Our Lord tells us to be balanced in our teaching, not giving that which is holy to the dogs, nor giving stones where bread is needed. This balance has been broken severely by the modern pseudo-Free-Offer movement.
Spurgeon summed Calvinism up as ‘salvation by grace alone’, but views of Calvinists in relation to saving grace have drastically changed. Besides, Calvin would be appalled to learn that the saving Gospel which emanates from God but which is open to such contrary interpretations now bears his name. It would be thus better to drop the term. This article is therefore not a defence of Calvinism but a defence of the doctrine of salvation by grace alone.
Two factions have emerged amongst modern Calvinists. One teaches that all men are potentially saved by virtue of Christ’s atonement for sin. The other teaches that without the grace of God mankind is not only lost but absolutely and certainly damned. The first group teaches that in evangelising one must hide the ‘deep and secret’ elements of God’s grace from the sinner and reserve the full gospel for the already saved. The good news that God loves the sinner must be preached and his responsibility and duty appealed to so that he will love God back. The second group teaches that only the full gospel is the power of God unto salvation which includes God’s teaching on man’s doom, depravity, His eternal electing love for His people, effectual calling, efficacious atonement, sovereign grace and the perseverance in faith of the saints. The latter preach to all men everywhere as the Spirit leads, knowing that the gospel comes as a savour of life unto life to some but as a savour of death unto death to others.
The first group used to be called Arminians, Free-Willers or Wesleyans but many of them now claim they are ‘Moderate Calvinists’, though ‘Modernists’ would be a better word. These ‘Moderates’ call the second group ‘Hyper-Calvinists’, ‘Antinomians’ and ‘Hardshells’. It is symptomatic of man’s spiritual blindness that he prevents the truth from being seen by using terms and titles forged on the anvils of Babel. These Arminianisers of the doctrines of grace can only maintain their theory of God’s provisions being made effective by man’s agency in salvation by abandoning the Biblical doctrine of a full, particular, sufficient and entirely successful atonement. It is also plain that these ‘Calvinistic Arminians’ are increasingly rejecting the Authorised Version because it affirms strongly the sovereignty of God to the detriment of man’s agency. Instead, a bevy of translations are now used when they affirm the so-called ‘Moderate Calvinist’ position, though rejected when they do not. Indeed, those evangelicals who in their youth renounced the Liberal Higher Critical Movement are now happily using their more negative methods to place their own highly limited gospel in a more acceptable light.
This new Modernism does not openly reject the all-sufficiency of the atonement in salvation. What it does is claim that the all-sufficiency of the atonement does not refer to its application in the case of sinners. For them, salvation accomplished is not the same as salvation applied. The atonement, is only theoretically sufficient for all, but it only becomes a practical proposition when it is accepted. Thus salvation is not effected in Christ’s work on the cross but merely on the sinner’s reception of it. Christ’s work as such saves no one. It must be appropriated by man. Thus man is made the measure of all things. If some men are lost, Christ died in vain for them. If some refuse salvation, it is because they have thwarted God’s will.
