A Defense of the Well-Meant Offer: Framing the Question

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 Indiscriminate 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.

Do You Pray Indiscriminately 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”?

Does the Burden of Spurgeon and the Apostle 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 has 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.

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  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. []
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22 Responses to A Defense of the Well-Meant Offer: Framing the Question

  1. Jeff Smith says:

    Bob,
    Thank you for taking this up. This is a critical subject and you have very accurately identified what the real issue is.

    • admin says:

      You’re welcome, brother. I’d like to see you republish your studies on 18th century Particular Baptists.

  2. Kevin Jones says:

    Great subject and an area in which all reformed Christians need to get a true conviction. I am looking forward to seeing what you have to say.

  3. Robert Jay Rubio says:

    Robert,
    So glad to see our teachers address this VERY important doctrine.
    I look forward to the rest of your study!
    Peace in and through Christ Jesus, alone.
    Robert-

  4. Michael Beck says:

    Wouldn’t this fall under the two wills of God discussion as well? Also phrased as “how can God will to happen what he has prescribed in the Bible is against His will?”

    • admin says:

      Mike,

      To answer your questions …

      First, it depends on what you mean by “the two wills of God discussion.” Neither side posits the idea that God has two distinct volitional faculties. Both agree that he has only one will. Yet Reformed theologians have commonly distinguished God’s “decretive will” from this “preceptive will.” If that’s what you’re referring to, then you’re correct to say that such a distinction is relevant to the debate.

      Second, once again it depends on what you mean by the question “how can God will to happen what he has prescribed in the Bible is against his will?” Am I correct to interpret the first reference to God’s will in this question as God’s “decretive will” or “will of power” by which he brings his decreed design to pass? And am I correct to understand your reference to what God has “prescribed in the Bible” as “against His will” as a reference to God’s “preceptive” or “revealed will”? In that case, the question might look something like this: how can God decree, say, the sin of Adam (or anyone else for that matter) when the Bible teaches that God vis-a-vis his “revealed will” disapproves of sin? If this is what you’re asking, I’m not certain whether such a question is part of the point in dispute. Both sides affirm that God for reasons known to himself may for his own glory decree to occur (via his decretive will) what he otherwise disapproves of (via his preceptive will). The debate is whether God’s preceptive will can properly denote what is “desirable” to God even if God hasn’t decreed such states of affairs.

      Forgive me if I’ve misunderstood your questions.

  5. I think that there’s one more point worth considering. Any bona fide “offer” of salvation would reasonably carry the backing of a fully effective atonement, otherwise it would be an empty gesture. For instance, telling someone to repent carries the implication that there is a good reason why to repent, namely, because God’s mercy awaits, but the alleged non-elect have no hope of mercy, because they have no Savior who died for them. So this is why some C’s argue that there is no such thing as an “offer” of the Gospel, but only a “command,” which command, only the C-elect will irresistibly receive. So that’s another angle to consider.

    • admin says:

      Good point, Richard. The relation of the atonement (nature, extent, etc.) is a point worth considering in relationship to the well-meant offer. I think a number of those who’ve left comments below agree. Thanks for visiting the site.

  6. doug del bosco says:

    The observations of the perspective Mr. Spurgeon and the Apostle Paul on the subject of the human perspective towards the unsaved cannot be under-appreciated–yet it seems to be the case with a significant portion of the body of Christ (professing body at least) else their would manifest more prayers for the unsaved, more and a greater desire to be equipped by an evangelist, and more of us feeling under obligation to preach the Gospel.

    While the technical issue the good Dr has asked is thorny meaty to some degree these other issues are of greater importance and as my good brother in Christ J Vernon would say ” this is where the rubber meets the road” for us as slaves to and for Christ.

    • admin says:

      Doug, if I understand your point correctly, you’re underscoring the need not only for a right theology of gospel preaching but also for a healthy and consistent practice. That is, we mustn’t just be hearers of the Word but we should also be doers. Is that right?

