The Free Offer of the Gospel
by Fred G. Zaspel
In a day in which Pelagianism reigns it may seem a strange discussion indeed to debate whether the gospel should be offered freely. But hyper-Calvinism remains with us, and the resurgence of Reformed theology in recent decades has witnessed with it a resurgence of hyper-Calvinism also. And one of its characteristic marks is its hesitation and sometimes even refusal to preach the gospel to the non-elect or to the unregenerate. Some “high” Calvinists come a step further and argue that while the gospel should not be offered it should be proclaimed. The gospel makes no offer, it is argued; it issues a command to repent and believe.
We should clarify at the outset that this discussion does not concern contemporary “altar calls” or formulaic decisionism. Nor does this discussion question the necessity of divine initiative — unconditional election, effectual calling, and so on. Nor does this discussion question that the sovereign Spirit alone can persuade the lost to faith in Christ. On these matters all Calvinists are agreed. The question at issue is whether a sincere offer of salvation can legitimately be made indiscriminately to the lost.
Biblical Statements Related to the Free Offer
We will begin simply by citing Biblical statements related to the free offer, allowing God to speak for himself to this issue. Then we will return to discuss some related theological matters.
Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever!
This is an expression of the Lord’s heart toward the rebellious people of Israel. In the face of their continued rejection of him, he passionately wished covenant blessing for them. Clearly God had not decreed that they would have a heart inclined to him, for if he had they would have followed him. The verse plainly describes a desire on God’s part that was not in accordance with what for higher reasons he had decreed. The divine offer of covenant blessing was sincere, but it fell on deaf ears.
Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
The call to “kiss the Son . . . take refuge in him” is a call to submission and faith, and it is addressed not to believers or those who show evidence of regeneration but to the rebellious kings and rulers of the earth.
Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord.
Again, this exhortation is addressed not to the faithful but to the wicked who worship false gods (v.2).
Wisdom calls aloud in the street, she raises her voice in the public squares; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out, in the gateways of the city she makes her speech: “How long will you simple ones love your simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge? If you had responded to my rebuke, I would have poured out my heart to you and made my thoughts known to you. But since you rejected me when I called and no one gave heed when I stretched out my hand, since you ignored all my advice and would not accept my rebuke, I in turn will laugh at your disaster; I will mock when calamity overtakes you — when calamity overtakes you like a storm, when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind, when distress and trouble overwhelm you. “Then they will call to me but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me. Since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the LORD, since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke, they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes. For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them; but whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm.”
Here God is depicted as passionately calling the foolish to follow him and receive blessing. Would it be over-reading this passage to look ahead in the canon and affirm that these are the words of Wisdom Himself, the Lord Jesus Christ who is wisdom incarnate (Col. 2:3, 9)?
“Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Here God calls the sinful to come and reason the matter with him and to consider carefully his gracious offer of forgiveness.
Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together! Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the Lord? And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me. Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.
It would be difficult to imagine a more indiscriminate offer than this. God presents himself as the only God, the world’s only savior, and he freely invites “all the ends of the earth” to come to seek him in that capacity. He is accessible to all who will come, and invitation is made accordingly.
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David. See, I have made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander of the peoples. Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations that do not know you will hasten to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor.” Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
Amazingly God stoops to the level of a peddlar on the street corner selling (giving away!) his wares, indeed, even begging the wicked and evil man to come to him for free pardon.
Ezek. 18:23, 32 and 33:11
Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? . . . For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live. . . . Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?
Here God exposes his heart as lamenting the destruction of the wicked as he pleads with the rebellious nation (who eventually is destroyed) to return to him and escape his wrath. God takes no delight in destroying the unrepentant; he takes great delight in the repentance of that wicked person. And so he pleads accordingly, even though his plea goes unheeded.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Christ’s call for the weary to come to him for rest is offered indiscriminately.
Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ “But they paid no attention and went off-- one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. ‘Friend,’ he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless. “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
In parable Jesus describes the invitation of salvation. Blessing is offered to rebellious Israel, but it is refused (v. 1-3). The offer is sweetened, talked up, and shown to be glorious (v. 4), but still it is refused (v.5). And so he prophesies Israel’s destruction (v. 6-7). And now the offer goes out unrestricted to all (v. 8-10). Those who respond are saved, and those who refuse the offer are destroyed (v. 11-13). The call is passionate, soteric, and unfettered.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.
Whatever the identity of those whom Jesus addresses (whether Israel’s leaders or Israel at large) his claim is that he stands ready to save all who would come, and he laments the loss of those who refuse him.
