The Free Offer of the Gospel

Dr. William Young wrote the OPC Minority Report on the Free Offer of the Gospel (1948). Below is Dr. Young’s further analysis of the report and a critique and refutation of an alleged will of God that lies between his prescriptive will and his decretive will. A supposed divine willingness (velleitas), or “a weak though ardent wish that can be frustrated and is frustrated in the case of many” who are reprobate and are never saved. In this short paper, Dr. Young stands in the long line of “the majority of Reformed orthodox” who, according to Dr. Richard Muller, “responded to the Amyraldian universalismus hypotheticus [hypothetical universalism] by denying an antecedent hypothetical decree in God and arguing both that the divine decree or decrees must be effective and that the effective divine intention to save was limited to the elect.” [1]

The Free Offer of the Gospel
by Dr. William Young (1918-2015)

In some Calvinistic circles there is an identification of the free offer of the gospel with an alleged desire that all who are called externally should be saved. Those who fail to find Scripture warrant for such a claim are sometimes regarded as denying the gospel offer and even the gospel itself. It should be pointed out that there are ambiguities in the claim itself. 

Some who are well-instructed Calvinists may use the word “desire” to mean nothing other than the revealed will of God in the commands, promises and invitations of the gospel. Others appear literally to suppose a frustrated desire as an emotion in God in tension with the decree to save the elect. This article seeks to show that the second of these understandings is unwarranted in the teaching of Scripture and contrary to the understanding of the revealed Word in the Westminster Confession.

We may first summarize the Scripture and Confessional doctrine as to the free offer. It may be observed that the word “offer” is not used in Scripture in connection with the gospel call, while it does so appear in the Westminster Standards (Westminster Confession of Faith 7:3; Larger Catechism 32, 67f.; Shorter Catechism 31, 86). The term, when used by those who subscribe to these standards, must be used in the Scriptural sense intended by the Westminster divines and not as implying ability in unrenewed free-will to comply with the offer. In view of the widespread prevalence of Arminian and Amyraldian views of universal grace and redemption, some Calvinists may prefer not to use the term, while heartily holding to its sense as it has been used by sound Presbyterian and Puritan divines. Such ought not to be scornfully called Hyper-Calvinists, although the term “offer” may be profitably used in its proper sense.

What then may be said to be the Biblical teaching that the subordinate standards designate as the free offer? Passages setting forth the gracious invitations of the gospel as Isaiah 55:1ff. and Matthew 11:28 at once come to mind. Reflection on these texts gives rise to the questions: Is it meant that those that thirst, that are weary and heavy laden, represent all sinners, indiscriminately, or are they such as have been brought to some awareness of their need? The Westminster Standards do not pronounce on this matter of exegesis, and admit of a difference of judgment on it. That the gospel offer is universal is clearly taught in other texts, in which the commandment to repent and believe is issued (Acts 17:30; 1 John 3:23) and the promise of eternal salvation is made to those who obey the commandment (John 3:16; 6:37b; Acts 16:31). The command to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ is followed by the promise of salvation. This sufficiently explains the sincerity of the gospel offer without adding the supposition of a divine desire in back of the command and promise. Indeed, even on the level of human procedures, there may be offers made with good reason without the desire of their reception being the ground of the offer. Much more are the procedures of infinite wisdom to be accepted without prying into reasons that have not been revealed, and least of all, inventing such as are contrary to revelation.

The Westminster standards use very general expressions in referring to the gospel offer in an incidental manner. In the covenant of grace God “freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ” (WCF 7:3). The following words “requiring of them faith in him that they may be saved” are naturally read as in apposition, explaining the nature of the offer. The promise to give the Holy Spirit to the elect is a promise to the Redeemer—not an element of the offer, but what provides the faith required in it. Larger Catechism (L.C.) 32 makes the same points. L.C. 67 speaks of those effectually called as invited and drawn, and concludes with the words “to accept and embrace the grace offered and conveyed” in the call. L.C. 68 definitely speaks of grace offered to non-elect persons, while in L.C. 67 the invitation seems to be restricted to those who are drawn in God’s accepted time. The offer rejected by some to their final ruin can hardly be said to be made in “God’s accepted time” in the Catechism’s evident sense of the time of love in effectual calling. It may be argued that L.C. 67 is simply not dealing with the non-elect, the case of whom is the subject of L.C. 68. A fair conclusion is that the universality of the invitation may be held consistently with the Larger Catechism but is not required by it or elsewhere in the standards. The very brief expressions in Shorter Catechism 31 and 86 add nothing to the above. What does add to the authentic Confessional doctrine is the 1903 addition of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in its Chapter 35, Of the Love of God and Missions: “In the Gospel God declares His love for the world and His desire that all men should be saved…” The purpose of the 1903 additions to the Confession of the P.C.U.S.A., as was the case with the similar Declaratory Act of the Free Church of Scotland in 1892, was to facilitate union with an Arminianising denomination, which had abandoned explicitly in the former instance and implicitly in the latter, the Calvinistic doctrines of the eternal decree and of particular redemption.

