The Free Offer of the Gospel
The gospel is freely offered to all people, regardless of whether or not they are elect, able to respond in their sin nature, included in the doctrine of the particular atonement, etc.; the free offer of election to man is not at odds with the sovereign election and omniscience of God.
The good news of the gospel is offered freely to all people without distinction. Some “high” Calvinists have objected to this doctrine on the grounds of God’s sovereign election, the doctrine of the particular atonement, the primacy of divine initiative, and the sinner’s complete inability to respond in faith apart from God’s regenerating grace. However, the reality is that sinners are all called to believe and are judged for their unbelief, not for whether or not they are elect. It is actually within the context of the universal refusal of man to believe that the doctrines of election, the atonement, and the sovereign initiative of God are most needed. These doctrines provide the solution to man’s refusal, not a reason to avoid the offer of the gospel in the first place.
The gospel is by definition “good news”—a message about Jesus Christ who accomplished salvation for sinners by his substitutional death and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3–4). Because of his saving work, repentance and forgiveness of sins must now be proclaimed in his name (Luke 24:47; cf. Matt. 28:18–20). This gospel proclamation entails a call to repentance and faith as the means of entrance into the individual experience of salvation (Luke 24:47; acts 16:30–31; Rom. 10:9–10; Eph. 1:13). In the gospel, God announces the singular saving work of his son, and as we respond to that announcement in faith and repentance God welcomes us and receives us freely in favor. Thus, it is in this good news and its implicit “offer” that we, by faith, find safe standing before God (1 Cor. 15:1).
The Question in Focus
Christians of virtually all stripes have recognized the importance of gospel preaching, but some “high Calvinists” have questioned the legitimacy of offering salvation to the non-elect or unregenerate people. Some make careful distinction between gospel offer and proclamation, arguing that the gospel makes no offer but is a divine command to repent and believe.
The question at issue here is not the formulaic “decisionism” that has characterized so much of contemporary evangelicalism. Nor does the question here concern the divine initiative in salvation—divine election and effectual calling. Nor does this discussion question that the sovereign Spirit alone can persuade the lost to faith in Christ. On these matters, all Calvinists are agreed. The question at issue is whether a sincere offer of salvation can legitimately be made indiscriminately to the lost.
There are several theological reasons offered for denying the free offer of the gospel. The first stems from the accepted doctrine of total depravity—total inability, to be more specific. If the sinner is unable to believe, how can faith be his duty? Is the sinner under obligation to repent if he, in fact, cannot repent? Can the sinner be counted responsible to do something he is unable to do? Stated precisely, does inability entail absence of duty? Moreover, is it inconsistent to exhort a sinner to repent knowing that he cannot?
Another objection to the free offer of the gospel stems from the doctrine of election. If only the elect will be saved, shouldn’t the gospel, then, be offered to the elect only? Would it not be insincere to offer salvation to the non-elect? And would it be right for our offer to be broader than God’s saving purpose? Does the sinner have any warrant to come?
Reasoning from the necessity of divine initiative, some have argued that the sinner has no “warrant” to come to Christ for salvation, no reason to think he is invited until he is “sensible” of the Spirit’s work, sensitive of sin and of the Spirit’s drawing. This has often been identified in terms of a verse of Scripture suddenly and powerfully brought to bear on the heart and conscience, or in terms of a sudden and deep awareness of sin and lostness. Then, in that case, the gospel can be offered, but not until.
Some have reasoned from the doctrine of particular redemption (limited atonement). If Christ died only for the elect, is there legitimate ground to offer him to all? And again, would not such an offer be insincere?
Finally, some have argued that a free offer of salvation to those who will never be saved would detract from the majesty of God—that it would be beneath God to make such overtures to people who in fact will only continue to rebel.
Again, the point at issue here is not formulaic decisionism or the necessity of the divine initiative in salvation. On these matters all Calvinists are agreed. The question, simply put, is whether a sincere offer of salvation can legitimately be made to the lost indiscriminately. Can we say to just anyone, “If you will come to Jesus Christ in faith and in repentance of your sin, God will save you”?
Some Related Biblical Statements
Before addressing these various theological issues, it will be helpful first to highlight some biblical statements that may be related to the question in some way.
- God passionately calls rebellious Israel to covenant blessing (Deut. 5:29).
- God pleads longingly for Israel and waits for her to come to him (Isa. 65:2; Rom. 10:21)—an offer that falls on deaf ears.
- God laments the destruction of those who refuse him and pleads for them to return and escape his wrath (Ezek. 18:23, 32; 33:11)—again, a call that goes unheeded.
- God calls rebellious and unbelieving nations to take refuge in him and be blessed (Pss. 2:12; 4:5; Prov. 1:20–33).