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
. . . repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
In these two passages we read of Christ’s great commission to the church to announce the good news of forgiveness to all. There is only one way to keep this command, and that is to offer the gospel indiscriminately to all and to exhort all concerning their duty of repentance
This man receives sinners and eats with them!
Surely Luke records this criticism of Jesus by the Pharisees for theological and not merely historical reasons. Indeed, the following parables (lost coin, lost sheep, lost son) are intended exactly to illustrate the heart of God toward sinners. Jesus, like his Father, maintains a compassionate and welcoming stance with regard to the lost.
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call.” With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves [Gk, “be saved”] from this corrupt generation.”
Peter’s public sermon consists simply of a free, indiscriminate offer of salvation to all who will repent.
Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.
Again the call is given indiscriminately promising salvation to all who will turn to God. The apostle does not offer salvation merely to those who already show evidence of life. He calls the unrepentant to faith and offers a corresponding promise of forgiveness.
Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart.
Significantly, Peter makes this offer of forgiveness upon repentance to Simon Magus who according to Peter himself was “full of bitterness and captive to sin” and whose heart was not “right with God” (v. 21,23). The inspired apostle offered salvation even to those who were manifestly unregenerate.
Acts 13:38-41, 46
“Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses. Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you: “‘Look, you scoffers, wonder and perish, for I am going to do something in your days that you would never believe, even if someone told you.’” . . . Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles”
Here the apostle Paul is seen to offer the blessings of the gospel to those who, as it turned out, refused it. His offer is nonetheless made indiscriminately and freely.
But concerning Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.”
Here the apostle Paul cites the words of God through the prophet Isaiah (65:2) and pictures God as standing with arms outstretched, waiting longingly for the rebellious nation to turn to him and be saved. His offer goes unrequited, but still, amazingly, he stands with arms outstretched willing to receive any who will come.
1 Jn. 3:23
And this is his commandment, that we should believe on the name of his son Jesus Christ.
This verse was the text for Spurgeon’s famous sermon, “The Warrant of Faith.” As plainly as can be stated, warrant (command!) is given here for any person to believe and be saved.
Biblical Characterizations of Apostolic Ministry
Closely related to all this is the New Testament characterizations of the apostolic evangelistic ministry. Often Paul’s ministry is described as one of pleading, begging, reasoning, and persuading.
The Greek word peitho means to persuade, to convince, to seek to win. This is a favorite word of Luke to describe Paul’s evangelistic ministry.
Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.
Paul’s regular practice was to reason with men and women, argue his case in attempt to persuade them to believe in Christ and be saved. Clearly, such language reflects a firm commitment to the indiscriminate and even passionate offer of the gospel to all. Repeatedly Luke uses this word to characterize Paul’s work, as the following passages demonstrate.
And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God.
And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods.
When they had set a day for Paul, they came to him at his lodging in large numbers; and he was explaining to them by solemnly testifying about the kingdom of God and persuade them concerning Jesus, from both the Law of Moses and from the Prophets, from morning until evening. Some were persuaded by what he said, but others would not believe.
In this verse King Agrippa uses the same word to describe Paul’s efforts with him.
And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”
2 Cor. 5:11
Here the apostle Paul himself uses the word to characterize his work.
Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men.
Another word used regularly by Luke is dialegomai, which means to reason, dispute, argue.
So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present.
They arrived at Ephesus, where Paul left Priscilla and Aquila. He himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews.
In the following two verses both of these terms (peitho and dialegomai) are used of Paul’s ministry.
Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.
And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God.
Related to all this is Paul’s own characterization of his ministry in his letter to the Corinthians.
2 Cor. 5:20
We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal [parakaleo] through us. We implore [deomai] you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God!
Two words are significant here. First he says that God himself is “making his appeal” through the apostle’s preaching. The word used here (parakaleo) has a wide range of meanings. Very often it carries the connotation of pleading, begging, beseeching, entreating (e.g., Mt.8:5; Mt. 18:32; Mk. 1:40; Acts 16:9). And it is clear that this is the meaning here coupled as it is with the next word deomai. But what is especially significant here is that it is God himself who is said to do the pleading. The second word (deomai) means to beg. And again what is significant is that Paul speaks of this begging as coming through him from God himself. God’s appeal is echoed in the apostle’s pleading. Paul is God’s ambassador, and in his passionate pleading with sinners he preaches the gospel in the spirit of the one who sent him.
Finally of interest is Paul’s characterization of his ministry in 1 Cor. 9:19.
