The Well-Meant Offer: Defining the Debate

The great English preacher C. H. Spurgeon was known for his deep passion for the lost. He is reputed to have once prayed, “Lord, hasten to bring in all Thine elect— and then elect some more.”1 If Spurgeon really prayed that prayer, we can be sure he was employing a little rhetorical “hyperbole.” In reality, Spurgeon didn’t believe any but those elect from the foundation of the world would be saved. Nevertheless, his burden for lost souls was so strong that he longed for God to save even those that appeared to be reprobate.

The Apostle Paul’s Burden for the Lost

The apostle Paul shared Spurgeon’s hyperbolic desire for the salvation of lost souls. In Romans 9 Paul affirms and expounds the deep doctrines of God’s sovereign election and reprobation. But before he discusses these awesome truths, Paul prefaces his exposition with a disclosure of his own heart’s longing for the salvation of his fellow ethnic Israelites.

I am speaking the truth in Christ–I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit–that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom 9:1-3, ESV).

Of course, Paul well knew that many of his fellow Jews would probably continue in their impenitence and prove their reprobation. Moreover, Paul also knew that it was theologically impossible for him to forfeit his own election in order to revise God’s discriminating decree. Nevertheless, Paul, like Spurgeon, had such an indiscriminate longing for the salvation of all lost men that he sometimes expressed a desire for the salvation even of those who, as time would prove, were numbered among the reprobate. Indeed, after lamenting their hardness and impenitence, Paul would go on to write, “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Rom 10:1, ESV).

I don’t think we can deny that Spurgeon and Paul manifested an indiscriminate desire for the salvation of all sinners. And I doubt any of us would dispute whether we ought to imitate them in this desire.

Praying for the Salvation of Family and Friends

Think for a moment of all your immediate family members, more distant relatives, fellow workers, schoolmates, friends, neighbors – everyone with whom you have some friendship or acquaintance. Do you believe every single one of them is numbered among the elect and will go to heaven? Wouldn’t you have to concede that there are probably some who will continue in their sin and hardness of heart until they drop into the Lake of Fire for all eternity? And yet, is it not true that as they live, you don’t desire that they perish but that they come to repentance and eternal life? Can you not say with Paul, “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they might be saved”?

Do Spurgeon and Paul Reflect God’s Own Heart?

I think it’s pretty clear that the examples of Spurgeon and Paul would constrain us to desire the salvation of all sinners, and if we don’t have such a desire, to pray for it. But the controversial question I’d like to raise and address is this: does the indiscriminate desire for the salvation of all sinners exhibited by Paul and Spurgeon reflect the heart of the God who chooses some for salvation but who passes over others? In other words, does God sincerely desire the salvation of all sinners? Or does God only desire what he decrees?

What’s Not Debated

These questions touch on the controversy commonly known as the “Free Offer” or, more precisely, the “Well-Meant Offer” of the gospel. It’s a matter particularly debated among Calvinists, that is, those who affirm God’s absolute sovereignty and believe in the doctrine of election. Among those Calvinists who debate this issue, there’s basic agreement on the following points:

(1) All men born in Adam are totally depraved and deserve eternal punishment.

(2) For reasons known to himself, God has chosen to elect some of these hell- deserving sinners to salvation while passing by others and leaving them to perish in their sins.

(3) As a result, not all sinners will ultimately be saved.

(4) Nevertheless, those who preach the gospel are under obligation to command all men everywhere to repent and believe.

(5) Furthermore, those who preach the gospel may sincerely desire the salvation of all to whom they preach without discrimination.

So the debate is not over the doctrine of election or the church’s responsibility to proclaim the gospel to all men without distinction. And in most cases, the debate is not even over the propriety of you and me feeling and expressing a sincere and indiscriminate desire for the salvation of all lost sinners.

What Is Debated

More precisely, the debate boils down to this: can God in any sense desire the salvation of any sinners whom he’s not decreed to be saved? How many of you would answer that question negatively? How many would answer the question positively? As some of my readers might suspect, I plan to argue for the affirmative position. I believe (passionately) that an affirmation of the well-meant offer is not only biblical but vital for our view of God, the gospel, and evangelism. However, before I offer some reasons why I’d answer the question in the affirmative, I’d like to highlight some of the primary concerns of those who answer the question negatively in our next post.

B.G.

  1. According to William Y. Fullerton, Charles Haddon Spurgeon: A Biography (1920). The quote is drawn from the end of chapter 8, “An Intimate Interlude,” available online here: http://www.spurgeon.org/misc/bio8.htm. (Accessed February 9, 2012). See also Lewis Drummond, Spurgeon: Prince of Preachers, 3rd ed. (1992), 122.