Why should objections be raised against the insisting on holding the desire on God’s part that the reprobate should be saved? Before a number of reasons are mentioned it should be pointed out that no criticism is intended to be directed against those who mean by such a desire nothing other than the revealed will of God in the gospel offer itself. Objection is raised against the confusions noted below that have repeatedly led to the compromising and denial of the sovereign grace of God.

1. The above remark suggests that the ascription of such a desire to God is often not simply a way of expressing the will of command, but is supposed to be something behind the command, a will in-between the command and the decree, a weak though ardent wish that can be frustrated and is frustrated in the case of many. Surely, no Calvinist can desire to ascribe such a desire to the Most High, although the devotees of free will have invented an antecedent will in God distinct from the consequent will of the final decree. If one cares, like John Howe, to speak of a complacential will, and means only that God is pleased whenever His precepts are obeyed, no objection need be raised as long as there is not confusion with the supposed antecedent will under the cover of the word “desire”.

2. A second source of confusion is the failure to recognize the use of anthropopathic language in Scripture passages that represent God’s actions as if they expressed passions like our own. No Christian holding the Bible to be free of contradiction can suppose that the Lord literally repents or regrets his own work of creation (Genesis 6:6-7). The same way of speaking after the manner of men applies to God’s desire as expressed in Psalm 81:14. It is a gross abuse of language when, not as homiletical hyperbole, but as a dogmatic formulation, human passions, often called emotions, are ascribed to God. Such a view is in conflict with the Confession of Faith, which declares God to be “a most pure Spirit, … without body, parts, or passions,” based on Acts 14:11, 15. The error is intensified when a questionable threefold faculty psychology is misapplied further, by representing God in the image of man, with emotions as well as intellect and will, and then arguing as if an emotional desire caused the will which is revealed in the free offer. Such prying into the secret things along with the obscuring of what has been revealed ought to be eschewed by all who reverently tremble at the Word of God.

3. That the desire is not simply meant as an anthropomorphic mode of emphasizing the revealed will becomes evident when the assertion is made that it is an instance of a deep paradox or antinomy not resolvable by logic. In the fact that God has decreed to save only some, but has commanded the gospel to be proclaimed indiscriminately to all, there is no contradiction, but simply the difference between God’s decree and his preceptive will. Why such a command is given may well be beyond our powers to fathom at least in this life, but there need not be an apparent, much less a real contradiction to those who are well instructed by the Word and Spirit of God. But to search behind the revealed will in the gospel offer for a divine inclination to save those who have been foreordained to everlasting wrath, can only appear to be ascribing a real contradiction in the will of God. The common evasion that this is only an apparent contradiction to us but not a real contradiction to God is nothing other than Kierkegaard’s own thesis as to the absolute paradox. It is not the historic position of Reformed theology.

It has been claimed that the alleged desire is actually revealed in Scripture. Those who fail to find it there have been accused of having their minds made up and ignoring the analogy of Scripture. May it not be retorted that a person with universalistic prejudices comes to the Bible determined to prove that God wants all to be saved and either ignores the passages that teach divine sovereignty in salvation, or explains them away or seeks refuge in Irrationalism? Certainly the whole teaching of the Word is to be listened to, and listening means first the use of reason in understanding what God has said, while the limits of that understanding are recognized. The real question here is whether Scripture actually teaches the universalistic view in texts such as 2 Peter 3:9, Ezekiel 33:11, and Matthew 23:37.