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win (kerdaino)as many as possible.
The term here (kerdaino) has the idea of winning or winning over. Paul says simply that it was his goal to win as many people to Christ as possible. He was not carefully trying to sort out who was elect. That is God’s doing. Paul’s responsibility, as he saw it, was to win as many as possible.
Clearly Paul was not a disinterested academic in his work. He was a persuader. He argued, reasoned, pled, begged, and he sought by it to persuade men and women for Christ. This language plainly reflects Paul’s practice of offering the gospel indiscriminately as he sought to “win” the lost to Christ. This work, as described, simply cannot be done selectively.
All this is not to say that the apostles were simply after “decisions.” Nor would they cheapen the gospel in order to make it more palatable to the unregenerate and thus gain more responses (2 Cor. 2:17). But ministering the gospel faithfully they sought earnestly to see the lost saved — as many of them as possible. They offered the gospel to all, but it was the gospel as given and not a lesser substitute for it.
Moreover, it is highly instructive that in the same Acts narrative that characterizes Paul’s ministry in terms of “persuasion” and such, Luke comments along the way that “as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). The gospel goes to all, passionately and indiscriminately, and by it the elect are saved. The gospel is the external means of calling, but the sovereign Spirit alone makes it effective and gives saving faith.
This is precisely how the apostle Paul characterized and explained the success of his ministry. In 1 Cor. 1:17-31, he argues that the “foolish” message of the gospel goes out to all but is made effective only when coupled with the divine (internal, efficacious) call. Or again in 2 Cor. 2:14-16 he writes,
But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?
Or as he summarizes crisply 1 Cor. 3:6,
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.
That is to say, while the gospel goes to all God makes it effectual in the experience of his elect. As Charles Spurgeon said to his audience, “I can bring Christ to you, but I cannot bring you to Christ.” The evangelist preaches the gospel to all, even pleadingly, seeking to persuade. But success in persuasion is entirely dependent on the sovereign Spirit of God. To quote Spurgeon again —
You have heard now from the preacher —
Truth by him has been made known.
But we need a greater teacher
From the Everlasting throne —
Application is the work of God alone.
In other words, the Calvinist should not fear this notion of the free offer of the gospel. It is in no way inconsistent with soteriological particularism, divine sovereignty, or human inability. That our offer of the gospel should be restricted to those whom we can recognize as elect / regenerate is a theological deduction that cannot find exegetical support and runs exactly contrary to the practice of the inspired apostles and God himself. Nor does the free offer (mis)characterize God as wringing his hands in frustration, hoping for results that he is helpless to effect. No, the Spirit of God is the ultimate persuader, but that in no way obviates the role of the free and indiscriminate offer of the gospel or the responsibility of the Christian to give it.
Along these same lines of thinking we should mention that it is not at all wrong to exhort carnal men to spiritual duties. Natural man’s inability to obey God’s commands or respond to God’s offers of grace in no way precludes his responsibility to obey and come. Nor is the offer of grace therefore insincere. The offer is genuine — “Whoever you are, if you come to Christ he will give you rest. God offers himself passionately and takes no pleasure in your destruction.” This is how God positions himself in reference to the lost. Their inability in no way impugns either God’s sincerity in the offer or their responsibility to accept.
Finally, some have argued that the free offer of the gospel is demeaning to God. It is beneath God, it is reasoned, to offer forgiveness to those whom he knows will refuse it. But while the concern for God’s honor is commendable, two answers must be given to this line of reasoning. First, in one sense, perhaps it is beneath God to offer himself to those whom he knows will reject him. There is no reason at all why he should do this. But the plain fact is he does, as so many passages of Scripture inform us. He stands with arms outstretched to rebel sinners who will reject him, saying, as it were, “If you will come I will have you!” This is entirely beneath him. But amazingly, he does it. And this leads us to our second response: This gracious and compassionate stance of God toward rebellious sinners related for us in Scripture so many times is part of his self-revelation. He wants us to know that he is this kind of God. This is one aspect of his glory. We therefore cannot and will not adore him aright until we recognize and adequately appreciate this amazing aspect of his great heart of love.
The indiscriminate call and free offer of the gospel has strong and explicit Biblical warrant, and the traditional Reformed position has rightly maintained it. The concern of some high Calvinists that a free offer of the gospel implies Arminian notions is simply mistaken. God positions himself toward the wicked as willing to save, and he pleads with them accordingly through his spokesmen. This universal appeal of the gospel is the external means by which God, in his own time, sovereignly calls his elect individually into the fellowship of Christ.