- God calls the sinful to respond to his offer of forgiveness (Isa. 1:18–20; 45:21–22).
- God pleads—as a peddler on the street—with sinners to come to him for mercy and free pardon (Isa. 55:1–7).
- Jesus offers spiritual rest indiscriminately to all who will come (Matt. 11:28–30).
- Jesus illustrates passionate, indiscriminate call to kingdom blessing (Matt. 22:1–13). The offer is passionate and unrestricted, and it is for salvation.
- Jesus mourns over Jerusalem (Matt. 23:37).
- Jesus blames the lost for their unbelief (Matt. 23:37; John 5:40).
- Jesus commands his followers to proclaim the gospel to all people everywhere (Matt. 28:19; Luke 24:47).
- The apostle Peter calls all who hear him to repent (Acts 2:38–40; 3:19).
- The apostle Peter offers forgiveness upon repentance—and this for a man who, it turns out, never repents (Acts 8:22).
- The apostle Paul offers forgiveness in Christ to some who continued to refuse (Acts 13:38–41, 46).
- God commands all people to faith in Christ for salvation (1 John 3:23).
- Paul’s gospel ministry is characterized by pleading with sinners, begging them to be saved, reasoning with them, and persuading them (Acts 17:17; 18:4, 19; 19:8, 26; 26:28; 28:23; 1 Cor. 9:19; 2 Cor. 5:11, 20). To be sure, this terminology does not indicate that the apostle reduced conversion to a mere formulaic decisionism. Indeed, he would not cheapen the gospel in order to make it more palatable to sinners (2 Cor. 2:17). But he would offer the gospel indiscriminately, even passionately and without hesitation, to all who would hear him.
Observations and Theological Correlation
The Warrant of Faith
In 1 John 3:23, the apostle says, “this is his commandment, that we should believe on the name of his son Jesus Christ.” Here is the warrant for every person to believe and be saved: God himself commands it. Faith is the stated duty of every person.
The Object of Faith
Repeatedly sinners are called to look to the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation. They are not called to look to themselves first to see if there are indications of God’s convicting or enlightening work. Their duty is to look to the Savior.
The Responsibility and Duty of the Sinner to Believe and Repent
The notion that inability negates responsibility is just mistaken. Sinners are responsible to believe and are held blameworthy if they do not. We might say this another way: sinners are not blamed for not being elect; they are blamed for their unbelief.
The Free Offer and Divine Love
It is true that God’s love for his own is savingly unique (Eph. 2:4; 1 John 3:1), but this is not to say that God has no love at all for the lost. Scripture abounds with affirmation of God’s love, kindness, and goodness to the lost (e.g., Ps. 145:9). And in fact this “common grace” or “love of complacency” (as it is sometimes called) entails his offer of salvation (Ps. 14:1-3). That is to say, God offers his saving love to all.
The Free Offer and Sovereign Election
It is within the context of the universal offer—and refusal—of salvation (Ps. 14:1–3; John 6:27–36) that we learn of sovereign election (John 6:37–40). It is the world’s unanimous refusal of the offer than makes election necessary. Indeed, it is the free proclamation of the that God uses to save those whom he has chosen (1 Cor. 1:18–31; 3:6; 2 Cor. 2:14–16; cf. Matt. 11:25–30; Acts 13:48). As J.I. Packer summarizes,
Calvin, with Luther, and Paul in Romans, and Jesus in John, made the universal gospel invitation the frame and context within which we are introduced to election as the divine decisions which explain why believers have believed and why their security is guaranteed. Reformed theology after Beza made God’s decree of election, reprobation and providential events the frame and context within which we are introduced to the gospel as a statement (for which see Westminster Confession 3 and 10): this creates problems by making the indiscriminate gospel invitation seem a sham to all except for the elect. The former statement, which sees God’s love as going a second mile in order to save (not only does he provide a Saviour and a salvation, but he also draws folks who would not otherwise respond to receive his gifts), is far preferable; the latter far commoner (Systematic Theology Overview, unpublished notes, p.107).
