One of the controversies that has sadly plagued those who embrace Calvin as one of the more astute and faithful theologians concerns the “free offer of the gospel.” Some followers of Calvin, a minority of them, reject the free offer of the gospel. They believe, erroneously, that the gospel is only to be offered to the elect. While listening to a former PCA worship leader lament Calvinism at the recent John 3:16 Conference, he described this strain of Calvinism called hyper-Calvinism.
While preparing for last week’s sermon on Psalm 16, I didn’t find Calvin to be particularly helpful. This is a rarity. But he did say something that should set the record straight on what John himself believed Scripture to teach.
“It would be of no advantage to us for God to offer himself freely and graciously to us, if we did not receive him by faith, seeing he invites to himself both the reprobate and the elect in common; but the former, by their ingratitude, defraud themselves of this inestimatable blessing. Let us, therefore, know that both these things proceed from the free liberality of God; first, his being our inheritance, and next, our coming to the possession of him by faith. The counsel of which David makes mention is the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit, by which we are prevented from rejecting the salvation to which he calls us, which we would otherwise certainly do, considering the blindness of our flesh. Whence we gather, that those who attribute to the free will of man the choice of accepting or rejecting the grace of God basely mangle that grace, and show as much ignorance as impiety.”
Calvin himself holds to the “free offer of the gospel” to all. God truly offers Himself to the elect. Notice how he phrases that- God offers Himself, not just salvation. As John Piper noted in his book, God is the gospel.
Calvin held that God did not prevent any from coming to Himself. Rather it is the sinful nature which hates God and refuses the offer of grace.
Those who receive the offer of God do so as a result of the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Having chosen them for salvation, God then illumines them so they can and will believe receiving God himself and salvation.
In this way, Calvin upholds God’s sovereignty and his liberality. We are to freely offer the gospel to all we meet and have opportunity to speak in this way. Whether or not they believe the good news is a result of whether or not God illumines them by the Holy Spirit or if they persist in their unbelief through the power of the flesh.
May the hyper-calvinists stop presenting themselves as faithful adherents of Calvin’s theology. His theology holds the tensions of Scripture in proper tension- theirs does not.
Update: While studying for Luke 1, Mary’s Song, I found this in Calvin’s Commentary.
“God offers his benefits indiscriminately to all, and faith opens its bosom to receive them; while unbelief allows them to pass away, so as not to reach us.” John Calvin
And from Luke 2:10-
“… just as, at the present day, God invites all indiscriminately to salvation through the Gospel, but the ingratitude of the world is the reason why this grace, which is equally offered to all, is enjoyed by few.” John Calvin
Why do some have so much trouble believing this?
The discussion in the comments reveals a few things. The supposition is that the free offer of the gospel (or well-intended offer) implies that God is of 2 minds, that he wants all to be saved. The free offer of the gospel, as a doctrine, makes no such claims. The point is our responsibility to proclaim the message of salvation freely. God has ordained who will believe it. This is not irrational- for we are distinguishing between 2 things: God’s sovereign choice and our responsibility as His redeemed creatures.