the United States (now part of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.) is not far behind, and the separatist Presbyterians such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America are following in this train. Only the Protestant Reformed Church[es] seems willing to hold to the whole counsel of God on this doctrine.

Serious as this error is, it does not constitute a radical break with the Reformed tradition, though it does lay a foundation for it. For example, Murray and Stonehouse insist that, though God truly desires the salvation of the reprobate, He does not decree that. Rather, He decrees the opposite. They recognize theirs as a very dangerous position and appeal to great mystery:

We have found that God himself expresses an ardent desire for the fulfillment of certain things which he has not decreed in his inscrutable counsel to come to pass. This means that there is a will to the realization of what he has not decretively willed, a pleasure towards that which he has not been pleased to decree. This is indeed mysterious, and why he has not brought to pass in the exercise of his omnipotent power and grace, what is his ardent pleasure lies hidden in the sovereign counsel of his will.

However this is not “mystery” but bald contradiction, as these two fine Reformed theologians well realized. How does one account for Homer(s) nodding? The answer is simple—the exegesis seemed to demand it. The two authors “tremble at God’s Word” and God’s Word seemed to them clearly to say that God desired what God did not desire. We certainly agree that if God says that He desired what He did not desire we would have to agree with God. Since we know that God does not desire what God does not desire, for this is evident on every page of Scripture, as well as in the logical nature of God and man, we know this exegesis is in error, must be in error, cannot but be in error.

But where is its error? It must be that Murray and Stonehouse are taking God literally where He desires to be taken anthropomorphically. Almost everything said about God or by God in Scripture is an anthropomorphism. The “everlasting arms,” His “riding on the clouds,” the “eyes” and “ears” of the Lord—there are literally hundreds of such metaphorical, anthropomorphic expressions describing God. This is, of course, admitted by all. On the other hand, it is rightly contended, God is also described literally as loving, rejoicing, happy, thinking, and so forth. Can we say that when God is described in physical or finite terms the expressions are metaphorical, but when He is described ontologically or psychologically the expressions are literal? No, for sometimes that is the case and sometimes not. When God is described psychologically as suffering, frustrated, or grieved, Murray, Stonehouse, and all sound theologians would deny these to be literally true. They know that, in the early church, patripassionism (the teaching that the Father suffers) was a heresy.

The question facing us here is whether God could “desire” that which He does not bring to pass. There is no question at all that He can desire certain things, and these things which He desires He possesses and enjoys in Himself eternally. Otherwise, He would not be the ever-blessed God. The Godhead desires each Person in the Godhead and enjoys each eternally. The Godhead also desires to create, and He (though He creates in time) by creating enjoys so doing eternally. Otherwise, He would be eternally bereft of a joy He presently possesses and would have increased in joy if He later possessed it—both of which notions are impossible. He would thereby have changed (which is also impossible) and would have grown in the wisdom of a new experience (which is blasphemous to imagine).

If God’s very blessedness means the oneness of His desire and His experience, is not our question (whether He could desire what He does not desire) rhetorical? Not only would He otherwise be bereft of some blessedness which would reduce Him to finitude, but He would be possessed of some frustration which would not only bereave Him of some blessedness, but would manifestly destroy all blessedness.This is clearly the case because His blessedness would be mixed with infinite regret. Our God would be the ever-miserable, ever-blessed God. His torment in the eternal damnation of sinners would be as exquisite as it is everlasting. He would actually suffer infinitely more than the wicked. Indeed, He would Himself be wicked because He would have sinfully desired what His omniscience would have told Him He could never have.

But why continue to torture ourselves? God, if he could be frustrated in His desires, simply would not be God.

John H. Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2000), pp. 142-145; italics Gerstner’s.

II.

This [i.e., Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel] is certainly an interesting, informative, lively, learned discussion of the essence of the gospel call to all mankind. In my opinion Professor Engelsma carefully defines and convincingly avoids hyper-Calvinism himself and clears his denomination, the Protestant Reformed Churches, of so teaching.

The locus of the debate among Calvinists concerns what is called the well-meant offer. Let me locate first what is meant by well-meant offer and the area of difference among Calvinists concerning it.