The Free Offer and Particular Redemption
Luke 24:47 explicitly links the universal offer of the gospel of forgiveness to the finished saving work of Christ. In context, Matthew 28:18–20 makes the same link: Christ’s universal authority to save is grounded in his finished work. That is to say, Christ’s atoning work is the ground of universal mission. What is offered in the gospel, precisely, is Jesus Christ in whom all the saving benefits of the gospel have been procured. Salvation is offered in Christ. John Murray makes the point here that the only doctrine of atonement that will ground such an offer is that of a definite, fully successful atonement – an atonement that provides not merely the possibility of salvation but actual, accomplished salvation (Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol.1: Studies in Theology, 59–85):
It is sometimes objected that the doctrine of limited atonement makes the preaching of a full and free salvation impossible. This is wholly untrue. The salvation accomplished by the death of Christ is infinitely sufficient and universally suitable, and it may be said that its infinite sufficiency and perfect suitability grounds a bona fide offer of salvation to all without distinction…. The criticism that the doctrine of limited atonement prevents the free offer of the gospel rests upon a profound misapprehension as to what the warrant for preaching the gospel and even of the primary act of faith itself really is. This warrant is not that Christ died for all men but the universal invitation, demand and promise of the gospel united with the perfect sufficiency and suitability of Christ as Savior and Redeemer. What the ambassador of the gospel demands in Christ’s name is that the lost and helpless sinner commit himself to that all-sufficient Savior with the plea that in thus receiving and resting upon Christ alone for salvation he will certainly be saved. And what the lost sinner does on the basis of the warrant of faith is to commit himself to that Savior with the assurance that as he thus trusts he will be saved. What he believes, then, in the first instance is not that he has been saved, but that believing in Christ salvation becomes his. The conviction that Christ died for him, or in other words, that he is an object of God’s redeeming love in Christ, is not the primary act of faith. It is often in the consciousness of the believer so closely bound up with the primary act of faith that he may not be able to be conscious of the logical and psychological distinction. But nevertheless the primary act of faith is self-committal to the all-sufficient and suitable Savior, and the only warrant for that trust is the indiscriminate, full and free offer of grace and salvation in Christ Jesus (John Murray, “Arminianism and the Atonement”).
The Free Offer and Human Inability
The lost are free to do whatever they want to do, but therein lies the problem: the “want to” of sinners is sinful and therefore disinclined from God. The “inability” of the lost to respond to the gospel lies in their own will – they do not come to Christ simply because they won’t. And because they “refuse to come to me” they are held responsible (John 5:40). Simply put, depravity and inability does not preclude responsibility. The universal responsibility to believe and be saved remains.
Moreover, as Warfield insightfully observes (Selected Shorter Writings, p.725–728), no sinner can know that he or she is unable except by trying to come. And the doctrine of total inability is not, “You cannot come”; it is, rather, “You cannot come apart from divine aid.” This is how Jesus himself defined the matter:
And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:26–27).
The responsibility remains: a person concerned for his or her soul is not told to “wait” but to “come.” And all who do come, he receives (John 6:37). A recognition of helplessness is no excuse for continued unbelief, nor is it a barrier to the universal offer of salvation.
Command vs. Offer
The distinction between God’s command to believe and his offer of salvation must not be overdrawn. To be sure, God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30), but this commanded repentance is a “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 24:47). The command to repent and believe is itself an offer of grace.
The Free Offer and Divine Majesty
We may agree with those who argue that there is no necessity for the God of infinite majesty to make overtures of grace to those who will only continue to rebel. Indeed, we might as well say that it would be beneath God to offer salvation to anyone, irrespective of their eventual response. But the fact is, he does, and he tells us so repeatedly. He commands, he implores, he pleads, he stands longingly with outstretched arms—all this is the biblical language. More to the point, we must recognize that this compassionate stance is part of God’s self-revelation to be understood as one aspect of his glory. We do not adore God rightly until we recognize his great heart of love. And we do not proclaim the gospel rightly until we reflect this stance ourselves.
The indiscriminate call and free offer of the gospel has strong and explicit Biblical warrant, and the traditional Reformed position has rightly maintained it. The concern of some high Calvinists that a free offer of the gospel implies Arminian notions is simply mistaken. God positions himself toward the wicked as willing to save, and he pleads with them accordingly through his spokesmen. This universal appeal of the gospel is the external means by which God, in his own time, sovereignly calls his elect individually into the fellowship of Christ. If in the gospel God is freely offering Christ to the world, the Christians must make the same offer. If it is the duty of all to believe, then it is the duty of Christians to offer Christ. We can say to anyone, anywhere—and we must not hesitate—“If you will come to Jesus Christ, he will save you.”
- Benjamin B. Warfield, “Inability and the Demand of Faith,” in Selected Shorter Writings, vol. 2
- Ligon Duncan, “God’s Sovereignty and the Free Offer, Part 1”
- Ligon Duncan, “God’s Sovereignty and the Free Offer, Part 2”
- Donald MacLeod, Compel Them to Come in: Calvinism and the Free Offer of the Gospel
- John Murray, “The Atonement and the Free Offer of the Gospel,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 1, 59–85
- John Murray, “Common Grace,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 2, 93–119
- John Murray, “The Free Offer of the Gospel,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 4 , 113–132. Published separately as a booklet. Available online here.
- John Murray, “Arminianism and the Atonement”
- Sinclair Ferguson, “The Free Offer of the Gospel”
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