  7. I have to disagree with the fundamental premise of this post, That the Holy Spirit’s words through Paul can be merely seen as “rhetorical hyperbole” in place of a genuine desire for the salvation of the Jewish people (in Rom. 9:1-3 for instance). For when God speaks there exists nought but pure, undefiled truth which reflects his character: “When God speaks there are no ploys, no gimmicks. Only life-defining truth” (Ravi Zacharias: from the back-cover blurb of “Cries of the Heart” (2002)). Indeed, given that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked and desires that all men would be saved and thus come unto a knowledge of the truth, this is no surprise why the Holy Spirit said what He did in Rom. 9:1-3. Indeed, Paul said it. But, on a higher plane, GOD said it! Rom. 9:1-3 is God-breathed, after all. This is becasue God jealously loves the Jews, and desires that they would come into relationship with Him again. Indeed, although they have rejected the Messiah and are seeking salvation by works and not by faith (and thus broken faith with God), God still longs after them, to reach them and to graft them in again, because He loves them. This, actually, is what I think Rom. 9, 10 and 11 are all about: God’s relationship to the JEWISH people, not the election of the Calvinist brand. In this light, God no longer becomes secret and mysterious in the unconditional elective sense, but rather His love and goodness are clearly displayed. It gives me joy to praise Him in this light.

    • admin says:

      Brendan, I’m not arguing that Paul is feigning a passionate desire for the salvation of the Jews. Quite the contrary, I think Paul’s grasping for the strongest possible language to affirm his earnest desire for their salvation.

      I do agree with Adam Clarke, however, when he remarks,

      Every person saw the perfect absurdity of understanding it in a literal sense, as no man in his right mind could wish himself eternally damned in order to save another, or to save even the whole world. And the supposition that such an effect could be produced by such a sacrifice, was equally absurd and monstrous.

      So though I see an element of rhetorical overstatement in Paul’s language, I don’t deny his point is to underscore a sincere desire and longing for the salvation of the Jews. And I certain affirm that his words are “God-breathed” inspired revelation.

      Finally, while Romans 9-11 may be contemplating the corporate election of the Jewish nation, its teaching is not irrelevant to the question of God’s election or non-election of individuals to make up the people of God – a teaching clearly affirmed elsewhere (e.g., John 6:37, 44; Acts 13:48; Rom 8:29).

      Thanks for visiting the site.

  8. Justin Hoke says:

    great post, I am eager to learn you point of view on this as this is something I have not yet worked out in my own mind and heart.

  9. Jim Charnock says:

    I agree Richard. I think it begins with the atonement. The high Calvinist sees a limited expiation and reasons from there. To be logically consistent they must deny the free offer to all because what lies behind such an offer to all is nothing less than the atonement itself.

    If they can be shown that the expiation is unlimited then it clears the way for the free offer and all else, in my opinion.

    • Tony Byrne says:

      You’re echoing the good Mr. Polhill, Jim :-) This excellent Calvinistic puritan wrote:

      “But if Christ no way died for all men, how came the minister’s commission to be so large. They command men to repent that their sins may be blotted out for whom Christ was not made sin? They beseech men to be reconciled to God, but how shall they be reconciled for whom Christ paid no price at all? They call and cry out to men to come to Christ that they may have life, but how can they have life, for whom Christ was no surety in his death? If then Christ died for all men, the ministry is a true ministry as to all; but if Christ died only for the elect, what is the ministry as to the rest? Those exhortations, which as to the elect are real undissembled offers of grace, as to the rest seem to be but golden dreams and shadows. Those calls, which as to the elect are right ministerial acts, as to the rest appear as extra-ministerial blots and erratas. Those invitations to the gospel feast, which as the elect are the cordial wooings and beseechings of God himself, as to the rest look like the words of mere men speaking at random, and without commission; for alas! why should they come to that feast for whom nothing is prepared? How should they eat and drink for whom the Lamb was never slain? Wherefore, I conclude that Christ died for all men, so far as to found the truth of the ministry towards them.” Edward Polhill, “The Divine Will Considered in its Eternal Decrees,” in The Works of Edward Polhill (Morgan, PA.: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1998), 165.