Several of these Babel forgeries have bothered the Christian Press recently under the guise of duty-faith and the free offer. One is an article by Phillip R. Johnson entitled A Primer on Hyper-Calvinism, published by the Sword and Trowel (March, 2002). Here, the author boasts that we must twist Scripture to disagree with him. There is no danger of this. The little he says based on Scripture would be accepted by most of those he opposes and everything he says against his opponents is unfounded, undocumented prejudice and silly name-calling. Johnson’s argument that all men are duty-bound to believe in Christ within the ‘Free Offer’ is as rationalistic as it is illogical and un-Biblical. His premise is not that man is spiritually fallen and has not the Spirit of God but that man has two natures, the moral and the natural. The moral nature is fallen, the natural nature is not. Thus he concludes “The defect (sic!) in man is his own fault, not God’s. Therefore man’s own inability is something he is guilty for, and that inability cannot therefore be seen as something that relieves the sinner of responsibility.” There is much truth in this statement but where does it leave us? It leaves us with a man who is morally defective but bodily unfallen. All his inabilities are moral and not part of his natural make up. It appears that man’s ability to respond to the gospel is to be found in his unfallen natural capacities. But sin has marred all and man is fallen in all his capacities. Furthermore, to divide man’s nature into the fallen moral and the unfallen natural is quite foreign to Scripture which tells us that the wages of sin is death, ie. sin brings with it spiritual, moral and natural corruption. Even if we could accept Johnson’s simplistic theory as Scriptural, how can we deduce from this that natural, fallen man, dead in trespasses and sins, has the known and given duty to exercise faith savingly? And from whence does he receive the power to quicken himself? Johnson does not tell us and he ends his ‘proof’ by merely stating that the sinner is responsible for his moral defects. Who would disagree? Our concern, however, is how to make a fallen sinner stand again. Even if Johnson’s echo of old Liberalism were true, we cannot appeal to the duties of a morally corrupt person to give him insight into salvation nor can we appeal to his fallen natural abilities. We must return to the definition of Calvinism given by Spurgeon. Salvation is by grace alone and we are called to preach this to all as the Spirit leads but we, of ourselves, cannot guarantee this Salvation to every man or even any man. Salvation is not a commodity to be offered to all under a guarantee, but it is the status of those placed in union with Christ before the foundation of the world. The presentation of the gospel can only be made in conjunction with this fact. We preach Christ and Him crucified and the Spirit offers salvation to those for whom it was purchased. We are to do our work dutifully, knowing that the Spirit does His.
Though Johnson’s grounds for his duty-faith cum free-offer is based on a philosophical approach to man which is firmly denied by Scripture, he makes equal shipwreck of his historical argument. Dealing with so-called Hyper-Calvinists who allegedly oppose “all forms of evangelism and preaching to the unsaved”, he tells us that the most famous example of this kind is John Ryland Senior. Needless to say, Ryland took over a normal sized church-membership in Northampton and his evangelistic activities within very few years increased that membership seven-fold. His church-building had to be extended twice during his ministry. The busy preacher, friend of Hervey and Toplady, was not merely called to his own flock but evangelised in no less than twenty different surrounding villages. He constantly drove his coach to thickly populated areas or places of public recreation, stood on the driver’s seat and preach to the masses so that they trembled in their sin and pleaded to God for mercy. True, he criticised the use of the term ‘offer’ because of the philosophical approach to the atonement and man’s state newly associated with it. He affirmed, “The word offer is not so proper as declaration, proposal, or gift. The gospel is a declaration of the free grace of God. It is a proposal of salvation by Jesus Christ, and it proclaims Christ as the free and absolute gift of God.” These very words reveal the heart of a man dedicated to God in fervent evangelism.
Johnson also seriously errs when he presents William Huntington sarcastically as the ‘godfather’ of those who deny the gospel call. Huntington filled his London church week after week with three thousand people, though taking great pains not to poach other ministers’ hearers. No other minister of his day had such evangelistic success! Conversions accompanied most services. Johnson’s ignorance of the many appeals Huntington made to sinners to flee from the wrath to come is inexcusable in a man who claims to have read his works. Nor can Johnson place Huntington amongst those who reject the term ‘offer of the gospel’ as his works show that he used the words freely, though not in the limited and Liberal way of the modern Free Offer abusers of the term.
Johnson links the offer of Christ in the gospel with common grace. This grace, common to all men, he argues, is the general call of the gospel. Johnson gives us Scriptural evidence for God allowing the sun to shine on the just and the unjust alike but if this is all that Johnson means by his duty-faith cum free-offer system, it is quite void of the gospel that makes unjust men just. This was the gospel that Ryland Sen. and Huntington preached which Johnson labels ‘Hardshellism`, Hyper-Calvinism’ and ‘Antinomianism’. One wonders what purpose this modern scoffer has in thus standing the gospel on its head and slandering the saints of God under the thin disguise of one who ‘is concerned’ about the modern ‘threat’ to gospel preaching. One would think he wished to abolish it!
