July 24, 2018

Cornelis P. Venema on the Doctrine of Preaching and the Well-Meant Offer in the Canons of Dort

In the third main point of doctrine, this insistence upon the universal preaching of the gospel is further explained as a serious and genuine calling. Often called the “well-meant offer” of the gospel, this call is extended through the preaching of the gospel.
Nevertheless, all who are called through the gospel are called seriously. For seriously and most genuinely God makes known in his Word what is pleasing to him (quid sibi gratum sit): that those who are called should come to him. Seriously he also promises rest for their souls and eternal life to all who come to him and believe.26
26. The article in the Latin reads: “Quotquot autem per Evangelium vocantur, serio vocantur. Serio enim et verissime ostendit Deus verbo suo, quid sibi gratum sit, nimi rum, ut vocati ad se veniant. Serio etiam omnibus ad se venientibus et credentibus requiem animarum, et vitam aeternam promittit” (Schaff, [3:]565–6). Though this is not the place to address the whole subject of the so-called “well-meant offer” of the gospel, this Article of the Canons clearly suggests the doctrine. If God declares in the Word what pleases him, and if he seriously calls through the Word all to believe and repent, then it seems to follow that he is pleased to save those whom he calls. Those who reject the well-meant offer are not only uncomfortable with the language of this Article in the Canons but also unwilling to distinguish between God’s sovereign intention to save the elect only and his desire that all should be saved. The insistence that the latter distinction amounts to a logical contradiction is born from a failure to distinguish, to borrow terms from Dabney (see below), between God’s “executive volition” to save the elect only and his “propension” to show mercy to all. What to our understanding may appear to be a tension or contradiction, is only due to a limited comprehension of the things of God. The supposed contradiction between God’s sovereign decree of election and the well-meant offer of the gospel is what Cornelius Van Til properly termed an “apparent contradiction,” something which is mysterious to us but known by God to be fully harmonious and consistent. For representative treatments of this issue, see: Robert Lewis Dabney, “God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy, As Related to His Power, Wisdom, and Sincerity,” in Discussions of Robert Lewis Dabney, vol. 1 (1891; reprint, Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982); John Murray, “The Free Offer of the Gospel,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 4: Studies in Theology (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), 113–132; Iain H. Murray, Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism: The Battle for Gospel Preaching (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1995); A. C. De Jong, The Well-Meant Gospel Offer: The Views of H. Hoeksema and K. Schilder (Franeker: T. Wever, 1954); David J. Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism & the Call of the Gospel, revised ed. (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Assoc., 1994). The studies of Iain Murray and De Jong are historical in nature, though they join Dabney and John Murray in defending a doctrine of the well-meant offer. Engelsma represents the position of the Protestant Reformed Churches: though there is a universal call extended through the gospel to all, this call does not express any favorable disposition, good-pleasure or desire on God’s part that all should believe and repent and so be saved. See Joseph Hall’s article in this collection for a treatment of one chapter in the history of the debates in the Reformed churches regarding the well-meant offer.
Cornelis P. Venema, “The Doctrine of Preaching in the Reformed Confessions,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 10 (1999): 166–67.