      Again, observe his excellent observations here regarding the connection between God’s revealed will and the death of Christ:

      “1. I argue from the will of God. God’s will of salvation as the fontal cause thereof, and Christ’s death, as the meritorious cause thereof, and are of equal latitude. God’s will of salvation doth not extend beyond Christ’s death, for then he should intend to save some extra Christum. Neither doth Christ’s death extend beyond God’s will of salvation, for then he should die for some whom God would upon no terms save; but these two are exactly co-extensive. Hence it is observable, that when the apostle speaks of Christ’s love to the church, he speaks also of the giving himself for it, (Eph. v. 25), and when he saith God will have all men to be saved, (1 Tim. ii. 4), he saith withal, Christ gave himself a ransom for all, (v. 6). Therefore, there cannot be a truer measure of the extent of Christ’s death, than God’s will of salvation, out of which the same did issue; so far forth as that will of salvation extends to all men, so far forth the death of Christ doth extend to all men. Now then, how far doth God will the salvation of all? Surely thus far, that if they believe they shall be saved. No divine can deny it, especially seeing Christ himself hath laid it down so positively, “This is the will of him that sent me, saith he, that every one which seeth the Son and believeth on him may have everlasting life,” (John vi. 40). Wherefore, if God will the salvation of all men thus far, that if they believe they shall be saved; then Christ died for all men thus far, that if they believe they shall be saved. But you will say, that promise, Whosoever believes shall be saved, is but voluntas signi, and not voluntas beneplacitii, which is the adequate measure of Christ’s death. Unto which I answer; If that promise be voluntas signi, what doth it signify? What but God’s will? What will but that good pleasure of his, that whosoever believes shall be saved? How else is the sign of the true God a true sign? Whence is that universal connexion betwixt faith and salvation? is it not a plain efflux or product from the decree of God? Doth not that evidently import a decree, that whosoever believes shall be saved? Surely it cannot be a false sign; wherefore, so far God’s will of salvation extends to all men, and consequently so far Christ’s death extends to them.” Edward Polhill, “The Divine Will Considered in its Eternal Decrees,” in The Works of Edward Polhill (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1998), 163-164.

      His remarks here (click) are also worth reading.

      We have Dr. Curt Daniel making this interesting historical observation:

      “We call attention to Calvin’s warning that if one limits the ‘all’ of the atonement, then one limits the revealed salvific will of God, which necessarily infringes on the preaching of the gospel and diminishes the “hope of salvation” of those to whom the Gospel is preached. Both High and Hyper-Calvinists fell prey to Calvin’s warning. The former limited the atonement and opened the door to limiting the revealed will that all be saved. Hyper-Calvinists went through that door and logically diminished the Gospel ministry and content.” Curt Daniel, Hyper-Calvinism and John Gill (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Edinburgh, 1983), 603.

    • Jim Charnock says:

      Hey Tony,

      Good quotes. I esp. like the term ‘co-extensive.’ Curt Daniel is a favorite of mine also.

      Jim

    • admin says:

      Jim and Tony, you both make an interesting point, namely, that the well-meant offer is rooted (at least in part) in the nature and extent of the atonement. My current position is that the atonement is both limited (in one sense) but unlimited (in another sense). Yet I don’t know that I’ve reflected sufficiently on the precise distinctions. I have a copy of Daniel’s dissertation and will try to read the relevant sections.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for the citations from Polhill.

  10. Philip Comer says:

    Brendan the evangelical Arminian:
    You reject the whole framework and approach of Dr. Bob’s post.
    This series is not going to be profitable not for you, and such comments will just side track us. This is an argument for moderate calvinists against high calvinists.

    • admin says:

      Philip, thanks for dropping in. You apparently know Brendan better than I do. I don’t mind if he shares his thoughts as long as the discussion remains civil and doesn’t stray from the main point.

      Blessings!

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