May 24, 2010

A Response to R. C. Sproul's (1939–2017) Answer to My Question on the Well-Meant Offer

Since there are limitations on Chris Arnzen's Iron Sharpens Iron radio program (link #2), I was not able to interact with R. C. Sproul's response during the call. Chris frequently has audio interruptions when someone stays on and he receives another call at the same time, so one has to hang up just after the question sometimes. Here is the audio recording and transcript of my question to Sproul with his response:

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My Question: My question for you concerns the well-meant nature of the gospel offer, since this is also one of the tough issues that Christians face. There's a small but increasing group of Calvinists who think that there is no willingness, or desire, or wish on the part of God in His revealed will for the salvation of the non-elect, or the reprobate. Would you say that you agree with such men as Prosper, Ursinus, Edwards, John Murray, Iain Murray and J. I. Packer (just to name a few) who believe that there is a genuine wish or desire on the part of God for the salvation of all men? And would you say that God's gospel offer is indeed well-meant?

Dr. R. C. Sproul's Answer: Yes, the question of the integrity of the universal offer of the gospel is one that Reformed people (you mentioned the panoply of scholars who have addressed this issue over the years)...and the...I would hold the traditional view that was expressed by Ursinus and later by John Murray (and others) that there is a genuine offer of the gospel that is related to God's generally gracious disposition to all who are fallen, with certain qualifications. Keep in mind that the gospel is not offered indiscriminately, in the sense that it's offered to anybody. It's offered to anybody who believes. And so in a very real sense that restriction...and I mean that should go without saying...that the universal...what we call the universal offer of the gospel is contingent upon a response of faith. And the reason I put that little quibble in there, Tony, is that we're hearing more and more from preachers in the media who announcing that God loves everybody unconditionally, and that sort of leaves the impression that people don't have to do anything in order to be redeemed, including repent and believe. If God loves me unconditionally, without any conditions, then it's like Mr. Rogers neighborhood [Chris Arnzen laughs]... [God loves me?] exactly and precisely just as I am. That's very dangerously misleading. And so, yes, I believe that the Gospel is offered to all who believe. Now, again, somebody's going to say, "Isn't it true that only the elect will believe?" Yes, that would be true, but nevertheless it's offered to anyone who does in fact believe and trust in [it?].

My response: Since Dr. Sproul, in my opinion, did not sufficiently answer Mark Driscoll when he asked the question about God's saving will for the salvation of all men (as Calvinists understand it), I thought I would take the opportunity to ask the same sort of question. I was hoping to get him to directly say three things: 1) He does believe that God desires the salvation of all men; 2) He therefore agrees with John Murray on the free offer; and 3) that the gospel offer is well-meant, even to the non-elect. In fishing for a response, I deliberately put three hooks in the water instead of just one :-)

Sproul at least implicitly affirmed all three points by saying that he "would hold the traditional view that was expressed by Ursinus and later by John Murray (and others) that there is a genuine offer of the gospel that is related to God's generally gracious disposition to all who are fallen..." There are three useful things here: 1) He agrees with John Murray's position; 2) He sees continuity between the views of John Murray and Ursinus; and 3) He calls this position "the traditional view." We might also add that he thinks this offer is related to God's general grace. I was glad to hear that, and thankful that he responded to that extent.

Then there seemed to be some confusion on his part, I think, regarding the "indiscriminate" nature of the offer. One should keep in mind that there is a difference between hearing an offer and being given what is offered. All who hear the gospel are in fact receiving an offer of life, even if they do not believe, but those who do not believe are not receiving what is offered to them. For example, I might offer to buy you all one of Sproul's books if you send me an email, but I will only give you one of his books if in fact you comply. Even if you do not comply, you are still receiving an offer, but you are not getting the book(s). Sproul seems to want to underline the conditional nature of receiving what is offered, but, in so doing, he blurs these distinctions. Instead of saying that he does not believe the gospel is indiscriminately offered to all men, I think he should have said that the eternal benefits promised in the gospel are not indiscriminately given to all those offered in the call of the gospel.

