The Universal Proclamation of the Gospel & The Particular Call of Grace

by Herman Bavinck

Universal Proclamation of the Gospel

But universalists advance against the Reformed that the latter, on their position, cannot accept such a universal call through the gospel. According to their position, after all, Christ did not die for all, but only for the elect. Their message cannot be, “Christ has made satisfaction for you; your sins have been atoned; only believe.” For the unconverted the message can only consist in the demand of the law. If they maintain the universal offer of grace, it cannot be sincerely meant on the part of God and is, furthermore, useless and ineffective.3

These objections are undoubtedly weighty and have evoked a variety of responses from the camp of the Reformed. Some got to the point where they only preached the law to the unconverted and offered the gospel only to those who had already learned to know themselves as sinners and felt the need for redemption. Others, maintaining the universal offer of grace, justified this offer by saying that Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient for all, or that Christ had also acquired numerous and varied blessings for those who would not believe in him, or that the gospel was only offered to them on condition of faith and repentance. Still others, taking a position close to universalism, taught that, on the basis of an initial universal decree of God, Christ had made satisfaction for all, or had acquired for all the legal possibility of being saved, and had brought everyone into a “salvable state,” or even that the acquisition of salvation was universal and that its application was particular.4 However much it might seem that the confession of election and limited atonement might require something else, the Reformed as a rule maintained the universal offer of grace.

And this is absolutely correct for the following reasons:

1. Scripture leaves no doubt that the gospel may and must be preached to all creatures. Whether we can square this with a particular outcome is another question. In any case, the command of Christ is the end of all contradiction. The rule for our conduct is only the revealed will of God. The result of that preaching is certain not only according to those who confess predestination but also on the position of those who only recognize divine foreknowledge. God cannot be self-deceived; for him the result of world history cannot be a disappointment. And with all due respect, it is not our task but God’s responsibility to square this outcome with the universal offer of salvation. We only know that the outcome, in accordance with God’s decree, is bound to and acquired by all the ways and means that have been laid down for us. And among them is the preaching of the gospel to all creatures. In that connection, we have nothing to do with the decree of election and reprobation. The gospel is preached to humans not as elect or reprobate but as sinners, all of whom need redemption. Administered by people who do not know the hidden counsel of God, the gospel can only be universal in its offer. Just as a net cast into the sea catches both good and bad fish, just as the sun shines simultaneously on wheat and on weeds, just as the seed of the sower falls not only on good soil but also on stony and dry places, so also the gospel, in its being administered, comes to all people without distinction.

2. The message of that gospel is not to all people individually: “Christ has died in your place; all your sins have been atoned for and forgiven.” For even though universalists imagine they can say this to every human being without any further qualification, upon a little reflection it is clear that also for the universalist position this is by no means the case. After all, according to them, Christ has secured only the possibility of forgiveness and salvation, for that forgiveness and salvation become real only if people believe and continue to believe that message. Accordingly, they too can only preach, as the content of the gospel, the message: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will receive the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.”

Now Reformed preachers say the same thing. They too offer the gospel to all humans and can, may, and must do this. Though the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation are there, they become ours only by means of faith. Yet there is in this connection an important difference between the universalists and the Reformed, a difference that is totally to the advantage of the Reformed. In the view of the former, Christ secured only the possibility of salvation. Whether salvation actually becomes a reality for a person depends on that person herself or himself. Faith is a condition, a work, which alone turns a possible salvation into an actual salvation, and so leaves a person forever in doubt, at least till death. But, in the view of the Reformed, Christ secured full, real, and total salvation. Faith, accordingly, is not a work, a condition, an intellectual assent to the statement “Christ died for you” but an act of reliance on Christ himself, of trusting in his sacrifice alone. It is a living faith that is much simpler than it can be with the universalist view, one that much more certainly brings salvation with it than universalists consistent with their position can ever promise. The error here is solely that humans are always inclined to reverse the God-appointed order. They want to be sure of the outcome before using the means and in order to be exempt from using the means. But it is the will of God that we shall take the way of faith, and then he unfailingly assures us of complete salvation in Christ.

