The History of the Free Offer

Chapter 9

Later Dutch Thinkers



If it is true, as we noticed in our last chapter, that Dutch theologians from the Synod of Dort to the end of the eighteenth century did not hold to the present day idea of the offer, the question arises how this notion became such an accepted part of Reformed theology. There were several factors that must be considered.


One element in this change in Dutch thought is undoubtedly that in the period following Dort, the Dutch Churches entered a time of doctrinal and spiritual decline. While in the 17th and first part of the 18th centuries, there were still many solidly Reformed theologians, the decline began almost at once and increased in severity as the decades rolled by. We cannot go into the reasons for this doctrinal decline, nor is it necessary for our purposes; but the fact remains that with this doctrinal and spiritual decline, the great truths of Dort, which emphasized so strongly God's sovereign grace in the work of salvation, were forgotten and denied. This opened the door to many different kinds of heresies, also those that denied the sovereignty of grace. And the door was open also for the idea of the well-meant offer.


In the second place, and in close connection with this idea, were the inroads of Amyrauldianism. In an earlier chapter we spent some time describing this heresy that arose in France soon after the Synod of Dort and which affected the thinking of English and continental thought. Amyrauldianism taught a hypothetical universalism, denied the sovereignty of God in election and reprobation and taught an early form of the free offer. These ideas came also into the Netherlands. While it was more than obvious that such errors would find their way across the border of France into its Dutch neighbor, the rise of the influence of Amyrauldianism was hurried by the persecution of the Hugenots in France. During increasing pressure on the Hugenots, which came to a head with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, many fled France to find refuge in other countries. While most of the Hugenots themselves were staunchly Calvinistic, many who fled were not, and these carried with them into other lands various heresies among which was to be found the heresy of Amyrauldianism. Kromminga writes concerning this:


Before the revocation of the Edict of Nantes various heterodox opinions had made their appearance among the Reformed churches of France. At Saumur, professor Moses Amyraud had taught a double decree of predestination, an anterior decree determining that Christ should make atonement for sinners and that sinners should be called to salvation, and a further particular decree of the election of some and the preterition of others. In 1649 he was cleared by synodical judgment. Another Saumur professor, Claude Pajon, when minister at Orleans later, saw his name connected with reduced estimates of man's depravity and God's redeeming grace, and these views various French Synods condemned in 1677 as pelagianizing. A third Saumur professor, Josue de la Place, had taught mediate instead of immediate imputation of Adam's guilt, against which view both Rivet and Maresius had raised their voices, and which view the French Synod of Charenton had condemned in 1645. When the repression of the Reformed faith in France prompted the Netherlands to throw open its borders to the Hugenot refugees, the danger arose of the importation of these erroneous views….


In the period of severe persecution which befell the Hugenot Church after the revocation of Nantes, the purity of teaching did not improve among the persecuted . …


These tendencies which were at work among the Hugenot refugees soon made their appearance also in the Netherlands and affected the course of scientific theology so that it began to lose its Reformed character . …96


As Kromminga points out, various Synods both in France and in the Lowlands warned against these errors. The Walloon Synod, e.g., warned, among other things, against the view that God's grace to sinners consists only in the preaching of the Gospel and not in the irresistible operation of the Spirit in the heart. I.e., grace was not in the external call only, a grace which came then to all who hear, but was to be found in the internal operations of the Spirit, and in the external call only in connection with the internal work of Christ's Spirit. The former idea led to a conception that salvation was dependent upon the will of man.

Nevertheless, certain Dutch theologians, influenced by Amyrauldianism, began to teach these views. H. Venema and Vitringa, e.g., taught that there was a two-fold decree of election, one general and conditional, the other particular and unconditional. This kind of teaching opened the door for the well-meant offer.


Yet another factor was the influence of wrong covenant conceptions. Earlier, in the last article, we noticed that the history of the free offer in the Netherlands was closely connected with the history of the doctrine of the covenant. Throughout the history of the Reformed faith in the Netherlands the covenant had almost always been defined in terms of an agreement between God and man. The agreement, with its mutual stipulations, conditions and promises, was in effect at such a time as man accepted the provisions of the covenant and made them his own. Because the promise of the covenant was signified and sealed already in baptism, and because all the infants of believers were baptized, this promise was made to all the children who were baptized, whether elect or reprobate. The reprobate children as well as the elect had the promise of God made to them that God would be their God. While this promise did not actually become effective in their lives until such a time as they accepted the provisions of the covenant, nevertheless there was some sense in which they all had a claim on the promise and some sense in which God actually made this promise to them.


It is not difficult to see how this is closely associated with the idea of the well-meant offer. After all, the same promise signified and sealed in baptism is also proclaimed in the preaching. If the promise is, in some sense of the word, made to all the children who are baptized, then that same promise when it is proclaimed in the preaching comes to all who hear the gospel. That promise, because it proclaims that God will be the God of those who hear, quite naturally fits in very well with the idea that the gospel is an offer, i.e., that it expresses God's desire and intention to save all those who hear. In other words, a general and conditional promise of the covenant is fundamentally the same thing as a well-meant offer made to all, but given only upon condition of faith.


This is not to say, of course, that all who held to the idea of the covenant as an agreement (for this was the commonly accepted view) held also to the well-meant offer. There were many exceptions as we shall see. But the fact is, and this is the point we are making, that such a view of the covenant allowed room for and influenced the development of the well-meant offer in Dutch thinking.


Finally, an important factor in the rise of this idea in Dutch thinking was the so-called "Nadere Reformatie," or "Later Reformation." In order to understand this we must remember what we said above that the Dutch Churches, after Dort, entered a period of doctrinal and spiritual decline. This decline was characterized in the first place by a certain dead orthodoxy that sapped the spiritual strength of the Churches. This dead orthodoxy manifested itself in the life of the people so that, under the influence of Dutch colonialism and economic prosperity, worldliness and carnality became endemic. This situation prevailed also in England at the time of the Puritan reaction.


This later is important, for Puritanism found its way also into the Netherlands and was particularly attractive to those within the Church who were concerned with the spiritual decline of their Churches. Not only did this Puritanism come into the Netherlands by means of ministers from England, such as A. Comrie, and by means of ministers from the Netherlands who visited or studied in England only to return to their own land, but the writings of Puritans were translated into the Dutch and read avidly by those who saw in Puritanism a cure for spiritual lethargy and worldly-mindedness. The writings of many Puritans were translated, but particularly popular were the writings of such men as Ironsides, the Erskine brothers and Philpot. The Puritan conception of preaching, which we discussed in an earlier chapter was very appealing because of its emphasis on the subjective life of the child of God. But insofar as especially those who were followers of the Marrow men also taught the well-meant offer, this idea entered also into Dutch thinking.


All these things brought about what is called the Nadere Reformatie. So much was this true that some could write: "It is clear that it (the Nadere Reformatie) agreed greatly with English—Scottish Puritanism; we can call the Nadere Reformatie, Dutch Puritanism."97


In this movement the first emphasis was on piety along the lines of Calvin as he discussed it in his Institutes Bk. IV. It was, in this respect, analogous to the "Second Reformation" in Scotland. But gradually it developed into a certain Anabaptism and mysticism and began to emphasize a "definite content and style of life: the practice of Godliness." With this practice came a kind of legalism which spoke more often of the "do's and don’ts" of the Christian life than of the "liberty wherewith Christ has made us free." The mystical piety and devotion which these people practiced was first of all within the established church, but gradually separated from the Church, first with the establishment of conventicles, and then by absolute separation, as in the case of De Labadie, Schortinghuis and Lampe. "One no longer speaks properly of Nadere Reformatie where the original purpose is abandoned, but of pietism in the sense that piety becomes in large measure an end in itself, by which experimental enjoyment takes the place of prophetic witness and struggle."


This Nadere Reformatie received new life in the 19th century in the Reveil and the Separation of 1834, commonly called the Afscheiding.


Because, therefore, this Nadere Reformatie was influenced in part by English and Scottish Puritanism, also by that segment of Puritanism that was under the influence of the Marrow Men, the idea of the free offer was gradually introduced into Dutch thinking.


These then are the factors that introduced into Dutch thinking the whole conception of the well-meant offer and which made it a part of Dutch theology.


The Afscheiding of 1834, under the leadership of such men as De Cock, Van Raalte, Scholte, Brummelkamp and Van Velzen, was a true Reformation of the Church of Christ in the Netherlands. The State or Established Church (Hervormde Kerk) had become so corrupt that it was becoming increasingly impossible for the people of God to survive spiritually within it. When the Churches of the Secession were established, God was preserving His Church and maintaining His cause in the Netherlands.


But it is important for us to remember that the Afscheiding was predominantly a movement among the common folk in the Netherlands; and, as such, it was a movement which attracted to it those who were the spiritual heirs of the Nadere Reformation i.e., those who were the deeply pious and religious among the Dutch, but who had been, in many instances, influenced also by unhealthy mysticism.


While we cannot enter into the details of this Separation, we ought, at least briefly, to notice the development of the idea of the well-meant offer among these men and their successors. There are two or three elements that are worthy of our notice. In the first place, it is rather striking that on the specific question of the well-meant offer there was no unanimity of opinion among the leaders of the Afscheiding. We can probably go so far as to say that there were really two wings among these leaders, one of which was soundly Reformed according to the solid traditions of Dort, and the other wing which was less Reformed and more susceptible to error. The well-meant offer was an issue which separated these two wings. Algra tells us that in the controversy among the men of the Afscheiding over the preparation of ministers, Brummelkamp was suspicioned because "the offer of salvation was too broad in his preaching. 98  This idea of the well-meant offer prevailed among some in the Afscheiding and the view was never officially condemned by these Churches. The result was that the view was commonly taught among certain segments, but came over also into this country when the people of the Afscheiding immigrated.


In the second place, the question of the offer was closely bound up with the question of the ground for the baptism of infants. Because the covenant was defined in terms of an agreement in which only adults could enter, the question arose: What constitutes the ground for infant baptism? The answer that was given was: A general promise of God made to all the children who are baptized, but which promise is also conditional. Hence, although all children possess this promise, they possess it only objectively, and it does not become subjectively their own until such a time as they fulfill the condition of faith. This view that prevailed in the Afscheiding quite naturally led to the whole idea of the offer.


In the third place, and in keeping with all these ideas, the people of the Afscheiding held also to such views as infralapsarianism, mediate regeneration and temporal justification. These views were quite in keeping with their views on the promise of the covenant and the preaching of the gospel.

Quite different was the second movement of reform in the Dutch State Church; the movement under the leadership of Dr. Abraham Kuyper and called the Doleantie.  While this movement, thanks in part to the gifted leadership of Kuyper, was much more organized church politically than the Afscheiding, it was also much more doctrinally articulate. Kuyper was a theologian of great ability and left an indelible stamp upon the Church. But his doctrinal position was quite different from that of the Afscheiding in some important points. While the Afscheiding was infralapsarian, Kuyper was supralapsarian; while the Afscheiding held to mediate regeneration, Kuyper maintained immediate regeneration; while the Afscheiding believed in temporal justification, Kuyper maintained eternal justification; and while the Afscheiding held that the basis for infant baptism was a general and conditional promise, Kuyper maintained that the promise of the covenant was always particular, i.e., only for the elect, and absolutely unconditional.

But it is particularly our interest to examine Kuyper's views on the question of common grace and the free offer of the gospel.99 In his early ministry Kuyper was a modernist, for he had been trained in Seminaries of the State Church which were thoroughly modern in their teachings. But while minister of the church in Beesd, his first charge, he was converted and became a strong and ardent defender of the Reformed faith and of the doctrines of sovereign and particular grace.100  He defended the truths of sovereign election and reprobation, particular atonement, irresistible and particular grace. He repudiates a Christ for all, a grace for all in the preaching, a desire or intention of God to save all, and a double decree or two-fold will of God (so essential for the well-meant offer).


Later in his life, however, Kuyper began to teach “common grace" and in fact wrote a three-volume work on this subject under the title, Gemeene Gratie. It is not altogether clear why Kuyper changed his mind on this matter of common grace. Perhaps, as some say, Kuyper's modernistic education once more came through in his teachings in later life. It is probably at least partly correct, however, that his Gemeene Gratie was written at the time when he was prime minister of Netherlands and developed this idea of common grace to justify his coalition with the Roman Catholics, a coalition necessary to give his Anti-Revolutionary Party a majority in the Lower House.


However all this may be, even though Kuyper taught a certain common grace in his later years, his views of common grace were quite different from those views of common grace so closely associated with the well-meant offer. In fact, there are two Dutch expressions for these two different kinds of common grace: algemeene genade or general grace was used to denote that grace which was a part of the well-meant offer; and gemeene gratie, the common grace of which Kuyper spoke. The differences between these two are briefly: while algemeene genade or general grace is given to all including those within the Church, is somehow connected with the atoning sacrifice of Christ and is a kind of blurring of the doctrine of election, gemeene gratie is given outside the Church, outside election, independent of the cross, and only to the wicked world. Gemeene gratie was a grace that was evident in all the good gifts which God gives to us, was manifested especially in the restraint of sin in the wicked world so that men are rarely as bad as they would be without it, and resulted in a "natural" good which the unregenerate were able to perform and from which the people of God could benefit.


Because of this definition of grace, Kuyper was a bitter opponent of the well-meant offer. He insisted on distinguishing sharply between the grace which was common, and particular and saving grace; and therefore insisted that gemeene gratie operates outside the Church and is in no way connected to the preaching of the gospel. There is no grace for all in the preaching. Nor does God in any way, through the preaching, give expression to a love for all, a compassion for all, a desire to save all, a divine intention to bring all who hear the gospel to Christ. And this position he maintained all his life. Kuyper would turn over in his grave if he could know how his name is quoted today in support of the free offer.


We do not, of course, agree with Kuyper's views on gemeene gratie; but the fact is that Kuyper cannot be appealed to in support of the well-meant offer, and his teachings on particular and sovereign grace remained his chief emphasis through all his life.


It is strange, therefore, that in the name of Dr. A. Kuyper the Christian Reformed Church adopted a certain view of common grace and of the free offer.


But in order to understand how this came about, we must backtrack in time a bit and consider briefly the views on the free offer that were held among the people of the Afscheiding who immigrated to this country.


The immigration to this country began shortly after the Afscheiding, and some of these earliest settlers, under the leadership of Van Raalte, settled in the area that is now known as Holland, Michigan. While, soon after their arrival, and at the urging of Van Raalte, these settlers joined the Reformed Church of America, they soon became disillusioned with the RCA and separated to form their own Church, which became known as the Christian Reformed Church.


While these settlers were, on the whole, pious and Godly saints, they were strongly under the influence of the thinking that prevailed among the leaders of the Afscheiding, and insofar as the well-meant offer was taught among some, it was taught also in the early colonies. This is not to say that the sermons which were preached were not often soundly Reformed and that the truths of sovereign grace were not emphasized, but the strain of thinking which included the well-meant offer was there. As the Christian Reformed Church developed along these lines, the idea of the well-meant offer appeared more and more in the preaching. The doctrines of sovereign grace were less and less heard; the truths of sovereign election and reprobation were less and less preached, and the emphasis began to fall increasingly on Arminian views. As one reads the sermons which were printed during this period, one cannot help but be struck by the fact that this sharp emphasis on the truth of sovereign grace was not sounded from the pulpits as it ought to have been, but was replaced with an Arminian emphasis which included the free offer of the gospel. We quote from a few of these sermons to demonstrate this point.


In the early 1900s a series of sermons by Dr. C. Bouma was published under the title Genade Geneest. In a sermon on Luke 19:41, 42, we find the following statements made (the translation is ours):


Jesus wept. And in His weeping He is also the Priest, Who still reaches out His hands to those who are sinking away in order yet to save them.


In that manner Jesus is the great High priest, Who not only weeps, but His weeping is also a prayer. He spreads out His arms to the apostate city and prays. Even as a mother extends her arms to her son when he leaves to go into the world and toward the abyss, whether perchance he may still rush into the safety of mother's arms.


How great and wide is His mercy! "If thou hadst known this day." Already repeatedly Jesus had preached peace at the former feasts. Now it is the last time; soon He will die. Now it is the eleventh hour; soon Jerusalem will be destroyed. But even still at the eleventh hour Jesus stands there, praying for conversion, for the apostate Jerusalem. Even yet at the eleventh hour He stands at the closed door of the heart of the sinner. Frequently refused, He still stands there. Frequently insulted and mocked, He still calls! O, if in this day you would recognize that which pertains to your peace!


How great is His compassion. It reaches out even to Jerusalem . . . . You also, even you. Many have already come to the fountain of life; you come also, Jerusalem. Many around the sinner already drank of those waters, maybe a pious father or a God-fearing mother. Christ does not want any one to go lost. (italics ours.) He therefore stands at the door of the strongly barred heart calling: "You come also, why should you perish?"


In another book of sermons, Van De Onzen, published in 1910, Rev. J. Keizer has a sermon on Eph. 5:2. After speaking of the love of Christ for His own, he concludes with a word of application:


Many walk no longer with us; they have turned their backs to God's covenant and words, even their heel, their neck, "the cold shoulder." Their end is the ways of death; as children of the kingdom they will perish. Return still, ye who are so averse; the Lord will still accept you; He still waits to be gracious to you.


It is clear therefore, that these immigrants were subject to Arminian preaching in some instances; that they were, while generally pious folk, under the influence of Dutch Puritanism, and that, though the Reformed faith was preserved among them in many respects, they were also somewhat doctrinally weak.


It is clear from further developments that common grace and the free offer of the gospel were held among many. Some maintained that common grace was closely connected with "general revelation." This common grace conveyed to all men, apart from the gospel, a certain knowledge of God whereby all had some understanding of the truth, though imperfectly. While the idea itself is certainly in keeping with what Paul teaches in Rom. 1:18 ff., that this "general revelation" was grace was a serious error. Because it was grace, this "general revelation" created in man a certain yearning for God and desire to know Him more perfectly. It not only enabled man to develop in science, philosophy, jurisprudence, etc., but also was preparatory for the gospel and served as a point of contact in gospel preaching. Thus Bavinck writes: 101


The Christian, who sees everything in the light of the Word of God, is anything but narrow in his view. He is generous in heart and mind….  He cannot let go his belief that the revelation of God in Christ, to which he owes his life and salvation, has a special character. This belief does not exclude him from the world, but rather puts him in position to trace out the revelation of God in nature and history, and puts the means at his disposal by which he can recognize the true and the good and the beautiful and separate them from the false and sinful alloys of men.


So it is that he makes a distinction between a general and a special revelation of God. In the general revelation God makes use of the usual run of phenomena and the usual course of events; in the special revelation He often employs unusual means, appearance, prophecy, and miracle to make Himself known to man. The contents of the first kind are especially the attributes of power, wisdom, and goodness; those of the second kind are especially God's holiness and righteousness, compassion and grace. The first is directed to all men and, by means of common grace, serves to restrain the eruption of sin; the second comes to all those who live under the Gospel and has as its glory, by special grace, the forgiveness of sins and the renewal of life.


But, however essentially the two are to be distinguished, they are also intimately connected with each other. . . Grace is the content of both revelations, common in the first, special in the second, but in such a way that the one is indispensable for the other.


It is common grace that makes special grace possible, prepares the way for it, and later supports it; and special grace, in its turn, leads common grace up to its own level and puts it into its service. Both revelations, finally, have as their purpose the preservation of the human race, the first by sustaining it, and the second by redeeming it, and both in this way serve the end of glorifying all of God's excellences.102


Masselink goes so far as to say that this "general revelation" is brought about by a general and universal operation of the Spirit in the hearts of all men.103


And this in turn stands connected with the free offer of the gospel: The basis for this general offer of the Gospel is the general external and internal revelation of the Holy Spirit which comes to all men . . .. This general revelation witnesses within the souls of the ungodly as well as the godly. This general revelation is the basis for mission work. The reason why God comes with a well-meant offer of salvation to both the elect and non-elect is correctly set forth by Prof. Berkhof in his "Dogmatics." He mentions the following four facts under the significance of the external calling:


(1) In it God maintains His claim upon the sinner.


(2) It is the Divinely appointed means to bring sinners to conversion.


(3) It is a revelation of God's love to sinners.


(4) It adds greatly to the responsibility of those who hear it. 104


But if, so it was taught, there is a common grace shown to all men through "general revelation," there is also a common grace in the preaching of the gospel. That is, the gospel is itself objectively grace to those who hear. It in itself is evidence of God's favor to all who hear. It is evidence of God's favor to all that He even gives the gospel to all. But this idea of an objective grace shown in the gospel was even sometimes interpreted as a subjective grace as well, for it is impossible to separate the objective and subjective elements of grace.

Thus, objectively the gospel expresses God's desire and willingness to save all who hear and thus manifests His grace; but subjectively He also bestows a grace through the preaching to all so that all are enabled to accept or reject the proffered grace.105   And all of this led in turn among some to a view of general or universal atonement, a Christ pro omnibus.

However, after the Doleantie, the reformation in the Netherlands under Dr. A. Kuyper, many immigrants who came to this country were followers of Kuyper. Because in 1892 the Churches under the leadership of Dr. Kuyper and the Churches of the Afscheiding merged into what is now known as the Gereformeerde Kerken: the immigrants from the Doleantie Churches generally joined with the Christian Reformed Church.

In some respects the influence of the followers of Kuyper was good, for Kuyper had emphasized strongly the truths of sovereign grace. The followers of Kuyper were much more doctrinally sound and aware, and able to defend and define doctrine with more clarity and precision. But along with the Kuyperians who came to this country came also Kuyper's views on common grace. These views were strongly represented in a segment in Calvin College and Seminary and found a mouthpiece in the magazine, "Religion and Culture." All of this involved considerable struggle within the Christian Reformed Church as the views of the Afscheiding and those of Kuyper clashed.

This controversy was carried over also into the doctrine of the covenant, something that ought not to surprise us. The Kuyperian influence represented the view of a particular and unconditional promise of the covenant, although Kuyper had also made presumptive regeneration the ground for infant baptism. The Afscheiding tradition, on the other hand, held to a general and conditional promise of the covenant made to all who are baptized whether elect or reprobate children. Under the influence of W. Heyns, the latter won out and the way was prepared for the acceptance of the free offer of the gospel. All this came to a head in the controversy of 1924. But because the controversy of 1924 centered in a dispute over the free offer of the gospel, and because this controversy is the occasion for the beginning of the Protestant Reformed Churches, of which I am a member, we shall treat this in a separate chapter.


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96  D. H. Kromminga, The Christian Reformed Tradition, Win. B Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1943; pp. 48, 49.


97 Christelijke Encyclopedie, in loc. For the information and quotes that follow we are indebted to this work.


98 Algra, Het Wonder van de Negentiende Eeuw, J. H. Kok, Kampen, 1965


99 We do not intend to go into this question in detail; a careful analysis of Kuyper's position on this question can be found in D. Engelsma's book: "Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel," which book contains also many valuable quotes from Kuyper's writings and can be obtained from the Reformed Free Publishing Association. Similar material can be found in H. Hoeksema's book, "God's Goodness Always Particular," pp. 67-71. Unfortunately, his latter book is out of print and generally unavailable.


100 One can find these ideas throughout Kuyper's writings, including his major work on theology, Dictaten Dogmatiek, but the teachings of Kuyper on sovereign and particular grace are beautifully set forth in his book, Dat de Genade Particulier Is, i.e., "That Grace is Particular."  (The RFPA has published this book in English under the title: "Particular Grace")

101 It is int
eresting to note in this connection that Herman Bavinck was a child of the Afscheiding and retained this influence all his life. He wrote in the latter part of the 19th and the early part of the 20th centuries.


102  Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, Eerdmans, 1956, pp.37, 38.


103 William Masselink, General Revelation and Common Grace. Eerdmans, 1953, p. 84. It is true that Masselink wrote after 1924 when the official decisions on common grace were made in the Christian Reformed Church. But he reflected thinking that goes back to the years prior to 1924 as he himself says.


104 lbid., p. 248.


105 Cf.  e.g., William Heyns, Manual of Reformed Doctrine.. Eerdmans, 1926, especially pp. 195-201. Heyns was also a child of the Afscheiding who taught in Calvin College and Seminary before and after 1924 and had a great influence on subsequent thinking in the Christian Reformed Church.