Does the Westminster Confession and Larger Catechism teach a general offer of the gospel (or grace) to all men and common operations of the Spirit? And what do the Scriptures teach?
George Bancroft, B.Sci., M.Div, Th.M.
(17th January 2019) (Updated: 29th January 2019)
It has been popularly believed in the neo-reformed realm, since at least 1925-26, that there are only two viable views concerning the offer of the gospel and common grace, having been influenced by Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology or Herman Hoeksema’s, Reformed Dogmatics. L. Berkhof and other church officers were able to get the neo-reformed gospel deviant doctrines decreed at the Christian Reformed Church of North America General Synod 1925. In protest, the Protestant Reformed Churches of North America (PRCNA) were constituted in 1925-26. Those favouring the PRCNA protest and the constitution of a continuing church often conclude that at the CRC General Synod of 1925 began the downfall of the CRC; but those who are knowledgeable would argue that the downfall already began in Holland in the mid-19th century, when the sister denomination of the CRC was formed in Holland, before immigration into North America. In the 19th century, there were a series of secessions from the Church of Holland with significant gospel departures in the national church from the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt). The Netherlands Reformed Congregations, a distinct denomination, was formed in Holland with definite gospel differences from the Dutch sister church of the CRC. In North America, there are three distinct churches descending from the secession: the Christian Reformed Church, the Canadian Reformed Churches, and the Netherlands Reformed Congregations (In New Zealand, the church is called the Reformed Congregation of New Zealand, but distinct from the Reformed Churches of New Zealand; which is a sister church with the Canadian Reformed Churches). The Netherlands Reformed Congregations sought to continue with the legislative intent meaning of the Canons of Dordt and never adopted nor advanced assumptive regeneration of children of believers.
The CRC church officers were already displaying signs of being neo-reformed activist in the gospel prior to 1925. The CRC had longed believed in assumptive regeneration of the children of believers against the natural interpretation of Scripture related passages (Lk. 12:49-53; 14:25-27; Jn 1:12-13). This view of the new birth in distinction from effectual calling, namely, a contrived seed of regeneration for infants, continued on into the PRCNA as well. This 19th century conception of assumptive regeneration amounts to the same thing in practice as Baptismal regeneration, whether advanced by the Roman Catholic/Greek Orthodox sect, the Anglo-Catholic sect, the Campbellites (see Church of Christ sect), or neo-reformed church officers.
At the 1925 CRC General Synod, a synodical decree was passed advancing a neo-reformed common grace and a view of the gospel offer contrary to the Canons of Dordt 1618-19. The CRC justified a general free offer of the gospel on ‘common grace’, implying that the Atonement of Christ not only secured particular grace for the elect, but also common grace for all men. Heretofore, ‘common grace’ had been used by John Calvin (Latin equivalent) and some puritans to mean the same thing as common operations of the Spirit and in distinction from the Atonement of Christ (see WCF 10:4; LCQA 68). Similarly, John Calvin had also used common grace to mean that the Providence of God works in the lives of various men for inventions (see Index, John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion); but the Protestant reformers (reformed evangelicals) had not been using ‘common grace’ to justify the free offer of the gospel to all men. The new CRC use of common grace to justify the free offer of the gospel, based on a speculative secondary aspect of redemption, is essentially a form of Amyraldianism (4 Point Calvinism).* The Louis Berkhof position of common grace and the free offer of the gospel is not in accordance with the Canons of Dordt nor the Westminster Church Standards. As it was a new position in the churches of Holland, it went beyond the Canons of Dordt introducing a new view of the Atonement, in contradiction to the Canons of Dordt. This new view of the free offer of the gospel and common grace should have not been allowed to be preached in any reformed evangelical churches (see The Canons of Dordt, “Second Head of Doctrine: Of the Death of Christ and the Redemption of Men Thereby”; WCF 3:6; 10:4; LCQA 32, 59, 68).
Church officers, who reconstituted into the PRCNA, advanced another gospel not held by reformed evangelicals in the 16th and 17th centuries. They protested against any form of common grace, even a type that can be labelled common operations of the Spirit (see Index, Reformed Dogmatics). Hoeksema strongly opposed the following gospel doctrines in the Westminster Church Standards (WCF 10:4; LCQA 32, 68): (1) a conditional covenant of grace; (2) general gospel offer or a general offer of grace to all sinners; (3) and opposed any form of common grace, including common operations of the Spirit. He did speak of preaching from the pulpit in general to any and all in church attendance; but Hoeksema did not advocate a general offer of grace to all men ((see Index, Reformed Dogmatics). Believing in assumptive regeneration of the Baptised children in the church, no one would hear a definite call or offer of grace from the PRCNA pulpits. This is contrary to the Westminster Standards’ view of effectual calling by Word and Spirit (Rom. 10:14-17.
First, Larger Catechism QA 32 teaches a conditional covenant of grace and the work of the Holy Spirit in the elect.
Q. How is the grace of God manifested in the second covenant?
A. The grace of God is manifested in the second covenant, in that he freely provideth and offer to sinners a Mediator, and life and salvation by him; and requiring faith as the condition to interest them in him, promiseth and giveth his Holy Spirit to all his elect, to work in them that faith, with all other saving graces; and to enable them unto all holy obedience, as the evidence of the truth of their faith and thankfulness to God, and as the way which he hath appointed them to salvation.