3. The offer of salvation on the part of God, therefore, is seriously and sincerely meant. For in that offer he does not say what he himself will do—whether or not he will bestow that faith. He has kept that to himself. He only tells us what he wants us to do: that we humble ourselves and seek our salvation in Christ alone. If it be objected that God nevertheless offers salvation to those to whom he has decided not to grant faith and salvation, then this is an objection equally applicable to the position of our opponents. For in that case, God also offers salvation to those whom he infallibly knows will not believe. It is the case after all, not only according to the Reformed but also according to all Christ-confessors, that the outcome of world history is eternally and unchangeably certain.5 The only difference is that the Reformed have had the courage to say that that outcome corresponds to God’s will and purpose. Although it is beyond our comprehension, God must have been able to will all that is and takes place, subject to all his virtues and perfections, or else God would no longer be God. History cannot and may not be a sparring partner for God.

4. The preaching of the gospel is neither ineffective nor useless. Indeed, if either from ignorance or incapacity God really aimed, through the universal offer of the gospel, at the salvation of all, it would be useless and vain. For how small the number is in whom this purpose is realized! In that case, it would itself harbor a contradiction, which, for the purpose of resolving it, would tempt us toward ever-greater departure from Scripture. For, if the will and purpose of God, if the atonement of Christ, is strictly universal, then the offer of salvation must also be unqualifiedly universal. And since that is evidently not the case, people gradually arrive at a variety of “solutions.” Either, like the old Lutherans, they flatly contradict history and claim that the apostles already preached the gospel to all peoples, or, like many modern theologians, they assume there will be gospel preaching also on the other side of the grave;6 or worse, along with rationalists and mystics, they believe that “the law of nature” or “the inner light” is sufficient for salvation. The farther one thus, in defiance of history, expands the call, the weaker, the more bland and insipid it becomes. In quality and intensity one loses what one has seemingly gained in quantity and scope. The contrast between God’s intent and the outcome of it becomes increasingly more pronounced.

5. Although through this call salvation becomes the possession of only a few, as everyone must admit, it nevertheless retains its great value and significance also for those who reject it. For everyone without distinction, it is proof of God’s infinite love and seals the saying that he has no pleasure in the death of sinners but rather that they should turn and live (Ezek. 18:23, 32). It proclaims to all that Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for the expiation of all sins, that no one is lost because the call is insufficiently rich and powerful, that no demand of the law, no power of sin, no rule of Satan can block its application, for the free gift is not like the trespass (Rom. 5:15). Frequently, even for those who harden themselves in their unbelief, it is a source of various blessings. The enlightenment of the mind, a taste of the heavenly gift, partaking of the Holy Spirit, enjoyment of the Word of God, the experience of the powers of the age to come—these have sometimes even come to those who later fell away and held the Son of God in contempt (Heb. 6:4–6).

6. And this is not all. For the external call by law and gospel also reaches the goal God has in view. What God does is never futile. His word never returns to him empty; it accomplishes everything he purposes and prospers in the thing for which he sends it (Isa. 55:11). But this purpose is not only, and not in the first place, the eternal salvation of human beings, but the glory of his name. In this calling by law and gospel God continues to press his claim on his human creatures. The sinner assumes that by sinning he or she becomes free from God and his service. But it is not so. God’s claim on humans, also the most degraded ones, is inalienable and inviolable. Human beings, resigning from the service of God, can become profoundly wretched, but they remain creatures and are therefore dependent. Sin does not make them less dependent but even more so. They cease to be children and become servants, slaves, powerless instruments used by God according to his will. God never releases his grip on us and never abandons his claims on us, on our service, and on our complete consecration. And for that reason, by nature and history, heart and conscience, blessings and judgments, law and gospel, he summons us to return to him. The call, in its broadest sense, is the preaching of God’s claims upon his fallen creatures.

