The Reformed Tradition On The Free Or Well-Meant Offer Of The Gospel

patternsoundcvrA commenter recently objected that there is no such thing as a Reformed tradition or history of the free or well-meant offer of the gospel. I reply: critics of the Reformed doctrine of the free or well-meant offer are entitled to their opinion and exegesis but they are not entitled to their own facts and history. Here is a section (sans footnotes) of my essay, “Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel and Westminster Theology,” in David VanDrunen, ed., The Pattern of Sound Words: A Festschrift for Robert B. Strimple (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004), 149–80.


Both Klaas Schilder (1890-1952) and Herman Hoeksema and more recently David Engelsma and Randy Blacketer have argued that when Dort and our theologians said, “offero” they only meant, “to present” or “to demand.” There is weighty evidence to the contrary however. For example, Caspar Olevianus (1536–87) used this term and its cognates frequently to mean “to offer with intention that the offer should be fulfilled if the recipients meet the condition of trust in Christ.” In his massive 1579 commentary on Romans and in his final commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, De substantia foederis gratuiti inter Deum et electos (1585) he used it frequently this way (e.g. “oblatum beneficium”) just as Dort later used it.

When our theologians wished to say “present” or “exhibit” or “demand” they had other verbs (e.g. “exhibeo” or “mando”) with which to do it. They did not need “offero” to perform the same function. Rather, when our theologians spoke of the “evangellium oblatum,” i.e., “gospel offered” in preaching, they believed that it entailed a well and sincerely meant revealed divine intention that whoever believes should be saved. As we shall see below, the semantic range of “offero,” as it was used by the orthodox is closer to “invitation,” than “demand.”

There are good reasons arising from the Canons of Dort themselves, however, to reject the proposed re-interpretation of “offero.” In 2.6 the Canons describe Christ’s sacrifice (hostia) as “oblatae,” “offered” on the cross. While “presented” is not utterly remote from the sense of the text, “demand” and “exhibit” make little sense here. The divines meant to say that Jesus gave himself and his obedience as a sacrifice for us to the justice of God, in such a way that it was righteously received by God as payment for the sins of all believers, i.e. the elect. This is how the Vulgate and Theodore Beza’s Latin translations of Hebrews 10:18 used the cognate oblatio (for προσφορα).

In the Rejection of Errors under the Second Head of Doctrine (RE 2.6), the Canons attacked vigorously the Remonstrant abuse of the distinction between “meriting” and “appropriating” Christ’s benefits (beneficia), i.e. justification and sanctification, such that God is said to have made them available to all on condition that sinners exercise their free will (libero arbitrio). In this construal, Christ’s benefits are not dependent any longer on the “singular gift of mercy” (singulari misericordiae dono) but on our cooperation with divine grace. The orthodox divines rejected the Remonstrant view as a contradiction of the Gospel. Thus by connecting the Remonstrant doctrine of “free will,” to the “grace freely offered” (gratiam indifferenter oblatam applicante) the divines were endorsing the notion that in the preaching of the Gospel, grace is offered freely, while simultaneously repudiating the notion that the well-meant offer implies or should become an occasion for “the pernicious poison of Pelagianism” (“perniciosum Pelagianismi venenum”). The well-meant offer of grace was not to be interpreted by the Remonstrants to imply that justification is contingent (pendere) upon a Remonstrant form of congruent merit (facientibus quod in se est, Deus non denegat gratiam).

In the Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine (3/4.9), the divines took virtually the same approach as in 2.6. When, in the providence of God, many are outwardly called (vocati) through the (well-meant offer of the) Gospel, and they do not come or are not converted, the blame rests not “in Christo,” in the “Evangelium oblato” (the offered Gospel), nor in “God calling through the Gospel…” Having ordained the means of grace, God is free is to confer faith or not through the external Gospel call. The moral culpability for unbelief lies in those who “carelessly do not receive the Word of life” (verbum vitae non admittunt securi). “Therefore,” Dort says, justifying faith is the “Dei donum,” not because “it is offered by God to man’s free will,” (a Deo hominis arbitrio offeratur) but because faith is “conferred,” (conferatur), “inspired,” (inspiretur) and “infused,” (infundatur).

The divines were not saying that the Gospel is not freely and sincerely offered in the preaching of the Word. Rather, the divines were complaining about Remonstrant rationalism, i.e. the illegitimate inference that, since the Gospel is offered freely, sinners therefore have a free will and the ability to will contrary to God. In fact, the next point presupposes the existence of the well-meant offer, since the article distinguishes between the external administration and call of the Gospel offered seriously, freely and the internal application of Christ’s benefits by the Holy Spirit wrought through and in conjunction with the external Gospel preaching. This is why the divines used a series of passive verbs. Justifying faith is not the product of the human will, but of sovereign divine operation upon and within humans.