The reader should note the present and continuous verb form of the word ‘provide’. The form of the verb used is “provideth”. The original writers and signers of the Larger Catechism were not specifically speaking of redemption or the atonement, which is once and for all done by the Godhead in the death and resurrection of Christ; but it is definitely referencing the on-going preaching of the gospel with an offer of grace. Christ in the gospel of free grace is to be set before the hearers and ‘made available’ in the sense of an offer to all men in the doctrines of free grace. So it is most appropriate to either preach through the outline of the Larger Catechism or the Heidelberg Catechism, with references from the Canons of Dordt, in the second service on the Lord’s Day. This will result in quite natural opportunities for regular gospel offers of free grace from the pulpit (see WCF 10:1-3; 14:1; 15:1). The meaning and interpretation of LCQA 32 parallels with LCQA 68. It also goes along with the view of the covenant of grace to be the second covenant. Those ministers wanting to speak of a covenant in relation to the decrees of God may want to employ the label covenant of redemption for that ‘covenant’ within the Godhead. The covenant of grace spoken of in the Westminster Standards is the second covenant in the plan of God after the covenant of works (see WCF 7:3); and it is definitely understood to be a conditional covenant (see Psa. 25:1-14; 103:17-18; Gal. 3:16-17). Those Presbyterians trying to make LCQA 32 into an offer of grace specifically to the elect, however, are definitely forcing a hyper Calvinistic interpretation into the catechism text.
Nevertheless, the Westminster Standards do not teach some kind of contrived notion called “A Well Meant Offer”. Whilst some reformed evangelical ministers might use the term, it is not consistent Westminster Standards or Canons of Dordt terminology. This teaching can too easily be favourable to Amyraldianism and against the Larger Catechism; and even though the Shorter Catechism is not as explicit in the Atonement of Christ, reformed evangelical Presbyterian ministers would be proclaiming particular redemption with limited atonement as taught in Westminster Confession (3:6) and in the Larger Catechism.
What needs to be understood regarding the offer of grace in the Larger Catechism is that the writers and signers are making it plain that the Godhead is indeed treating sinners with reference to three important teachings in Scripture: (1) sinners are treated as if they have never fallen, when they have; and they continue under the covenant of works (or covenant of life, see Rom. 1:31; Gal. 3:10) with the wrath, curse, and condemnation of God upon them (WCF 19:1; LCQA 17, 20; SCQA 12, 16); and (2) sinners are considered to be humanly responsible (but not free will) to repent and believe, even though they are totally depraved and totally enable to do so (Psa. 110:3; Rom. 9:16; Eph. 2:1-2); knowledgeable Protestant evangelical ministers refer to this gospel preaching as calling ‘dead’ men to spiritual life, praying that some are elect and will be raised to spiritual life in the effectual calling/new birth (Eph. 2:1-6); (3) The lynch pin doctrine is effectual calling/new birth of the Holy Spirit to apply the Particular redemption in Christ to the elect (Psa. 65:4; 110:3, Jn 6:65; II Thess. 2:13-14). The Sovereign Lord God in the heavens has every right to treat sinners in this manner (see Rom. 1:18-20; 9:6-23; Eph. 1:4, 11).
Second, Larger Catechism QA 59 definitely teaches Particular redemption.
Q. Who are made partakers of redemption through Christ?
A. Redemption is certainly applied, and effectually communicated, to all those for whom Christ hath purchased it; who are in time by the Holy Ghost enabled to believe in Christ according to the gospel.
The Hoeksemite and the Berkhof false view of the gospel offer both go beyond Scripture to force a logic not taught in Scripture and to fit in with their unconditional covenant of grace. In contrast, Larger Catechism 32 as well as 68 teaches a conditional covenant and a general offer of grace to all men in accordance with Galatians 1:6: “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel.” The outward call of the gospel of grace is to be indiscriminately proclaimed to any and all who will hear; and it is described as an offer of grace even to those who nominally accept the offer, but later are bewitched and apostate to a sectarian false gospel (see Gal. 3:1). This is described in the Larger Catechism (QA 113) as ‘backsliding from it’. Galatians 3:1-5 dovetails with Hebrews 6:1-6 which is certainly best referenced to be common operations of the Spirit, which combines the following: “tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost” (see Heb. 6:4). The term ‘common grace’ can be employed, provided it is not used as an extension of the redemption in Christ which is particular and designed only for the elect.
Those hearing the preaching of the gospel doctrines of the faith with offers of grace in the gospel may respond in the following ways (see Matt. 13:18-23; Lk. 8:11-15; Jn. 2:23-25; 6:60-71): (1) reject the true gospel soon after hearing gospel doctrines preached; (2) respond with basic profession of faith and basic obedience but soon fall away; (3) others may remain a long term basic adherent with some restraint behaviour (common operations of the Spirit), but in time shown to have a lifestyle of a nominal Christian; (4) others may apostate, backsliding to a sect or false religion (Gal. 3:1-5; I Jn 2:19); (5) yet some indeed bring forth fruits of true saving faith.