Johnson concludes by stating that God loves all reprobates compassionately but is unable to love them redemptively – God’s love is neither compassionate nor powerful enough to redeem such stubborn sinners! This is the pure ‘God is Dead’ heresy of Dorothy Sölle and her band of sceptics. If man’s agency does not procure his salvation, Christ has died in vain and thus He is Christ no longer.
The second Babel pronouncement is an essay-reprint by Malcolm Watts entitled The Free Offer of the Gospel, published in the magazine of Emmanuel Church, Salisbury (2001-2002). Watts defines the ‘offer’ as an expression of willingness to give a person something conditionally on his assent. He thus compares accepting Christ as someone who on buying goods at Bristol market, finds them free of charge and accepts them. His proof text is Isaiah 55:1 “Ho, every one that thirsteth . . . . . . by wine and milk without money and without price.” He forgets that this passage is referring to the prepared Bride of Christ being called by the Bridegroom and not to every man jack. Striving to find backing not only in the above Scripture but also in the various Calvinistic tenets such as the Canons of Dort and Westminster Confession, Watts gets himself into difficulties. These documents speak of Jesus being freely offered to the elect in the gospel. This is what the Marrow Men believed when they used the word ‘offer’ and this is what Huntington taught. This offer, then, is not indiscriminately to all men, based on God’s common grace to all but for the elect only. Watt appears to admit this, yet contrary-wise teaches that ‘to offer’ means to be willing to give something to somebody if they are willing to receive it. Modern Free Offer Liberals call this the ‘well-meant offer’, i.e. you offer Christ as if you really have Him to offer people indiscriminately and you pretend that everybody can accept him and that salvation is truly for them. The preacher strives to hoodwink the hearer into imagining himself in a secure position and able to take advantage of the offer, though the only warrant (Watt’s word) for such action is in the deceptive call of the ill-intentioned preacher. Watt says he is not basing his theory on isolated texts. Evidently! He does not give any Scripture at all to back up his extraordinary psychological approach to preaching. Nor do I believe that he could find any.
Now Watts extends his deceit. He tells us that he is not talking about the whole revelation of God but merely the part that says Christ is Saviour – everybody’s Saviour! Here Watts quotes Boston for backing who tells us that a physician appointed to a particular society can be visited by any in that society. Watt’s is forgetting that Boston did not believe in the deceitful preaching of a ‘well-meant’ offer (nor do the other ‘experts’ he wrongly quotes) and, in Watt’s case, the comparison does not hold water. The physician was there to heal all, whereas the Scripture and Declarations of Faith Watts’ quotes say that only the elect are healed.
Quoting Isaac Watts, our Watts now tells us that “none of the sons and daughters of Adam” are excluded from the salvation offered in the gospel. He then asks “Does this surprise you? Well, frankly, yes. What need then for the Day of Judgement and hell’s torments? What need is there for God to have chosen an elect people in Christ before the foundation of the world? Again, Watts back-pedals, saying that he is only talking about those who ‘will’. But man’s fallen ‘will’ is a ‘will not’! Here Fullerism lurks with its slogan “I can if I will?” Now Watts tells us another tale of the Queen giving everyone invitations to walk into her palace. This is the Free Offer in the gospel. All may walk in! This is the warrant for faith, says Watts. Now the term ‘warrant’ means a written authorisation or guarantee. If Watts feels that he has a written authorisation and guarantee of salvation for all, he ought to produce it. If not, he ought to be honest and tell us that there are those for whom God neither authorises nor guarantees salvation.
Watts, like Johnson, ignores Christ’s atoning work with its adopting, justifying and sanctifying outcome. This is not part of his watered-down gospel which presents Christ as everybody’s saviour. He does tell us, however, that Christ is offered particularly. At once I thought that Watts was becoming orthodox and believed in particular atonement. No such thing! Watts tells us that salvation in the offer is not general to all but particular to each and every one of us.
