The Well-Meant Offer: Listening to the Detractors

In the 1920s, a schism arose in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) over the doctrine of common grace and the free or (more precisely) well-meant offer of the gospel. Those who rejected common grace and the well-meant offer left the CRC to found the Protestant Reformed Church (PRC). Two decades later, a similar controversy arose within the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). A general assembly commissioned a committee to study and give a report on the question of whether God desires the salvation all men indiscriminately (whether elect or non-elect). The result was a “majority report,” which affirmed the well-meant offer, and a “minority report,” which denied it.

The “Well-Meant Offer” Rejected

As we noted in our introductory post, the precise question raised by the “well-meant offer” is this: Can God in any sense desire the salvation of all men including the non-elect? David Engelsma presents the PRC’s answer to that question:

Is God in Jesus Christ gracious in the gospel to all who hear the preaching? The answer of the PRC is an unqualified, emphatic “no!” Neither is there a gracious operation of the Spirit of Christ upon the heart of the reprobate who hears the preaching, nor is there a gracious attitude in the Father of Jesus Christ towards the reprobate who comes under the preaching…. [God] calls the elect out of grace, the grace with which He chose them in Christ before the foundation of the world, whereas He calls the reprobate only with the external Word. He calls the elect with the will to save them, whereas His will with the call of the reprobate is both their exposure as depraved rebels and the illustration of the sheer graciousness of his choice and saving calling of the elect.1

Those who adopt the position of the “minority report” respond similarly. These opponents of the “free” or “well-meant” offer of the gospel usually give one or more of the following kinds of arguments for their rejection of the doctrine:

An Exegetical Objection

The first point of the “minority report,” drafted by William Young and Floyd Hamilton, states, “It is not clear that the exegesis and the conclusions drawn have been conclusively substantiated.”2 Hence, those who reject the well-meant offer argue that passages which seem to explicitly affirm or implicitly suggest God’s desire for the salvation of all men do not actually teach such on closer inspection.

For instance, 2 Peter 3:9 is sometimes quoted as explicitly affirming God’s desire for the salvation of all sinners. That text reads, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet 3:9, ESV). Another text sometimes used in support of the free offer is 1 Timothy 2:3-4 where, after commanding us to pray for “all people” including those in authority, Paul remarks, “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (ESV).

In the case of the first text, it is noted that the scope of the “any” whom God doesn’t wish to perish is limited by the antecedent 2nd person personal pronoun “you” (υμας), i.e., those to whom Peter is writing.3 A look at the immediate and larger context, it is argued, demonstrates that Peter is writing to Christians. Hence, those who object to the free offer would read Peter as saying, “God does not wish any of his elect to perish but desires that all of his elect come to repentance.”4

In the case of the second text, it is pointed out that the phrase translated “all people” need not denote every single sinner in the world but rather “all sorts of people,” i.e., kings and commoners, rich and poor, Jews and Gentiles, etc. Consequently, the passage, they aver, doesn’t necessarily teach God’s desire for the salvation of all sinners (whether elect or non-elect) but simply (elect) people of all sorts.5

These are just two examples. Other passages used to adduce the free or well-meant offer are also given alternative readings by the opponents of the doctrine.6

A Theological Objection

The doctrine of the free or well-meant offer of the gospel depends in part on a theological distinction between God’s will of decree and God’s will of precept. God’s will of decree is what God has resolved to carry out himself. God’s will of precept refers to God’s commandments and ethical expectations for humans.

Those who object to the free or well-meant offer usually agree with this distinction. However, they argue that in reality God only has one will and that will is only properly designated by the will of decree, i.e., what God has decided to carry out. Matthew Winzer remarks, “It is only the will of decree which is the will of God in the proper sense of the term, as an act of volition, for therein God has decreed what shall be done.”7 God’s will of precept does not necessarily denote any volitional or attitudinal disposition in God but signifies those standards by which humans are to live.

Accordingly, opponents of the well-meant offer argue that we may not infer from God’s will of precept any genuine desire or wishing on God’s part. To do so would imply that God has real emotions, which, they argue, the Reformed Confessions (WCF 2.1) and at least some Reformed theologians appear to deny. The Puritan John Owen, for example, asserts, “That desires and wishing should properly be ascribed unto God is exceedingly opposite to his all-sufficiency and the perfection of his nature; they are no more in him than he hath eyes, ears, and hands.”8

Moreover, it would imply that God’s will can be frustrated. While we can conceive of a frustrated human desire, we cannot ascribe to Deity frustrated desires. In the words of the minority report, “No such weak wishing can properly be ascribed to God whose will is firmly fixed and fixes all things.”9 Engelsma likewise opines, “It is incontrovertible that the offer teaches – does not imply, but teaches – that God’s grace in the preaching is resistible, and resisted, and that God’s will for the salvation of sinners is frustrated. Many towards whom grace is directed in the preaching successfully refuse it; and many whom God desires to save perish.”10

This leads to a third and related objection:

A Logical Objection

Those who reject the free offer of the gospel argue that to affirm God can both desire the salvation of all men and yet not desire the salvation of all men is a logical contradiction. “God has not a will that can be frustrated as well as one that cannot be” argues the minority report.11 Robert Reymond agrees and writes, “All such reasoning imputes irrationality to God.”12 Similarly, Engelsma asserts, “We charge that the offer involves a Calvinist in sheer contradiction. That God is gracious only to some in predestination, but gracious to all in the gospel, and that God will only some to be saved in predestination but wills all to be saved by the gospel, is flat, irreconcilable.” 13