That the Lord is not willing that any should perish, if understood of all men can only be taken of the will of command, and teaches nothing as to a desire or wish. The verb often, as the related noun, signifies, however, the determinate counsel of God. The context also, strongly supports a restriction of “any” and “all” to the elect. The long-suffering of God is to us-ward or to you-ward, i.e., those addressed as beloved in a judgment of charity. Longsuffering is not only toward the reprobate in Romans 9:22 (cf. 2:4), curiously cited to support a love toward salvation directed to such as have been indicated to have been hated (verse 15). That these verses may not legitimately be cited as providing a parallel to 2 Peter 3:9, is clear from the explicit reference to the elect as objects of the divine longsuffering in Luke 18:7. The broader context of 2 Peter 3 confirms the particularist view of the passage. Why does the second coming of Christ seem to be delayed? Because in the longsuffering of God, the elect—who sometimes long resist the gospel overtures—must all be made willing in the day of God’s power before they stand before the throne on the great day.

In Ezekiel 33:11 as in 18:23, 32, while the Hebrew verb may be translated by “desire,” the rendering “have no pleasure” gives the proper sense, i.e. the Lord is pleased when the wicked repents, and is not pleased when he does not. The text does not assert that the Lord is pleased that the wicked should repent even when he does not. If the latter is given the sense that repentance as such is always approved by God, this truth could imply that God is pleased that the devil should repent. But surely no sober Christian would want to say that God desires the salvation of Satan. The general remark that the non-literal anthropomorphic ascription of desire is unobjectionable in itself applies also to these passages. But the widespread representation of this desire as an intention aiming at the salvation of all renders the expression undesirable, especially when the desire is viewed as an irrational urge. These passages powerfully present the sinner’s duty, while they do not treat of his ability to obey or of the Lord’s secret counsels. Nor is there a valid reason for supposing a contradiction implied between the will of decree and what is pleasing to God.

It is worthy of note that Matthew 23:37 is commonly misquoted as if it read, “how often would I have gathered you … and ye would not.” The text does not make a contrast between the Lord’s will and the wills of those whom he would gather, but between his compassion for Jerusalem’s children and the opposition of their leaders who have been denounced in the preceding passage. The sympathy of the Saviour is the expression of his humanity which he assumed in order that he might become a High Priest that could be touched with a feeling of our infirmities. To draw inferences as to what his divine nature might be in back of this distinctive feature of his sacred humanity is surely unwarrantable speculation into what has not been revealed.

To combine these passages and to add texts like Matthew 5:45 which do not refer to the way of salvation, but common mercies like rain and sunshine, is hardly to present cumulative evidence for a thesis nowhere plainly taught in Scripture, and contrary to Scripture when intended to conflict with the immutability of God’s counsel. The accumulation of a series of zeros, however elaborated, is, after all, only zero.

The desire to avoid extremes in declaring the truth is no doubt commendable, but yielding to the tempting claims of the opposite extreme even in minor matters has proved repeatedly in the history of the Church to be a step in the downward path to apostasy. The rampant evils of Arminianism among Evangelicals and Amyraldianism among Calvinists are only encouraged by adopting and even stressing the pet slogans with which they attack or obscure the doctrines of grace. Strangely, one favorite text of those who have throughout the history of Christianity insisted that God wants all men to be saved is not appealed to at present by Calvinists who use such expressions. Can it be that they realize that to take 1 Timothy 2:4 in a universalistic sense requires understanding verses 5 and 6 to teach a universal atonement, even if the will in 2:4 were taken as simply the will of command? Exegetically, as well as systematically, the thesis of Amyraldian universal grace issues in the assertion of universal redemption.

[1] Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin & Greek Theological Terms, 2 ed., p. 383; cf. The Geneva Theses (1649); The Formula Consensus Helvetica (1675) canons 6 &13; Francis Turretin Institutes of Elenctic Theology III.xvi, vol. 1, pp. 226-231 “May the will be properly distinguished into antecedent and consequent, efficacious and inefficacious, conditional and absolute? We deny.” & IV.xvii, vol. 1, pp. 395-417 “Can there be attributed to God any conditional will, or universal purpose of pitying the whole human race fallen in sin, of destinating Christ as Mediator to each and all, and of calling them all to a saving participation of his benefits? We deny.”


One thought on “The Free Offer of the Gospel

  1. […] [1] On this point, William Young (1918-2015) astutely observes: “Strangely, one favorite text of those who have throughout the history of Christianity insisted that God wants all men to be saved is not appealed to at present by Calvinists who use such expressions. Can it be that they realize that to take 1 Timothy 2:4 in a universalistic sense requires understanding verses 5 and 6 to teach a universal atonement, even if the will in 2:4 were taken as simply the will of command? Exegetically, as well as systematically, the thesis of Amyraldian universal grace issues in the assertion of universal redemption.” (The Free Offer of the Gospel) […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s