This message from Babel’s tower ends with an assurance that Watts is sincere. This general offer which is for every particular one must be preached sincerely and lovingly, he tells us. When he speaks, hearers must feel that God is beseeching them! But how can Watts look a man in the face, whom he does not know from Adam and tell him that he is being given in loving sincerity an authorisation and guarantee of his own particular salvation. Would he tell this to Esau? Would he tell this to Dives? Would he tell this to Judas? Would he tell this to the devil?
The third recent attempt to redesign and limit God’s saving grace is a reprint of John Murray’s essay on the Free Offer. Murray starts by telling us that God desires the salvation of all men and quotes a Presbyterian Church article which says that God loves the penitent and desires the salvation of the impenitent and reprobate. He then strives to back this up by quoting Ezekial 33:11 which does not say that God desires the salvation of reprobates but that he has pleasure in the wicked when they turn to him and are saved. Though he has not proven his point re God’s desire, Murray argues that God would not desire the salvation of all without distinction unless He had provided the means for them. Thus the free offer is not a mere offer but “God delights that those to whom the offer comes would enjoy what is offered in all its fullness”. The question of how God could delight in offering what He knows will not be accepted is left unanswered.
Murray now turns to what he calls the Scriptural basis for his Free Offer preaching. He finds this in common grace as exhibited in Matthew 5:44-48, Luke 6:27, 28 and Acts 14:17 which allegedly proves that believers and reprobates alike are recipients of God’s favour. Again, we are reminded that the sun shines on both the just and unjust and that such passages are “redolent of the pity and compassion in the heart of God that overflow in the bestowment of kindness.” But what has this to do with a warrant of salvation for both the unjust and the just provided in the Free Offer? Murray answers tantalisingly, “What bearing this may have upon the grace of God manifested in the free offer of the gospel to all without distinction remains to be seen”. A good writer always keeps his audience in suspense!
Quoting Deuteronomy 5:29; 32:29; Psalm 81:13 and Isaiah 48:18, Murray expounds his Liberal ‘Two Wills’ teaching which is so much part of the free offer psychology. God, he tells us, has a decretive will and a will to save those whom He has not decreed to be saved. God is undecided about the fate of the wicked. He has two wills about it. The Father has one will and Christ has another, contradictory will. Murray spends some time arguing his case here, mostly based on his highly critical views of the Hebrew text. His conclusion is that Christ has a totally different view of salvation to the Father’s. This cannot be put down to the Fact that Jesus was human and that the Father was not, Murray assures us, but it must reflect two distinct Divine wills. It is obvious that Murray builds his doctrine of a warranty of salvation for all on his imagined Jesus side, rather than on the decretal side of the Father.
Murray concludes the section by saying that God clearly is pleased to will that all should turn to Him in repentance. This is, however, not the dividing line between orthodoxy and Murrayism and his Free Offer gospellers. The line is where Murray preaches salvation for all where God demands repentance from all. The Scriptural demand for repentance does not automatically bring with it the guarantee or grant of salvation. All must repent because all have broken the law. Salvation is only by grace and God’s grace is obviously discriminate, otherwise hell would be empty. However, what Murray means by ‘pleased to will’ is not easy to discern. He does not tell us whether he is speaking of (for him) God’s effective will or His ineffective will. If it is God’s ineffective, non-decretal will that guarantees the salvation of all men, we can safely forget it as then no man will be saved. Murray merely tells us that what he calls ‘overtures’ to men are made on the basis that the full gospel must not be preached (‘Why?’ we must ask) and that the call to repentance brings with it the wherewithal to repent.
