The Gospel Offer and Limited Atonement

If the gospel is commanded by Christ to be preached unto all men without distinction, does this imply that Christ did in fact die for every individual human being to ever live? If the indiscriminate free offer of the gospel is true, how does this cohere with the doctrine of limited atonement? Is God insincere by offering redemption through Christ’s blood to the reprobate in the external call of the gospel, if Christ’s blood was never truly shed for them? In this post we will answer these questions by looking at three 17th century Reformed theologians.

Dr. Michael Lynch describes John Davenant‘s “three critical theses or elements of his hypothetical universalism.” He introduces the first of these by comparing Davenant’s view with that of John Owen and others:

“Most, though not all, Reformed theologians affirmed that there was an internal sufficiency in the death of Christ such that the work of Christ would have been able to redeem a thousand worlds of infidels had God so willed (cf. Canons of Dort, 2.3). Yet, many of these same theologians denied that Christ was actually offered up as a substitute or mediator for any but the elect. This would be the position famously held by John Owen (in The Death of Death in the Death of Christ). While the death of Christ could have been ordained to be a remedy for the sins of all, in truth, the death of Christ was only ordained to be a remedy for the sins of the elect. For Davenant, this theory is untenable given both the testimony of Scripture (John 3:16; 1 John 2:2, etc.) and the logic of the gospel offer (“universal covenant”).”

Lynch then comes to the substance of one of Davenant’s arguments for Hypothetical Universalism, which is drawn from the logic of the sincere free offer of the gospel or “universal remedy“:

“The logic goes something like this: The gospel offer, which ministers are called to proclaim, must indiscriminately include this proposition: God is, according to his divine justice and on account of the person and work of Jesus Christ, able to forgive any person of their sins. For this proposition to be true, it then must be the case that God in Christ made a remedy for every person such that God is able to fulfill the antecedent condition proclaimed in the gospel—viz., God is able to forgive the sins of any person. In order to claim that God in Christ made a remedy sufficient for every person, we must affirm that God intended that Christ make a remedy for every person.” (Confessional Orthodoxy and Hypothetical Universalism: Another Look at the Westminster Confession of Faith, pp. 134-5).

Francis Turretin answers this objection: “Although God does not…intend to effect the salvation of the reprobate who are called, that external calling cannot on that account be termed fallacious and illusory and one in which God does not act in good faith (while he promises seriously what nevertheless he does not will to give).” Turretin continues, giving six arguments:

1. The Gospel promise is conditional.

(1) The promise, as was just said, is not absolute, but conditional, promising nothing except upon a condition (which is fulfilled in the elect alone). [‘As was just said‘ in the previous section: “From a promise to a decree, the consequence does not hold good. If God promises a thing conditionally, he has not therefore decreed conditionally to give it. It suffices that the thing willed is conditional; it is not required that the volition itself should be conditional (i.e., he wills indeed that salvation should be given under a condition, but does not will under a condition that salvation shall be given). He intends absolutely to promise salvation under the condition of faith (not that the decree should be designated as conditional, but that the connection between faith and salvation may be indicated). The foundation, therefore, of the truth of the gospel promise is not to be drawn from the decree of God concerning persons, but from his wise ordination of things (and the inseparable connection between the means and the end—of faith and repentance with salvation); not to teach properly what God has actually decreed to confer upon this or that one, but what is the way and what are the means and condition necessary in order to obtain salvation (and what is in store for those having that condition).”]

2. External calling reveals the prescriptive will of God, not the decretive.

(2) That [external] calling is not such as to lay open the secret counsel of God concerning the salvation of this or that person, but only to prescribe in general to man his duty and set forth the infallible way of salvation (and they who follow this will necessarily be saved). In both God acts in the best faith, for he both prescribes most truly to man his duty and teaches the sole way of salvation, and most sincerely promises a blessing to the one doing his duty. Therefore he promises nothing which he does not will to give. For as he promises only to the one having the condition, so he also wills and intends to give salvation only to the believer and denounces punishment against the unbeliever.