7. As such it maintains in each person and in the whole human race the religious and moral awareness of dependence, awe, respect, duty, and responsibility, without which humanity cannot exist. Religion, morality, law, art, science, family, society, the state—they all have their root and foundation in the call that comes from God to all people. Take it away, and what we get is a war of all against all, each person becoming a wolf against one’s neighbor. The call, by law and gospel, restrains sin, diminishes guilt, and stems the corruption and misery of humankind. It is “repressive grace.” It is proof that God is God, that he is indifferent toward nothing, and that not only the world beyond but also this world has value to him. Accordingly, however much people may be inclined to hide behind their powerlessness, or with Pelagius and Kant to deduce their power from their duty, also in that way they acknowledge that God’s claims and our duty remain undiminished and they themselves are inexcusable.7

8. Finally, this call is not only a repressive but also a preparatory grace. Christ came into the world for judgment (κρισις), for a fall but also for a rising of many (Mark 4:12; Luke 2:34; 8:10; John 9:39; 15:22; 2 Cor. 2:16; 1 Pet. 2:7–8). This call by law and gospel is also intended, through what it gives and brings about both in humanity as a whole and in individual persons, to pave the way for the coming of Christ. Reformed theologians 8 have definitely rejected such a preparatory grace in an Arminian sense.9 The spiritual life that is implanted in regeneration differs essentially from the natural and moral life that precedes it. It is brought about, not by human activity or evolution, but by a creative act of God. Some theologians, accordingly, preferred to call the activities that precede regeneration “antecedent actions” rather than “preparatory actions.” Still one can speak of “preparatory grace” in a sound sense. The expression is even eminently valuable against all Methodist trends that ignore the natural life. For the confession of preparatory grace does not imply that, by doing what they can on their own—regularly going to church, listening attentively to the Word of God, acknowledging their sins, and yearning for salvation, and so on—people can earn or make themselves receptive to the grace of regeneration on the basis of a merit of congruity. On the contrary, it implies that God is the creator, sustainer, and ruler of all things and that, even generations before they are born, he orders the life of those on whom he will in due time bestow the gift of faith. Humans did not originate on the sixth day by evolving from lower creatures, but are created by the hand of God. Still, his creation may be considered prepared by the antecedent acts of God. Though Christ himself came down from above, yet his coming had been prepared for centuries. Although nature and grace are distinct and may not be confused or mingled, God does link the two. Creation, redemption, and sanctification are, in an “economic” sense, attributed to the Father, Son, and Spirit, but these three constitute the one true God, and together they accomplish the whole work of redemption. No one can come to Christ unless the Father draws him or her; and no one receives the Holy Spirit except those to whom the Son sends him.

For that reason we can properly speak of a preparatory grace. God himself, in many different ways, prepares for his gracious work in human hearts. He aroused in Zacchaeus the desire to see Jesus (Luke 19:3), produced distress in the crowd that listened to Peter (Acts 2:37), caused Paul to fall to the ground (9:4), disconcerted the jailer at Philippi (16:27), and so directs the lives of all his children even before and up to the hour of their rebirth. Even if on their part they have not yet received the benefits of reconciliation and Justification and have not yet been born again and given faith, yet they are already the objects of his eternal love, and he himself already leads them by his grace to the Spirit, who alone can regenerate and comfort them. All things, accordingly, are connected by divine prearrangement to their subsequent “enlistment” and calling in the church. Conception and birth, family and lineage and people and land, upbringing and education, development of heart and mind, preservation from hideous sins, above all from blaspheming the Holy Spirit, or perhaps abandonment to all sorts of wickedness, disasters and judgment, blessings and benefits, the preaching of law and gospel, distress about sin and fear of judgment, development of conscience and the felt need for salvation: all of this is grace preparing people for rebirth by the Holy Spirit and for the role that they as believers will later play in the church. True: there is only one way to heaven, but many are the leadings of God both before and on that journey, and the grace of the Holy Spirit is abundant and free. Jeremiah, John the Baptist, and Timothy were brought into the kingdom differently from either Manasseh or Paul, and each performed a different task in the service of God. Pietism and Methodism tend to ignore these leadings, limit God’s grace, and want to convert and mold everyone according to a single model. But Reformed theology respects the free sovereignty of God and marvels at the riches of his grace.10