Murray promised explanation comes at the end in a garbled version of 2 Peter 3:9. Murray here questions that Peter is writing to the elect, though Peter says this, and tells us that we must take ‘The Lord . . . . is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish’ as Peter’s message to all men. He then proceeds to retranslate the passage giving it an interpretation which even his re-translation cannot bear. His warrant for this, he tells us, is ‘the analogy of Scripture’. But he has given us no Scripture which is analogous to his theory of a warranted salvation for all which he forces on Peter’s words. The gospel which Peter is preaching, Murray affirms, is not the gospel that all the elect will certainly be saved but that God wishes all to be saved, providing they grasp out and accept him. Paul is thus not speaking words of comfort to the already saved but words of theological confusion to the unsaved based on the watered down gospel which says, “God loves you. What are you going to do about it?’ Never be specific in preaching the gospel, Murray argues but keep the fact that the reprobate are doomed from them. However, the very fact that sinners are told to flee from doom is the gospel way of driving some to Christ. In Murray’s gospel there is only God’s ‘delight’ and ‘love’ for all men which morally drives people to him.
The height of Murray’s total theological confusion comes in his conclusion. “The full and free offer of the gospel is a grace bestowed upon all . . . . . the grace offered is nothing less than salvation in its richness and fullness. The love or loving-kindness that lies back of that offer is not anything less; it is the will to that salvation.” “The loving and benevolent will that is the source of that offer and that grounds its veracity and reality in the will to the possession of Christ and the enjoyment of the salvation that resides in him.” However, Murray has so confused the issue up to now with his various wills that it is not clear which will of God he means, the effective will or the ineffective one. We are thus left with the question, if God wills the salvation of all men, why are all men not saved? The question is also valid, ‘What has Murray’s free offer system to do with the preaching of the gospel?
A painful conclusion
The Finneyite ‘offer’ presented by these ministers is a mockery of the gospel call. It is a sad and perverse con-trick. It is not a well-meant offer, nor can it be a sincere offer, nor can it be a loving offer as it is an offer of deceit. The ‘gospel’ that Johnson, Watts and Murray so freely offer does not come as a certain life-bringer to some and a condemning judge to others. It is all empty smiles and cheers and desires on their god’s part. It rejects the God who has decreed all to save the elect and accepts a god who has decreed nothing and wills what he knows he will never have. It rejects the God who will have His holiness and righteous judgement preached to the nations. It rejects the eternal love of God for the people of His choice. It rejects the entire work of Christ in choosing the Bride promised Him from eternity. It sees preaching as a mere moral persuasion, based on the idea of a doting god who only wills for all people to accept him but does not will their acceptance. This is truly a blasphemous religion.
George M. Ella is a historian, author and biographer. His writings may be accessed at the online archived, ”Biographia Evangelica”.
George M. Ella, born February 1939 in Yorkshire, England, has lived most of his life on the European Continent. He is a retired Senior Civil Servant formerly employed in teaching, post-graduate teacher-training, chairing examination boards and curricula work. He holds degrees from London, Hull, Uppsala, Essen, Duisburg and Marburg universities with doctorates in English Literature and Theology. Dr. Ella has written regularly since the seventies for a number of magazines and newspapers and published numerous books on Church History, including biographies of William Cowper, William Huntington, James Hervey, John Gill, Augustus Montague Toplady, Isaac McCoy and Henry Bullinger besides works on doctrine and education. He is currently finishing the third volume of his series 'Mountain Movers'; a biography of John Durie; a work on Law and Gospel and further study material for the Martin Bucer Seminar. Dr. Ella is still internationally active as a lecturer and is a Vice-President of the Protestant Reformation Society. He is keenly interested in missionary work and has written on the spread of the Gospel amongst the Same people of Lapland, the people of India and the Native Americans. This present volume follows Dr. Ella's 'The Covenant of Grace and Christian Baptism', also published by the Martin Bucer Seminar. George Ella is married to Erika Ella, nee Fleischman, a former government administrator, and they have two sons Mark (41), Director of a Polytechnic College in Bremerhaven and Robin (39), Leading Senior Physician in a newly-built Geriatric and Psychiatric clinic in Dessau.