3. The gospel call does not imply an antecedent conditional will in God.

(3) He does not call in earnest who does not will (i.e., does not command and take pleasure that the one called should come whither he calls), but he does not cease to call in earnest who does not will (i.e., intend and decree effectively that the one called should respond to the call). To a serious call, it is not required that there should be a constant intention of actually bringing to oneself those who are called, but only that there should be the constant will of commanding duty and of promising a blessing to those who do it. So God seriously wills (i.e., commands man to obey the law that he may live, according to the brief clause of the covenant of works: “Do this and thou shalt live”). Yet he cannot for this reason be said to will (i.e., to intend) that man should fulfil the law and fulfilling live by it.

4. Opponents faced with the same difficulty.

(4) The opinion which we oppose is far more strongly pressed with the same difficulty. For on this hypothesis, God is made most seriously to desire and intend the salvation of men (provided they have faith) which yet he knows they have not (and cannot have of themselves), and which he himself decreed from eternity by an irrevocable decree not to give (who alone can). It is easy to decide whether this can be consistent with the sincerity of God. By this very thing, God is represented as testifying that he wills and does not will (at the same time) their salvation because he does not will that without which it cannot be obtained (as if anyone would say that he wills man to live, but yet nilled that he should breathe).

5. The External Call is not presented in the same manner.

“Although the external call is presented as much to the reprobate as to the elect, yet it is not presented in the same manner. To the latter, it has reference primarily, directly and principally. For by it he intends their faith and salvation; on account of them, he has instituted the ministry and provides for the preaching of the gospel, so that the scattered sons of God may be gathered (John 11:52), and the church collected and edified (Eph. 4:11-12), which would not have been done if there had been no elect in the world. Hence he does not call them only imperatively, but also operatively (by working in them by his Spirit the condition itself).

“But it has reference to the former only secondarily and indirectly because they are mixed with the elect (whom God intends by the word to bring out of the world unto salvation). Not that salvation may be said to be destined for them by God conditionally, but only that their duty is prescribed to them and the way of salvation exhibited. There does not cease therefore to be a multiple end of that calling with regard to them (although God has not decreed, nor intends, that they should respond to it and be saved). As legislator, he wills to prescribe to them their duty; as Lord, he wills kindly to show them the way of salvation; as Judge, he wills to convict them of contumacy and rebellion and to render them inexcusable.”

6. The intention of God vs. that of gospel preachers.

“Although the intention of pastors in that calling agrees with the intention of God both in this—that they do nothing except by God’s appointment whether in commanding faith or promising salvation; in which sense they are said to be the mouth of God and to beseech us in the name of Christ (2 Cor. 5:19, 20); and in this—that both properly intend the salvation of the elect alone and not of the reprobate; yet they do not agree in all respects. [cf. Reformed Scholasticism: Distinguishing Ends]

“For ministers are unable to distinguish between the elect and reprobate, and do not know by name those who will or will not believe. They address all promiscuously, and only indistinctly are able to promote the salvation of the elect because they are unknown to them. They may undoubtedly desire from the promptings of love that all should be saved. Nor ought they to despair absolutely of the salvation of anyone (unless they consider him to have sinned unto death and to be really a reprobate), since God can call men in the very last hour. Therefore they are bound diligently to perform their duty towards all sinners. They would involve themselves in great guilt before God, if in the perdition of any they could be accused of a neglect of duty as long as any hope of emendation remained.

“To this pertains what Paul says, “that he exhorted every man, that he might present every man perfect in Christ” (Col. 1:28). To teach that, he did what was incumbent upon him that he might promote the salvation of everyone (whether Jew or Gentile) committing the event to God. At another time, he (the hardening and rejection of the Jews being known), after shaking his raiment, left them and turned himself to the Gentiles (Acts 18:6; 13:46). But God knows his own, and those for whose salvation and conversion alone he has destined calling. He also distinctly and formally intends their salvation by it, but not that of others whom he knows were reprobated by him from eternity (and either do not truly follow, or never will follow, and whose salvation, therefore, he cannot intend, but rather the detection of the wickedness of their hearts (Luke 2:35), and their inexcusability on the supposition of their contumacy (Rom. 1:20; John 15:22), as the event itself clearly shows).

“Nor must it be said here that the question concerns the mind and will of the caller, it does not concern the event of the call. For the event itself (which depends upon the most free and wise dispensation of God) sufficiently indicates what was the mind and will of the caller, since nothing can happen beyond his intention.”
(Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology IV.xvii.45-47, vol. 1, pp. 415-417).

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