There is much related to this title that is shared by all Calvinists though sometimes differently phrased; namely, that reprobates hear the call and that it is a serious call to them. There is one part of the understood meaning of well-meant offer that is affirmed by many Calvinists today and denied by others; namely, that God desires and intends the salvation of reprobates in that call they hear or read.

The well-meant offer is understood by both sides to include the notion that God intends and desires the salvation of reprobates when the gospel of Jesus Christ is preached to everyone who hears with his ears or reads with his eyes. The late John Murray and Ned B. Stonehouse inThe Free Offer of the Gospel and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church could declare in 1948 (citing The Free Offer of the Gospel by Murray and Stonehouse):

There is in God a benevolent lovingkindness towards the repentance and salvation of even those whom he has not decreed to save. This pleasure, will, desire is expressed in the universal call to repentance ... The full and free offer of the gospel is a grace bestowed upon all. Such grace is necessarily a manifestation of love or lovingkindness in the heart of God, and this lovingkindness is revealed to be of a character or kind that is correspondent with the grace bestowed. The grace offered is nothing less than salvation in its richness and fulness. The love or lovingkindness that lies back of that offer is not anything less; it is the will to that salvation. In other words, it is Christ in all the glory of his person and in all the perfection of his finished work whom God offers in the gospel. The loving and benevolent will that is the source of that offer and that grounds its veracity and reality is the will to the possession of Christ and the enjoyment of the salvation that resides in him.

I have italicized the three statements that can only mean in that context that God desires and intends (will is used in the sense of “intend”) the salvation of the reprobates. much else that is stated can be so interpreted but is not unambiguous. All Calvinists (and indeed all Christians) agree that not all human persons are saved. Arminians do champion the notion that God desires and intends the salvation of every person. Calvinists do not, but here Calvinists John Murray, Ned Stonehouse, and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church do so teach.

On the other hand, Herman Hoeksema, the Protestant Reformed denomination, and author David Engelsma in this book emphatically reject the well-meant offer as including God’s desire and intention to save reprobates.

As a Calvinist, not associated ecclesiastically with the tiny Protestant Reformed denomination and sharply divergent from some of her doctrinal positions, I feel it absolutely necessary to hold with her here where she stands, almost alone today, and suffers massive vituperation and ridicule from Calvinists (no less) for her faithfulness at this point to the gospel of God.

I had the incomparable privilege of being a student of Professors Murray and Stonehouse. With tears in my heart, I nevertheless confidently assert that they erred profoundly in The Free Offer of the Gospel and died before they seem to have realized their error, which because of their justifiably high reputations for Reformed excellence generally, still does incalculable damage to the cause of Jesus Christ and the proclamation of his gospel.

It is absolutely essential to the nature of the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent that whatever his sovereign majesty desires or intends most certainly—without conceivability of failure in one iota thereof—must come to pass! Soli Deo gloria! Amen and amen forevermore! God can never, ever desire or intend anything that does not come to pass, or he is not the living, happy God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob but an eternally miserable being weeping tears of frustration that he was unable to prevent hell and can never end it; thus destroying himself and heaven in the process.

God, the blessed and only ruler, the king of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has see nor can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen (1 Tim. 6:15-16).

John H. Gerstner, “Foreword” to David J. Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel (Jenison, MI: RFPA, 2014), pp. xi-xiii; italics Gerstner’s.


Author

John H. Gerstner (1914-1996) acquired both a Master of Divinity and a Master of Theology degree from Westminster Theological Seminary, before earning his Doctor of Philosophy degree from Harvard University in 1945. He was ordained in the United Presbyterian Church of North America and then (due to church unions) served in the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the Presbyterian Church (USA). In 1990, he left the PCUSA for the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). John Gerstner pastored several churches before accepting a professorship at Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary, where he taught church history for over 30 years. He was also a visiting professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL, and adjunct professor at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, FL. An authority on the life and theology of Jonathan Edwards, and the author of many books and articles, Gerstner’s magnum opus is the three-volume set, The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards.



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