The Particular Call of Grace

[435] Scripture and experience testify, however, that all these workings of external calling do not always and in every case lead people to a sincere faith and salvation. Hence the question arises: What is the ultimate cause of this diverse outcome? In the Christian church, in the main, a threefold answer was given to that question. Some said that this diverse outcome was due to the human will, whether that will had received the power to accept or reject the gospel from its natural self, or from the grace of the Logos, or from the grace of baptism, or from that of the calling. According to this view, there is no distinction between external and internal, or between efficient and efficacious calling. Inwardly and essentially the calling is always and in every case the same. It is only called efficacious in terms of the outcome when a person responds to the call. After everything we have said previously about Pelagianism,11 this answer does not call for a lengthy refutation. It clearly offers no solution. In practice one can indeed confine oneself to the proximate cause and attribute unbelief specifically to the human will. In that case, one is speaking truthfully (Deut. 30:19; Josh. 24:15; Isa. 65:12; Matt. 22:2–3; 23:37; John 7:17; Rom. 9:32; etc.): the sinful will of humans is responsible for their unbelief. But even in practice all believers at all times and in all schools of thought have attributed their faith and salvation to God’s grace alone.12 There is nothing that distinguishes them other than that gift of grace (1 Cor. 4:7). Ultimately, therefore, this difference cannot lie in the human will. If one nevertheless insists on considering will the final cause, one is instantly faced with all the psychological, ethical, historical, and theological objections that have at all times been raised against Pelagianism. It introduces incalculable caprice and weakens sin; the decision about the outcome of world history is put in the hands of humans, the governance over all things is taken away from God; his grace is canceled out. Even if one ascribes the power to choose for or against the gospel to the restoration of grace, this does not help matters. In that case one introduces a grace that consists solely in the restoration of volitional choice, one that is nowhere mentioned in Scripture, that actually presupposes regeneration and yet has to bring it about only after the right choice has been made.13 On this position one also gets stuck with all the millions of people who have never heard of the gospel or died as infants and for that reason were never in a position to accept or reject Christ. Accordingly, the free will of humans cannot be the ultimate cause of faith and unbelief.

Another answer to the above question was therefore devised by Bellarmine. He rejected both the doctrine of Pelagius and that of Augustine, sought a path somewhere between them, and said that the efficacy of the call depended on whether it came to a person at an opportune time when the will was inclined to follow it (congruitas).14 Agreeing with this congruism are the views of Pajon, Kleman, as well as Shedd, who considers salvation “in the highest degree probable” for everyone who makes serious and diligent use of the means of grace.15 But this answer, too, is unsatisfactory. In this congruity theory there is indeed an important truth that, while ignored by Methodism, comes into its own in the Reformed doctrine of preparatory grace. But it is completely unable to explain the efficacy of the call. The reason is that it is inherently nothing other than moral suasion, which in the nature of the case is powerless to create the spiritual life that, according to Scripture, is the result of regeneration. Further, it presupposes that a human being is fit one moment and unfit the next to accept grace, thus locating sin in circumstances and weakening it in humans. In addition, it makes the ultimate decision dependent on the human will and thereby again provokes all the objections mentioned above and lodged by Bellarmine himself against Pelagianism. Finally, it links calling and conversion by a thread of congruity, which, being moral in nature, can at all times be broken by the will and hence cannot guarantee the efficacy of the call.

Augustinians, Thomists, and Reformed theologians, therefore, located the reason why in one person the calling bore fruit and in another it did not in the nature of the calling itself. The first group said that when the call was efficacious, a “triumphant delight” (delectatio victrix) was present, which granted not only the capacity to act (posse) but also the will to act (velle). The Thomists spoke of a “natural predetermination” or “natural action of God” that prompted the capacity to act (posse agere), conferred by “sufficient calling,” to pass into action.16 The Reformed, however, objecting to the use of these terms, took exception especially to the description of an act of God in conversion as “natural” and preferred to speak of an “external” and an “internal” call. This distinction already occurs in Augustine,17 was taken over from him by Calvin,18 and was further adopted in Reformed theology. Earlier this twofold calling was referred to by other terms as well, such as the “material and formal,” the “revealed” call and the call of “God’s good pleasure,” the common and the personal, the universal and the special call,19 but the terms “external” and “internal” call gained the upper hand and gradually pushed out the others.

Now although this distinction does not occur in so many words in Scripture, it is based on Scripture.