In the minds of these writers, to affirm that God both desires the salvation of all sinners and yet to say that he doesn’t decree the salvation of all sinners is illogical. One opponent of the well-meant offer even alleges that it portrays God as schizophrenic.14 They would not charge Spurgeon or Paul with logical inconsistency or schizophrenia. Spurgeon and Paul didn’t know whom God had and had not elected unto salvation. God’s decree was hidden from them, and therefore, their compassion was, as philosopher-theologian Paul Helm describes it, a “blind compassion.”15 But the same cannot be said of God. God knows the end from the beginning. He knows whom he’s chosen from before the foundation of the world. And for God to be consistent and for our theology to remain logical, we must deny that God desires all men to be saved and affirm that he only desires the salvation of the elect.

Summing It Up

These are three of the primary objections to the well-meant offer. Many of its opponents also argue that the teaching is not in accord with Reformed tradition16 and that it necessarily leads to negative practical consequences. “We charge,” says Engelsma, “that the offer is the Arminian view of gospel-preaching.” He elaborates,

The teaching of the ‘well-meant offer’ creates preaching that assures all and sundry of the love of God for them in the cross of Jesus. It creates preaching that then must proclaim faith, not as God’s free gift to whomever He wills, but as the condition which the sinner must fulfill, to make God’s love effective. It creates preaching that soon adopts the most atrocious free will abominations, on the mission field and in the congregations: the altar-call and all its accessories.17

Garrett Johnson thinks the well-meant offer leads to irrationalism, agnosticism, and existentialism:

The content of the Gospel is itself confused: Did Christ die for all men, does he wish the salvation of all men, or did he die only for his people and actually accomplish their salvation? If the bible teaches ideas that cannot be reconciled with each other, if all the teaching of the Bible is apparently contradictory, then no one, including the preacher, has the foggiest idea what the Bible says. The result is an increasing indifference to theology and doctrine and a growing interest in other sorts of religiosity. Intellectual Christianity, already abandoned in most denominations, is being rapidly replaced by activist, aesthetic, and experiential religion.18

In my opinion, the question of whether the well-meant offer agrees with Reformed tradition depends in part on (1) whom one cites, (2) what portion or excerpt from his writings one cites, and (3) whether or not one has properly interpreted the portion cited.19 And the alleged practical consequences amount to instances of the genetic fallacy and/or slippery slope argumentation, which fails to establish a necessary result or consequence. In our next installment, we’ll attempt to respond to these objections and demonstrate that exegesis, theology, and logic, theology support the proposition that God desires the salvation of all men indiscriminately (whether elect or non-elect).

B.G.

  1. “Is Denial of the ‘Well-Meant Offer’ Hyper-Calvinism?” (accessed Feb 15, 2012).
  2. Both the “majority report” and the “minority report” are available online: http://www.opc.org/GA/free_offer.html (accessed Feb 15, 2012).
  3. There is a textual variant that features the 1st person plural “us” (ημας). Most translators and commentators think the 2nd person plural most likely reflects the original text.
  4. For a rebuttal of the interpretation that limits Peter’s target audience to the elect, see John Murray’s exposition of the text in the majority report and Robert Letham’s reading of the text in “John Owen and 2 Peter 3:9,” Reformation Today 38 (July-Aug 1977): 37-38, the pertinent section of which can be found online here (accessed Feb 15, 2012).
  5. Of course, even if Paul is referring to “all sorts of people,” that doesn’t preclude the non-elect since they would have been numbered among the sorts of sinners for whom Paul expected his readers to pray (see 1 Tim 2:1-2). For an exposition of the text that sees it as an affirmation of the well-meant offer, see the excerpt of C. H. Spurgeon’s sermon in Iain Murray’s Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism: The Battle for  Gospel Preaching (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1995), 149-54.
  6. We’ll examine some of these texts in our defense of the well-meant offer and attempt to show why the contrary readings are untenable.
  7. “Murray on the Free Offer: A Review by Matthew Winzer” (accessed Feb 15, 2012).
  8. John Owen, Works, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967), 10:401.
  9. See “The Minority Report,” 3., (1), (b).
  10. “Is Denial of the ‘Well-Meant Offer’ Hyper-Calvinism?”
  11. “The Minority Report,” 3., (1), (b).
  12. A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 692-93, n. 25.
  13. “Is Denial of the ‘Well-Meant Offer’ Hyper-Calvinism?”
  14. This charge was made by an opponent of the well-meant offer in an online discussion with the author.
  15. “The Language and Theology of the ‘Free Offer'” (accessed Feb 15, 2012).
  16. Both sides claim that their position is most consistent with the Reformed tradition and offer select citations of Reformed authors to support their view. See Engelsma and Garret P. Johnson, “The Myth of Common Grace.” The Trinity Review (Mar-April 1987), accessed online (accessed Feb 15, 2012).
  17. “Is Denial of the ‘Well-Meant Offer’ Hyper-Calvinism?”
  18. “The Myth of Common Grace.”
  19. I may try to illustrate some of the equivocation among Reformed writers when dealing with the exegesis of certain texts. While neither side can claim the entire Reformed tradition as its ally, I’ll provide some links to helpful resources that demonstrate plenty of support from the Reformed Tradition for the notion of a well-meant offer.