Sproul shows the same confusion in one of his books, when he says:
Reformed theologians differ over the question of the offer of the Atonement to the human race. Some insist that the offer of the gospel is universal. The Cross and its benefits are offered to anyone who believes. Others insist that this concept of a universal offer is misleading and involves a kind of play on words. Since only the elect will in fact believe, in reality the offer goes out only to them. The benefit of Christ's atonement is never offered by God to the impenitent or the unbelieving. Since belief and repentance are conditions met only by the elect, then ultimately the Atonement is offered only to them.
R. C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith (Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale), 176.

In contrast, observe what the Larger Catechism says:
Q68: Are the elect only effectually called?
A68: All the elect, and they only, are effectually called; although others may be, and often are, outwardly called by the ministry of the word, and have some common operations of the Spirit; who, for their willful neglect and contempt of the grace offered to them, being justly left in their unbelief, do never truly come to Jesus Christ.
Observe also what the 39 Article says about the offer in Article 7:
The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.
I think Sproul would agree with this, but he just expresses himself in a way that may confuse some people. I suspect that he wants to underline the conditional nature of the offer as the Synod of Dort in Article 8:
As many as are called by the gospel, are unfeignedly called. For God hath most earnestly and truly shown in his Word, what is pleasing to him, namely, that those who are called should come to him. He, moreover, seriously promises eternal life, and rest, to as many as shall come to him, and believe on him.
What the Synodists mean is that God will give what is promised (eternal life), only to those who shall come to him and believe on him. God will not give what is promised in the gospel to all men, but only to those that meet the conditions of the sincere call and offer of the gospel. Many of those who perish were "unfeignedly called" and sincerely offered eternal life, but only the elect comply and thus receive what is promised.

If I had the opportunity to talk further with Sproul, I believe he would concur with all of these points. I am thankful for his ministry and for his godly disposition as he interacts with all people, particularly with Christians asking sincere questions. May his tribe increase.

Update on 4-23-17:

Sproul repeated the same error in this article (click). He said:
It is also important to understand that the gospel is to be preached universally. This is another controversial point, because on the one hand the gospel is offered universally to all who are within earshot of the preaching of it, but it’s not universally offered in the sense that it’s offered to anyone without any conditions. It’s offered to anyone who believes. It’s offered to anyone who repents.
He is correct to say that "the gospel is offered universally to all who are within earshot of the preaching of it." But, Sproul then takes away what he said by saying, "it's not universally offered in the sense that it's offered to anyone without any conditions. It's offered to anyone who believes. It's offered to anyone who repents."

This is poorly worded. Again, he's collapsing the idea of receiving an offer with receiving what is offered. In other words, when anyone hears the gospel, they are being offered eternal life. However, in order to receive what is being offered, one must repent and believe. The obtaining of eternal life (the thing offered) is through the conditions of believing and repenting, but even those who do not believe and repent are still being truly and sincerely offered life by God,  though they do not obtain eternal life since they do not fulfill the conditions.

If Sproul continues to speak this way, some will be misled to think that only those who repent and believe (i.e. the elect) are being offered by God. This limits the offer to the elect who believe. The truth is that only the believing elect receive what is offered since God grants them the moral ability to believe, but all those who hear the gospel (even the non-elect) are receiving an offer.

Mark Dever is making a similar mistaken when he reportedly said at T4G in 2014, "We have no good news for unrepentant sinners. We only have good news for repentant sinners."

As I pointed out on Kevin DeYoung's Facebook page at the time, the gospel is objectively good news for all that hear it, no matter what the response is. The gospel reports to everyone that hears the external call that God is so favorably disposed to mankind that He has made a way for all men for the obtaining eternal life. The hearers need only to repent and believe in Christ and they will eternally benefit from this objective good news. Dever's wording, as it stands, leads one to think that only the believing elect are receiving good news when they hear the gospel. The truth is that everyone is receiving good news that hears the gospel, but only believers eternally benefit from the good news since they have fulfilled the condition of the gospel call.

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