1.     It is already implied in the fact that all humans are the same by nature, worthy of condemnation before God (Rom. 3:9–19; 5:12; 9:21; 11:32), dead in sins and trespasses (Eph. 2:2–3), darkened in their understanding (1 Cor. 2:14; Eph. 4:18; 5:8). They cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3), are the slaves of sin (8:34; Rom. 6:20), enemies of God (8:7; Col. 1:21), do not and cannot submit to God’s law (Rom. 8:7), are unable to think or do anything good from within themselves (John 15:5; 2 Cor. 3:5); though the gospel is for the benefit of humans, they are hostile toward it and despise it as an offense or folly (1 Cor. 1:23; 2:14). Hence the difference that occurs among people after the calling is inexplicable in terms of human capacities. God and his grace alone make the difference (1 Cor. 4:7).

2.     Simply the preaching of the Word by itself is not sufficient (Isa. 6:9–10; 53:1; Matt. 13:13ff.; Mark 4:12; John 12:38–40; etc.). Hence in the Old Testament already we learn of the promised Spirit who would teach everyone and grant them all a new heart (Isa. 32:15; Jer. 31:33; 32:39; Ezek. 11:19; 36:26; Joel 2:28). To that end he was poured out on the day of Pentecost to witness to Christ along with and through the apostles (John 15:26–27), to convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8–11), to regenerate people (John 3:5ff.; 6:63; 16:13), and to lead them to confess Jesus as Lord (1 Cor. 12:3).

3.     The work of redemption, therefore, is ascribed completely, both subjectively and objectively, to God. This is not just meant in a general sense, the way we say that God works all things by his providence, but definitely in the restricted sense that by a special divine power he works regeneration and conversions. So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy (Rom. 9:16). The calling is the implementation of divine election (8:28; 11:29). It is God who renews the human heart and inscribes his law on it (Ps. 51:12; Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 36:26), who enlightens the eyes of the heart (Ps. 119:18; Eph. 1:18; Col. 1:9–11), opens the heart (Acts 16:14), makes his own recognize his Son as the Christ (Matt. 11:25; 16:17; Gal. 1:16), and draws people to him with spiritual power (John 6:44; Col. 1:12–13). He causes the gospel to be preached, not only in words but also in demonstration of the spirit and power (1 Cor. 2:4; 1 Thess. 1:5–6), and himself gives wisdom (1 Cor. 2:6–9). He, in short, is at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work according to his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13) and to that end uses a power like the power by which he raised Christ from the dead and made him sit at his right hand (Eph. 1:18–20).

4.     The very act by which God accomplishes this change in humans is often called “rebirth” (John 1:13; 3:3ff.; Titus 3:5; etc.), and the fruit of it is called a new heart (Jer. 31:33), a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), his workmanship created in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:10), the work of God (Rom. 14:20), and his building (1 Cor. 3:9; Eph. 2:21; etc.). This is to say that what is brought about in humans by the grace of God is much too rich and great for it to be explained in terms of the “moral suasion” of the preaching of the Word.

5.     Finally, Scripture itself speaks of calling in a dual sense. Repeatedly it refers to a calling and invitation to which there was no positive response (Isa. 65:12; Matt. 22:3, 14; 23:37; Mark 16:15–16; etc.). In that case it could say that while God did everything on his part (Isa. 5:4), people in their obstinacy refused to believe and resisted God’s counsel, the Holy Spirit, and calling (Matt. 11:20ff.; 23:37; Luke 7:30; Acts 7:51). But Scripture also knows a calling from God—a realization of election—that is always efficacious. This is especially true in Paul (Rom. 4:17; 8:30; 9:11, 24; 1 Cor. 1:9; 7:15ff.; Gal. 1:6, 15; 5:8; Eph. 4:1, 4; 1 Thess. 2:12; 2 Tim. 1:9; also cf. 1 Pet. 1:15; 2:9; 5:10; 2 Pet. 1:3). Believers are therefore repeatedly described simply as “those who are called” (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2, 24), and “those who are called in Christ” or “in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:22); that is, those who are called by God belong to Christ and live in communion with him. In addition, Paul also knows of a preaching of the gospel to those who reject it. To them the gospel is foolishness (1 Cor. 1:18, 23), a fragrance from death to death (2 Cor. 2:15–16). They do not understand it (1 Cor. 2:14). As a power of God (1 Cor. 1:18, 24), it proves itself to those who are called by God according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28; 9:11; 11:28; Eph. 1:4–5).


Excerpt From Reformed Dogmatics (4 Volume Set) by Herman Bavinck

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