Therefore, Larger Catechism 68 speaks of those rejecting the grace offered.
LCQ 68 Are the elect only effectually called?
A. All the elect, and they only, are effectually called; although others may be, and often are, outwardly called by the ministry of the word, and have some common operations of the Spirit; who, for their wilful neglect and contempt of the grace offered to them, being justly left in their unbelief, do never truly come to Jesus Christ.
The grace of God in the gospel is to be offered knowing that the elect will be effectually called by the Holy Spirit and enabled to accept the offer of grace; and the non-elect will reject the true gospel of free grace offered, having not been granted the Holy Spirit in effectual calling. It is described as ‘wilful neglect and contempt’, because Almighty God is treating all men to be humanly responsible; but this is not to be confused with free will (Psa. 65:4; 110:3; Jn 5:40; 6:37, 65; Rom. 9:16; Phil. 2:12-13: II Thess. 2:13-14). Furthermore, nominal Christians can indefinitely neglect the true grace offered in contrast to those who are truly converted and persevere in the true Christian faith (see Matt. 13:18-23; Lk. 8:11-15; Jn. 2:23-25; Phil. 1:6; I Pet. 1:5). Moreover, common operations of the Spirit does refer to nominal Christians, including sectarian false professing Christians, which results again in some restraint behaviour but with a false new birth (II Tim. 3:5); but common operations of the Spirit is not to be confused nor equated with the power of the new birth in initial sanctification (I Cor. 1:2; II Thess. 2:13-14; II Pet. 1:3-4).
Furthermore, Larger Catechism 67 teaches that effectual calling is by Word and Spirit:
LCQ 67 What is effectually calling?
A. Effectually calling is the work of God’s Almighty power and grace, whereby (out of his free and special love to his elect, and from nothing in them moving him thereunto) he doth, in his accepted time, invite and draw them to Jesus Christ, by his word and Spirit; savingly enlightening their minds, renewing and powerfully determining their wills, so as they (although in themselves dead in sin) are hereby made willing and able freely to answer his call, and accept and embrace the grace offered and conveyed therein.
In truth, if the Westminster Confession along with the Larger Catechism had been properly preached in Presbyterian churches neither of these three false views of the gospel would have been allowed in reformed evangelical churches: (1) the CRC declaration of the offer of the gospel with a false common grace, (2) as well as a simple faith false gospel and a ‘basic’ eternal security (see “A Call to Reformation and to Unify in the Reformed Evangelical Faith”, Part II: Four Neo-Reformed Sectarian Parties); (3) the PRCNA protest and opposition to all forms of common grace and opposition to the free offer of grace to all men in general, taught in Herman Hoeksema’s Reformed Dogmatics (see Part II: Four Neo-Reformed Sectarian Parties).
It is to be noted that the Netherlands Reformed Congregations did add the Westminster Confession to the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt). This added creed would further clarify the covenant of grace, the covenant of works, effectual calling, the free offer of the gospel, and common operations of the Spirit.
In the reformed evangelical Presbyterian realm, wherein there is supposed to be full Subscription to the Westminster Church Standards, there should be no division over this subject. Church officers regularly studying the Larger Catechism, and ministers who preach through the heads of doctrine in the Larger Catechism, should promote the following related doctrines: (1) a conditional covenant of grace; (2) particular redemption; (3) the general offer of grace to any and all who will hear; (4) with the elect becoming repentant-believers by effectual calling/new birth with sanctification in the truth and ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word (Jn. 17:17; Rom. 10:14-17; Eph. 4:11-14; II Tim. 2:19; 4:1-2); and the non-elect rejecting the offer of grace but with some non-elect having common operations of the Spirit, but without the definite pursuit of holiness (Heb. 12:14), without assurance of Salvation nor peace of conscience (II Pet. 1:10-11); and (5) because of God’s predestination and plan for the elect, they will persevere in the faith, as God-fearing repentant believers gain biblical assurance of Salvation (Phil. 1:6; I Pet. 1:5), only allowing for a rare season of scandalous sin (see Psa. 19:12-14; 32:1-6; Eph. 4:30).
* Moses Amyraut (1596-1664) was a Frenchman who taught that Christ’s redemption was intended for every single human being; but that the redemption is applied only to the elect because of the new birth being limited to the elect only, who were chosen before the foundation of the world. Amyraut did believe in the natural meaning of Psalm 110:3 and Romans 9:6-16. The problem with this position is that in time a church can later allow for the Arminian-Pelagian view of the gospel and offer with partial depravity and free will, along with opening up the Atonement itself to be unlimited. It is important to note, though, that Jacob Arminius actually predated Moses Amyraut. Later in the 19th and 20th centuries neo-reformed teachers returned to Moses Amyraut’s position; and these neo-reformed teachers, in the CRC, the OPC the PCAm, and the PCA, weakened the effectual calling/new birth. With a powerless new birth, the simple faith false gospel profession of faith would allow for ‘free will’ after the false spiritual birth day, with an optional sanctification including a basic eternal security: which is not perseverance of the saints.