This was the typical Reformed way of distinguishing between the external well-meant offer of the Gospel and the internal, efficacious work of the Spirit through it. Because the success of the external or common call is contingent upon the divine decree and application of redemption, and not on the preacher’s rhetorical skill or the hearer’s free will, the preacher is free to offer grace to all who will receive it, knowing that it is, as the Canons remind us, God “produces both the will to believe” (velle credere) and “the act of believing” (actum credendi).

In the interests of space, we can only compare the language and approach of Dort to the teaching of a few post-Dort documents. First, in the Synopsis purioris theologiae (Leiden, 1625) a compilation of school disputations by Johannes Polyander (1568–1646), Andreas Rivet (1572–1651) and Antonius Walaeus (1573–1639) and Antonius Thysius (1603–65), of whom only Rivet was not delegated to the Synod, we find the archetypal/ectypal distinction taught (in Disputatio I, De sacrosancta theologia) and from it a corollary, the internal/exernal distinction in the ordo salutis. Under Disputatio XXX, De hominum vocatione ad salutem, in Art. XXI, the Synopsis taught that through the “preaching of the Gospel” (an external operation performed according to ectypal theology) in which the “good” (bonum) of salvation (Art. XX) is “offered” (offertur) and the Holy Spirit “kindles” (accendit) “genuine knowledge” (serias cogitationes) and “pious desire” (pium desiderium) in our hearts. Not surprisingly, the language of the Leiden Synopsis was virtually identical to that of Dort.

Johannes Wollebius (1586–1629) in his Compendium theologiae Christianae (1626) under the heading, De foedere gratiae, distinguished between the covenant of grace, which is “post lapsum,” and the covenant of works which was initiated with our “first parents,” (primis nostris parentiubus). He distinguished between the covenant of grace considered externally, and internally. By analogy, there is both an “offering” (oblatio) and “sealing,” (obsignatio) of the covenant of grace. The offer comes to all externally, but the sealing comes only to the elect who actually receive the benefits of the covenant. The external or “common call” (communis vocatio) is that by which all are “invited,” (invitantur) to “a state of grace or participation of Christ the Mediator.” His proof that the external call was an invitation was Matthew 22:2–3. According to Wollebius, the well-meant offer is addressed neither to all nor only to the elect, but to people of every sort. The form of the call is an “offer of the benefits of redemption” (beneficii redemptionis). “The substance of the offer is that “God promises by himself to be a Father, in Christ, if we will fulfill filial obedience.” The “end” (finis) of this “offered covenant,” i.e. “the common call, is the glory of God and the salvation of the elect.” The covenant is “offered,” (offertur) to all, but only the elect “profit” from the promises of the covenant. Therefore, the external call comes “earnestly” (serio) to both the elect and the reprobate. That one is called by the preaching of the Gospel does not make one elect, because this call is common to elect and reprobates, on the condition of faith (sub conditione fidei).

In the high orthodox period, Herman Witsius (1636–1708) and Peter van Mastricht (1630–1706) used the same categories and language about the relations between the external “common call,” and the efficacious call by the Holy Spirit of the elect through it.87 In the latter’s Theoretico-practica theologia (1699), in his chapter on “The Love, Grace, Mercy, Longsuffering and Clemency of God,” van Mastricht wrote at length about God’s “universal benevolence and beneficence” toward creatures.  In his chapter on calling, he defended the sincerity and genuineness of the well-meant offer of the gospel. He made the invitation to trust in Christ of the essence of the call. From this brief survey of the Canons and just a few classic Reformed theologians, it appears that Synod Kalamazoo was right to say that, in substance, if not in absolute verbal identity, well-meant offer was the teaching of the “writers of the flowering period of Reformed theology” (schrijvers uit de bloeitijd der Gereformerde Theologie).

According to Dort and both early orthodox theologians such as Olevianus and early Reformed dogmatic theologies such as the Synopsis purioris and the high orthodox theologian Peter van Mastricht, the praxis of the free and sincere offer of the Gospel is not controlled by the knowledge of archetypal theology (e.g. the decree), but by theologia ectypa. In this regard, the approach of the Synod of Dort is in contrast to that of both the Remonstrants and the modern critics of the well meant-offer. Rather than making deductions from the revealed fact of God’s sovereign eternal decree, the Synod was committed to learning and obeying God’s revealed will, even if it seems paradoxical to us.

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  1. Dr. Hywel Jones’ message on the well-meant (or free) offer of the gospel still rings in my heart. Can you post that?

  2. I especially like footnote 58. However, nothing that you said there convinces me that the Marrow of Modern Divinity by Fisher is orthodox. Furthermore, I would hardly use Curt Daniel as a reliable source or riposte against Raymond Blacketer.

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