The free offer of the gospel

In my post on Roger Olson’s discussion of the extent/intent of the atonement, I said very little about a connection between the universal/limited provision of salvation and a free offer of the gospel. Roger quotes favorably the assessment of Gary Schultz that: “If the atonement was only for the elect, to preach this message to the non-elect would at best be giving them a false hope and at worst would be untrue” (Against Calvinism, 151). Roger’s own bottom line is: “If you believe that there may be some in your audience who cannot be saved because Christ made no provision for their salvation, you cannot in all honesty preach that all may come to Christ through repentance and faith because Christ died for them” (151).

With Roger’s charge in mind, I read with interest Paul Helm’s discussion of the free offer of the gospel in this blog post, knowing that Helm believes the atonement to have had a single intent, the saving of the elect. Helm’s starting point is a consideration of this issue in the writings of John Murray. Helm writes:

 It is certainly necessary to distinguish between the revealed and the secret will of God. But it’s a difficult area, made more difficult, it seems to me, by claims such as Murray’s that in the free offer God reveals a desire for the salvation of men and women whom (God alone knows) are reprobates. Which naturally leads us to ask, how can God publicly and sincerely desire what he does not secretly will?

But then Helm suggests that Murray may be unnecessarily complicating this issue for us:

 Why is there need to go down this particularly tortuous path in the first place? For the free offer is the offering of Christ to anyone, not to everyone. The gospel is to be preached indiscriminately, and unconditionally, in order that God’s elect (presently unknown) may be effectually called by the word of grace and brought to penitence and faith. The preacher does not know who will respond, and he must (following the Great Commission) play his part in preaching the gospel to every nation. It seems to me that the language of unconditionality and freeness, declared in a warm and urgent way, suffices for the offering of the gospel freely; it integrates with other doctrinal elements in the faith, it does not turn people in on themselves in concern as to whether or not they are ‘qualified’ to come to Christ, and it does not get us unnecessarily entangled in the secret and the revealed will of God. It is not part of the presentation of Christ freely to say that God sincerely desires the salvation of everyone, and to say such a thing makes preaching sermons on definite atonement and eternal election all the more difficult, leading to unnecessary perplexity.

I think that Helm’s point is valid, even from within a limited provision view of the atonement. Helm then notes that John Gill believed in the preaching of the gospel and in our urging people to come to faith in Christ, but that, somewhat idiosyncratically, “Gill holds that God alone grants grace, and therefore that it is improper to suppose that ministers of the gospel may offer Christ. He is not theirs to offer. The grace of God is bestowed on the elect, and grace is not offered to the non-elect. (The Cause of God and Truth, 288-9).

To this perspective of Gill, Helm responds quite wisely, I think:

 Of course the NT teaches that preachers of the gospel proclaim in the name of Christ and are his representatives. ‘We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us….’ (2 Cor. 5. 20) So when they preach, God preaches through them. But they are not, literally, in the place of God. They are not the bestowers of grace, nor are they the judges of men and women. (I Cor. 4.5) Another significant difference is that preachers do their work ‘blind’. They do not know whether, when they preach, their audience will hear, or forbear. Like Paul in respect of his own people, who had a strong desire for them to be saved, and could wish that he himself might be accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of his others (Rom. 10.1, 9.2-3), so ministers may have desires for the salvation of their hearers that (unknown to them) do not accord with God’s decree. So while Gill is perfectly correct to say that grace is not bestowed on the non-elect, yet it may be offered to them by ministers of the gospel out of (what we might call) ‘blind compassion’. So we might say that Gill’s point might, with Scriptural warrant, be turned around. God does not offer grace to the non-elect. So there is ‘no falsehood or hypocrisy, dissimulation or guile, nothing ludicrous or delusory in the divine conduct towards them’. (289) But his ministers might, from their lowlier position, offer the grace of the gospel indiscriminately, and there’s nothing hypocritical or ludicrous about that either.

I can see how Calvinists who believe in a universal provision of salvation, conditional upon faith, may propose that their view better grounds a free offer of the gospel. But I accept Helm’s argument (despite Olson’s rejection of much the same idea), and I am ready to grant to fellow Calvinists who believe that Christ intended to limit the provision of salvation to the elect, that they too may legitimately invite anyone (hence everyone) to repent and believe in Jesus.

To Helm’s reasoning, I would add the suggestion (which I have appropriated from Neal Punt) that we should assume everyone to be elect, until we know for sure that they are not. Instead of assuming that no one is elect unless God has revealed that they are, we should assume that everyone is elect, unless God reveals otherwise.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

2 replies on “The free offer of the gospel”

I’m sure that you are familiar with John Piper’s article

Doesn’t this explanation suffice for explaining the free offer in relation to God’s election of only some (not all)? It seems, from those comments above, like Paul Helm is not wanting to go down that road of thought. It seems like he is suggesting that God cannot “desire” the salvation of people whom He has not “planned” to save in Christ. What would he say to Piper’s article?

Regarding your closing suggestion, Terry: I personally do not see Scripture calling us to assume that “all people are elect, until otherwise stated.” I do not see why I would need to assume the election of particular people in order to be motivated to preach the gospel to them. Isn’t it enough that God commands us (from His own loving heart) to speak the truth of Jesus, in love, to all people?

To extrapolate a bit: Could we not even say that the gospel is being proclaimed, in a sense, to those who are in hell (Rev 14:10)? The truth of Jesus as the Lamb is known to them. Could we not even say that God “loves” them, even as they are suffering under His good and just wrath? If we could admit these things (which are nothing more than baby-reflections; I’m not seeking to be dogmatic about such things), then surely we could say that right now, on earth, God lovingly calls all people to repent & believe upon Jesus for salvation, even though He has not planned to save all. God can both “love” and “hate” the reprobate at the same time, without contradiction. God can “love” all people in a general way, by common sustaining grace, by the free offer of the gospel lovingly declared to all (even those who are destined to bear their own sins and condemnation forever); and yet God can further “love” His chosen people in ways beyond that common grace – in both ways, to the praise of His glorious grace. What do you think of this proposal?

Thanks Chris. I think that your perspective is helpful. Helm may be unnecessarily avoiding the distinction between ways in which God “wants/wills” things, since it is not a concept that he would object to in principle. What I hear him doing in this particular post is taking the route least likely to create issues. It is sort of an “Ockam’s razor” approach, perhaps, using the simplest possible explanation.

As to our assumptions about God’s disposition toward an individual to whom we are relating, it seems legitimate to me that we should assume his intentions to be gracious. It is not that we would give the other person any confidence of that, since we are ignorant of it, but I like to start from the assumption of God’s maximally gracious intentions, because God portrays himself that way to us – he is the gracious God. This generates a hopefulness in our relationships with people. The very fact that God has providentially put them in contact with us is a hopeful indication that God wants us to be instruments of God’s goodness in that person’s life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.

145,569 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments