Predestination and the Free Offer of the Gospel

“In love God commands and implores all people to repent and believe.”

Paul says that God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30), and we believe that “God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  This is the gospel message: Jesus came to the world to save sinners; those who believe he is the Christ have eternal life (cf. John 20:31).  We proclaim this gospel message to all peoples.  That’s what we mean by the “free offer of the gospel.” 

But how does predestination relate to this free offer of the gospel?  That’s the question before us, since we’ve recently been talking about predestination.  Some think predestination limits the need to share the gospel with all people.  After all, the thinking goes, if God knows who will (and who won’t) be saved, it doesn’t matter if we share the gospel; God’s elect will be saved regardless.  While such thinking might be popular, it is nevertheless unbiblical.  It may seem odd at first, but predestination and the free offer of the gospel are like two sides of the same coin.  Today we will consider the biblical, theological, and historical reasons for such a claim.

The free offer of the gospel and predestination appear together in the Bible.  Take, for example, John 6:37: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”  In the second half of the verse, we see the free offer of the gospel: “whoever comes to Christ will never be cast out.”  And what great news!  No matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, no matter how far you’ve run, no matter how wicked your heart has grown, if you turn to Christ in faith, he will not cast you out.  You will be received by God with open arms. 

But notice the first half: “All that the Father gives to Christ will come to Christ.”  This is a clear reference to predestination.  The Father has given the Son a specific people, and all of them will be saved.  So in this verse we see both the free offer of the gospel and also God’s special purpose to save certain sinners.  There is no contradiction between the free offer of the gospel and predestination.  On the contrary, both truths can be found in the very same verse!

Consider also Romans 9 and 10.  Romans 9 is clear about God’s purpose to save certain sinners.  We read: “For God says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’  So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (vv. 15-16).  God is thus free and powerful to save whomever He wills.  But Paul says just a few verses later in Romans 10:13: “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  Paul was not an idiot.  He’s the smartest theologian in all of church history, and for him the free offer of the gospel and predestination simply go together.  There is no contradiction.  Neither truth overshadows the other.

Theologians think about how these fit together by considering how the Bible talks about God’s will.  There is God’s will of decree (or good purpose), and there is God’s will of precept (or good pleasure).  God’s will of decree is what God wills to do Himself: “I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning . . . saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose” (Isaiah 46:9-10).  God’s will of precept, on the other hand, is what God wills for us to do: “You shall have no other gods before Me,” (Exodus 20:3), etc. 

This provides us with good categories for understanding how predestination and the free offer of the gospel fit together: predestination is part of God’s will of decree, and the free offer of the gospel is part of God’s will of precept.  In other words, predestination is part of God’s good purpose (i.e., it’s what He will accomplish), and the free offer of the gospel is part of God’s good pleasure (i.e., it’s what we are called to accomplish).  While God has not told us every aspect of His good purpose in predestination (i.e., He has not told us who the elect are), He has told us what His good pleasure is: that the church should offer the gospel freely to all peoples.

We should also say that God uses means to accomplish His purposes.  “Means” are the tools or methods (like faith) that God uses to accomplish His purposes (like the salvation of people from every tribe, tongue, language, and nation [cf. Revelation 7:9]).  So God has purposed to save certain sinners, and He has decided to save them by using the means of faith.  Here’s an example: “He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will” (Ephesians 1:5).  God predestined us for salvation in Christ, but how do we come to be saved in time?  What means does God use to accomplish His purpose?  The biblical answer is: “by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).  Faith, which is the gift of God, is the means that God uses to accomplish His purpose to save sinners.  And since “faith comes from hearing” (Romans 10:17), we preach Christ and him crucified to all peoples, in the hopes that they will turn to God and be saved.

We must not think that God’s purposes will be accomplished apart from His means.  God has predestined certain sinners to be saved, but they will not be saved by magic or mysticism.  They will be saved by hearing the gospel and responding in faith.  Missions and evangelism matter because God uses them to accomplish His good purpose in predestination.  No one will be saved apart from evangelism precisely because God has decided that faith, which is produced by evangelism, is the means by which He will accomplish His purpose in predestination.  Historically, we should follow the confession our older brothers in the faith: “the promise of the gospel is, that whosoever believes in Christ crucified, shall not perish, but have everlasting life.  This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction.”[1]  The practical takeaways should be plain: We can have full confidence that God will actually save sinners through the church’s work of freely offering the gospel to sinners of every tribe, tongue, language, and nation.  God’s purpose will be accomplished, and He will use us to accomplish it.

[1] Canons of Dort, II.5.  The so-called “five points of Calvinism” come from the Canons.  The First Head of Doctrine in the Canons is “Of Divine Predestination,” which makes the Canon’s statement about the gospel being preached “promiscuously” quite interesting indeed!  These two go naturally together. 

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